The totalitarian propagandizing of art history benefits so few


Amen to Darren Jones’ article

Extract –

“The most famous artists known to us are so because the public has been deluded into believing that they were unique, by the unrelenting process of mythologization which roils around them, furiously maintained by collectors, auctions, retrospectives, museums, and critics. Art history may have had different players, alternative firsts, but at some point someone would have dripped and poured their way to renown in place of Pollock—it was hardly nuclear fusion—as every artist we are aware of today would have had their replacements. The names don’t matter; it’s the sociopathic recording of so few of them for easy posterity, and for commerce, that does.

That process continues unabated as art world influencers promote the arrant nonsense that star artists are uniquely important, not because they are—no artist is, or ever was—but because too much has been invested in them to permit any other reading. The art world’s Stasi mustn’t allow its house of cards to collapse.”

One day I will elaborate – as I have a brewing preoccupation with the cultural hegemony of celebrity and authorship. It dont have to be this way!

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The Plough and Gender Roles


A very jumbled post that scatterguns the question – To what extent was the agricultural revolution responsible for the emergence of patriarchy?

The Agricultural Revolution and the Origins of Patriarchy – prezi 

Sitting in a reputable bar in Bangkok with my good friend Daniel  led to a discussion about modern gender roles and inequalities. We began to consider the extent to which prehistorical cultural and technological advances led to the development of specific gender identities that have endured to this day. Was it the case, we pondered, that the more settled societies which emerged from the affordances of agriculture developed new social stratas and orders that had previously never existed?

Agricultural Revolution 101 – thanks ANDO949

Are contemporary opinions about gender defined by archaic technological revolutions and the inception of the notion of property? If so how can we know this?

The article listed below from the CEPR’s policy portal suggests that gender roles were modified according to whether prehistorical groups of Homo Sapiens used the hoe or the plough. Of course to claim such things about times when there were no bloggers leaves us with the frustrating task of identifying concrete evidence. Of course the human sciences live and die on this crux – the dearth of empirical evidence. But does that make them any less valuable than the natural sciences?

The Neolithic Revolution, Rational Wiki claims that “The benefit brought by the introduction of agriculture was a food supply much less prone to uncertainty, enabling the dominance of settled populations”. That is that agriculture provided a platform for the concept of ‘property’ created a need for new protocols for securing and passing on wealth and that led directly to the emergence of new gender roles and attitudes.

“Humans, like other semi-social primates, exhibit inherited gender roles, in which female roles are central and necessary for the survival of social units, while males tend to be peripheral, competing for status and the attention of females. The larger scale of human societies made possible by the Neolithic Revolution, the growth of social stratification and hierarchical structures, the need for defending the towns, and the emergence of a class whose profession is communal violence, all favoured male roles at the expense of female roles. In foraging societies, the gathering and selection of plant foodstuffs was primarily the work of women. Agriculture turned cultivation into heavy labor that was the work of organized teams, and allowed men to impose themselves on the women’s domain further.

The sedentary nature of agricultural lifestyles increased the number of children women were expected to bear. In nomadic societies, pregnancies must be separated by at least four to five years, due to the need of the children to be able to keep pace with the band. Sedentary farming societies are not subject to this constraint. Women were therefore expected to bear children more frequently, which took a toll on both their health and their independence.Th is drastic shift in the power relations of the genders gave rise to what some now call the “patriarchy”” Rational Wiki

  • What evidence exists to support the claims made in this quote? How dependable is such evidence?
  • To what extent are these knowledge claims opinion? Is it ever possible to be wholly objective about this or are our thoughts on such subjects coloured by our existing values and adopted social paradigms?
  • What are the ramifications for us if we accept that gender roles are essentially path dependent and determined by social and technological circumstances which have largely disappeared.

The Shift of Gender Roles in the Iroquois people

The prezi above seems to suggest that gender roles and particularly sex based inheritance lines were determined by how labour was organized around agriculture and the forms of technology available. This case study focusses on the Iroquois people of pre-invasion North America. Is it foolhardy to claim that one variable is solely responsible for determining such a fundamental social paradigm?

A modern equivalent to this is the following question. Is there a correlation between free access to proximal fresh drinking water source and the empowerment of women?

Anyway we had a great night – eh – and by the way how has the advent of the smartphone and the internet contributed to the demise of such conversations in bars?


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Tender or distasteful?


