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Ancient, universal and persistent

Post #1092 • November 29, 2007, 7:47 AM • 31 Comments

Via KH, Ellen Dissanayake in the New York Times:

In the main presentation at the conference, Ellen Dissanayake, an independent scholar affiliated with the University of Washington, Seattle, offered her sweeping thesis of the evolution of art, nimbly blending familiar themes with the radically new. By her reckoning, the artistic impulse is a human birthright, a trait so ancient, universal and persistent that it is almost surely innate. But while some researchers have suggested that our artiness arose accidentally, as a byproduct of large brains that evolved to solve problems and were easily bored, Ms. Dissanayake argues that the creative drive has all the earmarks of being an adaptation on its own. The making of art consumes enormous amounts of time and resources, she observed, an extravagance you wouldn't expect of an evolutionary afterthought. Art also gives us pleasure, she said, and activities that feel good tend to be those that evolution deems too important to leave to chance.

Dissanayake is doing a lot of the heavy lifting to re-establish art as an activity characterized primarily by pleasure and innate functioning, as opposed to thinking and acquired functioning. She's doing so via biology and anthropology, so in contrast to art theorists of the last couple of decades, she works with observations and data. This is bracing. She deserves your close regard. (Homo Aestheticus presently lies in the To Be Read Pile chez Oh, what I could do with a 32-hour day...)



Marc Country

November 29, 2007, 9:15 AM

Homo Aestheticus is on my Christmas list, but now, I might have to search out Ellen's newer books, and add 'em to the list instead.

I have a small problem with characterizing art by its making, as opposed to its recognition. I'm sure that man's first "art", just like man's first "tools", were naturally found, and not 'constructed' at all. Bird song, a colourful landscape, an interestingly shaped rock... these things were undoubtely 'recognized' as 'art' by man. And, like modifying a stick to become a better spear, so man must have begun to modify his raw materials to become even MORE interestingly shaped rocks, etc.



November 29, 2007, 9:47 AM

Homo Aestheticus would be a better book if it were much shorter and said what it has to say without so many academic style references. Summaries, as Franklin quoted above, show that there are good ideas here and there, nonetheless.



November 29, 2007, 11:01 AM

I have had a correspondence with Dissanayake over the past couple years. We have a different "take" on art but there is a lot of mutual understanding, especially because we both seem to implicitly agree that art problems, and esthetic problems, can be, or perhaps should be, articulated through the scientific method rather than by art writers or philosophers. She maintains that her thinking has gone beyond "homo Aestheticus" so it might be best to try a few recent articles before reading the book.

I have tried to correspond with other scientist s about art, but the problem with most scientists who take art on is that they just dont get it. They come at it entirely from the angle of their specialty and miss by the proverbial mile. This is also true of writers.

As one who writes abouy art and thinks about it and has some scientific training and inclination I have worked on the "goodness" problem for a few years but I just don't have the time or the patience to really work it out. Not at the moment, anyway. I do think many things written on this blog have been well ahead of any formal thinking on the subject, however, and this material could be collected and turned into a very good book, or long essay.


Arthur Whitman

November 29, 2007, 12:07 PM

The problem is that 'art', artistic "goodness" and other similar concepts used by artists and philosophers have no rigorous biological basis. There is most likely no art gene and no strictly aesthetic module in the brain. These are concepts created by people for their own purposes, to understand some of the things they've made. (This isn't to say that they are arbitrary or unmotivated). As long as this is understood to be so, the study of art will remain fundamentally unscientific. I have not read Dissanayake's books (I keep meaning to), but it seems that she basically understands this.

Sorry if this is obvious, but it seemed worth saying.



November 29, 2007, 1:44 PM


1. The experience provided by art is not a concept.

2. Things "...created by people for their own purposes, to understand some of the things they've made" are studied scientifically all the time.

3. "Sorry if this is obvious" betrays its supercilious tone when the statements are flawed.


Arthur Whitman

November 29, 2007, 2:11 PM

1. The experience itself is not a concept. The ideas I mentioned are about a specific type of experience, i.e. an artistic or aesthetic one. That's what the quote marks were for. (I feel like I'm be deliberately or carelessly misunderstood.)

2. As indicated by my stated interest in Dissanayake's work, I do not object to the use of scientific methods to study art. I merely mean to suggest that the value of such study is limited because 'art' (note the quote marks) is itself is an unscientific idea.

3. I imagine most artists and aficionados agree with me on the latter point. Art appears to exceed scientific understanding. Hence my disclaimer.



November 29, 2007, 2:22 PM

Gentlemen, gentlemen.

There's a gap between all concepts (we're really talking about labels rather than concepts) and the experiences that they correlate to. Art's no different.

The value of scientific study of art is bound to be limited, in the sense that I don't think science can get the whole thing. But it's equally bound to be a lot more useful, and less self-evidently silly, than the semiotic and deconstructionist approaches that have predominated for two or three decades. Therein lies its value.


