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The Role of Origins, Essence and Specialness in Art
We pay special attention to the history of an object – where it has been, who created it, what touched it – because object’s history is what really matters when it comes to its value.
In 2010, the British auction house Christie’s acquired a first edition of Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of Species. The rare book surfaced after a few serendipitous events. The vendor’s son-in-law visited a Darwin exhibition and noticed that a first edition on display resembled a book his in-laws kept in their guest washroom. The son-in-law did some research and verified that the book his in-laws owned was, in fact, one of the original 1,250 copies of Darwin’s seminal book. Christie’s sold the newfound original for over $170,000 to an anonymous telephone bidder.
If that sounds too pricey consider visiting Amazon, where you can find a copy for around ten dollars; even cheaper is a Kindle edition available for free. But before making any purchases, pause and observe the differences in value. In terms of content the original edition and the Kindle edition are identical, yet how much they cost differs greatly. Why would someone pay $170,000 for something he can obtain for free?
Part of the answer is obvious. The anonymous telephone bidder who spent $170,000 was not buying something he could have obtained for free; he was buying an original. The question is why we value originals more than replicates. Paul Bloom has one answer. He writes about the idea that humans are essentialists; we pay special attention to the history of an object – where it has been, who created it, what touched it – because object’s history is what really matters when it comes to its value. The content might be the same, but the essence of a first edition of Origins and a free Kindle download are different.
Essentialism plays a big role in art. Bloom tells the story of how the value of Vermeer’s The Disciples at Emmaus plummeted after experts discovered that the master Dutch forger Han van Meegeren painted it and points out that people buy John Cage’s 4:33, which is entirely devoid of sound, for $1.99 on iTunes. We don’t just assess art at face value; our assessments are related to our intuitions about the processes that gave rise to its existence.
Imagine, for example, paying a few hundred dollars for a front row seat to see your favorite musician perform in a large concert hall. He performs brilliantly, hitting every note with unmatched skill and virtuosity. At the end of the show you feel that you’ve received your money’s worth. Now imagine discovering that the musician you saw was actually a doppelganger - a stand-in to cover for the real musician who happened to blow town at the last minute. Can you imagine feeling happy about this? The answer is likely to be no, and the reason is that we care about the essence of the creator, not just the creation, just like we care about processes that gave rise to a piece of art as much as the art itself.
This does not only apply to art. Imagine cheering on a runner as he finishes the New York City Marathon. You learn that he recently finished chemotherapy and his cancer is in remission. He has been fighting cancer for years, so training for, running and finishing the marathon was a significant achievement. Now imagine finding out that he took the subway in the middle of the marathon to cut out ten miles from the race. Like buying a forgery or paying money to see a stand-in, you would feel cheated and angry.
If these thought experiments are too difficult to play out in your mind, consider a real world equivalent. It was the brainchild of Washington Post reporter Gene Weingarten and it involved the world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell. In January 2007, Weingarten asked Bell to perform the 43-minute piece Bach piece “Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin” in the L’Enfant Plaza subway station – one of D.C.’s busiest subway stations – during the heart of rush hour. Would anyone notice? The Post found that, “of the 1,097 people who walked by, hardly anyone stopped. One man listened for a few minutes, a couple of kids stared, and one woman, who happened to recognize the violinist, gaped in disbelief.” It turns out that the degree to which you will enjoy music critically depends on whom you think you are listening to.
Closely related to the idea that the essence of a performer is central to enjoying the performance is the concept of originality in art. In general, individual style is a prerequisite for expression. An artist succeeds by developing a style that is not only good, but also distinct from other artists. This is not only true in the visual arts, where a signature denotes the creator, but in photography, where a watermark denotes the photographer, and fashion, where brands are literally identified by the individual (e.g., Chanel and Louis Vuitton).
