Art and Deviance

As we were learning about deviance, I often associated to 19th century French artists who mad efforts to break the middle class norms – or to the contrary, tried hard to integrate and fit in.

There was, for one example, the poet Gérard de Nerval who often walked in the parks of Paris leading his pet lobster on a blue ribbon. Of course he was getting surprised looks from the passers-by: walking a lobster instead of a dog? When pressed for an explanation, the poet just asked back with a false naive attitude: why, what is the difference? A lobster at least doesn’t bark.

While this is an example of violating a folkway in a rather harmless way, other artists in the second half of the 19th century went farther in provocating the public. “You must shock the Bourgeois,” said the symbolist poet Charles Baudelaire. Shocking the middle class through mocking their values and violating their norms became the program of a group of writers referred to as the ‘decadents.’ Many of these poets were interested in the effects of drugs on the consciousness, launching themselves in experimentation, and even founding a ‘Club of Hashish-Eaters.’ (The above-mentioned Gérard de Nerval was a member, along with Victor Hugo and others.)

The theme of drug-induced hallucinations appeared in art and poetry a lot. Also, many artists of the time were a fan of a green-colored alcoholic drink called absinthe, which was believed to be strongly mind-altering (although it probably wasn’t,  but it still became a symbol of decadence). Drinking absinthe, along with going to cabarets, made part of the ‘bohemian’ lifestyle the artists of the Montmartre were famous for. The term bohemian means gypsy-like, and suggests that these artists were standing apart from the mainstream society.

For an artist at the time, finding a respectable place in the contemporary society would have meant to either get large commissions, or to exhibit at the Salon. The latter was an official yearly art show, where the works accepted by a jury were shared with the public. Those artists who did not stick to the fashionable style of the time, but rather tried new ways of painting, had poor chance to get admitted to the Salon. Frustrated, the group of the ‘impressionist’ painters decided to give up trying, and to accept their separate standing, exhibiting their works in alternative ways. (One could associate here to what we have learned about possible reactions to an experience of anomie.)

An exception was Edouard Manet,  who was in fact a bourgeois in his heart, and never gave up trying to become an accepted Salon painter, even though he was regularly rejected – and many of his works were considered as scandalous. One of his masterpieces, The Luncheon on the Grass, was not accepted to the 1863 Salon, but was displayed at an independent art show. Even there, it created a big scandal. A nude woman sitting on the grass, next to two fully dressed men? This would have seemed acceptable to the public if there had been a mythological theme to justify the nudity, but there was none. The picture just represented a group of contemporary people having a picnic.

Culture and Academic Performance

Comparing and ranking nations on any basis is a sensitive issue, especially for those who don’t come out on the top.  PISA is an international comparison of students’ knowledge and skills in three major fields (reading, mathematics and science), published every three years.  Out of the 65 nations that participate, the U.S. comes out towards the middle of the list, behind many smaller nations (31st in math, 23rd in science.) The best performers are the students from Shanghai, China, clearly leading in all domains. Singapore and Finland are also on the top, so the attention gets focused on their education systems: what makes them perform so well?

Inside the U.S., we might also wonder about where all the inequality in academic performance comes from.  There is plenty of anecdotal (and also some statistical) evidence that students of Asian background tend to excel, and also that ‘inner city’ high schools tend to lag behind. We all might remember a provocative article (What Makes Chinese Mothers Superior?) by Amy Chua, who became famous a couple years ago as the ‘Tiger Mom.’ She argued that the better school performance of Asian students comes from different cultural values and practices, and starts in the family. The article became a hot spot on the internet, and attracted a record number of comments in the Wall Street Journal.

The PISA results show that some education systems perform better than others, and this is not only a question of finances. It is also possible that some cultures encourage and value high academic performance more than others. Where exactly the difference in academic performance comes from is a complex question, and cannot be answered just based on personal experiences, opinions and anecdotes.