Review: Homo Aestheticus

I finished Ellen Dissanayake’s Homo Aestheticus: Where art comes from and why (1992) about two weeks ago and have been pondering over what to write. It seems an important book and I wondered why I did not find it sooner. I first became aware of her and her writings in a more recent book, The Origins of Music, which I have mentioned here before (see posts 1/11/16, 3/12/16, 3/26/16). I appreciate several of her ideas but am puzzled (at least) by one aspect of her thought, and she is dismissive about Susanne Langer for some reason so of course I have a quibble there. Onward.

Her central hypothesis is that art is best conceived as ‘making special’ and that art is an important evolutionary factor in our successful adaptation. She brings forth many examples from her own and others’ ethological studies to show that art is a phenomenon of everyday life, or has been until recently (very recently in our evolutionary past) when we began to segregate art into some category of fine art produced by few and enjoyed by a few more of the privileged. Not just making special, I guess, but making extra special (or all too precious, isn’t it?). Western culture, especially I think in the more mercantile, industrial and commercial aspects, e.g. USA, has minimized the importance of the arts, looking down on artistic activity as a lower form of intelligent activity or as simply a financial transaction. Of course, this is nonsense and Ms. Dissanayake does a wonderful job of correcting it.

She also resurrects what she says is an antiquated notion of ‘aesthetic empathy.’ Art, i.e., making special, involves not the pleasure of perceived forms but the pleasure of the feelings evoked or carried by those forms and more especially, making those forms. Regular readers here will understand when I say I did not know the concept was antiquated. I am not up on art theory or criticism but evidently, like so much of our cognitively oriented theorizing, the idea that feelings or emotions are important is also downplayed there, even shunned. As I have done here in the past she poses the parallel between the surface and deep structure of language (sound and meaning) and the surface and deep structure of art, e.g., music or painting or dance and their import.

What puzzles me is that Ms. Dissanayake rather insists that art need not be symbolic. In its inception ‘making special’ is akin, to use one of her examples, to a male bower bird’s nest making in which he ornaments his bower with stones, shells, and other found objects; the ‘prettier’ the bower, the more success he has in mating and passing on his (and her) genes. And much of our art is ornamentation, whether it be shaping a tool to a pleasing state or decorating skin etc. Likewise singing can be an enlivening accompaniment to activity with little seeming import though it seems to me still to express feelings.

I have written before about bower birds (see post 11/12/14). Consider this: when does a bowerbird know the nest is finished? For that matter, when do any birds know when their nest is finished? I have never heard this being discussed before but I suspect that the birds fuss about until the eggs are laid, or at least the mate selected, because after that the effort would have little payoff. Human ‘making special’ covers many creative activities in a variety of modalities the boundaries of which, i.e., the beginning and finishing of the action, come from within the mind of the artist. Does the ornamentation indicate social status or tribal membership or its workman or does it result from whiling away a moment? At some point early on in the development of this way of acting, i.e., making special, form (and necessarily the more or less complete rendition from a mental gestalt) became important, and that form expresses some complex of feelings and thinking. This is not the empathic or kinesic communication of current emotional states or even the signal of reproductive vitality, but the symbolic rendering or representation of something more complex, a conveyance of subjective experience. I am sure that even ornamentation does this for humans; I am not so sure that some proto-symbolic process does not operate for bowerbirds—that is the message of Frans de Waals most recent book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are.

bird bower

A few more shells placed just so and I can put this nest on the market.

It seems to me that two different definitions of symbol are at play here. One is that idea of an art symbol, e.g., a cross symbolizes the crucifixion, Jung’s archetypes, Godot whoever he is, Eliot’s wasteland the human condition, Picasso’s screaming horse in Guernica, etc. These are really like tropes (verbal or otherwise) where elements are used artistically to represent or signify particular ideas or feelings. The other definition of the symbol comes from semiotics, say from C. S. Pierce on to Ernst Cassirer and modern linguistics. These are symbols that result from neuropsychological processes to represent ‘things’ and thereby allows us to control abstract information mentally and to communicate specifics either linguistically or artistically. I think maybe Ms. Dissanayake talks more about the first type when the second is the more relevant.

This issue brings up what I think Ms. Dissanayake misunderstands about Langer when she says that, for Langer, “aesthetic experience is a response to ‘presentational symbolism’.” (page 237) No, for Langer, aesthetic experience is rendered and communicated through presentational symbols. The symbol’s import is an aesthetic experience, i.e., the symbolic elements composing the symbol are the felt significances of the colors or sounds or words in the composition. These are not ‘responses’ but symbolic forms a person has composed from his or her subjective, vital and particular experience so that others may comprehend this work of their subjective space, i.e., their mind. Sounds without meaning are not words and tones or colors or forms or body movement without import are nothing special. And yes, this is clearly an evolutionarily important biological trait of our species, at the least.

Ms. Dissanayake writes that “Langer does not consider art as a selectively valuable behavior in human evolution”. (page 242) This misstates Langer’s position a good deal; following Feeling and Form in 1953, she spent decades writing a 3 volume work, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, arguing that art is one of the highest forms of biological activity. Her effort was premature historically, i.e., she was ahead of her time and developments since then have changed our paradigms a great deal. Just before she died she half finished volume 3 in 1982, a few years after Jacques Monod made the case in Chance and Necessity for molecular biology as the exclusive basis of life and several years before E.O. Wilson and others laid the basis for sociobiology. Furthermore, she was also too early to incorporate the profound developments Chomskyian linguistics and information science and technology engendered in our understanding of psychology and neuroscience. (This makes all the more remarkable Langer’s elevation of virtual information back in the 1950s). So, yes, Langer did not understand modern evolutionary theory but she certainly did understand that the human mind was a biological product of evolution. Likewise she did not understand that the human mind, while distinctive (or species-centric in Dissanayake’s term), is not that different from the minds of other animals. As I heard Frans de Waal say on the radio last week, it is not that human intelligence needs to be lowered but that we need to elevate the place of other animals’ intelligences.

Finally, the last chapter in Homo Aestheticus presents a refutation of sorts to post modern art theory and criticism. I was mystified by some of the concerns here; it is not within my ken, but I think I understood from her account that post-modernism is rather sterile, elitist, and counter to any view of art as vital, organic and evolutionary. If that is so, I certainly hope her refutation is taken seriously, and I hope I can keep better company than those who espouse such poppycock.

Anyway, read Home Aestheticus. Ms. Dissanayake aptly discusses that the variety of ways humans make art, think of art, and consider the world is truly spectacular, that art is clearly an important biological result from evolution, and that art is, after all, following Langer, one of the highest organic responses. Travel on.

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