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?

19 thoughts on “The Hive Switch and Collectivity in the Arts

  1. Kaylie Leite says:

    As a person who appreciates art myself, I can see why the Household piece was controversial. The older ways of creating art were not used in this particular scenario, and involved not only one person but a bunch of people. Our stereotypes of artists make us think of people who are completely different from the crowd, and who show their individual personalities by creating different pieces for us to look at. Household certainly does invoke our hivish instincts upon viewing it, and was certainly not created by just one person. It goes against the stereotype completely.

    While I do agree that creating something yourself can be a rewarding experience because of our chimpish nature, I also think that creating something with other people can be rewarding too. Because of how vast it is, the internet has allowed us to interact with people from all over the globe without having to leave our houses. One of the many websites that I frequently visit is DeviantArt, a place for all kinds of different artists to share their works with one another, receive feedback, and do a bunch of other things. I have seen many people do “collabs” with one another, or work together to create a final image that they both contributed to. One person may have provided the line art while the other may have colored it. Regardless of what person does what, both people helped to create a single piece that can then be viewed by others.

    While doing things like this does go against what many believe, I still think that it can still be considered art because of the intent of each person who worked on the piece. As I see it, I don’t think many artists create something just for putting it in a museum. They more often create for themselves, and in the process others manage to see what they are doing and form their own opinions about it, which then makes museums want to have the work displayed. What may have originally been chimpish in nature (an artist working by themselves) could become hivish (people reacting to the work). It can be particularly hivish if a group of people is viewing a piece at the same time.

  2. tstubblefield says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful response, Kaylie. You point out the myriad of ways in which the audience of a work of art does exhibit Haidt’s “hivish” qualities. While Kaprow’s happening may be an extreme example, art historians have in the last several decades begun to look at all creative output as, to some extent, communal and not solely the product of a singular individual “genius” as is typically assumed.

    • Ashley Soares says:

      I agree exactly with what Kaylie pointed out. Especially when she stated, “I don’t think many artists create something just for putting it in a museum. They more often create for themselves, and in the process others manage to see what they are doing and form their own opinions about it, which then makes museums want to have the work displayed.” I agree with the point she made because many artists do not express themselves to see their work on a wall. They do it with intentions of having people understand what others might not and seeing something that is bigger than just the work of art that is portrayed.

  3. Paige Teves says:

    Alan Kaprow’s “happenings” are great examples of Haidt’s theory that people are “conditional hive creatures.” When you think of someone who is an artist you tend to think of a single somebody who creates a work of art. Whether the artists intentions are to create a piece of work for their own pleasure, or to compete with other artists’ abilities, they still tend to be in touch with their “chimp” nature. Kaprow’s “happenings” show that artists are able to work together to create something bigger and more complex than what a solo artist could do. If one person can create a beautiful, mind blowing masterpiece, imagine what multiple people could come up with together.

    The museum experience exhibits Haidt’s dual nature theory perfectly. When you go to a museum you are there to see individual artists’ works of art. As you form your own opinion about the artwork, others are as well. Sharing opinions about the meaning of each work is our hivish nature coming out. As we listen to other’s opinions and share ours, the opinions may alter and come together to form a new idea.

  4. Syed Adel Ali says:

    Yes, I believe that Kaprow’s “Household” can effectively flip the hive switch. The content of his and his friends’ work is explicit in portraying hive nature, in that a group of people essentially sway into spontaneity, where the most blatant consequence is that of licking jam off a Volkswagen (If that’s what VW stood for). The absurdity, or rather unconventionality of this art, is clearly a symbol of the artists losing themselves into the group and acting in ecstatic unison.

    As for the second question, I think if one’s dispositions allow for Kaprow’s version of art, or of the same type, then they can cultivate a hive instinct through that medium. Of course, if I was in that situation as a spectator, I would be put tremendously further into isolation, rather than be enticed to join the group. This is simply because, personally, I have no availability for the qualities intrinsic in Karpow’s art. But, instead, I would be susceptible to the hive nature that proceeds with watching basketball games.

    Before I speak of art, it should be known that I know very little about it. Of what I do know, however, one’s response to a piece of art is dramatically guided by emotion, and not reason. After all, implying that there are no innuendos hidden within the work, one’s response to art is based on the sensation the art invites in an individual. So, I wouldn’t necessarily consider it chimp nature, because there is no selfishness founding a response to art. In other words, the perception elicited by imagery (I assume only this type of art) is not due to a selfish desire to succeed socially, or any other characteristic paralleling a chimpanzee’s social nature. One’s perception of art is more base; a purely subjective and private impression.

