What We Want

Hands up, who’d like to own a painting by the legendary Pablo Picasso?

It looks like a lot of you—including some very wealthy people. Very wealthy people. In fact, some of Picasso’s works are among the top ten most expensive paintings ever sold at auction, jostling around up there with the likes of Cezanne’s, Gauguine’s and de Kooning’s for first place. Last year, in 2015, Les Femmes d’Alger (“Version O”) (pictured above) sold for a staggering $179.4 million1.

But nobody would have spent those sorts of sums on a Picasso painting before 1881. Nobody even wanted a Picasso painting back then. And it’s not surprising—the very idea is a nonsense because no such paintings existed. Picasso hadn’t even been born yet. I’m stating an obvious fact but it’s all too easy for us to overlook an important implication of it: our intentions are contingent on external factors. That internal world of dreaming, desiring and goal-setting that seems so personal to us is determined, at least in part, by the outside world of ‘things’. In order for someone to develop the intention to spend millions of dollars on a Picasso painting, that painting first has to exist out there in the world and then it has to act on that person’s mind.

So here’s the point: we don’t call all the shots. The notion of having complete control over one’s decision-making—generating intentions independently before acting upon them—is wrong. Perhaps this, too, seems obvious when we think about it, but the very way humankind has come to relate to the world in general seems to betray a false sense of control that has its roots in Cartesian thinking. (Cartesian Dualism2 is the idea that the world is split down the centre into pairs of opposites, such as human subjectivity versus the objectivity of the natural world). It’s subtly engrained in the way we think and embodied in the language we use.

Michael Pollan, author of ‘The Botany of Desire’, is interested in how this way of thinking has come to inform our relationship with ‘nature’ and particularly our approach to agriculture. In his TED talk, A Plant’s-eye View, Pollan speaks of our sense of being “sovereign subjects in nature… [as] nothing more than a self-serving conceit” and he gives a fascinating account of how his own perspective shifted whilst gardening one day…

Jean-Francois Millet, The Angelus (originally Prayer for the Potato Crop), 1857-59 (Musee d’Orsay)

The co-evolution of Michael Pollan

There he was planting potatoes when he noticed a nearby apple tree buzzing with bees and he got to thinking about what he and one of those bees had in common. Two main things came to mind: Firstly, both he and the bee were disseminating the genes of one species and not another; and secondly, both of them (probably) thought they were calling the shots. Pollan had decided what kind of potato he wanted, he had ordered the seeds, weeded the soil and was planting them. Similarly, the bee had decided it was going to go to that apple tree, land on that blossom, get the nectar and then leave. Thanks to Darwin’s insights, though, Pollan was aware that that bee was in fact manipulated by that flower, in the sense that the flower had evolved a specific set of traits that attracted the bee—its scent, colour, flavour, etc.—in order to get the bee to pick up pollen and spread the apple tree’s genes. But then Pollan turned back to his own activity and became conscious that he himself was caught up in the very same dynamics, only it was with a potato. Despite Darwin’s insights, he had, until then, overlooked the fact that that potato had seduced him into choosing its seeds, creating a habitat for them and thereby spreading the potato’s genes.

The idea of co-evolution that sits at the heart of Pollan’s thinking resonates with Andrew Pickering’s concept of the ‘mangle of practice’3 that I discussed in my last post. Although Pollan’s example might seem, misleadingly, to suggest that the flower and the potato are in fact secretly in control, this is only done to illustrate the fact that the bee and the human are not in control—not, at least, in complete control. They are decentered. No one is in fact stood in the middle directing everything; the agents are all joined together in an improvised dance, making it up as they go along, each one taking turns to alternately follow and lead. And intentions are no less a dance partner than any of the others—they, too, are in the mix.

Before proceeding, I must quickly note that this means agency needs to be defined differently from how we are inclined to think of it, which is usually in terms of human intention or will. Although it might seem as though agency—and thereby control—is being shifted entirely into flowers and potatoes in Pollan’s example or into inanimate objects when we talk about ‘material agency’, this way of speaking is simply intended to shift the focus off of humans in order to relocate agency elsewhere. That of course begs the question, “Where is ‘elsewhere’?” The argument is that agency is not an inherent quality of anything, be it human, plant, material, or whatever; rather, it is relational. It is an emergent4 property of the interaction between humans, plants, materials, etc. In line with this understanding, Sarah Whatmore defines agency as a “relational achievement, involving the creative presence of organic beings, technological devices and discursive codes” (1999, 29).

Getting back to the subject of intentions though, in Lambros Malafouris’ analysis of material agency, ‘At the Potter’s Wheel: An Argument for Material Agency’, he refers to the matrix of other (f)actors in which intentions are embedded as ‘the Background’ (borrowing and modifying John Searle’s term5). According to Malafouris, “The world of things elicits and actualises intentionality according to the ‘situational affordances’ (Gibson 1979; Knappett 2004, 2005) of a given context of engagement” (2008, 33). To put it more crudely, people don’t necessarily know what they want until they’re presented with it.