Heather Whitten posted this photograph on facebook and opened herself up to a tirade of objections. Some thought that the image was inappropriate and even disgusting. The photo shows a devoted father holding his son in a shower. The situation came about because the boy was ill with suspected salmonella poisoning. Whilst the Facebook Community Standards make much mention of nudity it is clear that this image does not break any of their rules. So why was it taken down twice? Was it because of the heated backlash from commentators? The photographer herself gives us more context …..

“Thomas had spent hours in the shower with him, trying to keep his fever down and letting the vomit and diarrhea rinse off of them both as it came, he was so patient and so loving and so strong with our tiny son in his lap… I stepped out and grabbed my camera and came back to snap a few images of it and, of course shared them.”

The key questions here are to do with the boundary between what images are acceptable and unacceptable and what is the difference? Where is that line and how do we decide? Also even if certain images provoke and/or disgust, is it right to legislate that which can and that which cannot be published? There is friction between the level of ‘intimacy’ (faux or otherwise) that social networking sites allow and the  jurisdiction the site controllers  seem to have in allowing or disallowing certain kinds of posts.

Also what makes this image different from the super-popular pin up poster from the 1980s called “L’Enfant” by Spencer Rowell?


The British company Athena Posters claimed that the  image sold over 5 million copies, making it among the best-selling posters ever. The photograph was said to herald the “sensitive but sexy New Man”and there was no debate about whether it was inappropriate. So where is the line?

It is interesting to note that informal rules about what images are publishable or inherently ‘wrong’ change over time and from place to place. But what are the variables which affect this?


Related posts

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Rising above cognitive bias

Cognitive biases

A cognitive bias, wikipedia tells us ia “a systematic pattern of deviation from norm or rationality in judgment”. Over the last decade or so there is an ever increasing list of cognitive biases added to from social psychology, behavioural economics and cognitive science.

Some evolutionary psychologists suggest that these ‘limited’ and hasty ways of thinking have served the species well and that they are in essence adaptive. Cognitive biases enable faster decisions to be made, when time is more critical than accuracy. These biases, the evolutionary psychologists  might say, are not ‘designed’ to give us dependable decisions with all things considered, they are ‘designed’ to give us good enough outcomes for immediate purposes. The brain has developed a series of shortcuts that can serve us well in complex situations where we have incomplete information and which involve some component of risk.


The problem is that many of these biases only do their job well in specific contexts and yet our worldview, opinions and beliefs can be coloured by them all the time.  Thus it is vitally important that we understand that these biases exist and that they exercise a deep influence on our thinking.

The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy – care of David McRaney

The bottom line here is that despite the fact we may consider ourselves to be rational and objective, we actually think in hugely irrational ways. We just need to accept this and learn to adjust our thinking accordingly. Please view the presentation for more information and links.

As Dan Ariely says in his TED talk above …….

“When it comes to building the physical world, we kind of understand our limitations. We build steps. And we build these things that not everybody can use, obviously. We understand our limitations, and we build around them. But for some reason, when it comes to the mental world, when we design things like healthcare and retirement and stock markets, we somehow forget the idea that we are limited. I think that if we understood our cognitive limitations in the same way we understand our physical limitations, even though they don’t stare us in the face the same way, we could design a better world, and that, I think, is the hope of this thing.”

Some useful follow up viewing and reading ….

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Against ‘Warm glow’ altruism

Research into empathy is thriving these days. Cognitive neuroscience is undergoing what some call an “affective revolution.” Some research even suggests that if you prompt subjects (students?) to see the world through the eyes of others, then their capacity for empathy develops as a result. In other words you can ‘teach’ people to be more empathetic.

The educational domain’s growing preoccupation with emotional intelligence alongside every CAS coordinator’s consternation at having to crack the interminable problem of service learning, has led to a lot of people valuing empathy. I can also draw parallels here with the way design thinking has evolved to put the end users needs at the front and centre of all design.

Put simply – having the ability to empathize is ‘de rigueur’. And when anything  trends, you need rational detractors to balance things out – to force the objective debate. Along comes Paul Bloom a cognitive scientist from Yale who argues that empathy is a bad thing and that it makes the world worse.

Bloom, controversially argues that empathy can make things worse, that it is usually not targeted at causes, but effects, that it is not a product of a systems approach, not does it work longitudinally or sustainably. This is why people care more about a baby stuck in a well or a dog that is viciously beaten than they do about  global warming or world hunger. The “identifiable victim effect” and the resulting process of empathy can be an impediment to true social justice, environmental solutions or effective altruism, Bloom argues.