A series of clever experiments by Bloom and his colleague George Newman illustrates this nicely. In one, the two scientists showed participants two very similar landscapes and told them that one artist painted the first while another decided to make a similar painting after seeing the original (copy-condition). They told a second set of participants a slightly different story: each artist painted the same scene coincidentally (coincident-condition). As predicted, the participants valued the original higher than the duplicate in the copy-condition but each painting equally in the coincidence-condition. What’s interesting is that participants valued the original painting higher in the copy-condition than the coincidence-condition, suggesting that uniqueness had a secondary effect on the value of the original. “One explanation for this increase in value,” Bloom and Newman speculate, “is that our participants inferred that if someone is going to take the trouble of copying a painting, it is likely to be a good painting; another is that participants inferred that if two artists coincidentally draw very similar paintings of the same landscape, then neither painting is likely to exhibit much creativity.”
In another experiment from the same study the researchers hypothesized that contagion and scarcity affect the value of artwork; namely, the more “hands-on” an artist is and the more rare a piece of art is the more valuable it will be. To test this, Bloom and Newman gathered 256 participants and gave them eight different scenarios involving either an artwork (sculpture) or an artifact (furniture) that varied in quantity (1 vs. 100) and how they were made (hands on vs. manufactured). Here’s what they found:
For artworks, when the artist had a high degree of physical contact (i.e., hands-on contact), the sculpture was judged as more valuable than when there was a low degree of contact. In contrast, the difference between artifacts made with a high degree of physical contact versus those made with a low degree of contact was smaller (as revealed by the interaction), though still statistically significant.
Some theorists point out that the idea that the artist should strive for originality and we, the consumers, should value originality more is a recent phenomenon – that before the rise of capitalism people did not care about the artist behind the art. One of them is the famed art historian Ernst Gombrich. Writing in the 1950s, he argues that
our modern notion that an artist must be ‘original’ was by no means shared by most peoples of the past. An Egyptian, a Chinese or Byzantine master would have been greatly puzzled by such a demand. Nor would a medieval artist of Western Europe have understood why he should invent new ways of planning a church, of designing a chalice or of representing the sacred story where the old ones served their purpose so well. The pious donor who wanted to dedicate a new shrine for a holy relic of his patron saint not only tried to procure the most precious material he could afford, he would also seek to provide the master with an old and venerable example of how the legend of the saint should be correctly represented. Nor would the artist feel hampered by this type of commission. There remained enough scope for him to show whether he was a master or a bungler.
Echoing Gombrich is the writer Ian McEwan, who in a recent article for The Guardian makes a similar point.
In modern times, we have come to take for granted in art – literature as well as painting and cinema – the vital and enduring concept of originality. Despite all kinds of theoretical objections, it remains central to our notion of quality. It carries with it an idea of the new, of something created in a godlike fashion out of nothing…. In traditional societies, conformity to certain respected patterns and conventions was the norm. The pot, the carving, the exquisite weaving needed no signature. By contrast, the modern artifact bears the stamp of personality. The work is the signature. The individual truly possesses his or her own work, has rights in it, defines himself by it. It is private property that cannot be trespassed on.
What to make of this? Originality is a culturally loaded concept, and it’s likely that the role originality plays in artistic expression varies from one milieu to another. In the Western world a unique subjective vision is central to art, but that was not always the case, as Gombrich and McEwan emphasize.
The late philosopher Denis Dutton does not agree. He argues that, “just because there was no call for artisans who built and decorated the medieval cathedrals to sign their contributions to those great communal efforts does not entail that the work of especially skilled individuals was not admired in its day.” Dutton draws on his own research in remote New Guinea villages, where “the work of individual dancers, poets, and carvers is a focus of fascinated attention,” and concludes that, “there is no living artistic tradition where it can be said that art is produced with no regard for the individuals who do it.”
What Dutton is saying is not necessarily at odds with Gombrich and McEwan. One human universal with respect to artistic expression is that we admire skill, or performances that demonstrate expertise and technical prowess. Just think about watching a pianist wiz through a Bach fugue or a dancer performing a difficult routine. Art executed with precision that demands strenuous practice draws us in; being impressed is deeply pleasurable. The role originality plays in culture X versus culture Y will vary, but people around the world will always praise eminent creators.
This brings us back to the first edition of Origin of Species - not the price Christie’s paid for it but what Darwin said about sexual selection.* One line of reasoning first proposed by Darwin, and later extended by thinkers including Geoffrey Miller, is that people are drawn to eminent creations for their creators. After all, someone who possesses the creativity and skill to create a masterpiece probably possesses a good set of genes. Miller does not suggest that we create art just to get the girls, but rather that our impulse to reproduce and create works of art evolved simultaneously through sexual selection. That is, reproduction does not consciously enter the mind of the artist; it simply contributes to the urge for self-expression and our appreciation of beauty and skill. (A few counter examples here).
