Diamonds and Bones: Looking at Institutional Artistic Validation & the Promise of Greatness

I have been quite amiss in my posts these past few months. For some time, I even entertained the notion of shutting this down. I’m afraid that work and studies (and life) have taken their toll. While looking through my old files, I found this essay I submitted for Metrobank’s Art Criticism masterclass last 2016. It is a review of the exhibition “Finding Phenoms in Art” which opened in April 2016 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. I figured might as well post it here while I am unable to write something new.

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Diamonds and Bones: Looking at Institutional Artistic Validation & the Promise of Greatness

Somber is an apt description of the exhibition situated on the fourth floor, Pasilyo Victoria Edades of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP). Lined in one long row, and flanked by one or two at the sides, the artworks suspended from the wall (or displayed on a pedestal for the lone sculpture) exude a sense of gravitas. Each one a world in itself, sharing neither theme nor medium, neither style nor subject matter, and brought together by a most tenuous thread. If viewing any exhibition is akin to a conversation, then this seemed like a formal dialogue. Hushed, dignified, and brief. Here lies the worthy, they seem to say, as if certain of their importance. This claim to significance, though somewhat affected, may contain a germ of truth— after all, one can argue that these are works validated by two well-known award programs in the visual arts.

The “Finding Phenoms in Art” exhibition that opened on the 8th of April 2016 brought together the winning entries of Metrobank Art and Design Excellence (MADE) whose artists later became part of the CCP’s Thirteen Artists Award (TAA). MADE was initially launched as the Metrobank Annual Painting Competition in 1984, before it evolved into its current state that includes sculpture, architecture, and interior design. The TAA was established a decade earlier, in 1970, to recognize innovative contemporary art making amongst the new generations of artists.

To critique this exhibition is to bring into fore the two awards and to recognize names that had overlapped in their lists. These are the careers launched by MADE: the found phenoms of art. The curatorial framing, however, brings an interesting dimension to the viewing of the exhibition. For in this case, one does not merely see the art object. They do not appear simply as they are. It is not just, for example, Roberto Feleo’s 1984 winning mixed media entry entitled “August 6” that hangs in front of one’s line of vision. Filtering through the viewer’s direct gaze, between the eye and the object’s material existence, is the knowledge of Feleo’s current roles: artist, professor, Thirteen Artist awardee, 2015 Art Fair Philippines special exhibitor, and so on. The gaze is never crystal clear and the work weighs heavily with the mark of time, with significations it did not have when it was first evaluated as a competition entry. Each artwork in the exhibition stands before its viewers now as a promise fulfilled, perhaps as an accurate forecast of future artistic greatness. At the very least, it stands as a sign that bears witness to a career that flourished beyond the confines of the competition. If the curatorial concept is to be believed, these works contained the seeds of success, the skeletal structure that will soon prop up greatness, the bones that serve as evidence of talent. Diamonds in the rough picked out amongst coal.

The first award is a discovery, the second a validation, or so the narrative goes. Such view, however, discounts both the agency of the artists and the sometimes self-fulfilling character of institutional validation. For in an oft-aspired career path that starts with a major amateur competition award, a solo exhibition, and later a CCP TAA, each preceding landmark brings the next goal within reach. Every award makes possible new narratives of advancement but also of exclusion, as the network of artists who successfully climb the ladder becomes ever more constricted. The mislaid, due perhaps to geography, socio-economic standing, or plain bad luck – for artists encounter various complications, economic or otherwise, which shape their priorities and activities, the quality of their work and the recognition they attain – in time find themselves further removed from the short list. Behind every myth of genius in the arts is a life fraught with uncertainty. Behind every survival story, a litter of bones and shattered dreams. In a third world country mired in poverty, pursuing a career as a full-time studio artist is not only impractical, it can also be deadly. In such a context, awards are all the more prestigious, all the more sought after, but also increasingly mired in contradictions and complexities.

