Sunday 20 March 2011

Coercion, Fairness and Conceptual art

With so many terrible things going on in the world at the moment, I'm not sure if it's the right time to think about aesthetics.. but I feel the need for it. And it relates to a discussion I had yesterday after I went to the Anish Kapoor exhibition in Manchester, and then onto the John Rylands Library exhibition.

I experienced different sensations in these two events. Kapoor's work left me cold and (frankly) a little bad tempered. The nature of this feeling has puzzled me.. it is, after all, like so much conceptual art... giant mirrors, blobs of wax... and huge amounts of money. I felt forced (or coerced) to accept, alongside a gawping public hypnotised in a similar way in which they would be in a circus side-show, the authenticity of the artist's work. I think the cause of my irritation was a moral objection at some level. In hindsight, it occured to me that the feeling might be similar to that of an artist desperate for funding on discovering that the European Commission has spent 10 million Euros on a my e-learning project! That would be a similar feeling of revulsion: somehow, it feels 'not fair'. But what's in that?

In the John Rylands Library, which is an extraordinary building to begin with, I poured over the various manuscripts that were on display. My sensations were quite different. I felt a sense of belonging, a deep connection with history. There was something profoundly rational within me which at the same time connected with the irrational sensuality of being there, of smelling it, of piercing the dim lighting to discover new gems. But my companion expressed the feeling that here too there was something that 'coerced' us... that some historical power narrative was at work, powers forcing us into a way of thinking, respecting, accepting the status quo. This may be right, but I didn't feel it like that. In the library, I was not compelled against my will. There was indeed a 'higher authority'... but it, to me, was a good one (unlike Kapoor).

Much of my thinking about sensual experience and rational experience places some role on 'coercion': that aspect of us which has to deal with the operational, has to direct, has to make the distinctions they everyone else sticks to. We feel this individually in the moments when we realise "now I must stop dreaming and do something", or "Stop worrying about the details.. this is how it looks and this is what you must now prioritise". The point about these moments is that they can be emancipatory: it is the moment of decision, leadership and coordination.

However, when we feel coerced it is, I think, a different matter. For to feel coerced is to feel imprisoned. It is to feel placed in a position where we have 'no alternative' to conform to the environment we find ourselves in, whilst at the same time feeling that our identity would be fundamentally sacrificed if we did conform. In cybernetic VSM terms, this is probably in the region of the '3-4 homeostat': where dreaming and doing are in conflict.

But what of my reaction to Anish Kapoor, or for that matter, the reaction of the artist on seeing 10million euros being spent on a project? In the presence of something like this, we see the world taking a form, and ourselves being part of that form, which we feel we cannot live in or adapt to without sacrificing our identity. And yet, there seems no alternative: the powers of pursuasion around us seem to go against us; we seem unable to stand up to the wave. It's not fair. Importantly, I think this feeling can arise in different ways in different individuals. A lot depends on the narrative that an individual has within themselves about the 'meaning' of what they are seeing (this is a rational reaction); a lot depends on the willingness to open to different experiences (this is to do with flexibility of identity); a lot depends on the suspension of judgement (this is to do with an openness to irrationality). An inability to suspend judgement, or a personal narrative which takes some moral exception to what is done (as many have with Wagner for example), will all lead to the same feeling of 'being coerced'.

I think that becoming more aware of the mechanisms whereby these conflicts occur may be the first step towards understanding fairness in a more precise way. (But of course the challenge would be to ensure that such an understanding of fairness would be seen as 'fair'!)

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