Are you in the mood for art?

Ian David Moss had a great post late last year that caught my attention. He starts out with a quote describing a recent study by Dan M. Kahan at the Yale Law School on “Ideology, motivated reasoning, and cognitive reflection”:

[T]he study presents both observational and experimental data inconsistent with the hypothesis that political conservatism is distinctively associated with closed-mindedness: conservatives did no better or worse than liberals on an objective measure of cognitive reflection; and more importantly, both demonstrated the same unconscious tendency to fit assessments of empirical evidence to their ideological predispositions. Second, the study suggests that this form of bias is not a consequence of overreliance on heuristic or intuitive forms of reasoning; on the contrary, subjects who scored highest in cognitive reflection were the most likely to display ideologically motivated cognition. These findings corroborated the hypotheses of a third theory, which identifies motivated cognition as a form of information processing that rationally promotes individuals’ interests in forming and maintaining beliefs that signify their loyalty to important affinity groups.

To put that in Cowenspeak, both sides are guilty, the smart are guiltiest of them all, and the desire for group loyalty is partially at fault.

Something to think about for sure!

But my question is whether having the right rational reasons is always in our best interests, and whether mood affiliation is always a bad thing. Maybe its an important part of being human that we are sometimes driven by nonsense and irrationality. Perhaps a vital part of living a human life is that it sometimes defies rationality and transcends the merely rational. I’m talking (of course) about art. I’m talking about human emotions and human relationships. I’m talking Captain Kirk’s wild and eccentric decision making rather than Spock’s antiseptic logical process. I’m talking about the idea of family and friends being important. I’m talking about improbable love in the face of a cold hard Universe…. Caring is simply not a rational attribute.

And so, is the desire for group loyalty necessarily a thing to pick fault with? Clearly not always and not in every circumstance. Maybe both rationality and non-rationality are valuable in their own ways and in their own best areas of application. Rather than shoehorning our behavior into a purely rational agenda perhaps we need to acknowledge when and where these non rational practices have their place. And maybe that’s something to think about too…..

Ian’s post was really great. You can read it in its entirety HERE. This is the comment I made to it:


“I was really impressed by this article. It mirrored many of the things I had already been thinking. I guess with me you were preaching to the choir, and I was perhaps engaged in a bit of confirmation bias….. (pernicious fallacies be damned!)

My question is whether that in itself is necessarily a bad thing. In the bigger picture maybe yes if it removes the ability to think independently and for ourselves. When bias sabotages curiosity and openness something has evidently been lost. But isn’t it also true that many fine aspects of a human life are NOT rational and depend on some other perception? Like falling in love? And perhaps also appreciating art? Isn’t our devotion to loved ones and our fascination with art precisely that of an emotional and ideological predisposition? And does that make it ‘wrong’? Isn’t bias in this sense profoundly important to us? Not every preference is propped up by a rational justification, but seemingly THIS is how we navigate the world.

Art doesn’t work on rational grounds. There is no rational calculus that dictates how we experience art. And perhaps supporting the arts shouldn’t rely strictly on only rational grounds either…… So I’d ask whether a ‘mood affiliation’ isn’t actually something that often stands us in good stead. Far from being a fallacy we should shun, I would hope that an audience does develop the irrational desire to support what they are witnessing, to root for the team, and to cheer us on. Despite any empirical evidence or rational reasons to the contrary. If the arts are significantly an emotive non-rational capacity of human beings then the ties that best bind us to them will quite probably also be emotional. And perhaps those are the strongest ties of all…..

Along those lines, it also seems that the more ardent supporters are those who also have some personal stake in an activity. Passion and detachment, in fact, work at entirely cross purposes here. And if support is a kind of attachment then the nature of that involvement bears investigating. Doesn’t it seem evident that a person who grew up playing baseball would be more likely to be a fan than someone who had never heard of it or only knew about it from switching the channels on the TV? Is there a correlation to the degree of involvement? Isn’t active passionate engagement actually the tightest bond that we can tie ourselves with? Short of marriage? Two lives lived as one? That the best way to support art is to BE an artist as well?

A recent study on what is being called “The IKEA Effect” actually postulates that it isn’t merely that we do what we love, but that we love what we do. Participation engenders emotional loyalty. And so it seems that perhaps the best way to love art is to also make art. Doesn’t that just make sense?