Ultimately, a narrative of discovery and institutional validation simplifies the textured, nonlinear development of a life in the arts. It also renders invisible the myriad of artistic practices that take a less conventional route. What of those works that will not hang in galleries, not adopt an aura of prestige and significance, but may in fact be more vibrant as it lives amongst the throngs of masses? What of the artist that does not answer to the calls of institutions, galleries, and the art market? To be aware of the cyclical and exclusionary nature of awards is to recognize its limitations and the scope of its power; it is neither to dismiss the quality and merit of the winners nor to calcify the works and forget the inherent vitality present in every act of creation. For there is, indeed, something joyful in the act of creating, of fashioning form and content. The artworks in the exhibition, though largely different, all bear a sense of containing a world-in-itself. It is as if they were disgorged from distinct bodies of artistic practice that each contained a strong formal, thematic, and conceptually cohesive visual language developed through the years. In their individual visions, they are unyielding and uncompromising. A quality that render them incapable of communicating with one another now, but also perhaps, the same mark that identified them individually as worthy of attention. The pale, disfigured humanoids in Antonio Leaño’s “Concealed Concentric Ebb and Dolorous Earth”, for example, share the formal oddity of Jan Leeroy New’s “Cradle” sculpture. The gaping stares present on the canvas of Andres Barrioquinto’s “House of Love and Confusion” are mirrored by the figures in Neil Manalo’s “Opera, Koro-Koro’t, Kuro Kuro”. One would be hard-pressed, however, to conceptually and thematically tie these works in the context of the exhibition. Their connection lies beyond them, in the recognition bestowed upon their creators by a different institution for a separate but related body of work.

Perhaps, it would be wrong to claim that phenoms in visual art are “found”, as if through chance or accident, and much to the surprise of everyone including the artist himself. Maybe it would be better to claim the creation of a phenom. Artworks are products of labor, sometimes borne out of love, sometimes of necessity, but all the same they are the fruits of labor. To recognize someone as a phenom is to recognize his artistic labor. At the same time, to recognize the process of creation of a phenom is to identify the politics involved in determining which artistic labor is to be validated or ignored.

The works in MADE’s “Finding Phenoms in Art” continue to hang somewhat dolorously on the walls of the CCP, almost like carcasses, as the once forecasted artistic trajectories of its creators are played out in the flesh. They keep to themselves, strange relics of a possibility of greatness once foretold. Tied intimately to a brief, but career-defining moment, they wait; perhaps, for a time in which a different layer of personal achievement or social understanding can bring them to life.

 

 

 

 

Thinking about Design

Last week, I talked about wanting to theorize about the practice of design to two Art Studies professors in my university. This was during an interview for graduate studies admissions. They asked me why I was interested in the program and I went into a somewhat lengthy story explaining my thoughts about Industrial Design, my concern about the gaps in our knowledge of local design history, and what I deemed as a shift in contemporary design practice in the country, specifically through the works of local design firms/ groups that have cropped up in recent years, such as Curiosity and Habi. One point of interest has been the way they seem to veer away from object-based or campaign-based outputs into a focus on processes that engage with communities and stakeholders. For me, they seem to practice what Victor Papanek wrote way back in 1972, in his book Design for the Real World: of designers that are “generalists” and who bring together the different perspectives and skill sets of various stakeholders into coming up with a design solution. These solutions need not be objects, per se. They can be a different way of doing things, or even structures/processes that would, in turn, allow users to create adaptable and inclusive processes. This is in contrast to the more traditional role of designers who come into projects to create specific outputs such as chairs, tables, cars, and other consumer products.

Of course, these ideas on design, because they are preliminary, tend to be simplistic (and in my case, optimistic). Hopefully I can help craft a more nuanced view/ analysis of contemporary design practice in the coming years. In any case, I’ve started amassing readings on design theory from various sources as preparation.

 

 

 

Danto’s predicates on art

Just over a month ago, I was considering the possibility of taking up future philosophy classes as a supplement for my planned art theory classes. I had read up on a few philosophical works, mostly on phenomenology and aesthetics. However, I didn’t know much about the University’s philosophy department. Nothing came out of my sparse attempts to ask people what the department focused on, and I thought it was weird that there are hardly any students from art studies department taking philosophy electives. Online listings of subjects confirmed that they do have one aesthetics class, although I wasn’t sure if it was even still being offered.

