Would you exchange a plain holiday for a memorable work of art?

Stefano Pirovano

Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman is an extraordinary source for art criticism. Here how his decision making theories may help art collecting.

We don’t know whether  Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winner (2002) and Princeton’s Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs, has any specific interest in art. Nevertheless chapter number 36 of his ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ may open a revolutionary perspective on the psychological reasons behind humans’ understanding of paintings, sculptures, rare books and, generally speaking, collectables objects of art. Or, better, it could explain why the information that a work of art may generate or draw to itself is so important for us. And, funny enough, as neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran started from the feeling of pleasure to define his seminal primitive figurals, that is to say the visual pattern producing a positive response in our brain, also Daniel Kahneman, following philosopher Jeremy Bentham, takes pleasure and pain as starting points of his book’s last part, which is mainly dedicated to the role played by memories in our decision making process.

According to Kahneman “a story is about significant events and memorable moments, not about time passing”. This simple but fundamental statement is released in the chapter titled “Life as history”. Here he describes what he calls our “remembering self”, which is a specific human function designed to compose stories and keep them for future reference. Our brain keeps track of emotions’ peak related to “significant events” and “memorable moments”, but tends to “neglect” what is between a peak and another.

Among the examples that Daniel Kahneman uses to explain this theory, that called “amnesic vacation” is highly interesting for us. The author question goes as follow: “do you prefer to enjoy a relaxing week at the familiar beach to which you went last year or do you hope to enrich your store of memories?”. The majority would go for the second option, and the global idea of tourism is a main effect of this natural human bent. Someone may argue that relaxing at the familiar beach does not exclude that you may also enrich your store of memories, for instance by sharing your week off at the beach with a good friend. Nevertheless the point here is that we are always keen to “enrich” our store of memories, as the worldwide success of Instagram clearly proves. And sometimes we are so keen about it that, as Kahneman writes, “the photographer does not view the scene as a moment to be savored but as a future memory to be designed”. On the contrary, he points out, the elimination of memories greatly reduces the value of the experience.

As it’s well known, collectable items such as artworks could be regarded as powerful accumulators of memories, which are not only related to the work itself but also to the artist who made it, to the collector, or to the agency who has commissioned the work. Almost any distinguished art writer at some point in his career wrote about this fundamental matter, but as far as we know no thinker has given scientific evidence of how we respond to it yet, or has put it into a psychological frame. Decision-making is clearly also at the very basis of the art world – and we are among those who think that the life of an artwork kicks off when someone asks for its price. According to Daniel Kahneman we look for memorable experience more than anything else, and we are not afraid if they may be painful. It’s in fact what he calls the “remembering self” who chose our holidays, even if the “experiencing self” would suggest not to take risks and remain within our comfort zone. Hence artwork could be a substitute for the pictures we would take while trekking in a jungle, or driving a motorbike on a mountain road in India. We buy these experiences in order to keep references that we think will be useful in the future, experiences that will shape our personality and write our personal story. But it’s our responsibility to turn them also into good investments.

August 11, 2017