09.02.2012 Mahler's Musings 1 Comment

Feb 3 Theory of Mind and the Arts

Have to admit that I have recently had a reconciliation with the Arts.  It took seeing about a half dozen museums during my trip to Portugal and Spain last month and a lot of associational thinking to Culture as Comfort but I think I am finally there.  Where? You might ask.  Well, here’s the background.

I believe it started when I was a kid growing up in rural Upstate New York in the midst of an upper middle class family with strong associations to New York City and being taken, typically by my very elitist grandmother (more on her later) to museums.  This was not really appealing to me – and to a lot of kids I might add.  I was set to walk in front of what were said to be masterpieces—I most strongly remember going to the Frick Museum in NY—and wondering why I was there.  (My favorite memory of that particular trip was seeing a painting by El Greco of a man with an extremely long, rugged looking face with a forlorn look and somehow identifying with him.)  From my (paternal) grandmother’s point of view, what she was trying to do was to instill some “culture” into her country-bumpkin grandchildren growing up way, way too wild and untamed in the hinterlands far away from the centers of learning and, of course, culture.  Now my grandmother became quite the upper crust person she wanted to be after a childhood in which her father died leaving her family destitute so my grandmother, as many before her, resolved (I believe for we never spoke about this) to never be destitute again.  She ended up getting herself into and then through college, married a second-generation immigrant from Germany who, like herself, had pulled up his own bootstraps (they met in Statistics class at Columbia University) and they settled down to a life where he provided a good income as a banker.  They lived in Scarsdale, NY which as some of you reading this may know is one of the older close suburbs to New York City in Westchester County and reputed to have the best schools.  Well, they lived there but did not enjoy the top of society (first generation middle-classdom would never earn that status) and I think my grandmother always felt looked down upon by her surrounding society so it was even worse when her ragamuffin grandchildren would visit and now know how to dress (we dressed absolutely awful as family photos attest but we had access to only one pre-Walmart days but Walmart type store so that explains it).  I was the worst because (1) I was a granddaughter and she didn’t appreciate girls much and (2) I had little to no interest in wearing pretty clothes and trying to fit into higher society.  I was a dyed-in-the-wool tomboy.  OK.  Enough of these musings on how I got to feel a strong antipathy for museums and particularly for efforts, albeit with good intentions, at teaching me to utilize knowledge of the Arts to negotiate my social status.  I understand that now, but I was lost during the key moments I was being instructed by my grandmother! (Well, and my mother tried too but she came from the wrong side of the Scarsdale tracks so she didn’t have as much instruction from her parents and only earned my grandmother’s scorn.)

Now as I return to my insights let me summarize the above paragraph by saying that I acquired early in life little interest in and a great deal of distaste for anything that smacked of scaling social class.  And I knew that going to museums and to the theater were mechanisms to enculturate me into an elite class status.  So I rejected them.  This rejection lasted well through college and graduate school and, I must admit, into my adulthood and professional life.  Such are the cultural comforts we learn as youngsters.  However, and this is a big HOWEVER, I always wondered if there were anything more to High Culchah than what I had learned and rejected early on.  As my career progressed, I noted with that feeling of satisfaction pretty much only academics feel (well, at least I think so since I don’t ask non-academics) that I had figured things out.  Patronizing the Arts (AKA High Culchah) was indeed principally about the fungibility of monetary capital for social and cultural capital.   The upper crust invested their monies not in resolving the world’s most crushing problems, I reasoned smugly, but in earning even higher social status by acquiring works of Art and by patronizing live theater, museums, etc.   They, to use the terms I most prefer, do “Boundary Work” this way; buying themselves into social circumstances that are too expensive for the rest of society and thus creating spaces in which they can relate to, network with, etc. other elites.  It costs a whole bunch of money to have this type of access but it’s worth the investment because you are, indeed, negotiating status not within the broader society but within a small sliver of the broader public and in that small sliver there is a lot of competition for status.  How better to establish how erudite, knowledgeable, etc. you are than by purchasing unique (and that’s important) works of art and displaying them in your home—a place that only people of your social circle can be invited?  If you want to be seen doing Boundary Work, then go to expensive live theater, the opera, classical music concerts and wear your expensive, one-of-a-kind designer outfits and jewelry.  The vast majority of society cannot go there because they cannot buy in so you are just competing with your own class.  And, of course, the masses do their own variety of Boundary Work by rejecting the elite as snobs and who wants to spend their time with snobs.  So this whole scenario solves the great issue of separation of society’s classes right?  Well, right but what I’ve learned in the past month or so is that it’s a very important part of the story but not the whole story.  I think I’ve added another important chapter to the story and using the story metaphor is really key because when talking Theory of Mind and the Arts, understanding stories is the conceptual fulcrum.