I eventually had a clue of what the philosophy department was all about when I waited for a friend attending a graduate student’s symposium. Outside the event venue, they had posters describing each department in the college. Apparently, the focus of the department was on analytic philosophy. I had only taken up Philo 1 and everything I knew about philosophy was rudimentary and a product of my own self-directed readings, and so I was baffled on what analytic philosophy even meant. A quick google search eventually gave me a beginner’s perspective of what I needed to learn: that there was a difference between analytic and continental philosophy rooted in what appeared to be historical (and even geographical) antagonisms, that analytic philosophy concerned itself with language and meaning, and that it was more readily applied to scientific fields, while continental philosophy was more often read by people from the humanities and arts. The thinkers that I had often read about were squarely on the continental camp. The only one I have read on the Analytic camp was Wittgenstein. Then again, I did first encounter him in Philo 1 class, and although I enjoyed reading about his ideas, I wasn’t sure if it was possible to apply them to the study of art.

Things didn’t sound very promising for my planned art studies direction. Briefly, I flirted with the idea of taking up philosophy classes in a nearby private university– they seemed to have a broader program and had faculty members who studied continental philosophy– and hoped that it might be possible for me to cross-register my units. I verbalized these thoughts to my friend, who rightly pointed out the unwieldiness of my plan and the heavy financial costs it would entail.

Days later, was able to obtain a better perspective of what philosophical ideas had been in play with regards to art when I cracked open my copy of Contextualizing Aesthetics. While the list of authors in the analytic camp, aside from Danto, were strangers to me, the Continental list was extremely familiar– there was Barthes, Foucault, Heidegger, Derrida, Benjamin, Adorno, Jameson, Lyotard, and even the art historian, Pollock. I decided I probably should read up on analytic philosophers who delved into aesthetics.

Of interest was Arthur Danto’s “The Artistic Enfranchisement of Real Objects: The Artworld”. Danto has been credited for developing the institutional theory of art, a theory which views art as existing within the physical and institutional structures of the art world. Thus, an object is an artwork if it is created by an individual accepted institutionally as an artist, when it is presented in a context from which it is viewed and consumed as an artwork, and/or  the discourse surrounding that object allows it to be accepted and understood as an artwork. In the essay, Danto further explains “the theories that make artworks possible” through a matrix that looks like this:

F        G

+        +

+        –

–        +

–        –

Now, Danto asks us to assume that there is a class of art objects called K which are either F or non-F. He goes on to explain the matrix:

“Now it might happen that, throughout an entire period of time, every artwork is non-F. But since nothing thus far is both an artwork and F, it might never occur to anyone that non-F is an artistically relevant predicate. The non-F-ness of artworks goes unmarked. By contrast, all works up to a given time might be G, it never occurring to anyone until that time that something might both be an artwork and non-G; indeed, it might have been thought that G was a defining trait of artworks when in fact something might first have to be an artwork before G is sensibly predicable of it– in which case non-G might also be predicable of artworks, and G itself then could not have been a defining trait of this class.”

One might wonder what all this theoretical gymnastics might be useful for. It is by this time that Danto asks us to assume that G stands for representational and F for expressionistic. This brings us to an appreciation of the quoted paragraph and of the matrix. For the latter, we can understand artworks as being representational and expressionistic (fauvism), representational and nonexpressionistic (neoclassical), nonrepresentational and expressionistic (abstract expressionism), and finally, the double negation nonrepresentational and nonexpressionistic (such as hard-edge abstraction).

But surely artworks are more complex nowadays as to be confined to those four combinations? But Danto’s matrix is not rigid. Stylistic changes and shifts can be accomodated with the addition of new predicates. This happens when new styles or -isms appear which change the course of art production and theory. When predicate H appears, “both H and non-H become artistically relevant for all painting, and if his is the first and only painting that is H, every other painting in existence becomes non-H and the entire of community of painting is enriched, together with a doubling of style opportunities.” What is fascinating about this conception of art is that it makes room for the understanding and appreciation of works that were unfortunately out of fashion when they were created. Every new style does not obliterate/turns passe everything that came before it, but rather opens up avenues for richer art discourse.

