The Hive Switch and Collectivity in the Arts
Let’s expand our discussion from last week by considering the relationship between Haidt’s idea of the “hive switch” and certain shifts in 20th century art practice. In chapter 10, the author claims that human nature is “90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee.” As you know, the chimp component represents individualism and competition with neighbors, while the bee element refers to our desire to collectivize in social groups and work together. In this relationship, Haidt claims that we are “conditional hive creatures” in that we have the ability to turn on the hive switch when necessary even if it might not be our default mode of behavior. Reading Haidt through 20th century art will hopefully expand upon this a bit, introducing a number of prospects that are worth grappling with. Perhaps the most tantalizing of these propositions is the possibility that modern art might serve a critical social purpose of honing our “bee instincts.”
While we typically think of works of art as the product of a single individual, often an isolated “genius” who is alienated from the mainstream culture, much of 20th century art presents a very different model. The poster child for this revision is Allan Kaprow, a postwar artist who devised a mode of artistic production that he called “happenings.” The motivations behind happenings were multiple. They were intended to take art out of the museum and interject it into everyday life, but most importantly for our purposes, they also sought to question the model of creativity which understands art as the product of a sole individual. In these “happenings,” participants would arrive at a given location where they would find a random selection of everyday materials. In most case, they were given only very vague instructions. The intent was that the event would take on a life of its own and expand in unpredictable ways. In the process, passive spectators would become active creators. Perhaps Kaprow’s most famous happening is Household (1964), a work in which participants were asked to lick jam off of the hood of a VW.
Needless to say, this was a fairly controversial piece since it seemed to challenge many of our assumptions about art. There was no object to be bought, sold, collected or displayed in a museum. Even more problematic was the fact that the artist seemed to have little control or ownership of the work. Instead, the work of art was a fleeting moment in time in which individuals joined with one another to create or experience something out of the ordinary.
My question to you is how might this relate to Haidt’s notion of the hive theory? Can we see works such as this as cultivating a hive instinct? Does art typically engage us through the chimp side of our nature? How does the experience of the museum address our dual nature?