Why do we still think in terms of us and them?
Art is a lie
that makes us realize truth
at least the truth
that is given us to understand.
Intense violence is something we thought we left behind as humanity. Additionally it fuels extreme polarization of our society. Is this just part of our nature, something we can’t escape or can we do something about it? Can art help us in finding solutions?
We tend to think that we evolved as humanity but the world still offers us multiple pitfalls that we cannot easily avoid. Humanity often ends up polarizing things due to a combination of complex psychological, social, and political factors. There are some key reasons behind the tendency to polarize.
Simplification and biases
It seems that not only computers but also most people think in binary terms. Also the dominant monotheistic religion makes it even worse, I would love to believe that the idea of monotheism was to unite different groups and to equalise peoples’ believes. But through the ages it evolved to a rather closed philosophical system. We are educated in binary concepts (like correct vs. incorrect; good vs. bad; etc…) ending up seeing the world narrow minded in black and white. Humans are inclined to categorize, identify, and form social groups. Because of the religious and cultural differences it can lead to even tenser polarization, in other words “in-group” versus “out-group” categorization with tendency to be more positive and accepting toward own group and negative for the outside world. The "us versus them" mentality makes it difficult to find common ground and promotes division.
When people cannot understand or relate to the experiences and perspectives of others, they are less likely to find agreement. It leads even further inability to empathise with those holding different views.
It is normal for people to search for patterns and explanations. When individuals feel uncertain or threatened, they may turn to more extreme or polarized positions as a way to find a sense of security or to simplify complex issues. The media at the same time has tendencies for sensations and thus selective reporting creates information bubbles where people are exposed primarily to like-minded views.
With the endless information clutter nowadays everyone knows the tendency to look for information that supports our believes and ignores everything else. It seems to be our inherent desire to validate our opinions and this bias can contribute to polarization excluding incompatible group.
What is the place of art?
Art has a long history of visual propaganda. Take for example Jheronimus Bosch who often presented groups of “good” and “bad” people or creatures in his paintings. Take for example Christ Carrying the Cross, where he expresses people around Jesus with extremely grotesque faces assuming them being bad.
We can find more examples through the history of art. Much later, El Lissitzky in more abstract way expressed the white-red confrontation in Russia. The work Beat the whites with the red wedge, 1919 was used a lot in the propaganda.
Contemporary eco-activism seems to be not different in their activities. Their main ideas tend to be a call for action creating abetter environmental future. However, they still polarize and urge in destroying established way of living without possibility of uniting different groups.
At the same time some artists chose a different perspective. For example Goya’s painting “The third of may, 1808” confronts us rather with the consequences of the polarization between the groups expressing different ideas.
There are also contemporary artists who tend to combine different aspects of the world. Take for example Laure Provost whose installations look rather chaotic and messy but invite the viewer to ask questions and explore the world. In certain way we start to differentiate perspective that can coexist.
While we are drawn everyday to a polarization state there is still hope for the future. Tolerance is already long time on our mind but in the best case it is only one small step forward. The only possibility is in the complete mutual co-acceptance of possible differences, embracing the transformation and diversity.
Art can be just an environment to play with the concepts that have to root in our mind to see the change.
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References and further reading:
Brewer, M. B. (1979). "In-group Bias in the Minimal Intergroup Situation: A Cognitive-Motivational Analysis." Psychological Bulletin, 86(2), 307-324.
Festinger, L. (1957). "A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance." Stanford University Press.
Nickerson, R. S. (1998). "Confirmation Bias: A Ubiquitous Phenomenon in Many Guises." Review of General Psychology, 2(2), 175-220.
Sunstein, C. R. (2017). "Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media." Princeton University Press.
Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). "An Integrative Theory of Intergroup Conflict." In W. G. Austin & S. Worchel (Eds.), The Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations (pp. 33-47). Brooks/Cole Publishing.