It also helps us to understand art that has been so stripped of everything, we are left with, say a monochromatic canvas. These are the works which occupy the bottom row of the matrix, all of the negatives.

“In this regard, notice that, if there are m artistically relevant predicates, there is always a bottom row with m minuses. This row is apt to be occupied by purists. Having scoured their canvasses clear of what they regard as inessential, they credit themselves with having distilled out the essence of art. But this is just their fallacy: exactly as many artistically relevant predicates stand true of their square monochromes. Stand true of any memeber of the Artworld, and they can exist as artworks only insofar as “impure” paintings exist.”

Danto’s ideas can be particularly helpful for someone who is just beginning to understand art theory, for we are often tempted to choose a certain camp over another, or to dismiss a certain style/ way of art-making because we think only G types of works are relevant or important.

Arranging the bookshelf

Just a short in-between post. So today I cracked open the storage boxes of books I had in the upstairs room and started arranging my bookshelf.

So far I’ve almost filled up 5 shelves, one of which was dedicated to art books. It hit me that I have spent most of my youth reading and thinking about art, instead of creating and looking at actual art (unless you count the hours I’ve spent looking at art in printed books). Somehow, this realization makes me content.

Things have clicked, somewhat.

Reading John Berger’s “The White Bird”

Last week’s trip to the late dictator’s hometown left a bad taste in my mouth. For almost three years now, I have been engaged in work that touches upon certain points of his legacy. Since then, nostalgia for the strongman’s period of reign has spread among the populace. It may be due to this extended and continued exposure to materials related to him that the recent turn of events have a personal, and somewhat emotional, effect. I was extremely surprised to see how public sentiment turned to his family’s favor and reached a fever pitch in this year’s national elections. The historical mass amnesia and revisionism do not show signs of subsiding in the near future. My reactions of late have mainly been denial, disbelief, and repulsion. In some instances, paralyzing numbness. The visit, however, awakened darker and nihilistic emotions.

While waiting for our bus to leave, I was able to re-read John Berger’s “The White Bird” (available online here). The essay provided a bright spot in what was generally an exhausting trip, due in part by the solitude provided by the act of reading and also by the contents of the essay itself. Berger starts thus,

From time to time I have been invited by institutions – mostly American – to speak about aesthetics. On one occasion I considered accepting and I thought of taking with me a bird made of white wood. But I didn’t go. The problem is that you can’t talk about aesthetics without talking about the principle of hope and the existence of evil.

I first encountered (and reported on) the essay during a class about Folk Art. At that time, I had only read it in the context of traditional and indigenous art-making. The white bird, after all, was a simple wooden construction created traditionally by peasants in Russia and certain parts of Europe. Yet I had overlooked the point Berger made about the aesthetic emotion, which the wooden bird evokes in people who view it for the first time.

One is looking at a piece of wood that has become a bird. One is looking at a bird that is somehow more than a bird. One is looking at something that has been worked with a mysterious skill and a kind of love.

This recognition of sentimentality was startling. It had been ages since I had read a work by an art critic that explicitly used the word “love”, it was more likely that one would come across repeated exhortations for, or against, the “Void”. Berger continues to expound on what can be considered as his theory on the aesthetic emotion and its relation to nature, and by extension, to the world.

Before a mountain, a desert just after the sun has gone down, or a fruit tree, one can also experience aesthetic emotion. Consequently we are forced to begin again – not this time with a man-made object but with the nature into which we are born.

Berger clarifies that nature is not serene and picturesque as we often imagine it to be. Our current technological and industrial progress have allowed many to “enjoy” the beauty of nature without worrying about its destructive capacity. This view, however, is mostly mistaken and we are reminded of this during times of natural calamities. In the midst of turmoil and violence, the perception of beauty becomes all the more acute.

