How fragile our egos can be (even for a successful university professor).

This is the fourth post relating to the Ernest Becker Legacy conference held at SFU in early October. However,this last post relates only tangentially to the conference and more to a situation that arose after the opening talk by Sheldon Solomon on Friday evening, October 2nd.

After Solomon’s talk there was time to mingle and have a glass of wine. There were a number of familiar faces in the crowd, some from my time as a student and instructor at SFU during the 1970s and early 80s, some from the Ernest Becker Foundation and some conference attendees were my former students or acquaintances. One couple that stood out for me was a long retired professor in the Sociology and Anthropology Department at SFU and his wife. I hadn’t seen him in ages, but I recognized him immediately. I’ll leave his name out of this because it’s irrelevant and I would not want to embarrass him in the slightest. I remember taking one of his course and found him to be a competent enough teacher. He produced a number of monographs and I expect his research was much more important to him than his teaching, but that’s pure speculation on my part. I certainly have the utmost respect for him.

In any case, we soon found ourselves chatting over a glass of wine. I doubt if he remembered me although he said he did. It’s true that I was in the department for many years as an undergrad then as a grad student so it’s possible he did remember me. In any case, this conference was about Becker and I expected he wanted to talk to me about Becker’s work at SFU or about his own work. He didn’t. In fact, he seemed anxious for someone to listen to his complaint about Becker, to hear his story of how nasty a character Becker really was. I found this astounding because this conference was really a Becker love-in and not essentially a critical venue with regard to Becker’s work. Why would this esteemed, highly regarded professor, with a good publishing record of his own, bother to come to a conference to listen to nice things being said about a person he loathed?

As he recalled the story, it turns out that in the early 1970s when Becker was still active doing research and what not, he was keen on having as much time as possible to engage in study and writing. He was interested in getting some relief from teaching. This professor to which I’ve been referring was in some kind of administrative position at the time and Becker approached him with his plan for a reduced teaching load. Apparently that meeting did not go well and Becker, according to this professor, was rude and belligerent, to the point where the professor’s ego was severely threatened. He took this perceived attack on his ego very personally.

The reason I bring this up is not to pass judgment on Becker or on the professor in question. It’s to point out how long a slight to the ego can affect us, how long we can carry it around and allow it to sour our thoughts. I’m talking about a period of at least 40 years between when this professor felt slighted by Becker and his recounting it to me (although any willing ear would have done) at a conference dedicated to Becker’s legacy as if it had all happened just last week. Why?

Well, for one explanation we can turn to Becker’s own work. In Escape from Evil, Becker makes it clear that any attack on our ego can mean that we fail to qualify for immortality, that somehow we are unworthy of eternal life. An attack on our individual egos or on our collective egos as embedded in our social and cultural institutions can result in diminishment and reduced qualification for the meaning in life we so desperately seek. This is not doing Becker’s argument justice, so I would suggest reading Becker yourself to get the full story if you wish.

However, the power of an attack on the ego can be devastating, as I think I illustrated here especially if it’s left unresolved. Furthermore, I don’t think that this situation is idiosyncratic. The kind of reaction I’ve illustrated here to being threatened resides deep in our unconscious minds and leaves us unsettled, cautious and wary, as individuals and as societies. In other posts on this blog I’ve addressed the issue of how we defend our egos by linguistic means, by the use of the indefinite ‘you’. I’ll be writing more about the ‘indefinite you’ again soon.

Fine art and all that: just another case of marketing and self-aggrandizement?

Fine art and all that: just another case of marketing and self-aggrandizement?


So, I’ve been an amateur artist for decades.  Because I had full time work teaching sociology at a community college, I couldn’t indulge my predilection for painting, drawing and other forms of artistic expression except during summer breaks, but even then only sporadically.  I did find the time to read art books though, both how-to books and books on art history and about individual artists especially the Renaissance greats, the Dutch and Flemish masters, the Spanish painters Goya and Valasquez, the Impressionists and German and Austrian Expressionists like Egon Schiele.  I’ve only been marginally interested in North American painters, printers and sculptors.  I do have a lot of respect for Rothko, Diebenkorn, O’Keeffe, Rivera, Kahlo, Moore, Henri, Close and some of the Canadian Group of Seven as well as Colville and the Pratts.  But I probably shouldn’t name drop.  It can quickly get undignified and there are too many  artists I would undoubtedly miss mentioning.