  5. Rachel Rodrigues says:

    While some artists create art solely for their own self expression, I feel that many, such as Kaprow do so in order to reach others. His concepts such as “Household” are most certainly unusual and therefore can evoke responses from any viewer no matter what their background is. The scenario may seem odd, but the unity that develops among the participants is undeniable. While they may be individuals coming into this situation, they are driven to become something larger than themselves. As expressed in Haidt’s theory, they are serving each other and completing the strange task together in the same way bees maintain their hives.
    Even responses from viewers of art tend to be hivish. While individuals may possess different opinions, they are able to come together as a group to analyze unconventional art such as Kaprow’s. Typically one does not possess selfish reasoning behind viewing art and since others are pondering the same topic, it is as though they again share a common goal and mindset even if their interpretations differ. Even if an artist or an art appreciator seek out art for their own emotional growth, it seems to be a unifying experience, since many people are coming together to contemplate a single piece.

  6. Molly Frackleton says:

    I think that the purpose of that piece was to get the everyday individual to use their more creative side of their mind and think about everyday objects in a way that they wouldn’t normally think about them. Honestly I think that this piece of artwork was very clever that anyone at any given time could make this what they wanted and each time it was seen it would be interpreted at something different. This piece of art really helped to being out the “bee” in people to work together but at separate times to make this piece something different from something else they’ve seen. It also brings out the “chimp” in people because they might compete with others to try and out do one another with what they have created. This was one of my favorite comparisons of the whole story and it had me most interested.

  7. Quinn Harris says:

    I have been involved with art since I was in middle school and I can easily say that art does have a strong connection to our hive mind. My interest in art has brought me closer to a lot of people and has even helped me establish friendships. Back in middle school I had a small group of friends who spent their free time drawing up their own comic books. Eventually I started creating them myself and over time my friends and I created them together. This experience brought me closer with them and even though those comics were mostly doodles with action and jokes in them it was a form of art that we all enjoyed. Basically art made me social and work with others to form a creative team. So I can strongly understand how art can activate a person’s hive switch because I experienced it myself.

  8. Austin Taylor says:

    I believe that Allan Kaprow’s “happenings” can be directly related to Haidt’s notion of the hive theory. I support every point that Kaylie Leite made. The orthodox/traditional way of art is an individual working by their self to make a work of ark (90% chimp like behavior). Then groups of people come together and admire/react to the work as one (10% bee, hivish behavior). Kaprow’s happenings allows people to work together (like a community) to achieve a common goal. This makes one rely on each other, working as part of a whole, working collectively (10% bee behavior). It also keeps the facet of groups of people coming together to admire the work of art.

    I consider that art typically engages us through our bee side of our nature, through communities/groups admiring works (reflecting/admiring). One could argue that the traditional way of creating art (the process, as in an individual working alone) is on our chimp side. Kaprow’s happenings reflect our hivish behaviors as a whole. As Kaylie Leite pointed out, these happenings were controversial. Kaprow’s happenings went against the conventional way, and we all know, people tend not to like new methods that go against the norms.

    The main idea that intrigued me in “The Hive Switch and Collectivity in the Arts” blog was “there was no object to be bought, sold, collected or displayed in a museum”. I thought this was especially interesting. Is it because people engaged in the “happenings” simply to bring people together, for a common goal, for the “sense of shared fate” (284), sharing their moral matrix? We could say happenings already triggered the teams hivish behavior during the making of the art. Museums were not needed, individuals joined with one another in the group, to create and experience something out of the ordinary (through the process, not just through reflecting.

  9. Andrew Gonsalves says:

    I too have experienced the hive mind through art via my high school band experience. I have been involved in my high schools marching band for six years playing many various percussion instruments. Through those six years I had played with so many different people who shared my love of music. All of the students and instructors working together to be the best that we could be when we went to competitions. The individual or chimp being responsible for learning their own part of the music and the bee, putting the music together into one show with us all showing our passion for the music while we perform. We all had our individual parts to master but eventually we came together every year as one band and one sound, as a hive.

    • A light bulb went up in my head as soon as I read Andrew’s comment. For whatever reason, I saw the idea of sharing a musical experience with a group very differently from the example of Kaprow’s art. I can relate now to people coming together over art and making something beautiful, because the chamber choir at my high school gave me the same experience. It’s amazing how an individual’s hard work and passion can be put together with others to make something, in my experiences, life changing.

  10. Jared Tyndall says:

    The hive switch is real! Ever since I started getting into music when I was eight years old, I realized that there is something special about music, how it feels when it hits you, whether you’re playing the instrument or just listening, music has its ways of bringing people together. The “hive switch” theory has never been addressed to me directly but now it all makes sense. Humans live most of their lives in the ordinary world, but the moments of greatest joy are achieved when we are participating in group activities, as Haidt argues. I also enjoyed reading about the ancient methods people would use to flip the hive switch, like consuming hallucinogenic mushrooms (psilocybin) and other psychadellic drugs like DMT. These drugs would take its users from the profane world into the profound within thirty minutes. The purpose of these drugs are to diminish any self-conscious thoughts and make it easier to express oneself and really become part of the group. The power of groupishness really is mindblowing.