So much of the arts industry seems focused on keeping an audience passive and in its consumptive place in the bleachers. But if no one grew up playing baseball would baseball remain popular? A consumer’s interest only carries us so far…. If no potbellied businessmen spent Sundays out at the over 50 softball league, swinging away and shagging fly balls, would support be as sustained? If dads and their sons didn’t go outside and play catch, mothers and their daughters, would the sport still be popular? If no child dreamed the dream of a career in the majors (or a flirtation with it in the summers) would so many families take their kids to the park? It seems that the only way the MLB survives is that there are countless participatory opportunities throughout the country: Co-ed, women’s, and men’s, little league, high school and college ball, the minor leagues, neighborhood and a plethora of amateur pick up games…. And art is very much like that. Its not only the folks who have made it to the major leagues who are ball players, and its not only the cream of the artistic gallery crop who are artists. Its not only the full time professionals…..

Isn’t it simply in the best interest of individual art practices themselves that they be more inclusive and open to public participation than shrouded in the secrecy of holy shrines and dispensed only by the anointed clergy? Isn’t our loyalty better safeguarded by being indoctrinated into the very mysteries rather than being kept distant and passive as mere outsiders? Separate and unequal? Aren’t we on the verge of an egalitarian artistic Reformation that puts art back in the hands of laypeople and that speaks the common tongue rather than a stilted esoteric Gallery/Museum dialect?

If, as you say, we often make the mistake of assuming other people are just like us, and that we fail to communicate adequately because of our personal ‘mood affiliation’, perhaps our efforts should be less focused on disembodied rational reasons why and more on welcoming the outsiders within our membership. Instead of seeking cold rational consensus perhaps we should be focused on passionate issues of inclusion, of identity, of artistic kinship, and of creative community. Of firsthand familiarity. They will understand and appreciate the arts more fully if they first learn to see themselves as artists, if the DO art themselves.

Too much institutional art looks down its nose at the public. It sneers at populism. And it bases its self important superiority in an unholy and subjective elitism. When we behave as though the unwashed masses are only ignorant outsiders then it only makes sense that they will behave as outsiders. And isn’t that an ultimately self defeating attitude for us to have?

Rather, lets make them more like us. Teach them baseball. Send out missionaries. The impasse only exists because each side is unrecognizable and unintelligible to the other….. If the division only supports the authority of an elegant institutional bias, are we content to live by those terms? Is the status quo enough? Are art institutions justified in keeping the outsiders in their dyspeptic place, feeding off the scraps of other people’s creativity? Some seem to say “yes”. There’s money in that…. I would not.

So, I’d like to propose that we fully embrace this idea of mood affiliation. That we put our efforts into a more inclusive partisanship. A partnership. How else do we entice people who have no rational reason to support us? And rather than this project needing an extraneous rational justification, if we want folks to support the arts then that’s all the ‘reason’ we need. Let us work toward that. “Go team!” The contest will perhaps never be decided on rational merits…..

“…what you do in your community for your audience is the value that you have to articulate. And you have to keep telling that story over and over again in different ways. Umberto Eco’s wonderful essay Travels in Hyperreality unpacks the distinctions between — and value of — both high and low culture. Long before we had coined the phrase “audience participation” he noted that art lives when people who partake of it do so actively, intellectually, emotionally and energetically. Sequestering our institutions from the daily lives and concerns of our audiences and communities does not work and will be our undoing if we are not careful. We know now that the rise in amateur art movements is going to happen either with us or without us, and it may in time take the place of the educational spot that the arts had in schools a generation ago as a way of developing loyal and informed audiences. What role do we want to play in encouraging or advancing this “movement?”  -Russell Willis Taylor, from his Keynote Address at the Midwest Arts Conference, September 2012


Peace all!

Make beauty real!


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
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11 Responses to Are you in the mood for art?

  1. “Thinking isn’t agreeing or disagreeing. That’s voting.” Robert Frost

  2. A little something from Stephen King:

    “If I could wave a magic wand and have one wish granted, I’d wish for an end to world hunger; the small shit could wait in line. If, however, the god or genie who bestowed the magic wand told me my one wish had to do with American politics, I think I’d wave it and make the following proclamation: ‘Every liberal in the country must watch Fox News for one year, and every conservative in the country must watch MSNBC for one year.’ (Middle-of-the-roaders could stick with CSI.)

    Can you imagine what that would be like? For the first month, the screams of ‘What IS this shit???’ would echo high to the heavens. For the next three, there would be a period of grumbling readjustment as both sides of the political spectrum realized that, loathsome politics aside, they were still getting the weather, the sports scores, the hard news, and the Geico Gecko. During the next four months, viewers might begin seeing different anchors and commentators, as each news network’s fringe bellowers attracted increasing flak from their new captive audiences. Adamantly shrill editorial stances would begin to modify as a result of tweets and emails saying, ‘Oh, wait a minute, Slick, that’s fucking ridiculous.’ Finally, the viewers themselves might change. Not a lot; just a slide-step or two away from the kumbayah socialists of the left and the Tea Partiers of the right. I’m not saying they’d re-colonize the all-but-deserted middle (lot of cheap real estate there, my brothers and sisters), but they might close in on it a trifle.