Here’s the connection:  Psychologists coined the term “Theory of Mind” to mean that we humans have the capacity to understand that others do not think exactly as we do.  We are not the same.  We have different minds.  Well, this is not an understanding we’re born with; we seem to be born with the capacity to understand this but it’s not something we develop before the second year of life or third.  Until then, babies basically think everyone thinks as they do.  What helps them understand others’ minds?  Among humans, stories full of different characters is one of the key if not THE key mechanism.  Think about it.  With young children we spend an inordinate amount of time telling them or reading them stories or allowing them to watch stories on TV, videos, etc.  And the characters are typically anthropomorphized.  By that I mean that we make barnyard animals (we’ve not been a rural society for over 100 years but still teach kids stories using animals) into people.  This is an abstraction, really a third-level abstraction.  What I mean by this is that kids are exposed to people telling stories about animals which symbolically represent people.  Even more important is that these stories help teach children about the mental states of others.  Stories—and a great explanation of this can be found in Robin Dunbar’s easy-to-read-book How Many Friends Does One Person Need? –transport us into the mental states of others.  When listening to a story, watching a play or movie, etc. our minds become occupied in the present moment (not thinking about what we have to do tomorrow or what we did yesterday) and engaged in what others are thinking and doing.  So we enter the mental and physical worlds of others.  Plus, since we’re exposed to multiple characters at the same time and get to see how these characters think about and engage with each other, we are transported into a complex social world in which we get to see how others strategize, plan, manipulate, etc.  This is particularly helpful when the story has a narrator who is giving us the narrator’s take on what’s happening.  When this occurs, we cannot just tacitly view the world as having one perspective.  At least there are two: the narrator’s and what we think about the narrator’s.

In short, stories help us develop Theory of Mind.  [I’d like to state that I distinctly dislike this term because it’s not a theory about the mind at all; it’s a short-cut term to mean that we are capable of understanding that other people have different perspectives.  I’m a stickler for making things more easy to understand so that terms should not confuse but clarify…]  Ergo, I now have a newfound appreciation of literature.  I’ve never had that much of an appreciation of literature because I’ve spent so much of my waking hours trying to answer the “Why?” questions that continuously pop into my head that, for me, reading non-fiction has been my passion.  Now, however, I understand much better at least one importance of literature – that of helping develop Theory of Mind.  Additionally, I’ve grown to appreciate more and more whatever helps us live in the moment.  I know from studying the brain that when we live in the moment, when we’re really paying attention to what’s going on right now and not worrying about yesterday or, even more, tomorrow, then our brain is more relaxed.  Since we are a creature that lives—much more so than other creatures—in three time dimensions and they absorb a lot of our mental energy, cutting back to two can really help distress.  It’s similar to watching a movie or ball game or any other activity that distracts us from our worries…

Now there is another, and at least at this point last, realization that my art museum trips provided me:  PERSPECTIVE.  Perspective is a synonym for Theory of Mind (ToM).  Art handles perspective(s) in many ways and I don’t pretend to be an expert (but it’s nice not to be one since I’m free from the CaC ways that experts have been disciplined to think!) but to my mind it boils down to something similar as with stories.  We look at sculpture or paintings similarly to other works of “art” as in theater, music, etc. as communicating perspective and asking for interpretation from our perspective.  At a minimum, then, there are two perspectives going on—that of the artist and that of the viewer.  But as I was walking again through the halls of the Thyssen- Bornemisza Museum in Madrid I recalled why I like it so much.  The different schools (AKA disciplines in academic talk) of so-called western art are shown to visitors in ways easy to comprehend.  So you quickly move from Medieval Art which “looks” like children’s representations and can then imagine being a Renaissance artist comparing Medieval art with classical art from the Greeks and Romans and saying, “Hmmm.  Why are we painting so poorly versus those from yesteryear?  Why don’t we try to capture in two dimensions exactly how the human body looks or how a still life looks?  Why do we have to limit ourselves to painting stories from the Bible when there are so many other stories to tell?”  And then you go a few more rooms and you get to the Impressionists and begin to hear a different conversation going on.  It might go something like this, “Well, we’ve spent a lot of time perfecting our ability to draw, paint and sculpt to reflect ‘reality’ as we see it but what we are really to do is to interpret reality.  What people see if often not what lies beneath and we should do something that gets people to really think about more than what we usually think about.  Let’s find a way by making art do less direct depiction and more interpretation.”  So you get these paintings in which the outcome is not to mimic what our eyes typically see, but to help us understand that a fleeting impression is just that—an impression.  And we don’t get all the information but we get what we need and then our minds put together the rest.  Our mind fills in the rest and that’s our perspective.