Arthur Whitman

November 29, 2007, 2:24 PM

Being deliberatly



November 29, 2007, 2:57 PM

Sorry. I should have expanded on my point because it does look like I am deliberately misunderstanding you. Briefly put, I merely wanted to indicate that our relationship to art is not conceptual, not fundamentally, anyway.

in #2, I think you are repeating the error . There is no contradiction of any kind in the idea of studying something unscientific scientifically. As for limitation, yes, it will be limited, like any study, I suppose. Art does not "exceed scientific understanding", it just aims at a different result.

And no real scientific effort has been made to examine art, so how can we know, foe example, that science cannot at least reveal how art works, what it does, etc? This is largely just prejudice. As Franklin indicates, it would be far more enlightening than what is taking place now.


Arthur Whitman

November 29, 2007, 3:28 PM

Opie and all,

I think that art is or should be non-conceptual at its roots. It should present a compelling perceptual experience. I also think that conceptualizing is fair game and that works of art should not be dismissed because they encourage this. This may be where we differ.

That said, I do believe that the kind of immediate, affective quality endorsed by Dissanayake is a valuable corrective to some of the excesses of current theory. I worry though that it may lean to excesses of its own.

Yes, unscientific concepts (labels, whatever) can be studied scientifically. I wonder if you and Franklin are not placing to much faith on the ability of a biologically-oriented anthropology--as opposed, say, to a more traditional social science--to do this. The focus of evolutionary psychology is on characteristics shared by all humans. This is perfectly legitimate as far as it goes. No doubt they have much to tell us about our responses to art.

But I think also that art (along with our ideas about it) is a culturally and historically dynamic thing. I think that a theory suggesting that we respond to it more or less as cavemen did is consequently limited. Again, not bad, just substantially limited. It seems that evo-psych can tell us much about our responses to art but not so much about art itself as a dynamic phenomena.

I hope this makes some sense and that we can discuss this civilly.



November 29, 2007, 4:10 PM

With how hot the debate has been may I mention that even in the education system it is understood that art is not science, hence we have college degrees in the arts and also the sciences. The idea seems very interesting, but if the creation of art comes from a unique evolution and not an evolutionary byproduct then what service does it provide? I understand she is leading us to understand that art gives pleasure (and that is why we make it), but aren't evolutionary leaps typically associated with guaranteeing life and safety (ie; language, walking upright, so on) My issue is that it does not provide food, shelter or water and is thus not necessary to continued existence. If any of you have actually read her work, is she saying that it developed out of our need to make better spears and lash sturdier homes (thus a byproduct evolution) or is art it's own creation (an evolutionary fluke)?

Maybe I should just read her work myself.



November 29, 2007, 5:29 PM

No one suggested that art and science are or should be the same thing, Jeremy. And biological and cultural evolution do not only favor things that are so obviously tied to survival, like better spears or food-gathering. It is a very complex business.

I don't think anyone has been uncivil, Arthur.

Specifying what art should or should not be is precarious because art is typically a thing which is highly unified which leads to a very singular experience. What it is or how it is made or what it consists of or how we describe or label it is entirely secondary to its ability to affect.

I am not infavor of any one kind of science to study art. Any scientific method that helps out will do.

Also, I have no idea how cavemen responded to art, although it seems to me that most of the existing theories are simplistic & tainted by modern experience.

I would like very much for science to tell us about art as a "dynamic experience". This should in no way substutute for or diminish that dynamic experience.



November 29, 2007, 6:16 PM

"I worry though that it may lean to excesses of its own."

Like a Michael Moore documentary?



November 29, 2007, 6:49 PM

Documentary, Ahab? Well, yes, like This is Spinal Tap, only far less entertaining and considerably less innocent.



November 30, 2007, 6:47 AM

I was thinking - excesses, indeed. Please, bring 'em on! Addled by great art! Exactly what I am looking for.



November 30, 2007, 10:16 AM

What's interesting about these methodical “studies” is that their outcomes are still utterly subjective. For instance, the NYtimes article, Dissanayake links the interaction between mother and child as the source of aesthetic pursuits. The article describes her as watching mothers and children for “hundreds of hours,” coming finally to the conclusion that “These operations of ritualization, these affiliative signals between mother and infant, are aesthetic operations, too” This claim, while fascinating, is in now way dependent on the “hours of study”--it is a purely subjective reading of what goes on between a mother and child, and what art itself is.

And the idea that art has evolutionary import--and just what that import is-- again is a claim that can neither be supported or refuted by science. Dissanayake claims that “artifying” helps strengthen community bonds, and this is of critical for the survival of a species.

