So you think you like…

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The most exacting task that I have set myself, for the last number of years, has been little more than to question what we really think and feel about things; and the simplest observations have persuaded me of this course.

Some time ago, a customer asked me to design and make a  stove, a whimsical idea based on the shape of a bull (for this is what I do, make stoves for a living). I mentioned to him that another customer had just asked me to include some ‘Mackintosh-like’ features, where upon this fellow chuckled, and said, ‘everyone THINKS they like Mackintosh’. I was amused by this comment at the time; it had a certain casual wisdom about it, and it stayed with me; that we ‘think’ we like something might not be the same as actually liking it.

It accorded well with other observations that I was making at the time. Having moved not long before into rural SW Scotland, I was struck by the number of other incomers who had moved here to ‘get away from it all’, and professed a yearning for solitude. Since I had arrived for practical reasons (being an unemployed welder with a young family during the early Thatcher years made for lean pickings in the North of England at the time), I didn’t necessarily share that isolationist view. But I understood it well enough to have some sympathy with it. Some incomers lasted longer than others, and we came to notice that often those who professed the most ardour for the lonely moors and the wind-swept coastline were often those least suited to the solitary life. True hermits are few and far between … I have met barely half a dozen in my life. But in general conversation, when it comes to designing our ideal way of life, perhaps half the proponents would wistfully describe a lonely cottage with a sea view, with the remainder either enamoured with all the city has to offer, or shrugging the shoulders and being happy where life might land them. I confess this is guess work, and I would be interested to see surveys undertaken to see if that proportion is near the truth, and also how an urban sample might differ from a rural one.  As guess work, it cannot form the basis of an argument, but we might at least agree that there is a romantic element in how we see our ideal life, and it is this ‘romantic’ element that I wish to look at. We are social animals, and like other pack animals we wither outside of the group, yet we seem to have some compulsion to resist our tribal nature. We can explore this later, but for now I just offer it as an obvious contender for our disconnection, of how easy it is for us to be mistaken in what we really want or like.

It is easy to show how easily our senses can be fooled, such as with visual puzzles and trompes l’oueil, and with the mapping of the human brain how even our most consciously determined decisions are actually formed subconsciously. Our capacity for free will is called into question. Interesting as such lines of enquiry may be however, it is the fields of social and cultural persuasion that are relevant to this essay, and how the unconscious biases of our group thought affect us.  Apart from Charles Renee McIntosh and wilderness, what else do we think we like? And, more importantly, how can we be sure of what we genuinely want? Like the wannabe hermit, we like to think of ourselves as independently minded, and resistant to advertising and other sales pressures. We might admit to being political animals, but it is always others who are too weak to form their own opinions; the other driver is always to blame. We are all independent of the herd.

One, if not the most important of lessons an art education affords, is the rigorous challenge to our presumptions. I resisted this lesson strongly during my time at college, my presumptions being essential to my opinion of myself as the next Michelangelo; my love of art was approximately equivalent to the exalted opinion of my worth. I realise the dangers of using my personal history as an argument for humility,  and how easily the aim of unbiased opinion may be deflected by self interest. But there is a line of technical argument that proceeds to the intention of this essay, and the reasoning goes something like this:

If you set out to paint what is before you, say a portrait, still life, or – as in my case – a landscape, the surest way to disappointment is to follow the dictates of what you reckon a good painting should be. If you set out in the morning, full of confident inspiration, the colours already mixing themselves in your mind’s eye, it is not long before what you are confounded by what is in front of you. As John Constable said, to be a landscape painter you must walk through nature and be humble. I don’t think he intended spiritual advice here, but meant that if you are not prepared to paint with an open mind, unprejudiced by expectation, you are bound to come a cropper. It is not easy to paint what you actually and truly see (though I’m sure others find it easier than I), but if you persevere you are likely to be pleasantly surprised by what emerges on the canvas, and the thrill of being part of something bigger than yourself compensates for any personal disappointment in your talent. It also becomes easier to spot hubris – or bullshit – in the work of others. Many years ago there was a very popular exhibition at the Tate Gallery in London, called ‘the Post Impressionists’. I shuffled round in the queue, knocked out by the vibrancy and daring of the work on the walls … such colour and abandon, so daring! … by the end, I was quite shell shocked, but so heavily impressed with it all that I was none the wiser. So I decided to go round again, whizz round really quickly, telling every painting to ‘fuck off’ (I was a student, so with my student card it was free). It didn’t take long, and was quite liberating; I was in charge! The pointillistes. Italian futurists, German expressionsts, even Gaugin, Braque and Picasso fell without a murmur. But when I came to a painting by Cezanne of his gardener, all dressed in black and painted rough as you like, I just couldn’t swear at it; it was just too strong and honest. Also a painting of cliffs by Monet, and a Van Gogh (I can’t remember what it was, I’m ashamed to say) survived the test.

