Britain's first book blogger (November 2000). Also available in book form.

Friday, October 01, 2004

The death of art: on corporatism and science

I attended a meeting at work. A management consultant was explaining a management tool. I needed to listen. Instead, I found myself thinking of a biographical snippet about Heidegger. Apparenly, the great philosopher felt sick whenever he entered a city. The artificiality of it – its inauthenticity, I presume – made him ill. (Does anyone know the source or truth of this anecdote?). Although I didn't feel sick listening to the euphemistic procedures of corporate management, I did feel that suffocation was imminent. The jargon was like a thick paste in my mouth, the atmosphere generated was dense and airless; a place where nothing lives. This was to be rolled out across the nation. A grim prospect for those of us with unavowable hopes for an alternative. Only by thinking of Heidegger and the meaning of his experience did my breathing return to normal, but by then my ability to do the job was threatened. It took an effort of will to concentrate.

But the will was weak and I continued to daydream about writing my own words. However, as I tend to include the present moment in all my deliberations, I daydreamed by asking myself about this daydreaming. What does it mean to pursue the direction away from commerce, making-a-living and everything significant toward the economic sterility of discursive writing? Is it a means of protection from reality, or a necessary defence against corporate lifelessness? As ideas competed, I wanted to return home to write this and to explore the question. (And I must find time to read Timothy Clark’s valuable book on Heidegger again.) After all, one can’t pursue such questions elsewhere. But ‘here’ is not really separate. No doubt Blogger.com has appropriate management guidelines in place in order to make its service so damn good. In making use of it, any sense of resistance to corporatism is also delusion. In fact, I can imagine displaying passion at work if I could make a living out of this kind of writing. I could then understand my colleagues who are prepared to sacrifice their free time to work a bit more rolling out the corporate message.

Daniel Green of The Reading Experience has recently addressed the condition we find ourselves in. By 'we' I mean all those of us who see the arts as more significant than common opinion allows. He discusses the end of Denis Dutton's article about art forgery and comments that his view is typical of modern science: that art is (as Dan paraphrases it) "mostly the product of biological impulses hard-wired into the brain, impulses that prompt us to create … for primarily ritualistic and 'collective' reasons". Dan thinks that such views are not only reductionist but also ignorant of what western artists "have actually done". Certainly, reductionist and ignorant are descriptions appropriate of Dutton, editor of Arts & Letters Daily, the ur-blog that favours links to bigoted and philisitine articles. And they are appropriate terms to describe the vast majority of scientific literature, no matter how elegant, cosmopolitan and apparently open-minded it is.

But I have to admit that I accept the evolutionary reduction.



Dutton once reviewed the big book The Mating Mind by evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller. Despite the language of scientific procedure – one might say science is the corporatisation of ideas - this book contains a big idea that made a big impression on me. It was that the brain developed to its current size as a result of sexual selection and, specifically, that telling stories was central to this evolution (indeed, the book had the working title of The Scheheradze Syndrome).

In short, the human brain is like a peacock’s tail, only our form of sexual display is through intelligence. But not necessarily can-do intelligence. Miller takes us back to the smokey pre-historic cave and imagines a group of human cave inhabitors entertaining each other with increasingly sophisticated techniques. Mate choice was, he contends, hugely influenced by the quality of entertainment: young Miss Caveman being the first groupie, perhaps. It follows that, as the human brain hasn't altered since pre-historic times and that the vast majority of art is produced by testosterone-embattled males, art is still just a means of getting the girl. Is it any coincidence that Paul McCartney stopped writing great songs when he did? And that elderly pop stars are so embarrassingly anachronistic? I find it almost impossible to deny the idea. The more I look at young artists, the more blatantly obvious Miller's theory seems. And the more I look at female artists, the more I ... but that's another story.

This is not to say that our greatest artists and thinkers produced works with the conscious intention of attracting sexual partners to produce a new generation. Kant did not seek out a harem. Beckett left no offspring. But, according to Miller’s theory, the caveman's antics led all the way to Kant's mind and its capacity to recognise that it is an active originator of experience, and for Beckett to realise it really isn't worth passing on.

So where does this leave Dan Green's defence of artisitic autonomy and the merely literary? I shall answer this question over the next few entries.

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