My best guess is that if art has an evolutionary adaption it is what art theorist Ellen Dissanayake terms “making special.” The idea is that humans have a motivation to not just create with intent, but to create something unique that triggers an emotional response that causes us to think differently about the world. Dissanayake proposes that this drive has a Darwinian basis and people who are best at “making special” possess a reproductive advantage. Everyone can speak or draw; not everyone can be an orator or Picasso, and it is these types who stand out from the crowd. This concluding thought is broad and there is obviously much more to the evolutionary story with respect to art. However, in discussing concepts like originality, essentialism and artistic value, specialness likely plays an important role. In every known culture, according to Dutton, central to the concept of art is the idea that art should stand out from the “mundane stream of experience and activity.”** If there is an essence to art, it might be specialness.
* Ok, fine. Darwin wrote about sexual selection mostly in Descent of Man, not Origin.
** Ironically, modernist art that focused on the ordinary, such as Duchamp The Fountain and other “ready-mades”, received a lot of attention.
Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.
- U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
- Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
- While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
The U.S. Navy controls patents for some futuristic and outlandish technologies, some of which, dubbed "the UFO patents," came to life recently. Of particular note are inventions by the somewhat mysterious Dr. Salvatore Cezar Pais, whose tech claims to be able to "engineer reality." His slate of highly-ambitious, borderline sci-fi designs meant for use by the U.S. government range from gravitational wave generators and compact fusion reactors to next-gen hybrid aerospace-underwater crafts with revolutionary propulsion systems, and beyond.
Of course, the existence of patents does not mean these technologies have actually been created, but there is evidence that some demonstrations of operability have been successfully carried out. As investigated and reported by The War Zone, a possible reason why some of the patents may have been taken on by the Navy is that the Chinese military may also be developing similar advanced gadgets.
Among Dr. Pais's patents are designs, approved in 2018, for an aerospace-underwater craft of incredible speed and maneuverability. This cone-shaped vehicle can potentially fly just as well anywhere it may be, whether air, water or space, without leaving any heat signatures. It can achieve this by creating a quantum vacuum around itself with a very dense polarized energy field. This vacuum would allow it to repel any molecule the craft comes in contact with, no matter the medium. Manipulating "quantum field fluctuations in the local vacuum energy state," would help reduce the craft's inertia. The polarized vacuum would dramatically decrease any elemental resistance and lead to "extreme speeds," claims the paper.
Not only that, if the vacuum-creating technology can be engineered, we'd also be able to "engineer the fabric of our reality at the most fundamental level," states the patent. This would lead to major advancements in aerospace propulsion and generating power. Not to mention other reality-changing outcomes that come to mind.
Among Pais's other patents are inventions that stem from similar thinking, outlining pieces of technology necessary to make his creations come to fruition. His paper presented in 2019, titled "Room Temperature Superconducting System for Use on a Hybrid Aerospace Undersea Craft," proposes a system that can achieve superconductivity at room temperatures. This would become "a highly disruptive technology, capable of a total paradigm change in Science and Technology," conveys Pais.
High frequency gravitational wave generator.
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
Another invention devised by Pais is an electromagnetic field generator that could generate "an impenetrable defensive shield to sea and land as well as space-based military and civilian assets." This shield could protect from threats like anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles that evade radar, coronal mass ejections, military satellites, and even asteroids.
Dr. Pais's ideas center around the phenomenon he dubbed "The Pais Effect". He referred to it in his writings as the "controlled motion of electrically charged matter (from solid to plasma) via accelerated spin and/or accelerated vibration under rapid (yet smooth) acceleration-deceleration-acceleration transients." In less jargon-heavy terms, Pais claims to have figured out how to spin electromagnetic fields in order to contain a fusion reaction – an accomplishment that would lead to a tremendous change in power consumption and an abundance of energy.