Now, I realise this is not conclusive proof of anything … how do I know that I was not influenced by my reverence for these particular painters? All I can say is, if that is so it is so; there must come a point when critical faculties break down, and the visceral response cannot be gainsaid. I still find the ‘fuck off’ test useful in a number of situations, though if used too much can turn you into a misanthrope and curmudgeon. But when overwhelmed by a technical display, whether in art, film or music (especially live music, where the moment can impair judgement), it has its place. The great art historian E.H.Gombrich says, in an introduction to his History of Art, which was aimed at the younger reader, but is full of adult wisdom, ‘there are no bad reasons to like art …. but plenty of bad reasons to DISlike art’. And this spirit of generosity is highly commendable, and one I try to adhere to.  I have thought though, that the only bad art is that which pretends to be something it is not. And we generally recognise honesty as being the first virtue in any form of artistic expression. Most forms of ‘high’ art are generally now so esoteric, that unless you are familiar with the nuances and recent history of a genre, we are not equipped to judge, so tend to the ‘what a load of rubbish’ response, just because it is easier than learning all about it.

And why should we? I don’t mean to get stuck in arguments about art. But the process of art can help dispel prejudice. In learning to draw, for example, it is surprising how the eye can be persuaded to see what it expects. We are familiar, for example, with the way perspective converges the lines of a road to a point, but only by measuring with a pencil do we accept the same with vertical lines. Perhaps, unless you live in New York, or the middle of a redwood forest, most of our observation is based on the horizontal lines which dominate our landscape and our lives. So we might draw the floor and ceiling of the room we are sitting in converging to the far wall, but are generally surprised by how that far wall is narrower at the top than the bottom … try measuring it off with a pencil at arm’s length! And as a child, can you remember the initial reluctance to accept that the eyes should be drawn in the middle of the head, rather than at the top of the face, the obvious position for young reason? I don’t necessarily confer quality with accurate representation, incidentally … I just use it for illustration. That accurate representation itself might actually NOT equal truth has been the main challenge of visual art for well over a century. But the whole process of art persuades us to question the obvious, what we take for granted.

And the humanities have been trying to apply the rigours of scientific, objective analysis to how we see ourselves for as long. History, and the relatively new disciplines of her multiplying offspring of economics, sociology, anthropology and political philosophy, attempt to plot the course of  populations, and attempt to apply the true scale of our tiny selves to the multitude (and more recently, to the physical world that supports us). But there has been a dichotomy, since the renaissance, between the individual as the centre of everything, Leonardo’s Man, and the ever expanding universe that envelops and describes him. To me, the boldest attempts to understand the experience of self within the vastness of all that surrounds us were made by the philosophers of the Enlightenment. Descartes’ reduction of everything to nothing but his thought, David Hume’s questioning of causality … perhaps the power of these insights are common place within our modern seats of learning – perhaps they are surpassed on a daily basis … and perhaps it is just that the language that they are expressed in has become too esoteric for the common man to understand. I would hate to be the ignoramus at a modern art exhibition shouting ‘bollocks’, but so far I’ve come across nothing that survives the ‘fuck off’ test when it comes to explanations of who or how we are. I doubt I can do any better, but I can at least probe away at some of the discrepancies I find within our assumed world, if for no other reason than to satisfy my curiosity.

