Andrew (perspectivism) wrote,

The Artistic Animal (Oct 2001 Lingua Franca cover story)

Four-star journalism on evolutionary psychology!

The article focuses sharply on one thinker's work, and does a great job of fairly contrasting others' specific views:

Together, these four facts suggest that natural selection long ago rendered the arts a standard component of human behavior: First, the arts appear to be universal. No one has found a culture that lacks them. Second, they consume a large portion of available resources. Among the Owerri in Nigeria, for example, the artists who build and paint ceremonial mbari houses are exempted for up to two years from the workload normally expected of healthy adults. Third, the arts give pleasure. Our internal motivational systems reward us for making and appreciating the arts the same way they reward us for having sex, spending time with friends, and eating nutritious food: The experiences feel good. And fourth, young children engage in the arts almost spontaneously. With only gentle encouragement, children will sing, move to music, make believe, scribble, and play with words.

But is art a well-defined category for biological study? In its freedom from social rules, art resembles play, while in its emphasis on display and embellishment, it resembles ritual. To focus her inquiry, Dissanayake has picked out a common element: During all these activities, humans make something special. That is, they distinguish an object or action from the ordinary. "What's interesting about humans," Dissanayake says, "is that they gild the lily. They do more than is necessary." "Making special," rather than "art," is what Dissanayake studies.

What does making special accomplish? Something that has been made special is more likely to attract and engage the attention of others. Dissanayake offers as an example the hand axes fashioned by Homo erectus between 1.6 million and 200,000 years ago. Flat and almond-shaped, with both front-back and left-right symmetry, the axes fit comfortably in the hand and have sharp cutting edges that meet in a point. They were clearly useful, but they cannot have been merely tools�they are too attractive. Some are made from pieces of flint with embedded fossil shells that figure on the sides of the hand axes as ornaments. Others, under inspection by electron microscope, show no evidence of the wear and tear of use. Even a plain, well-worn hand ax is the result of far more care than would be required to produce a stone capable of cutting, and the pains taken by Homo erectus hundreds of thousands of years ago can stir strong feelings in Homo sapiens today.

At the simplest level, making special might involve choosing a raw material with a bright color or an impressive sheen. But any process that assists in conveying emotion may help to make a thing special. Dissanayake writes about rhythms and modes�referring to the ways a work of art unfolds in time and space and to the variety of textures and sensations it deploys. For example, a singer may establish a relationship with his audience through patterns of anticipation, delay, and satisfaction. It is probably no accident that these patterns are also characteristic of mother-infant bonding and adult lovemaking. Dissanayake speculates that the techniques of making special are part of the standard human equipment for creating and maintaining affectionate relationships. Like mothering and courtship, they are affiliative behaviors.

To see how making special might have aided human survival in the Pleistocene, Dissanayake looks to rituals performed in hunter-gatherer societies that were documented by early-twentieth-century anthropologists. Those rituals were multimedia syntheses of song, dance, and visual ornamentation. These arts, she believes, would have helped to elicit a greater emotional response to whatever ritual they embellished, and the ritual in turn would have reinforced "group one-heartedness (belonging) and like-mindedness (meaning)." As Dissanayake explains in What Is Art For?: "A society that performed communal rites that bound its members in common beliefs and values would presumably have been more cohesive and therefore more equipped for survival than one that did not." The tribe that prayed together stayed together (and caught more ungulates and had more children).

Each of Dissanayake's books concludes with an exhortation. In What Is Art For? she argues that the arts should be integrated into modern life, as they are in premodern cultures, not set aside as the fiefdom of specialists self-conscious about their outsider status. In Art and Intimacy, she calls for more art education in schools. And in Homo Aestheticus, she takes aim at the hyperliterate credo of poststructuralism: The arts are a part of our evolved nature, she explains; literacy, a recent invention, isn't. She diagnoses the Derridean notion that there is nothing outside the text as a delusion typical of�and flattering to�someone overinvested in the skill of writing. She dismisses as "poppycock" the notion that there cannot be thinking or experience without language. Split-brain studies, she points out, plainly document the contrary; patients with no link between their left and right hemispheres can use drawings to answer questions they cannot respond to with language. Until language stamps it with meaning, Gayatri Spivak once argued, the "shudder in the nerve strings" is "a direct sign of nothing." Dissanayake retorts: "Nothing? Fire is hot. Hunger is bad. Babies are good."

[...] the arts are rooted in a common human nature inflected by age and gender and that the variations among the human races are trivial. "My intimate life with Sri Lankans," Dissanayake writes in Art and Intimacy, "made me the opposite of a fanatical cultural relativist: I have in fact become more impressed with the deeper human similarities that underlie cultural difference."

In humanities departments of late, faith in a universal human nature has been fairly beleaguered. But evolutionary psychologists believe in it with a vengeance. They assert that culture has organization, structure, and content only because individual human brains do. And they have started to make converts.

[...] biopoetics might help critics to avoid dead ends like post-structuralism. "I think you will save yourself a lot of bullshit and hot air if you can always bring it back to what literature has been for and that it comes out of our nature."

[...] personally she does believe that some experiences of art are richer than others. "In any tradition, there's a kind of fullness and resonance in a great work of art," she explains. "What the Darwinians are talking about, preferences, are the lowest level. It merely gets your attention." A ripe fruit may spark a viewer's appetite, but to turn an image of fruit into art, "something more has to be done with it."
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