Now until I strolled around the Thyssen the first time, I must admit I had little to no appreciation of so-called “modern art.”  I found it way too abstract, not visually pleasing.  And so I, like many others, would just look and then look away.  With a few exceptions, though.  I have always liked Miró’s work and Dali’s and to a lesser extent Picasso’s.  So there was something I needed to understand about why they appealed to me.  And I know that Dali’s melting clocks among other depictions did something: they sparked my thinking.  What was Dali trying to communicate (ahah! Perspective!) and what was he trying to say about time itself?  So some works of art really jostle your thinking.  Well, that’s like embracing cultural discomforts.  We don’t have to think much when we’re culturally comfortable but we are jostled into thinking more consciously when we are outside those comforts.  So now I can even say that the most abstract paintings are pushing us to think.  Of course, the realist in me will say that when they are too, too abstract they can have the opposite effect encourage us to shut off thinking.

As an educator I should be very mindful of this lesson.  A while ago I was in a Service-Learning training and the trainer stated what seems to be a fact:  that 90% of people learn best through direct hands-on experience while 10% learn abstractly (we can learn OK just by learning about learning and don’t necessarily have to do something to understand it).  But professors are the opposite: 90% of us are abstract learners and thus we have a hard time getting students to learn when we lecture because lecturing is an abstraction and while OK for us, not so OK for experiential learners.  But for many generations, education has been more focused on teaching than learning.  Well, that’s for another day, but the lesson to abstract from this is that even myself, a really, really abstract learner, has a hard time with a lot of modern art.  It’s too abstract for me so I shut down my thinking processes.  However, the broader lesson for me and the one I want to emphasize again in this blog entry is that I am having a rapprochement with art.

Las Meninas by Velázquez

For a long time I rejected the “high” arts because I saw them as the domain of the bourgeoisie and the upper crust and rejected their classism.  I now can see how that connection might have been made (because many artists could not afford to do their work without being sponsored by the elite and because the elite need ways to negotiate status without having to bother with lower socioeconomic sectors of society), but I’m not fixated on it.  Now I’m much more interested in how art, among other pursuits, fosters recognizing perspective and this relates to that critical human quality: Theory of Mind.  We are unlikely to be the only species with ToM, but we have certainly developed it far beyond other species and art has played a part in that.  Stories have played a really, really important role in developing ToM.  So stories made concrete—literature, movies, plays—need to be appreciated in this sense.

And that brings me to the Las Meninas by Velásquez.  I must admit that I was in El Prado the other day and walked right by it.  I did not stop to really contemplate it other than to think about the Infanta Margarita’s dress and how it made me think about my own student, Anna Clark’s, research on contemporary corset trainers.

I did not see the many perspectives, the many sets of eyes looking, in this painting.  But when I went to the Picasso museum in Barcelona and there saw how Picasso had become fixated on Las Meninas and spent long hours drawing it in El Prado and later drawing his own versions, well, then, I began to appreciate it with the kind of appreciation others, including Picasso, have given it.

Las Meninas by Picasso

And it all boils down to our very, very profoundly human ability to understand others’ and our own perspectives.  When we step into others’ perspectives we are embracing our cultural discomforts to some extent (because most “others” do not share all our cultural comforts).  And when we can identify our own cultural comforts—yippee!! We really are applying and exercising our intellectual and cultural muscles…