This question, for instance, of the relationship between the individual and society, or, more grandly. Leonardo’s Man and the universe. An observation, to do with aforementioned ‘proportion’: how very numerous, and similar we are, yet how determined we are of our uniqueness! I live in Scotland, at present one of 66 million Britons. I am one member of this community of nations, and I am continually persuaded by all I see and hear over the media that we are a tribe that shares a certain intimacy; ‘we are all in this together’, as our current chancellor describes us in our economic predicament. Quite apart from the political presumption involved, I’d question who this ‘we’ is. Lots of ‘us ‘we’ and ‘ours’.  66 million of ‘us’. Let’s consider for a moment 66 million people. I say consider, because I’m not sure we can actually imagine that many people. That’s over a thousand full national football stadiums. Another way to try and imagine that many people is to imagine them spread out on the living room floor; so many tiny dots they’d be lost in the weave of the carpet. Shoulder to shoulder, you could pack in perhaps 4 people per square metre. To pack them all in, from where you are sitting, look down at the floor … you’d get about 4 people per square millimetre. You would not be able to see an individual person, though perhaps a hawk might. …and even then, just a sea of dots. Now, how many people do we individually know? I’m reasonably sociable, and of quite a large family, but if I actually start to count them up, I’d get to two or three hundred that I could actually name. If I include people who I’d recognise, even if unsure of their names, for example well enough to nod to if we met in another town, I could perhaps double that number. So we’re up to 500. I’m talking about people I might know on a personal basis. Let’s put a bright red hat on them all, so we can see them from above, on the living room floor. They would occupy about half a square inch … perhaps the head of a drawing pin’s worth …. a red drawing pin on the sitting room floor. Now let’s think about how many ‘celebrities’ we can think of: all those people on the telly, presenters, actors, showbiz folk we’d recognise, even if not name; politicians, pundits, writers; musicians, sportsmen and women … i’ll bet not as numerous as you’d think …. but if I’m feeling generous i’d maybe allow you another 500 folk. Let’s give them yellow hats, for definition. Another drawing pin’s worth. As celebrities, they would perhaps float above the crowd a couple of inches …. suitable, because plenty of other ‘drawing pins’ would need to be able to see them from wherever they may be on the floor. If i’m being too cautious, double the numbers … two drawing pins worth

The reason why I mention celebrities as well as personal acquaintances is because I suspect that we imagine we know more people than we do, and that through celebrities we feel connected to all the other tiny dots on the floor… a sort of multiplier effect, whereby shared acquaintance leads to familiarity. 

Another way to check how many celebs we know is to note the number of obituaries, or deaths of ‘famous’ people occur in any given month, then to compare that to the number that must be alive (famous people are always worth a mention on the radio, or at least an obituary) … perhaps five a month that we recognise? I realise there are a few factors involved, such as our own age, and the fact that on the whole dying celebs tend to be elderly, so not an easy sum … but I get to around 4 or 500 alive we’d personally know of. Or on the other hand, how rare it is to meet, see, or even know someone distantly connected to a celebrity (unless you happen to be one of course). I’m discussing statistics here by the way, not judging on the merits or shame of being famous

This is all a long winded way of saying there are an awful lot of people …. shed loads more than we think or casually imagine; and that’s just in the UK … for the whole world, multiply by 120 (half the size of a football pitch of invisibly small dots)). The human race, all our brothers and sisters! Perhaps it’s easier, paradoxically, to imagine the vastness of the whole human race than of a particular nation, for nationhood fosters a certain familiarity. But the whole human race? How many are we? We are often reminded to marvel at the amount of stars in our galaxy … approximately 200 billion. This means that if all the stars in our galaxy were equally shared between us we’d only have about 20 each. It’s tempting to get lost in the surprises of multitudes here, but I’ll resist … except for this one I just came across: there are more stars in the whole universe than there are grains of sand on all the beaches of earth, BUT, even more molecules than that in just a teaspoon of water. Good grief!

Of course it is not just celebrities that bind us together. Of all the cultural ties that make us what we are, history, language, science and religion, all the arts, ‘celebrityhood’ would be well down the list. I just want to emphasise how small we are in relation to everyone else, what tiny particles. But I believe, and the point of this enquiry is to investigate how, the relationship of our individual selves to the whole is crucial to our underlying happiness, and to look at our sense of identity. How accurate are the presumptions of what makes us what we are?

