Archive for the ‘The Behavior of artmaking’ Category


March 7, 2011

What is ethology?

Ethology (from Greek: ἦθος, ethos, “character”; and -λογία, -logia, “the study of”) is the scientific study of animal behavior, and a sub-topic of zoology.

Why would I use ethology to study art behaviors?

Two Reasons:

1.  “It is worth emphasizing how long we were “feral” or “natural,” and how recently we have been domesticated into separate cultures.  As aninmal taxa go, hominids are quite recent, becoming distinct only about four million yeas ago.  But 39/40ths of that four-million-year period, during all of which time we were gradually “evolving,” we inhabited essentially the same environment and lived in essentially the same way, as nomadic, savannah-dwelling, hunter-gatherers in small groups of twenty-five or so” (Dissanayake, 1992, p. 4).

Basically, we evolved to live in an environment vastly different than the one we currently inhabit and “given the mismatch between the speed of technological development and human evolution, the same instincts and abilities that once helped us now often stand in our way” (Ariely, 2010, p. 8).  So, like our bodies evolved to give us a little time to consume extra calories before signaling a full belly in order to cushion for the times when food was scarce, our bodies may have evolved in other ways (specifically aesthetically oriented, see flow) that are now incompatible with our lifestyles (like with respect to the abundance of calorie rich foods at our disposal).

It is worth looking at how we spent our first 3,900,000 years in the pursuit of understanding the decline of subjective well-being in market economy consumer cultures.

2. “All known societies practice at least one of what we in the West call “the arts,” and for many groups engaging with the arts ranks among the society’s most important endeavors” (Dissanayake, 1992, p. xiii).

This is a lengthy discussion with lots of explanations about the prevalence and value of the arts in human culture, ranging from sex selection to the development of cohesive communities.  There are lots of bio-behavioral anthropologists writing about the communal value of the arts (sort of in a sociological sense).  I am interested in the value of arts behaviors psychologically (with respect to flow and gratification) and physiologically with respect to reduction of stress hormones and neurological development).



March 7, 2011

Theoria, praxis and poiesis are the three elements talked about in the methodology of a/r/tography (which is a qualitative arts-based research methodology).

Theoria is Greek for contemplation and is about theoretical knowledge, thinking and cognitive knowing.  Praxis is to do with the practice of a skill and is related to doing, to enacting theoria.  Poiesis is to do with making things.  Aristotle held these as the three basic activities of man.  There is a subtle but critically important difference between praxis and poiesis.

The difference between praxis and poiesis is the difference between playing a flute and building a house.  Praxis is an activity that doesn’t have an end (a product).  The end is the activity.  (see the link to the random chapter on the right for further explanation).  Poiesis is production oriented.  This reminds me very much of Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman.  His discussion of pleasures versus gratification is very much related to these notions.

My whole point here is getting to the term autopoiesis.  This word was introduced by a biologist (which I love since I am primarily engaged in a discussion of arts behaviors from an ethological, species centered perspective and since I am really using an evolutionary, Darwinian contextualization).  It means literally self-creation and is to do with the individual production capacity of humans.  I think this is important because it takes the production capacity away from the capitalist definition which is basically the Adam Smith – human capital language (which I abhor).

It’s so nice to have another language to use when talking about the cost benefit analysis, resources, opportunity costs, etc….  I hate framing this economically and biology is the perfect structure/language for this discussion.

Wedding Shower

March 7, 2011

So, yesterday I was at a wedding shower with a whole slew of crafty women.  Brenda was there and had made this cheese knife wrapped in metal wire and beads.  It was a knife that was discontinued when the airlines stopped serving food with actual silverware.  Anyway, she had adorned it with gens and was giving it as a gift to the couple.

I asked her about her experiences making these things and she said she adored making them; they really brought her a lot of happiness and joy to create.  She had made about 20 sets and had given many away as Christmas gifts.  She also had some in Phyllis’s store and had listed them on ebay and etsy to sell.  She had yet to sell any of them.  She said that Phyllis kept telling her that people were “looking” but no one had bought them yet.  She was obviously frustrated that none of them had sold.

Brenda is a retiree who can afford to “take the loss” on creating these items.  That is, the material resources required are not beyond her capability of absorbing.  I asked her why she was selling them.  Her first response was that she wanted to get rich.  She was joking of course.  We all want to get rich with any of our activities.  Then she said she was trying to get her money out of them.  I asked her if she might be trying to sell them as a justification for making them.  She said absolutely.  She enjoys making them.  They cost her something.  She’s trying to offset the negative financial impact of this behavior by selling them and she’s frustrated that it’s not working.

What will happen?  Most likely, she’ll eventually stop making them as they continue to not sell and as her need for the economic justification narrative increases.  She simply won’t be able to justify this behavior.*  I hope that my work will help relieve the pressure for the economic justification narrative with respect to arts and crafts behaviors.  As we take a deeper look at the social, psychological and physiological (yes, I’m talking biology) benefits of arts and crafts behaviors, we will be gin to see that these are actually sustaining behaviors and that the need for the economic justification narrative that disincentives these behaviors is damaging in all three realms.

More about these three realms another time.

I, too, had engaged my crafty nature in creating shower gifts for the couple.  I had created this black ladder back chair with gold leafing and a woven seat bottom made of neckties (which amazingly, I failed to photograph!).  It’s the second chair I had woven a tie bottom for and I really liked it.  The first person to see it was John.  He immediately said I should sell them.  Then, when the gift was unveiled, several people in the room also mentioned how I should sell them.  This always happens, was utterly anticipated, and not at all out of the ordinary.  A few things about it struck me though.

1.  Brenda and Jan did not mention selling the items.  This is interesting because they are determined crafters who could have made the item.  I don’t think that’s why they didn’t mention selling the item though.  I see lots of wonderful crafts and I never say, “you should sell that.”  I think it’s partially,”not-invented-here bias” that Dan Ariely talks about in Chapter 4 of The Upside of Irrationality, sort of a natural envy or something.  But, I also think there’s something deeper going on.  It’s like we’re engaged in this crafting and then we have the economic justification narrative deficit and then we try to sell the items to justify it and then we fail and then we’re a bit jaded by the whole notion.  I think, “yeah, you could try to sell it but it won’t work.”  It’s not so much envy as complacency or a subtle smugness with a deep understanding of the fragility of the economic structure of crafting.  That’s why crafters don’t suggest to one another that they should sell something.

2.  The other thing I thought was interesting about this exchange was that the people telling me I should sell the chairs were issuing a compliment.  In our culture the greatest compliments are economic.  The way you say you like something and that you think it has value is to suggest that it would sell.  They may have actually been suggesting that it would sell, but they were also (or maybe instead of) saying that they appreciated the skill involved and that they found the finished project to be aesthetically appealing.  Would any of them actually buy a chair like that?  Who knows, but probably not.

*How lucky is Mama Miller to have had the barn to dump her crafts in.  A built in justification narrative that allowed her to sustain the engagement of art making behaviors over time.