It is within this bleak natural context that beauty is encountered, and the encounter is by its nature sudden and unpredictable. The gale blows itself out, the sea changes from the colour of grey shit to aquamarine. Under the fallen boulder of an avalanche a flower grows. Over the shanty town the moon rises. I offer dramatic examples so as to insist upon the bleakness of the context. Reflect upon more everyday examples. However it is encountered, beauty is always an exception, always in despite of. This is why it moves us.

Other more everyday examples of beauty in nature, perhaps an interesting texture of the mud or the dripping of rainwater, by the very nature of their ephemerality and simplicity adhere closely to the Japanese aesthetic emotion of wabi-sabi. While most Western artworks are more refined, more divorced in form from the natural qualities of the materials from which they were made, works made with the wabi-sabi aesthetic exhibit qualities closer to that found in nature.

While beauty is found “in despite of,” art was humanity’s attempt to capture this emotion. For Berger, art orders itself around the aesthetic emotion; beauty is not incidental anymore, it becomes “the basis for an order”. In this regard, I find Berger’s conception of beauty in art ossifying. Again, it might be interesting to look into the more complex notion of wabi-sabi as a worthy partner to Berger’s notion of beauty in nature. With the former, beauty is not captured for the purpose of fashioning form, but rather, emanates from the object through its texture and unrefined quality. The aesthetic emotion is not permanent (and the objects themselves were not designed to be permanent) and is contained in the object only for a certain period. As Leonard Koren stated, “[a]n object contains the state of wabi-sabi only for the moment it is appreciated as such.” After that, the objects (often used in the context of a tea ceremony) revert to their everyday existence. In the same way that the beauty one finds in the perception of a flower growing from an avalanche is contained within a singular glimpse, the state of wabi-sabi is in the moment and not inherent in the objects. 

All of these presuppose a subject that will recognize (perceive, affirm, or perhaps, mediate) that which causes the aesthetic emotion.

One is obliged to acknowledge a coincidence or perhaps a congruence. The evolution of natural forms and the evolution of human perception have coincided to produce the phenomenon of a potential recognition: what is and what we can see (and by seeing also feel) sometimes meet at a point of affirmation. This point, this coincidence, is two-faced: what has been seen is recognized and affirmed and, at the same time, the seer is affirmed by what he sees. For a brief moment one finds oneself – without the pretensions of a creator – in the position of God in the first chapter of Genesis…. And he saw that it was good. The aesthetic emotion before nature derives, I believe, from this double affirmation.

This perception and affirmation of the object by the subject has roots in Marxist tradition. Andrew Feenberg, in an essay, talks of the aesthetic emotion in the works of Marx and Marcuse:

Marx claims that the senses have a history determined by social and economic development. The real content of experience is gradually revealed as civilization advances. There is a hierarchy of sensation, going from a minimal, crude encounter with the object through the full realization of its complexity and beauty. A dog may hear a symphony but it will not hear what its master hears. The human being at home in the world under socialism will find more in nature than the impoverished and alienated worker under capitalism.

The aesthetic in both senses of the term is invoked here. Like the practice of art-making, the “practice” of sensation involves on the one hand objects rich in meaning and on the other subjects capable of receiving that meaning. This reception is not passive but involves granting form to the given. Marx corrects in this way the over-emphasis on the object in empiricism and the subject in Kantian idealism. His theory corresponds to what Adorno refers to as a “mediation” theory of sensation in which both object and subject contribute to the shaping of experience.

Marcuse’s interpretation of Marx results to a theory of aesthetics that is somewhat congruent with Berger’s conception. Both uphold the creative act as a response by man, one that not only resists violence (in nature or in capitalist society), but also affirms the aesthetic emotion that we, as conscious beings, are capable of feeling; and from this very same emotion, dare to imagine a different world. Berger writes the following:

Art does not imitate nature, it imitates a creation, sometimes to propose an alternative world, sometimes simply to amplify, to confirm, to make social the brief hope offered by nature. Art is an organized response to what nature allows us to glimpse occasionally. Art sets out to transform the potential recognition into an unceasing one. It proclaims man in the hope of receiving a surer reply… the transcendental face of art is always a form of prayer.