An immediate way to look at what concerns us is to look at the news, an obvious step for an observing alien race for example. And an alien observer could be forgiven for thinking that, at whatever news broadcast that they’d come in on, humanity was in crisis, even the brink of destruction, whether it be through war, economic meltdown or natural disaster. But it does not take much inspection of the evidence to wonder what all the fuss is about. Last year (2013), military conflict accounted for 55,000 deaths … there were about 8 times as many homicides, and 25 times as many road accident deaths. Of our carpet of humanity, spread out over half a football field, we’re talking about a few square inches. World War 2, the heaviest culling ever by our own species of ourselves, did for 3% of the global population. Natural disasters and disease epidemics– even mass killers such as TB and malaria – account for no more. In fact there’s not much really to compare with road accidents … but it always seems much worse. I don’t know how many folk take their own lives in despair at the gravity of life on earth, but I hope it’s not as many as I fear, because, really, things are not that bad.

As far as individual death goes, life is not too risky a business these days, and in a western democracy such as the UK, it would generally be deemed bad luck not to reach the biblical standard of three score and ten. And I would say the same about economic despair. As the world recovers from the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, our alien observer might again conclude that our very survival was under threat. Now I know that there are genuine victims of disaster, and usually those on the fringes of society suffer most, such as those perched on the crest of a breaking wave, but for most of us the pulse of change is almost imperceptible, and the wave passes through or over us. So what if the GDP changes by a fraction of a percentage point, and tips us into recession? I grant it may trigger change in bank lending policy for example, or dissuade us from going shopping, but these secondary, depressing effects are caused by perception. Too much wringing of hands can cause a rash.

Terrorism is often quoted as being one of the  major threats to western democracy. The actual physical threat to safety is imperceptibly small, not much greater than the likelihood of winning the lottery, which itself is not dissimilar with being struck by lightening. The inconvenience of countermeasures, such as queuing at airport security, might be measurable, but again is a secondary effect, a political response to ‘perceived threat’.

How do we measure the damage caused? 2,996 people died in the attack on the Twin Towers in 2001. In that same year, 15,980 Americans intentionally killed each other, 30,622 died by their own hand, and 42,196 people died in road accidents. The actual mortality rate of even such a major terrorist event, however regrettable – even appalling- is insignificant. As an ideological event however, it becomes something else. What did George W Bush mean when he declared his ‘War on Terror’ after 9/11? Al Quaeda, after years of ineffectually flicking pebbles at the window of the Whitehouse one day threw a brick through, and finally got his attention. America, and the dumber of her allies, have been lumbering around the playground ever since, causing no end of problems to everyone but the fundamental Islamists. ‘Terror’ is the means, not the cause. It is a pea-shooter by which the idealogues of Islam attack the slumbering beast that is humanity, and it is the pea-shooter that Bush declared war upon.   No wonder he had trouble finding the enemy. Again, a secondary, ‘perceived’ effect, and an excellent example of how erroneous such a perception can be.

The News emanates from that same platform the celebs inhabit, that we have floating above the carpet of humanity. As with celebrities though, I do not mean to accord greater intelligence (witness presidents and prime ministers)… the news might be broadcast from the platform, but it is created by the various minions, reporters and pundits, academics and experts scurrying around the planet’s surface, gathering scraps of information, then collated by various editors according to what they think might be of interest to the public. This feedback loop is now also fed by the internet, amplifying the feedback process.

None of these observations are new, but it is the scale of it all that I wish to emphasise. I’m as keen as the next man to turn on the news and find out ‘what is happening’. But it is a lens of our own creation. Thinkers and scientists are busy polishing and improving the lens, and we can play our own part in framing the questions, testing the framework itself.

We might refer to this shared lens through which we view the world as our ‘Culture’. It is informed not just by the media, but by our education and our history, our religious, political and scientific understanding, our nationalistic or tribal biases. We all confer on ourselves a certain independence of thought. We need only look at our opinions of the independence of others, to question our own. The lens through which we view the world is the same through which we look at ourselves, contrived by our shared culture. We think we know what we like, but how accurate are we in this presumption?