    Think of the quiet that might ensue if all that shrill rhetoric were turned down a few notches! Think of the dinner table arguments that might not happen! There might even be (o lost and shining city) a resumption of actual dialogue.”

  3. And a bit from David Foster Wallace:

    “You teach the reader that he’s way smarter than he thought he was. I think one of the insidious lessons about TV is the meta-lesson that you’re dumb. This is all you can do. This is easy, and you’re the sort of person who really just wants to sit in a chair and have it easy. When in fact there are parts of us, in a way, that are a lot more ambitious than that. And what we need… is seriously engaged art that can teach again that we’re smart. And that’s the stuff that TV and movies — although they’re great at certain things — cannot give us. But that have to create the motivations for us to want to do the extra work, to get those other kinds of art… Which is tricky, because you want to seduce the reader, but you don’t want to pander or manipulate them. I mean, a good book teaches the reader how to read it.”

  4. Clay Shirky:

    “There is a spectrum between mediocre work and good work. And as anybody who has worked as an artist or a creator knows, its a spectrum you are constantly struggling to get on top of. The gap is between doing anything and doing nothing….. Freedom to experiment means freedom to experiment with anything.


    The explanation of human behavior that we inherited in the 20th century was that we were all rational self maximizing actors….. Not only are economic motivations and intrinsic motivations incompatible, that incompatiblilty can persist over long periods. So the trick in designing these kinds of situations is to understand where you’re relying on the economic part of the bargain… and where you are relying on the social part of the bargain, when you’re really designing for generosity.”

  5. Anthropologist Scott Aran:

    The notion of a transcendent force that moves the universe or history or determines what is right and good—and whose existence is fundamentally beyond reason and immune to logical or empirical disproof—is the simplest, most elegant, and most scientifically baffling phenomenon I know of. Its power and absurdity perturbs mightily, and merits careful scientific scrutiny. In an age where many of the most volatile and seemingly intractable conflicts stem from sacred causes, scientific understanding of how to best deal with the subject has also never been more critical.

    Call it love of Group or God, or devotion to an Idea or Cause, it matters little in the end. This is the “the privilege of absurdity; to which no living creature is subject, but man only” of which Hobbes wrote in Leviathan. In The Descent of Man, Darwin cast it as the virtue of “morality,” with which winning tribes are better endowed in history’s spiraling competition for survival and dominance. Unlike other creatures, humans define the groups to which they belong in abstract terms. Often they strive to achieve a lasting intellectual and emotional bonding with anonymous others, and seek to heroically kill and die, not in order to preserve their own lives or those of people they know, but for the sake of an idea—the conception they have formed of themselves, of “who we are.”


    There is an apparent paradox that underlies the formation of large-scale human societies. The religious and ideological rise of civilizations—of larger and larger agglomerations of genetic strangers, including today’s nations, transnational movements, and other “imagined communities” of fictive kin — seem to depend upon what Kierkegaard deemed this “power of the preposterous” … Humankind’s strongest social bonds and actions, including the capacity for cooperation and forgiveness, and for killing and allowing oneself to be killed, are born of commitment to causes and courses of action that are “ineffable,” that is, fundamentally immune to logical assessment for consistency and to empirical evaluation for costs and consequences. The more materially inexplicable one’s devotion and commitment to a sacred cause — that is, the more absurd—the greater the trust others place in it and the more that trust generates commitment on their part.


    Religion and the sacred, banned so long from reasoned inquiry by ideological bias of all persuasions—perhaps because the subject is so close to who we want or don’t want to be — is still a vast, tangled and largely unexplored domain for science, however simple and elegant for most people everywhere in everyday life.

  6. Psychologist Timothy Wilson:

    My favorite is the idea that people become what they do. This explanation of how people acquire attitudes and traits dates back to the philosopher Gilbert Ryle, but was formalized by the social psychologist Daryl Bem in his self-perception theory. People draw inferences about who they are, Bem suggested, by observing their own behavior.

    Self-perception theory turns common wisdom on its head. … Hundreds of experiments have confirmed the theory and shown when this self-inference process is most likely to operate (e.g., when people believe they freely chose to behave the way they did, and when they weren’t sure at the outset how they felt).

    Self-perception theory is an elegant in its simplicity. But it is also quite deep, with important implications for the nature of the human mind. Two other powerful ideas follow from it. The first is that we are strangers to ourselves. After all, if we knew our own minds, why would we need to guess what our preferences are from our behavior? If our minds were an open book, we would know exactly how honest we are and how much we like lattes. Instead, we often need to look to our behavior to figure out who we are. Self-perception theory thus anticipated the revolution in psychology in the study of human consciousness, a revolution that revealed the limits of introspection.

