Newcomers to Counterforces will not realize that I sometimes make outrageous statements for the sake of clarifying a discussion. (Saying things I don’t necessarily mean also provides useful cover for those frequent occasions wherein, as in the idiom that was commonplace in my youth, I have my cranium completely surrounded by my rectal cavity.)
Dutton’s The Art Instinct, treated so laboriously in the previous post, provides a list of operative universals regarding the work of art. If he finds similar attitudes at work on the Sepik River and in the Seattle suburbs (I cite the latter only for alliteration, but Dutton loves to quote the sources he spoke with on the Sepik), it’s most likely a trait built into us by evolution.
Cultural determinists have gone overboard in denying biological universals (an odd response to earlier racist theories, since it would be useful to realize that everybody has a structurally similar mix of inherent traits, if such is the case). But the efforts of the inheritors of sociobiology to pin it all on our genes won’t fly either (nor will they wash, for that matter).
Dutton, like almost all of us, tends to cherry-pick his examples to support his argument and his prejudgments. Downplaying difference has its uses even if it creates the “problem” of finding the biological reasons why minority practices exist, but one sees why difference has tended to be absolutized in recent decades.
And yet difference isn’t the deciding factor any more than sameness is. Some emotions and attitudes really are the default positions, and cultures devote their efforts to reinforcing or modifying or canceling altogether those particular predispositions.
It takes a great deal of looking (or being charmed by wall niches in Victorian buildings and Addison-Mizner-era arcades in Florida) to think that Duchamp’s Fountain looks like anything but a urinal resting on its flat side, and I am prepared to accept that Duchamp wouldn’t have known an architectural niche if one violated the laws of physics concerning inanimate objects and came up and bit him in the ass…or I would be prepared to accept that if it weren’t for the fact that all his other artworks are so daggumed pretty. Pretty offensive, maybe, but pretty.
Michael Graves’ toilet brush makes me happy every time I look at it (or at the holder that conceals the brush, more accurately). I am perfectly prepared to accept that my association of its form with, say, Asian and European pottery traditions is not shared by the vast majority of users, who would prefer a brush that they can stick in the corner and forget about it. And I am perfectly willing to admit that it requires a particular independence from received opinion about what a toilet brush should look like in order to find that this object fills an emotional need that I didn’t even know I had until I saw its fulfillment. And that particular kind of detachment is, yes, related to social class (the particular social group into which one has been thrust by choice or circumstances), rather than ethnic origin or sexual preference. And given the uneven distribution of sensory equipment, I can imagine that there are those who think of toilet brushes in terms of sculpture who would still rather have a PBR and countertop-perked Maxwell House instead of a Three Philosophers and some Italianate variation on stepping one’s coffee down a notch with steamed milk or up a notch with techniques comparable to those derived once in points farther east. So one’s place in the social order isn’t really the determining factor, just the situation that makes one’s particular options possible. And the genetic factors that go into ethnic origins and sexual preference also go into what kind of beer one likes (or if one likes beer at all), and genetic factors matter more than we think. But neither biology nor society (what used to be called “nature and culture”) explains the situation unless both factors are seen as operative in different proportions.
In other words, I take issue with much of standard-issue cultural studies as I do with standard-issue sociobiology, and I am happy that the new generation of interdisciplinary sciences is providing us with the raw material for a revisionary aesthetics that breaks out of the unproductive debates that have crippled the past generation of academic discourse.
Now let us get back to the unpleasant fact that the global economic order is teetering on the verge of collapse, and to pondering who did it, and why. The Law of Unintended Consequences is an explanation but not an excuse for those who inadvertently unhinged the whole structure of late capitalism while inventing new ways to pursue self-interest.