According to his bio in a recently published paper on a new Plasma Compression Fusion Device, which could transform energy production, Dr. Pais is a mechanical and aerospace engineer working at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), which is headquartered in Patuxent River, Maryland. Holding a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Pais was a NASA Research Fellow and worked with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. His current Department of Defense work involves his "advanced knowledge of theory, analysis, and modern experimental and computational methods in aerodynamics, along with an understanding of air-vehicle and missile design, especially in the domain of hypersonic power plant and vehicle design." He also has expert knowledge of electrooptics, emerging quantum technologies (laser power generation in particular), high-energy electromagnetic field generation, and the "breakthrough field of room temperature superconductivity, as related to advanced field propulsion."
Suffice it to say, with such a list of research credentials that would make Nikola Tesla proud, Dr. Pais seems well-positioned to carry out groundbreaking work.
A craft using an inertial mass reduction device.
Credit: Salvatore Pais
The patents won't necessarily lead to these technologies ever seeing the light of day. The research has its share of detractors and nonbelievers among other scientists, who think the amount of energy required for the fields described by Pais and his ideas on electromagnetic propulsions are well beyond the scope of current tech and are nearly impossible. Yet investigators at The War Zone found comments from Navy officials that indicate the inventions are being looked at seriously enough, and some tests are taking place.
If you'd like to read through Pais's patents yourself, check them out here.
Laser Augmented Turbojet Propulsion System
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
How imagining the worst case scenario can help calm anxiety.
- Stoicism is the philosophy that nothing about the world is good or bad in itself, and that we have control over both our judgments and our reactions to things.
- It is hardest to control our reactions to the things that come unexpectedly.
- By meditating every day on the "worst case scenario," we can take the sting out of the worst that life can throw our way.
Are you a worrier? Do you imagine nightmare scenarios and then get worked up and anxious about them? Does your mind get caught in a horrible spiral of catastrophizing over even the smallest of things? Worrying, particularly imagining the worst case scenario, seems to be a natural part of being human and comes easily to a lot of us. It's awful, perhaps even dangerous, when we do it.
But, there might just be an ancient wisdom that can help. It involves reframing this attitude for the better, and it comes from Stoicism. It's called "premeditation," and it could be the most useful trick we can learn.
Broadly speaking, Stoicism is the philosophy of choosing your judgments. Stoics believe that there is nothing about the universe that can be called good or bad, valuable or valueless, in itself. It's we who add these values to things. As Shakespeare's Hamlet says, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Our minds color the things we encounter as being "good" or "bad," and given that we control our minds, we therefore have control over all of our negative feelings.
Put another way, Stoicism maintains that there's a gap between our experience of an event and our judgment of it. For instance, if someone calls you a smelly goat, you have an opportunity, however small and hard it might be, to pause and ask yourself, "How will I judge this?" What's more, you can even ask, "How will I respond?" We have power over which thoughts we entertain and the final say on our actions. Today, Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
Helping you practice StoicismCredit: Robyn Beck via Getty Images
One of the principal fathers of ancient Stoicism was the Roman statesmen, Seneca, who argued that the unexpected and unforeseen blows of life are the hardest to take control over. The shock of a misfortune can strip away the power we have to choose our reaction. For instance, being burglarized feels so horrible because we had felt so safe at home. A stomach ache, out of the blue, is harder than a stitch thirty minutes into a run. A sudden bang makes us jump, but a firework makes us smile. Fell swoops hurt more than known hardships.
What could possibly go wrong?
So, how can we resolve this? Seneca suggests a Stoic technique called "premeditatio malorum" or "premeditation." At the start of every day, we ought to take time to indulge our anxious and catastrophizing mind. We should "rehearse in the mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck." We should meditate on the worst things that could happen: your partner will leave you, your boss will fire you, your house will burn down. Maybe, even, you'll die.
This might sound depressing, but the important thing is that we do not stop there.
Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
The Stoic also rehearses how they will react to these things as they come up. For instance, another Stoic (and Roman Emperor) Marcus Aurelius asks us to imagine all the mean, rude, selfish, and boorish people we'll come across today. Then, in our heads, we script how we'll respond when we meet them. We can shrug off their meanness, smile at their rudeness, and refuse to be "implicated in what is degrading." Thus prepared, we take control again of our reactions and behavior.
