LtQ: How do we make meaning, when there is no sense of the self?

Simon Ripley is an artist who is working with people with Alzheimer’s and dementia at Franklyn Hospital, alongside one of our speakers Carrie Clarke. He writes:

Participatory work has begun to influence the direction of my own art work and I want to make this link more explicit – to focus on my response to illness and also patients’ responses to my work so that there is a spirit of collaboration and a two way process that goes beyond the straightforward delivery of art workshops.  I want this project to focus on understanding the processes of making art and to go beyond the ‘therapeutic’ benefits. I want to make art as the primary focus rather than art being a vehicle for well being. I want to see the person, not the disability and explore the possibility that the creative act exists outside memory. From the work I have already seen, I have witnessed making art as a process of communication ‘in the moment’ which is not dependent upon remembered artistic experience or ability or even upon past personality. Alzheimer’s enables a person to step out of these limitations and to be creative in a way that perhaps they never were before the disease. For me, working in an abstract way in my own work, this idea of making art independent of identity is very liberating. In abstract art for example, how do we make meaning, when there is no sense of the self?

You can follow the development of this project in his blog.


Living the Questions: Who ate all the pie?

If you are expecting reflections on football chants aimed at over-indulgent players, do stay and read on.

In 2010, Dan Ariely and Michael Norton asked thousands of people in the US for their views on the distribution of wealth, from top to bottom. The vast majority imagined a far more equal nation than is actually the case. Dividing the population into five quintiles, the 20% wealthiest in the top quintile down to the 20% poorest in the bottom quintile, what percentage of the total wealth pie do you think the bottom 40% (two quintiles) and the top 20% have? The average guess was about 9% for the bottom and 59% for the buy valium and xanax top. The actual numbers were 0.3% and 84%.

In The Price of Inequality, published last summer, Joseph Stiglitz stacks up the evidence for growing inequality of US wages, total income and wealth, and the sharp acceleration during the Great Recession, since 2008. The bottom and middle are now worse off than in 2000, while income growth has been primarily at the top 1%.

He also, importantly, busts the great American myth of equality of opportunity (related to both income mobility and lifetime earnings), often used somehow to justify inequality.

Market forces have shaped inequality; government policies have shaped those market forces (much of the inequality that exists is the result of government policy); and the 1% have used their power to shape policy to their own ends. The wealthy often do not so much create wealth as take wealth away from others through rent-seeking – not just in the US. Recall, for example, HMRC’s waiver of Vodafone’s potential £7-billion tax bill.

The US, UK and other widely unequal countries are paying a high price for this inequality.

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, in 2010’s The Spirit Level, presented compelling evidence that more unequal countries have lower life expectancy and higher levels of violence, illiteracy and mental illness than more equal countries, and that more unequal societies are worse for everyone in them, including the well-off.

Stiglitz argues that their economies are inefficient in their use of resources, and are neither stable nor sustainable in the long term. The US is staring into the abyss of a breakdown in social cohesion and trust. Democracy itself is in peril, warped, as it has been, from one person, one vote, into one dollar, one vote.

Yet, despite everything, through its ownership of the media, the 1% has largely succeeded in shaping public perception in the US, and convinced the 99% that they are all in it together. Maybe they have been less successful in the UK, but there is still a long way to go politically.

Britain became more equal during the World Wars, as the Government saw that making people feel they were sharing the burden was a way to gain popular support for the war effort. During the mid-1980s and early ’90s, inequality grew rapidly, almost certainly reflecting the neo-liberal economic policies of the Thatcher and Major Governments. The gap narrowed slightly during New Labour, but the Coalition’s tax and expenditure policies are widening it again.

Wilkinson and Pickett make the point that it would not take a revolution to reduce income inequality. All the data in The Spirit Level come from rich developed market democracies, and their analysis is only of the differences between them.

But a transformation is still required, and they outline two direct ways of reducing income inequality: first, reduce differences in pay before tax (as happens in Japan) – for example, by minimum-pay policies, strong trade unions, employee representation on boards, and through a public ethic intolerant of the bonus culture; and, second, redistribution by taxes and benefits (as happens in Sweden, that notorious – in the US – socialist state), not least through more stringent action to prevent tax-avoidance.

Ariely and Norton also asked their US respondents to describe their ideal distribution of wealth. Here’s an image of all three sets of numbers.* The ideal is not far off the distribution in – Sweden.

Other government policies can have indirect influence, including education policies and the management of the national economy. There is a huge volume of evidence available to policy-makers, which they need to filter. The danger is that some evidence is played down, in order to avoid challenging the status quo. The gift of The Price of Inequality and The Spirit Level is to enable concentration on one area: reduce inequality, and see substantial improvements in economic efficiency, stability and sustainability, murder rates, mental illness, obesity, imprisonment, teenage births, and levels of trust. Moreover, more equal countries are more generous to developing countries.

We could evaluate all government policy in terms of the question: what effect would this policy have on income equality? This question would act as a common cause, and bring clarity to the engagement. As policy is so complex, often the indirect effects on inequality are not obvious. It is important, therefore, to enlist experts in each field and discuss, listen, and learn. But even without all the answers, we can still put the equality question to our representatives and policy-makers, and ask them to ensure that the aim of reducing income inequality underpins all policy discussions.

So, Iain Duncan Smith, what effect would changing the way in which child poverty is measured have on income equality? George Osborne, what effect will your next budget have on income equality? And, Barack Obama and your bicameral Congress, what effect will you all together have on income equality?

Oh, and we’re looking forward to welcoming Stewart Wallis from the New Economics Foundation and Tom Crompton from Common Cause to TEDxExeter 2013, and to hearing what they have to say about economics and values.


* I know, it’s not a pie, but it tells a clearer story than the pies in the Ariely article. Maybe I should have titled this post: Who ate all the (chocolate) bar?


LtQ: Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

D’où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous – asked Paul Gauguin in the yellow splash at the top left of this painting from 1897.

There are no questionmarks; they are added in the English translation (the title of this post). In this it reminds me of Bruce Chatwin’s final book, titled “What Am I Doing Here”. The lack of a questionmark led some to think Chatwin was intending to tell the buy ultram legally meaning of it all, or perhaps it was a typographical error. In fact, it was a decision arising from the cover design. But although the narratives within the covers shared Chatwin’s passion for living investigation, they never explicitly tackled the ‘question’ at all.

Gauguin’s painting is now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which says: “In 1891, Gauguin left France for Tahiti, seeking in the South Seas a society that was simpler and more elemental than that of his homeland. In Tahiti, he created paintings that express a highly personal mythology. He considered this work—created in 1897, at a time of great personal crisis—to be his masterpiece and the summation of his ideas. Gauguin’s letters suggest that the fresco-like painting should be read from right to left, beginning with the sleeping infant. He describes the various figures as pondering the questions of human existence given in the title; the blue idol represents ‘the Beyond.’ The old woman at the far left, ‘close to death,’ accepts her fate with resignation.”

Through the symbolism in the painting, Gauguin invites the viewer in to contemplate the meaning of life. But perhaps our conclusions would differ from his. In a letter, he wrote of the painting: “I believe that this canvas not only surpasses all my preceding ones, but that I shall never do anything better—or even like it”, and after completing it, he felt so convinced that the rest of his life would be unsuccessful that he attempted suicide, unsuccessfully. Yet the answer to his second question What are we? (similar to my first question Who am I?) has to be more than a sum total of our successes or failures. And in the end, “Living the questions” does involve living.