“Such are the paradoxes of empathy. The power of this faculty has something to do with its ability to bring our moral concern into a laser pointer of focussed attention. If a planet of billions is to survive, however, we’ll need to take into consideration the welfare of people not yet harmed—and, even more, of people not yet born. They have no names, faces, or stories to grip our conscience or stir our fellow-feeling. Their prospects call, rather, for deliberation and calculation. Our hearts will always go out to the baby in the well; it’s a measure of our humanity. But empathy will have to yield to reason if humanity is to have a future.”

Another argument for a more circumspect deployment of empathy from Roman Krznaric.

Peter Singer’s TED talk, The why and how of effective altruism, links to Bloom’s ideas and is well worth watching.


Related resources

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Perceiving Reality and Evolution

Donald D Hoffman a professor of cognitive science argues that the premise that those organisms that can sense the world as it really is are inherently more likely to endure is false. Contrarily he argues that those organisms that adapt to sense only that in the world that they need to sense to survive, will out-compete organisms that have a more comprehensive sensory ‘map’ inside their minds.

“As we go about our daily lives, we tend to assume that our perceptions—sights, sounds, textures, tastes—are an accurate portrayal of the real world. Sure, when we stop and think about it—or when we find ourselves fooled by a perceptual illusion—we realize with a jolt that what we perceive is never the world directly, but rather our brain’s best guess at what that world is like, a kind of internal simulation of an external reality. Still, we bank on the fact that our simulation is a reasonably decent one. If it wasn’t, wouldn’t evolution have weeded us out by now? The true reality might be forever beyond our reach, but surely our senses give us at least an inkling of what it’s really like.”

Not so, says Donald D. Hoffman, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine.

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Improving your TOK cognitive toolkit #2

This session discusses three new ideas that I think are of use to all. Please see the previous blogpost to see what I am trying to achieve here. It gives a fuller rationale for dealing with these ideas in the way I have.

In this session we will look at three new ideas 1. “We won’t play nature to your culture” 2. “Everything’s a remix” and 3. “Language Judges”.

Over the term break I read a book that I haven’t looked at for over three decades. The book is called “To Have Or To Be” by Erich Fromm. It was so clear to me just how influential the book had been on me. I have included some long quotes within the presentation below, because Fromm relates his main thesis, that we have moved too far into a having mode and away from pure being, to learning. The quotes are of real relevance to us as we embark on a discussion of three new ideas.

In this incredible book Fromm, suggests that we even treat our ideas, beliefs and opinions as possessions and that this can inhibit our learning and make us less open minded. In discussion we can often be reluctant to “loose” the ideas and opinions that we “own” and this makes us stubborn and reluctant to devlop and grow. He also argues that our use of  language is influenced by the materialism or the “having mode”. We are less likely, he asserts, to say “I am troubled” in the post-industrial age, rather we say “I have a problem”.

I really reccommend everyone to read this book. It is as salient now as it ever was and is fresh in that it is both analytical and refers to political philosophy explicitly at the same time as discussing the nature of being, a subject that is usually dealt with with less rigour and analysis.

I make no apology for the text-heaviness of the presentation. This is meant as a resource that you can go back to. Each section ends with a summary of ways in which each idea can be applied.


1. “We won’t play nature to your culture”

Nature and culture are different. Sometimes however it serves a group’s interests to try and convince you that culture is nature. It is good to be aware of this and to start to disentangle that which is natural from that which is cultural. We will discuss gender identity, vegetarianism (sorry), social darwinism, Gramsci’s concept of Hegemony and the naturalistic fallacy.

2. “Everything’s a remix”

Here I argue that everything we dream up, invent or create owes a debt to others that have come before us. From the last slide …. ”

  • Raid, re-use and develop the ideas of others. Just attribute where appropriate.
  • Avoid being original for original’s sake
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel, just make it better.
  • Be aware that authorship and individual celebrity is cultural and not natural. Many cultures do not attribute art works. The so called “developed” world labels such work as ‘craft’. This uses language to demote the artworks of developing countries and maintain a certain cultural hegemony.”

3. Language Judges”

This is self-evidently about the way language, judges, excludes, blames and compartmentalizes.


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