The Paleolithic decorative hand axe market
Post #1406 • October 16, 2009, 2:20 PM • 88 Comments
Today's must-read comes from the New York Times, in the form of an article by Dennis Dutton, author of The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution and editor of Arts and Letters Daily.
Asking Has Conceptual Art Jumped the Shark Tank?, Dutton posits that conceptual art is a poor long-term investment because it contradicts evolutionary principles. You should read the whole thing, but here's the money quote:
We ought, then, to stop kidding ourselves that painstakingly developed artistic technique is passé, a value left over from our grandparents’ culture. Evidence is all around us. Even when we have lost contact with the social or religious ideas behind the arts of bygone civilizations, we are still able, as with the great bronzes or temples of Greece or ancient China, to respond directly to craftsmanship. The direct response to skill is what makes it possible to find beauty in many tribal arts even though we often know nothing about the beliefs of the people who created them. There is no place on earth where superlative technique in music and dance is not regarded as beautiful.
I sympathize with this argument quite a bit, which is one of the reasons that the roundups here include a Department of Skills. Skill is a thrill. And we certainly live in an artistic climate that denigrates skill as a subordinate concern to ideas, to the detriment of the work such a climate produces. (The head ought to serve the heart, as Robert Henri said.) But I'm afraid that the argument doesn't stand up this way, even on the basis of evolution.
Richard Dawkins (profiled charmingly by the Independent a short while ago - his wife hand-painted his tie!) suggested an idea he calls the extended phenotype, which looks beyond the traits of individual organisms as characteristics of those organisms. Thus dams are part of the beaver phenotype, and art part of the human phenotype. This is an attractive assertion because it frames art as a bodily, material phenomenon, not something that comes into relative existence by social fiat. But it also lets artists like Koons, who outsource production to artisans, off the hook. According to the extended phenotype, Koons need not embody the skills to produce porcelain renditions of celbrity photos for us to regard such efforts as his.
Ulitmately, skill is a subordinate phenomenon, but it's subordinate to beauty, not ideas. Ideas are part of the skillset - mental skills, if you will. As much as I love skill, skill with inadequate or misguided composition - a problem I call Malmsteen's Dilemma - becomes tiresome. I agree completely that skills are adaptive, and they evolve towards improvement, but they can reach absurd maximums, and as in the case of these unfortunate beetles, the secondary characteristics develop at the expense of the primary ones.
Perhaps it would be better to single out the recognition of beauty, not skill itself in this case, as the main adaptive trait. The theory, then, would say that the pleasurable response to visual quality nurtured important and useful cognitive functions that aided survival, and furthermore made survival itself a more pleasurable pasttime. This makes Koons a bad long-term bet, on evolutionary grounds. If the idea of a conceptual work is the important component, then curators of the future may simply record the idea, as a description, 3D models, and photographs, then discard the originals and recreate them as needed, perhaps by sending them as jobs to 3-D nanotech printers. Meanwhile, things whose value lie in the fact that they were made by particular human hands will continue to be cherished and preserved.
One day we may very well become able to download skills into our heads. Ray Kurzweil, citing neural implants for Parkinson's patients, predicts as much. At that point, you'll be able to acquire master-level figure drawing, or something even better than master-level, like Neo acquired kung fu in The Matrix. Art will mean something quite different after that day arrives. Until then, we can enjoy being part of the civilization in which talent was unequally distributed and relatively rare.
(Since I'm in a sciencey mood today, here's MC Hawking.)