ESR 3 Blog May/June 2023: Maria Mkrtycheva

One of the central notions of my research is the concept of reciprocity – a component of a relationship, which implies dependence, action or exchange that is mutual and beneficial for all sides.

Reciprocity is about understanding oneself and others. But how one understands the other with the epistemic crisis at the backdrop? When knowledge and truth with regard to differences of identity, culture, interests, or social position are not only plural but also fluid, how does one make sense of the world?

While empirical knowledge associated with the tyranny of the externalized, objective, Enlightenment view of the world is facing skepticism and criticism, it is ethical knowledge that comes to the forefront. It’s not truth but truthfulness that now becomes an epistemic value.

In his book Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy English philosopher Bernard Williams identifies two basic virtues of truth: accuracy and sincerity. The first one aims at finding out the truth and the second at telling it. Both accuracy and sincerity refer to belief and meaning, both are subjectively validated and internalized, and both are accompanied by emotions. This is when understanding of the truth – and truthfulness – about oneself and the other shifts from “what I know” to “what I feel”. This emotional lens foregrounds historical and social circumstances and is in turn affected by them.

So, does it take us closer to understanding the other?

American philosopher Iris Marion Young suggests that reciprocal relations and justice and consensus can’t be reached by simply imagining yourself in others’ shoes. Even shifting from truth to truthfulness in making assumptions does not help acknowledging and taking account of the other. She extends the concept of reciprocity by claiming it is asymmetrical. In this case, equality – both in the field of politics and within the art institutions – can be achieved through the imbalance of mutual dependency and action, but not through total equivalency.

Understanding reciprocity through an emotional lens brings us to the notions of empathy and emotional intelligence. Empathy is the ability to sense other people’s emotions and imagine what they might be thinking or feeling. Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand, manage and express your own emotions and to diffuse conflict in communication.

Emotions play an important role in motivation, perception and cognition, and they provide the first-person perspective. Taking the perspective of the other by imaginatively representing their perspective to ourselves may lead to misinterpretation and marginalization of their experience and emotions.

Reciprocity requires acknowledging the interests of others, being motivated to express one’s own interests and being mutually committed to reaching agreement. Essentially it enables equality, justice, non-domination, and consensus – the features of discussion-based (or deliberative) democracy. These elements contribute to enlarging the ability of opinions and experiences to be voiced in public in a high-stakes political environment.

In my research I wonder if art institutions can serve as environments where plurality of opinions and experiences can be practiced with low stakes. In this regard, I apply the notion of reciprocity to the relationship between an art institution and its audiences.


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