Similarly, the aesthetic emotion and man’s creative impulse is a response that errs on the side of life, in despite of the numbing effects of modern society. As Feenberg writes:

[Marcuse] argues that the erotic impulse is directed toward the preservation and furtherance of life. It is not merely an instinct or drive but operates in the sensuous encounter with the world that reveals it in its beauty, the objective correlate of the erotic. But this impulse is repressed by society, partially sublimated, partially confined to sexuality. The loss of immediate sensory access to the beautiful gives rise to art as a specialized enclave in which we perceive the trace of erotic life affirmation. 

… aesthetic form is a kind of simplification and idealization that reveals sensuously the true essences of things, things as they would be redeemed in a better world. [emphasis mine]

In the days following our trip, amongst the deluge of pessimism that threatened to overpower my reason, I turned to Berger’s essay for solace. I am reminded that in the midst of madness, there can be resistance and beauty. And there can be hope.


References:

Berger, John. “The White Bird,” in The Sense of Sight, 5-9. New York: Vintage International, 1985.

Feenberg, Andrew. “Marcuse on Art and Technology,” in Heathwood Institute and Press. Accessed 18 September 2016. http://www.heathwoodpress.com/marcuse-on-art-and-technology-andrew-feenberg/.

Koren, Leonard. Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers. California: Imperfect Publishing, 1994 and 2008.

 

 

 

Art & Ethics

Months ago, I found this gem of an interview by John Reed with Miguel Angel Hernández, author of “Escape Attempt”. It was refreshing to read an art critic speak so candidly and free of the mind-boggling jargon that easily find their way in many critics’ lexicon.

In the interview, Hernández talks of his fictional novel but also of his own views on art making, in particular, on its ethics and politics.

“As a critic, I have great difficulty looking at that kind of art; works that I consider good art but works I have problems with as a citizen. Sometimes you have to choose between art and life.”

Probably the first time I felt a rupture between art and life was around three years ago, while sitting in an academic forum about art in the university. One of the topics was a group of public outdoor art installation nearby that included a mirror installation by artist Reggie Yuson. The work was situated in the middle of a vast field– a vista reflected by the large mirrors. As such, according to the speaker in the forum, birds have accidentally flown into the mirror at high speeds, which I suppose have led to several deaths. Although accidental, I found it revolting. That moment ingrained in me the idea that art had its limits. Life, along with the dignity inherent in human and animal life, were more important.

“Jacobo Montes works to put injustice in the museum. In that sense he is the social artist of the hour, but his work is quite problematic — as political art often is, in the sense that art may not be the best way to speak to some issues. And that’s also my position; I don’t believe that art can show something that immediately changes our perception of the world. The audience that goes to a museum to see art about injustice usually agrees with the artist. That is to say, artists are confirming our vision, creating a space of consensus. That’s for me the liability of political art; you are not changing reality. Political art has to be a little bit more complex; when a work of art is about something it can’t change, it is just reproducing it.”

Some artworks are created for their shock value and political message; while consciously straddling ethical boundaries, or at the very least, creating that illusion. Take for example Guillermo (Habakkuk) Vargas’ works that supposedly involved tying up a dog in a gallery and leaving it to starve, or Axioma, which purportedly documented the daily physical deterioration of a different dog. The artist and gallery owners have denied that the dogs were abused, only that the work gave the illusion of such. (According to other news articles that were mostly in Spanish, in the former work, the dog was fed regularly and only tied up for the three hours when visitors were allowed to view the exhibition; and in the latter, the presentation of the pictures were apparently reversed to show the dog growing thinner overtime, when it was in fact the other way around.) Similarly another artwork, albeit a fictional one, that comes to mind is Carlton Bloom’s work in the first episode of the British series Black Mirror.

Visually, there is little that separates these works from the real life horrors that are documented and even uploaded online. The blurring of reality and the illusion of the work (as in Vargas’) lends the work its power and shocking reception. However, if the artwork, hoax or not, were to inspire real horrors, should the artist feel guilt or shame? Or would this further validate contemporary society’s frailties and inhumanity?

