Saturday, July 14, 2012

Fakes, forgeries and fun

It seems that we humans enjoy the real thing much, much more than a fake. We can adore a "unique" painting for decades until we discover the forgery, and then despise the object and ourselves for the deception. 

Paul Bloom, psychologist, and author of How Pleasure Works, studies how babies make moral decisions at his Mind and Development Lab a Yale. He explains to a TED audience that pleasure comes with strings attached. We don’t just enjoy a work of art, or a morsel of food, or appreciate objects, simply because of what they are. We enjoy them for their history or source. Where did the artifacts come from? How were they treated, processed or produced? Who owned them or used them, perhaps someone famous or infamous.

We value objects highly for the bragging rights, a link to a famous person, its exclusivity or uniqueness. But we also seem to prefer objects which fit our preconceived ideas about norms, appropriate or correct behavior and its pedigree.

It seems that Herman Goering was furious to learn during testimony at his War Crimes trial that a prized painting he pilfered was a fake. A famous violinist earned a mere $20 during a busking experiment, mostly from passers-by who took pity on him. And the paintings of a three-year old child prodigy painter were regarded less highly after her father admitted coaching the child.

We shun the carpet made by child labor. Or choose free range over battery fed eggs. Or fish that grow wild in preference to those farmed, as long as the fish are not endangered. We prefer wines from expensive bottles, and delectable delights from Two Michelin Hat restaurants rather than MacDonald’s. Or music from 50-year old Madonna instead of a 15-year old unknown.

We even get pleasure from the pain we enjoy, like the dangers we endure or the unusual tastes in food we eat, especially if we live to tell our stories - stories that give meaning to our lives.

So here are some questions to explore our biases around many of life's little pleasures?

1. What is pleasurable for you? What do you really appreciate or enjoy?
2. How much would you pay for Marilyn Monroe's bra or George Clooney's sweater?
3. Why would you be prepared to pay so much money for a "famous" bra or sweater?
4. How would you feel later on if you discovered the bra or the sweater was a fake?
5. You are presented with two choices. You are told one dish was produced in a five star kitchen, and the other at McDonalds, which are you likely to choose and why?
6. You are told one dish is dog and the other beef or lamb? Which do you eat and why?
7. Give an example of a time when you drank wine, ate food or experienced a work of art, which was not what you thought it to be? How did you feel?
8. Why might wine taste better from an expensive bottle? How would you know the difference between a good wine and a lesser wine?
9. What is it about knowing a person died or was killed in a house that makes us want to avoid buying that house and choose another?
10. What difference might sex make to you if the person you are sleeping with turns out to be much younger or older than you thought they were?
11. Why might the shoe thrown at George Bush during a press conference, or bubble gum chewed by Britney Spears or John F. Kennedy's golf clubs be worth more than common garden variety shoe, bubble gum or clubs?
12. Give an example of a loved object from your childhood that is immensely valuable to you because of the memories and associations?
13. Why is the value of an artwork bound up in its history and the "assumptions about the human performance underlying its creation"?
14. In what ways is the experience of a forgery different from the experience of an original work?
15. Why might the work of Marla Olmstead age three be considered more valuable when we thought she did it all on her own, than when we discovered her father was coaching her?
16. In what way is it the experience of an artistic performance different, if you know in advance, the identity of the performer? e.g. the famous violinist Joshua Bell playing his $1 million violin in the subway or at a black tie affair at the Library of Congress?
17. What's the difference between a listening to a performer play John Cage's "4'33" of silence, or just listening to silence? In what ways does how we think about it change the experience?
18. If it hurts more because you believe someone is harming you on purpose, how do you now view self-harm?
19. Give an example of how low level pain, under the right circumstances, can be transformed into pleasure, i.e. made a "heaven of hell" (Milton)? e.g eating red hot chili or riding a roller coaster.
20. Thinking about what we have learned from each other today, write down a list of four of five observations about the principles of human experience of pleasure and how it is colored by its history or source.