Malcolm Gladwell, author of ‘What the Dog Saw’ (and perhaps more famously, ‘The Tipping Point’), offers a powerful example of this in his story about what turned out to be a pivotal moment in the history of the food industry. You can listen to Gladwell recounting the full story in his TED talk, Choice, Happiness and Spaghetti Sauce. But to put it in a nutshell…

The democratisation of spaghetti sauce

The psychophysicist Howard Moskowitz made the discovery in the early 1980’s that the food industry had been working on the wrong assumption. They had believed that in order to find out what people want, the best way was to sit them down and ask them. They would have focus groups. Then, the food company would use the answers to augment their efforts to create the ‘Platonically ideal’ recipe for, say, spaghetti sauce. Moskowitz, however, came along and said, “No, you’ve got it all wrong!” He claimed there is no perfect spaghetti sauce, only perfect spaghetti sauces. When they ran an experiment by cooking up a variety of different spaghetti sauces, getting lots of people to taste and rate those sauces, and then plotting the results on a graph, the data that came back was a mess. There was no bell-shaped curve with a happy median indicating the ideal sauce; the data points were scattered all over the place. But this was no surprise to Moskowitz. He recognised that the data actually tended to cluster around particular qualities. It turned out that there were three main groups of people in America (which is where the experiment was carried out): those who liked their sauce to be plain, those who liked it to be spicy, and those who liked it extra chunky. Significantly though, if you went to a supermarket in those days, you would not find extra chunky spaghetti sauce. Why? Because in all of the preceding years of focus groups, no one had ever said they wanted extra chunky sauce. In Moskowitz’s words, “The mind knows not what the tongue wants.” As a consequence of this change in perspective, when we go to the supermarket nowadays we’re spoiled for choice, with numerous different types of spaghetti sauce, a wide range of olive oils, all manner of mustards, and so on.

Moskowitz fundamentally democratised the way the food industry thinks about taste. No longer do they see spaghetti sauce as a hierarchy of good and bad sauces. Instead, they’ve come to see it as a horizontal plane on which there exist different kinds of sauce that appeal to different tastes—or, perhaps more accurately, through which different tastes find expression.

Speaking of democracy, an interesting art project was mentioned by Grayson Perry in one of his Reith Lectures, Playing to the Gallery: Democracy Has Bad Taste. It ties in nicely with Gladwell’s story about asking people what they want…


Vitaly Komar & Alexander Melamid, United States: Most Wanted Painting, 1994 (awp.diaart.org)

A ‘people’s art’

The Russian-born American artistic duo Komar and Melamid created their People’s Choice series by first conducting professional market surveys in a number of countries around the world. They aimed to look at aesthetic preferences in painting in order to discover what a true ‘people’s art’ would look like. As the two artists proceeded to create paintings in accordance with the survey results from each country, they began to notice a pattern emerging. Surprisingly, the ‘Most Wanted Paintings’ for all the different countries were strikingly similar. Everyone seemed to want the same thing: a predominantly blue landscape with a few figures in the foreground. Komar and Melamid said, “In looking for freedom, we found slavery.”

Although a wry sense of humour underlies their work, Komar and Melamid voice concerns about the kind of monoculture that might be produced by a society governed by opinion polls. Grayson Perry says he finds it depressing. And it would indeed be a sorry state of affairs if we made art by opinion poll, but we don’t. That’s what us artists are here for: we run with our imagination, we experiment, we make mistakes, and in the end we present to the world an array of new and different artworks for people to come into contact with and discover what they want, generate desires, form intentions—‘find themselves’. It’s a food for the soul, and there are many different flavours to suit (and shape) many different tastes.

(Hero image: Pablo Picasso, Les Femmes d’Alger (Version O), 1955, www.christies.com)



  1. Further details on Christies.com
  2. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Dualism
  3. The idea, posited by Andrew Pickering, that emergent human and material agency is reciprocally engaged by means of a dialectic of resistance and accommodation—a ‘dance of agency’—as described in his book The Mangle of Practice: Time Agency and Science (see below in Further Reading)
  4. Emergent phenomena can arise from the interaction between a number of simple entities/agents, forming a more complex outcome that is irreducible to the sum of its constituent parts. Put another way, it is when the whole is other than the sum of its parts. You can read more about emergent properties in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  5. John Searle defines ‘the Background’ as ‘‘a set of non-representational mental capacities that enable all representing to take place’’ (1983, 143)


Further reading

Michael Pollan

Amazon: ‘The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-eye View of the World’, 2002

Pollan’s website: http://michaelpollan.com

Andrew Pickering

Amazon: ‘The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency and Science’, 1995

Wikipedia: Pickering

Sarah Whatmore

Amazon: ‘Hybrid Geographies: Natures Cultures Spaces’, 2002

Wikipedia: Whatmore

Lambros Malafouris

PDF: ‘At the Potter’s Wheel: An Argument for Material Agency’, 2008 (Chapter 2 from Carl Knappett & Lambros Malafouris, ‘Material Agency: Towards a Non-Anthropocentric Approach’, 2008 (Amazon.co.uk)

Keble College website: Lambros Malafouris

John Searle

Amazon: ‘Intentionality: An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind’, 1983

Encyclopaedia Britannica: John Searle

Malcolm Gladwell

Amazon: ‘What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures’, 2010

Amazon: ‘The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference’, 2002

Gladwell’s website: http://gladwell.com



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