But it would be just as easy to say, and find evidence for, the idea that the purpose of art is to isolate and disarm a group of humans unfit for the more critical functions of society--hunting, gathering, finding shelter, etc? The “artists” were the physically inferior and emotionally dissonant members of society that, in their ineptitude, threatened a groups’ survival. Rather than simply culling them, “art” was created to keep them too busy to interfere with the hunt. I could watch artists for “hundreds of hours” and find “evidence” just as solid for my claim as what Dissanayake found for hers!



November 30, 2007, 10:17 AM

Sorry for the multitude of typos! I was too riled to properly spell-check. This is why I am an artist-type--I am deeply inept!



November 30, 2007, 10:34 AM

As an inveterate typo-ist myself, McFawn, I say don't worry about it. Your comment was perfectly readable.

Scientists who use evolutionary theory tend to think anything we do a lot of has adaptive significance, and I am inclined to agree. In early societies those with artistic skills were not "disfunctional"; this is a modern phenomenon. If anything, they were the more intelligent and mentally organized individuals in the group. I think this is still the case, and that pathological social mores and structures sometimes make it seem, by contrast, that artists are weird.

You could write a book about it.



November 30, 2007, 11:49 AM

Well, I am not an artist, and I have serious typo issues. It must be some unresolved childhood conflict. Anyway, I urge one and all to use the preview function before hitting "post," and/or use spell check. It may not really change anything substantial, but it will spare my delicate sensibilities.



November 30, 2007, 2:24 PM

Related to this discussion, a review of Jonah Lehrer's Proust Was a Neuroscientist in today's SF Chronicle:

"Since the glory days of Leonardo da Vinci, master painter and brilliant scientist, the twin human passions for scientific and artistic exploration have proceeded on parallel and wholly divergent paths. The ever-increasing breadth of knowledge necessary for mastery of either has made deep understanding of both science and art a near-impossibility for any one individual, and antipathy between the two disciplines has only grown with the passage of time.

"Call 25-year-old Rhodes scholar Jonah Lehrer overly ambitious if you will, but it is his declared mission to right this wrong - to reunite the once-twinned disciplines via careful study of the means by which artists such as Virginia Woolf and Paul Cezanne anticipated the advances of neuroscientific research. Seeking to bring physics to poets, and the pleasures of literature to lab rats, Lehrer has chosen for "Proust Was a Neuroscientist" eight artistic giants of the 20th century, and studies their work in the context of contemporary neuroscience. The title is not entirely a joke; Lehrer truly does seek to make Proust scientifically relevant.

"Lehrer's mission statement, presumably intended as the kickoff to an entire career of exploration, proposes that the arts and the sciences must break out of their cycle of mutual disapproval. A scientist by training, Lehrer grasps that literature and the arts are capable of discovering truths invisible to science: 'It is ironic but true: the one reality science cannot reduce is the one reality we will ever know.'"



November 30, 2007, 3:06 PM

Seed Magazine excerpted Jonah Lehrer's book and the passage struck me as bogus, but it's too serious to merit total disregard. I'll work on a response.



November 30, 2007, 4:53 PM

First of all it is nonsense that one cannot understand science & art both. I was something of an art prodigy when I was about 7 and then was something of a science prodigy when I was twelve and then back to art for the remainder of a long career (I say "something of" because nothing ever came of the earlier false starts). I am still very interested in science & read about it & think most other intellectual pursuits are relatively less interesting.

This "union of art and science" pipe dream has been posited regularly for the last hundred years or so and has always come to nothing. It seems both grandiose and futile to me. And the minute anyone utters the phrase "discover truths" i Know the project is doomed to terminal chichedom; art has nothing to do with "truth".

Though one can inform the other and provide kinds of help art & science are different procedures and aim at different results. What we need to do, what would be useful and perhaps clear up some of the awful writing and thinking abounding in the art business is to apply some scientific methodologies to describing and explicating the art-making and art-comprehending process. This is a reasonable enterprise.



November 30, 2007, 5:41 PM

I hate to tout my own work but this is just too relevant...



December 3, 2007, 4:23 AM

It is wise to be careful of those calling themselves child prodigies.



December 3, 2007, 5:33 AM

You're right, Skeptical. It does sound presumptuous. I should have just said "had an intense interest in" or some such.



December 3, 2007, 6:41 AM

Skeptical: I have known opie for a couple of decades and can assure you he is an "adult prodigy" and therefore it would not surprise me at all if he had been a child prodigy as well. He also has a natural talent for bowling - his very first game being in the 170s - a score that many adults have trouble attaining after months of practice. You might say opie is an instance of Aristotle's ideally educated person, very balanced development of both mind and body, though in extremis on both counts.



December 3, 2007, 8:03 AM

Wow, Catfish. Can I quote you in my CV?



December 3, 2007, 3:13 PM

is a virtue



December 3, 2007, 5:56 PM

does his shit stink?



December 3, 2007, 7:03 PM

I would hope he treats you with the same amount of respect!



December 3, 2007, 9:55 PM

Like Chanel #5, Curious



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