  11. Maddison Roche says:

    As someone who is talentless, I haven’t created art but I have experienced and appreciated art in a hive like environment. Music is my favorite form of art, going to events such as concerts reminds me of a hive, people come together to enjoy their common interest in music. Or things like dance routines/flash-mobs the dancers work in sync separate people work together to be a whole. Music is a beautiful form of art, the way people can move together with the rhythms of music. Music is a great example of the hive mentality, people coming together to form a whole in a rhythmic form.

  12. Raquel Riley says:

    Allan Kaprow’s interactive art displays were interesting to read about. I did some research on his work and all of which was cultivating. The way he took an idea of his own yet sacrificed the final product up the the other people demonstrates Haidt’s hive theory. This out-of-the-box idea was new to the era of art, yet people still enjoyed the art piece itself. “Happiness comes from… getting the right relationships between yourself and others” (283). It is thought that art brings pleasure to both the creator and the viewers, and such enjoyment could not be done alone. For what is art, if there is no one to see it and enjoy it. I believe the gathering to see art, or even listen to art, whether it is at a museum or in a town’s park, the hive instinct in prominent in everyone involved. They work together to “achieve our greatest joys in those brief moments of transit to the sacred world, in which we become “simply a part of a whole”” (283).

  13. Alex Sullivan says:

    After finishing the book and looking back over what I read, I feel that this section was the most relevant. I agree that there is a switch in our brain that brings out out hivish potential; whether it be part if 9/11, rowing, or my own basketball career. All are different instances when we come together as a whole. We may come together due to crisis, or just the realization that there can be more success when we unite with others striving for the same goal. In this example I feel that morals are irrelevant and we don’t take them into account because we are all focused on the success of that group. So as Haidt wanted we are not divided by out morals, rather joined together as one conquering a common interest.

  14. Robert Naidoo says:

    I feel as though art can be very rewarding both in a “chimp” way as well as a “hive” way. Many people create art whether for many reasons. Whether personal gain or hopes it will someday be in a museum and most commonly for a feeling of self-satisfaction. This feeling of self-satisfaction is what would be feeding our “chimp” side. Art can be used as a way to create amazing things by oneself and have a sense of pride in it while also making oneself feel better.

    However art can rewarding to our “hive” side. The first thought of when I saw this was of a project I participated in a few weeks ago. At a friends graduation party we had a job, we were given a large blank piece of ply wood. Everyone was to decorate it however they saw fit for a couple hours. While to many it may have looked disgusting (lets just say we certainly aren’t “artist”) we all felt great about what we had created as a group. We later cut it into pieces so everyone could take a part home so we could see the contributions both we ourselves made as well as those of everyone else there. This showed me how art can peak both our “chimp” side as well as our “hive” side

  15. Yessenia Motta says:

    I have never personally been introduced to the idea of the ‘hive’ switch until coming upon it in this book. I can say it does exist! I’ve been a runner ever since my freshmen year in high school. It’s an amazing how all the hard work that leaves you with sweat & tears makes you feel. When in a team, all that hard work really does bring you together because you all can relate to each other. It is such an incredible feeling being on a team because it really turns on the ‘hive’ switch, does anyone else agree with this?

  16. Ana Belliard says:

    Haidt does an excellent job explaining the notion of this metaphor and it’s key concepts. Bees are industrious flying insects. They work as a colony to improve and contribute to their community. Us as humans are more self-oriented and fail to work as a community to help everyone rather than ourselves. What Haidt fails to do is to see that the 90% of us which pertains to the selfish “chimp” in us is because we want to strive and reach our goals. Connecting this to college, the community we are in affects us greatly in a positive or negative manner, but we have to put intact and into focus our goals because the community is not going to earn a degree for us, we have to do that for ourselves. We are selfish because in order to see results we want we have to put in effort, not anyone else. So the 90 to 10 ratio is in-fact true.

  17. I agree that Kaprow’s modern art is an appropriate model of Haidt’s hive theory. In his example, people that may even be strangers come together to create a beautiful moment for everyone involved. Paintings, pictures, or poems can be seen in one way from the author’s perspective, and differently from the viewer/reader’s perspective. In my own experience, I find that people tend to take someone else’s art and try to see “what they can get out of it-” “What does this say to me, how can I relate this to my life?” I feel that this is showing the “90% chimp” side of humans interpreting art. The idea of going to a museum can make someone feel “cultured,” like they are part of a bigger social group if they go to exhibits. When people participate in such cultural events, their “10% bee” is expressed, because of socialization with a bigger community.

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