Whatever we can say about art, it’s as much about who the buyers are as who the producers are.  Otto Rank (in Truth and Reality) argues that art is the expression of a strong ego although he’s also quick to point out its superego dimensions. I think that social institutions (summarized by the term ‘superego’) not only drive artistic expression, but the buyers of ‘art,’ to a large extent, dictate content.  Virtually none of the great Renaissance artists did work for the sheer pleasure of it although there must have been an element of joy, accomplishment and personal satisfaction in the work.  They were more often than not commissioned and if they strayed at all from the vision that church leaders had, as Caravaggio did in a depiction of Saint Matthew[1], his work was rejected and he had to start over again with a work more in line with their ideas of how Saint Matthew should be portrayed. In other words, they were constrained by the superego.  Of course if artists didn’t get commissions they starved.  And who commissioned their work?  Well, it sure wasn’t the poor. 


In the Middle Ages and much of the Renaissance, the Church was the principle source of income for artists.  Some wealthy politicians and merchants were able to commission self-aggrandizing works, but it was mainly the Church that was interested in art.  Much of the artistic production of the great masters was designed to respond to the Church’s need to glorify God, the saints and other sundry notables.  When the city-states dominated Italy, the masters of those cities were able to spend their fortunes on paintings of themselves and their families as long as the artists were willing to portray them in very flattering ways, eliminating annoying blemishes and poorly curved noses and chins.  When the aristocrats and especially the monarchs of Europe eclipsed the Vatican’s power then the painters and sculptors produced the most lavish and spectacular marketing-type works.  David’s work is a great example of this.  His monumental works are political statements in their own right.  His The Coronation of Napoleon, which hangs in The Louvre, is a blatant glorification of political power.  David was Napoleon’s ‘official’ painter and neither men did things in a small way.  David was Napoleon’s marketing department. 


Real, significant changes in the content of paintings accompanied the rise of merchant capital in but not really until well past the Reformation when the shine went off the Protestant shunning of ostentation especially in Italy and Holland.  Then merchants had their portraits painted by the likes of Rembrandt, Vermeer and Hals.  Van Dyck was plugged into the aristocratic world and worked in England a great deal.  I’m not interested here in setting out a detailed or even general art history of the Western World.  I’m not at all qualified to do such a thing in the first place.  But I have studied history extensively, particularly political economy and that’s my perspective.


My point here is that artists and their patrons are caught up in a dance of power wherein the former want to freely express their egos while the latter want to shackle those very egos to their own superegos.  The world of art in Flanders and Holland was incredibly diverse and millions of paintings were produced in the late 17th and early 18th centuries in several genres.  However there was a conspicuous absence of ‘religious’ art during this period.  There was no market for it so none was produced.  There were great markets where paintings and art works were sold; they ended up in the hands of the burgeoning middle class to decorate their homes.


Now, the situation has been altered such that art supplies are easily purchased by millions of people and art training is everywhere.  There are thousands of YouTube videos on every aspect of art imaginable.  Millions upon millions of paintings and sculptures, sometimes quite good ones, flood local markets and the internet alike.  This is all ‘stuff.’  We seem to be producing more ‘stuff’ just for the sake of it, art works included.  Needless to say, I’ve left out whole areas of artistic expression here like the theatre and music but I’ll leave that for another day.  Suffice it to say that the same ideas I’m applying to visual art are also generally applicable to the performing arts.  There’s always been ‘high’ art and ‘folk’ art.  The former seems to get into the history books more easily. 


I’m vulnerable to a lot of fault-finding here, of course, because my sweep has been very general and I haven’t at all taken account of some of the very important transition periods in the history of art where tensions between artist and patron are intensified and artists search for new patrons.  I’m thinking here specifically of the mid to late 19th century and the advent of the Impressionists.  Most of them never really made a lot of money while they were alive.  Their egos overpowered the superego of the time and they were thus shunned for their self-aggrandizement and their lack of humility. 


I’ve set down a little over 1000 words here, barely an excursus into the subject but I think that there is a palpable tension around ‘art’ now that needs to be explored.  Some people have already explored the domain and have laid down some stones of understanding along the pathways therein, but as I like to produce ‘things’ like paintings and sculptures, I also want to explore the significance of that travel in writing.  I’m particularly interested in exploring the role of ego development within the context of a weakened ‘community.’ I’m thinking that with the hyper-individualism that plagues the world today we may end up producing ‘art’ for an audience of one, ourselves.  And so what if that happens?

[1] See the introduction of E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art, the Phaidon pocket edition.