“Your first place of engagement has to be your medium. And this is also working for an artist. Imagine you are an artist making pictures of some sort of injustice. If you are not questioning your medium, your task, the memory of the tool you are using, the same idea of representation of injustice … if you are not doing that your art is futile. So our privilege is the capacity of actually transforming our medium. That’s for me the political engagement of art. Only then, after that, you can represent injustice. But this is a second step.”

These complexities however makes political works well-worth pursuing, in terms of both content and form. This is something that Hernández shares in his interview, along with how fiction writing, another form of art-making, has affected how he writes art criticism and his appreciation of visual art.

“My way of writing art criticism changed completely. After publishing the novel, I could not return to scholarly writing and the established formulas of criticism. For some months I felt blocked. And in the end I decided to write another novel — also close to art. My texts are now far from what you’d expect from an art critic. They are more like experiments, experiences, closer to narrative or even fiction. Curiously, I feel now that I understand art better than when I wrote traditional art criticism. And I must add that the experience of writing a novel changed my perception of art. It made me love the art more.”

In the end, the art critic extols the virtue of asking questions and the dangers of being convinced with answers, a sentiment poetically expressed in this online comic by Kostas Kiriakakis.

“A future of change is only possible if we have open questions. Answers are dangerous. I fear people with answers. I fear they might convince me.”

________________

Image of the book “Escape Attempt” taken from http://hispabooks.com/home/32-escape-attempt.html.

 

On Violence: The Stanford Prison Experiment

Violence can be jolting. External physical harm– an alien object made of steel or wood or flesh coming with brute contact on one’s skin– assaults one’s mind into disbelief. Even with justification, the brain finds the intrusion into one’s psychological and corporal space extremely discomforting. Irrational even.

My interest with violence was brought about by one sleepless night back in highschool. I was following random links on the net when I chanced upon Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment.

 

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The Stanford Prison Experiment is a 1971 psychology experiment that simulated life in prison. A group of male college students were divided into two, one group played the role of prison guards and the other group as prisoners. The experiment was cut short after only six (6) days due to increased aggression on the part of the “guards”, coupled with physical and mental deterioration on the “prisoners”. Zimbardo and his group of psychologists also became increasingly entrenched in their roles, acting more like prison wardens than detached researchers.

The psychologist and his team concluded that punitive prison conditions dehumanize prisoners, making them lose their sense of identity. At the same time, they are also dehumanized in the eyes of the guards. This allowed the guards in the experiment, for example, to escalate the punishments since they could not identify the prisoners as deserving of humane treatment.

But perhaps the most chilling implication of their findings was how seemingly normal men can display sadistic behaviours when given certain social and institutional roles.

Decades later, in a 2008 TED talk entitled “The Psychology of Evil”, Zimbardo would connect his findings in Stanford to the tortures inflicted on Iraqi civilians by US servicemen in Abu Ghraib. The official explanation had been that the Iraq incident was the work of a few bad apples. For Zimbardo however, the institutional and situational factors, like the lack of check-and-balance from an external authority, combined with inherent human fallibility resulted to an extremely imbalanced power relations between the US guards and prisoners, which in turn led to horrific abuses on the part of the US servicemen. He also revisits the experiment and his conclusions,  and ties them with events in Iraq in his book “The Lucifer Effect”.

PDVD_003

The Stanford Prison Experiment is probably one of the most well-known psychology experiments not just on prison life, but also on man’s capacity to commit violence. In 1992, a documentary about Zimbardo and his team’s work, entitled “Quiet Rage: The Stanford Prison Experiment”, was released.

More than twenty years later, the experiment continues to capture the public imagination. Polish artist Artur Zmijewski recreated the experiment and produced a documentary video of his recreation. The work, aptly called “Repetition”, was shown in the Venice Biennale in 2005. Most recently, a film directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez (“The Stanford Prison Experiment”) was released in 2015.

Images

(1) Screenshot from the trailer of the 2015 The Stanford Prison Experiment film

(2) Image from the Official Site of the Stanford Prison Experiment.

(3) Still from Zmijewski’s 2005 recreation of the original experiment. Image from here.