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A Paradigm of the Human Condition, applied to Arts and Artists

by Dirk Baecker

A – Adaptation

Place, time, matter and technology are to be worked with and adapted to even if designed anew. At any time an art work is bound to be realised. Tino Sehgal’s art is proof of the matter. A word whispered into the ear of a visitor, which is his or her property alone and remains his or her property as long as he or she is not passing it along by whispering it to somebody else or else destroying it by voicing it aloud, is as much a materialised art work as anything else. Any art work has to touch reality to gain reality. This is true for frame and plane, for page and word, for stage and gesture, for canvas and cut, for the instrument, the sound and the pause. Artists are always also craftspeople, tinkerer, engineers. Wearing a work coat, sleeves rolled up, armed with safety glasses, a sharp ear and much sense for details they are entangled within a poetic practice.

G – Goal-attainment

Any photography of an artist in his or her atelier or of actors on their stage is showing individuals not necessarily enjoying themselves but certainly knowing what they do, step for step, even if the steps are tiny. If what they do and what they do next is not up to be welcomed as a goal to be attained or a step to be corrected in order to reach a different goal, which only now becomes imaginable, nothing happens. Artists are individuals bound by their organisms and brains in a way wanting to do what they do. They don’t have to like it. They don’t have to be convinced of it. Yet they have, in a way, to want it. In art and elsewhere human beings are involved whose orientation with action and situation is directed by their predictive coding of action and situation. They invest doubt, delay and diversion to change action, situation and themselves. Yet if there is nothing to be seen, to be imagined, to be wished for, to desire, they stop acting. They may stop thinking. They may stop knowing what they do. Yet if their body and brain don’t welcome what may come next, their work at least takes a pause if it not stops altogether.

I – Integration

It is an offense to any aesthetic perception of the world, yet there are other actions happening in the world before an art work sees the light of the day, while an art work is admiringly looked at and when an art work is already almost forgotten again. Production and reception of art works by their artists as well as by their publics are but events among an enormous variety of other events with the same or different partners in other domains of the social. That’s why arts and art works have to be integrated within their community and society. There are many ways to be integrated. Esteem is one, rejection is another, outright persecution and destruction a third one. There is no meaning of art and art works if not in relation to the meaning of other social activities, be they economic, political, legal, educational, erotic, religious or scientific. Most of those relations, happily enough, are relations of indifference or some sort of lackadaisical tolerance. Yet any of these relation can turn intrusive at any time. Add more contingent relations like those toward organisations wanting to buy, to fight, to avoid, to accept or to change art and art works or like human everyday behaviour choosing its way in situations of most different kinds (linking art works in the Internet, attacking art works in museums or on streets, throwing rotten tomatoes and addled eggs onto stages of unpopular plays) and one gets of feeling of the complexity of social surroundings any art is bound again to count with, and react to, even when choosing the most elitist attitude.

L – Latent-pattern maintenance and conflict regulation

Yet there are interdependency breaks. Not everything at any time is contingent. We would not be able to stand it. Norms and values interfere, even regarding arts and art works. They are latent, to be sure, becoming dubious the very moment they become manifest. Yet the moment a conflict becomes apparent, an art work being attacked for hurting feelings of some or an art work being defended by others for having its own even if elusive necessity, values are called for framing a certain action and lending legitimacy to it. Those values are never unambiguous even if claimed to be. They again conflict with other values and must be given more or less weight relative to further values. But there they are and can be negated but not annihilated. Take again Sehgal’s whispered words. They claim art to be its own value. They celebrate the visitor spending his or her time in a gallery. They value the very artist coming up with this way to do arts.

Yet, and this is my point in this sketch of Talcott Parsons’ Paradigm of the Human Condition (see his Action Theory and the Human Condition, New York, 1978) applied to arts, it is only the L-function of the four-function AGIL-scheme which lends itself to aesthetic or other discussions. Three other functions have to be met with before any art is able to show off at all. Those other three functions are (i) adaptation to matter, nature and technology (A), (ii) goals set by organisms and personalities struggling with each other (G) and (iii) an integration taken care of of any art action within all other actions deemed important, useful or possible within a society, culture and civilisation.


Parsons’ function of adaptation took account of the „physico-chemical system“ supporting, thwarting, framing and constraining any human action. Meanwhile we have to add to this a wide range of technologies which are still constraining human action yet are also designed by human action – as, indeed, the physico-chemical environment has been deeply changed by human action as far back as any civilisation goes. Arts these days loose their treasured status as the culmination of a more or less autonomous high culture and blend again with a more general understanding of téchne. They become paradigmatic in their enabling us to check with them for an understanding of how human beings (i) adapt to material and technical environment, (ii) have their organic and neural orientation transformed within the world, (iii) look at arts within wider social environments of communities, milieus and movements and (iv) fight for and against arts to seek for norms and values, to defend and promote them. These are great times for a sociology of the arts.

Dirk Baecker is a German sociologist, Chair of Cultural Theory and Management and Dean of the Faculty of Cultural Reflexion of Witten/Herdecke University. After his studies of Sociology and Political Economy in Cologne and Paris he did his PhD in Bielefeld with Niklas Luhmann. He taught, among others, at Stanford University and the London School of Economics. His recent works revolve around sociologies of art, management and new media. His latest books include Why Theory? (Suhrkamp, 2016) and Product Calculus (2017, Merve).