One of the biggest surprises to me about teaching philosophy of art courses at Tate Modern has been the pleasure and insights that come from a diverse group of people spending time looking at works of art. Before teaching in this way my prejudices were all for solitary introspective engagement with art, perhaps with a discussion afterwards. I’m still usually happier going around an exhibition on my own rather than with other people. Reading about the artist and art historical context can (but not always) enhance this experience. But there is a lot more to be said for experiencing and discussing works of art in a medium-sized group than I realised. Now I have a suggestion about why this might be so.
In his book The Wisdom of Crowds, subtitled ‘Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few’, James Surowiecki explains how in many situations a diverse group can provide more insight than even a panel of experts. The group can be more insightful and cleverer than any individual member. His line is that there are several conditions that ideally need to be met for this to work. First, you need a group which contains a diversity of opinion – this is one reason, it seems to me that the group teaching at Tate Modern can produce reactions to art that are interesting and stimulating: there is no one type of person who attends these courses – it isn’t as if every student is just someone who spends a lot of time looking at art (though many are), someone interested in learning more about the Tate Modern collection (many are) an artist or photographer (some are), someone working in the City (some are) a writer (some are), or someone who was studied philosophy (some are). The point is that every group of 35 students contains people from a wide range of backgrounds with very different experience, expectations, age, motivation etc. The result is that there is a much wider range of reaction to ideas and to works of art than would be typical of a more conventional course. The second requirement in Surowiecki’s view is for the group members to have genuine independence in the sense that they can make their own minds up without being unduly influenced by group pressure. Because these courses take place for a few hours a week and most of the students don’t encounter each other outside these hours, and because they are adults from very different backgrounds, there is a great deal of independence of view. A further ideal requirment according to Surowiekci is that there should be a degree of decentralisation in the way decisions are reached. As I understand this, the Tate Modern teaching facilitates this to some degree because much of the discussion of works of art and ideas takes place in smaller sub-groups. Lastly Surowiecki thinks that a suitable method of aggregation of ideas is necessary. This is a tougher one, but there are often plenary discussions where ideas and interpretations can be shared.
I’m not certain that Surowiecki’s theoretical framework explains this completely, but I have certainly been surprised by the power of group interaction with art works in these courses. In some cases it has completely transformed my understanding of particular works of art in the Tate Modern collection.