The Stoics cast themselves into the darkest and most desperate of conditions but then realize that they can and will endure. With premeditation, the Stoic is prepared and has the mental vigor necessary to take the blow on the chin and say, "Yep, l can deal with this."
Catastrophizing as a method of mental inoculation
Seneca wrote: "In times of peace, the soldier carries out maneuvers." This is also true of premeditation, which acts as the war room or training ground. The agonizing cut of the unexpected is blunted by preparedness. We can prepare the mind for whatever trials may come, in just the same way we can prepare the body for some endurance activity. The world can throw nothing as bad as that which our minds have already imagined.
Stoicism teaches us to embrace our worrying mind but to embrace it as a kind of inoculation. With a frown over breakfast, try to spend five minutes of your day deliberately catastrophizing. Get your anti-anxiety battle plan ready and then face the world.
A study on charity finds that reminding people how nice it feels to give yields better results than appealing to altruism.
- A study finds asking for donations by appealing to the donor's self-interest may result in more money than appealing to their better nature.
- Those who received an appeal to self-interest were both more likely to give and gave more than those in the control group.
- The effect was most pronounced for those who hadn't given before.
Even the best charities with the longest records of doing great fundraising work have to spend some time making sure that the next donation checks will keep coming in. One way to do this is by showing potential donors all the good things the charity did over the previous year. But there may be a better way.
A new study by researchers in the United States and Australia suggests that appealing to the benefits people will receive themselves after a donation nudges them to donate more money than appealing to the greater good.
How to get people to give away free money
The postcards that were sent to different study subjects. The one on the left highlighted benefits to the self, while the one on the right highlighted benefits to others.List et al. / Nature Human Behaviour
The study, published in Nature Human Behaviour, utilized the Pick.Click.Give program in Alaska. This program allows Alaska residents who qualify for dividends from the Alaska Permanent Fund, a yearly payment ranging from $800 to $2000 in recent years, to donate a portion of it to various in-state non-profit organizations.
The researchers randomly assigned households to either a control group or to receive a postcard in the mail encouraging them to donate a portion of their dividend to charity. That postcard could come in one of two forms, either highlighting the benefits to others or the benefits to themselves.
Those who got the postcard touting self-benefits were 6.6 percent more likely to give than those in the control group and gave 23 percent more on average. Those getting the benefits-to-others postcard were slightly more likely to give than those receiving no postcard, but their donations were no larger.
Additionally, the researchers were able to break the subject list down into a "warm list" of those who had given at least once before in the last two years and a "cold list" of those who had not. Those on the warm list, who were already giving, saw only minor increases in their likelihood to donate after getting a postcard in the mail compared to those on the cold list.
Additionally, the researchers found that warm-list subjects who received the self-interest postcard gave 11 percent more than warm-list subjects in the control group. Amazingly, among cold-list subjects, those who received a self-interest postcard gave 39 percent more.
These are substantial improvements. At the end of the study, the authors point out, "If we had sent the benefits to self message to all households in the state, aggregate contributions would have increased by nearly US$600,000."
To put this into perspective, in 2017 the total donations to the program were roughly $2,700,000.
Is altruism dead?
Are all actions inherently self-interested? Thankfully, no. The study focuses entirely on effective ways to increase charitable donations above levels that currently exist. It doesn't deny that some people are giving out of pure altruism, but rather that an appeal based on self-interest is effective. Plenty of people were giving before this study took place who didn't need a postcard as encouragement. It is also possible that some people donated part of their dividend check to a charity that does not work with Pick.Click.Give and were uncounted here.
It is also important to note that Pick.Click.Give does not provide services but instead gives money to a wide variety of organizations that do. Those organizations operate in fields from animal rescue to job training to public broadcasting. The authors note that it is possible that a more specific appeal to the benefits others will receive from a donation might prove more effective than the generic and all-inclusive "Make Alaska Better For Everyone" appeal that they used.
In an ideal world, charity is its own reward. In ours, it might help to remind somebody how warm and fuzzy they'll feel after donating to your cause.
The 'Monkeydactyl' was a flying reptile that evolved highly specialized adaptations in the Mesozoic Era.