    But it turns out that we don’t just use our behavior to reveal our dispositions—we infer dispositions that weren’t there before. Often, our behavior is shaped by subtle pressures around us, but we fail to recognize those pressures. As a result, we mistakenly believe that our behavior emanated from some inner disposition.

  7. Richard Feynman, the noted scientist, on his experience as an artist:

    “I wanted very much to learn to draw, for a reason that I kept to myself: I wanted to convey an emotion I have about the beauty of the world. It’s difficult to describe because it’s an emotion. It’s analogous to the feeling one has in religion that has to do with a god that controls everything in the universe: there’s a generality aspect that you feel when you think about how things that appear so different and behave so differently are all run ‘behind the scenes’ by the same organization, the same physical laws. It’s an appreciation of the mathematical beauty of nature, of how she works inside; a realization that the phenomena we see result from the complexity of the inner workings between atoms; a feeling of how dramatic and wonderful it is. It’s a feeling of awe — of scientific awe — which I felt could be communicated through a drawing to someone who had also had that emotion. I could remind him, for a moment, of this feeling about the glories of the universe.”


    I noticed that the teacher didn’t tell people much (the only thing he told me was my picture was too small on the page). Instead, he tried to inspire us to experiment with new approaches. I thought of how we teach physics: We have so many techniques—so many mathematical methods—that we never stop telling the students how to do things. On the other hand, the drawing teacher is afraid to tell you anything. If your lines are very heavy, the teacher can’t say, “Your lines are too heavy.” because some artist has figured out a way of making great pictures using heavy lines. The teacher doesn’t want to push you in some particular direction. So the drawing teacher has this problem of communicating how to draw by osmosis and not by instruction, while the physics teacher has the problem of always teaching techniques, rather than the spirit, of how to go about solving physical problems.

  8. Pingback: The creative art of forgetting and other irrationality | CARTER GILLIES POTTERY

  9. Ian David Moss just directed me to another of his posts that addressed the direction I just took this conversation. Read the whole article here:

    “For me, that was magical. But none of it involved being in the audience for anything. It involved doing art: actively involving myself in the creation or production of an arts experience. (Not to say that all of my early experiences with that were magical either. I acted in a school play around the same time and hated it. Why? Because I sucked at acting, that’s why. I enjoyed music in no small part because I was good at it, and part of the magic no doubt lay in self-validation.)


    “Getting out and seeing a show now and then is always nice. But getting to be in the show – that’s what’s truly transformative about the arts.”

  10. Another earlier post By Ian David Moss:

    “A study published by the RAND Corporation a few years back, Gifts of the Muse, took a look at research on the benefits children supposedly receive from arts education. One of the overarching themes from the literature review was that the nature of the participation is important: sustained, active participation was a lot more effective in delivering benefits like higher cognitive abilities, more self-control, etc., than one-off, passive participation (think training over a period of years vs. seeing a concert once). If that’s true for children – and it is one of the most consistent and clear findings the authors of that study identified – why wouldn’t it be true for adults? That is to say, why are we expecting people’s lives to be changed from attending a concert, when I’d bet nearly all of people we know whose lives have actually been changed by orchestral music changed because they played it?

    “Here’s where I’m going with all this. A survey included in the Knight Foundation’s Search for Shining Eyes report found that of 74% of adults who said they were interested in classical music had played an instrument or sung in chorus at some point in their lives. I think that the real gospel of classical music ain’t about hearing it – it’s about doing it. I think what’s happening is that our dominant “engagement strategy” for classical music – offering sustained, substantive, professionally-oriented classical music training, including in such contexts as youth and student orchestras – has not been very successful at producing listeners/fans of classical music in my generation, but has been extraordinarily successful in producing practitioners of classical music. And the only plausible explanation to me, and the one that best jibes with my personal experiences, is that being part of the action at a classical music concert is about a thousand times more awesome than merely taking it in.

    “This reality (if I’ve described it accurately) puts the conventional orchestral model in a bit of a bind. After all, the most authentic way for most orchestras to express their art is to play a concert. But because so much of the magic of classical music comes from making it, there is little chance that the audience can experience that concert with the same passion, excitement, and fervor as the musicians simply by taking their seats in the right balcony. So who is the orchestra playing the concert for, really? And when I say the “orchestra,” I mean not just the musicians, but the conductor, the executive director – everyone whose life revolves around the orchestra. Aren’t they pretty much doing it for themselves?

    “Until the model can accommodate bringing strangers in not just to listen, but to do, I’m not really sure how much that can change.”

  11. Pingback: “Get it? Got it. Good!” – Adventures through the Looking Glass…. | CARTER GILLIES POTTERY

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