Part 3: Is art a spandrel?

This post follows directly from the last:

We can now approach the question, ‘Is art an evolutionary spandrel?’ from a quite different direction.  Art as a symbolic form is a complex intellectual function.  While it may seem to lack the everyday utility of linguistic abstractions, forms, and communication, it nonetheless is an abstraction based upon vital felt experience and serves some communicative and cultural functions.  While it may seem to serve the signaling function seen in other species, e.g., bird displays both in plumage and behavior like songs and nests, its symbolic nature distinguishes it as a human endeavor.  Like any feature of Homo sapiens, it has precursors and derives from earlier adaptations, but it is clearly more complicated that what is evident in the rest of the animal kingdom.  Art may still be considered an evolutionary spandrel, though if so, it seems a very special one, one that contributes importantly to human culture and life.

Ellen Dissayanake in her book Homo Aestheticus (23) documents the ubiquity of art in various cultures and everyday life.  Art, she asserts, is “making special,” analogous to the display and signal behaviors of other animals, e.g., a workman adds individual touches to his tools, a family decorates their home in their particular way and style, a worker sings a song with an individual voice, even a dancer carries on a traditional dance with distinctive flair.  In this view, the inception of art both historically and today lies in each individual’s vision of who they are in relation to the rest of the group.  The more institutionalized art of recent times, such as religious art, concert music where the audience does not participate in the making, and more modern styles are, in her analysis, an extension of our impulse to “make special” shaped by (perhaps even perverted by) commodification for institutional and commercial purposes.  Dissayanake makes the puzzling assertion that art, so conceived, is not symbolic.  I can only make sense of this by understanding her to mean art does not partake of mythic or psychological, e.g., Freudian or Jungian archetypes or symbolification (what might be called cultural or secondary symbol-making) but this overlooks the prior and more basic neuropsychological stage that a symbol stands for something else, an idea generally accepted since C. S. Pierce propounded his theory of semiotics (59) and forward into modern thought with Ernst Cassirer’s (one of Langer’s mentors) great work on symbols.

That art is, however, ubiquitous across cultures in everyday life and not just in ‘fine art’ so conceived is important because it points to its importance in the human world.  Art is not just a signal in the mating game nor even just a cultural marker of social cohesion. It is not just seasonal nor tied to institutionalized structures.  Rather, art is a distinctive feature of and contribution to the human world.  It is a feature of our umvelt as conceptualized in the 1900s by Jacob von Uexkull.  He and others understood that each species, even though they share the same environment, lives in a different world by virtue of their different perceptual and motoric capabilities with their distinctive needs and that these then yield biological meaning, i.e., not machine information, in hedonic and motivational terms associated with worldly features.  The umvelt has historically been conceived as the organism’s interpretation of the world around, but somewhere along our evolutionary path (and no doubt the paths of other species as well including other primates and cetaceans) the world around became subsidiary to the world within.  The umvelt of Homo sapiens includes much that is not objectively, i.e., perceptually, available to other human individuals now or ever.

However this developed over the course of our evolution, a key feature of our success as intellectual creatures has been our symbolic capacity to control and contribute such information to our umvelt.  Reading Langer one comes to realize that even a relatively simple sensory act, i.e., response of sensory organ to stimulus impingement, is one controlled by the organism.  She cites a 1914 lecture by a German scientist Wilhelm Ostwald arguing this point, that the organism expends much more energy acting on the stimulation than the stimulus itself brings, and further, she reports that the great Karl Lashley in 1942 postulated that both perception and motoric action were “superimposed” (a problematic conceptualization—imposed from above?  Where is that?  Agency arises and mobilizes from within) upon the ongoing neural activity.  This autonomous vitality is a key feature of life that has been and is all too often relegated to the less scientific realm of discourse, yet it is the stuff of life itself.  Langer’s great insight is to understand that symbolization is ‘simply’ another way neural activity organizes itself, sometimes in response to ambient conditions but oftentimes only in response to the ongoing matrix of autonomous neural actions and embodiment.  It is in this way, then, that symbolization facilitates the composition and ordering of mental actions so that they are available for conscious deliberation and social communication.

That our linguistic capabilities accomplish these twin feats, conscious deliberation and social communication, is readily understood.  Language does, after all, facilitate the rapid coordination needed for social utility, and its specifics are localized in the brain so that we have discovered much about the neural substrate, e.g., Wernicke’s and Broca’s areas, the arcuate fasciculus, etc.  The utility of art is not as obvious and its localization is not as easily found.  (This is one clue as to the nature of artistic import and how we formulate it).  The task is even more complicated by the various genres of both performative arts, e.g., dance, music, and those more artifactual ones, such as painting, sculpture, architecture, etc.  In addition, we have an aesthetic appreciation of much of the world, e.g., clouds illuminated by the sun, the colorful forms of plants and animals, the graceful movements of leopards and seals, the majesty of the night sky, etc.  Going still further into our aesthetic mind, we also appreciate the aesthetic in our own abstractions, e.g., the forms of geometry, the equations of physics such as those from Paul Dirac (31).  We recognize beauty and we produce beauty in diverse ways throughout our lives.  Spandrel or central?

My central hypothesis here is that, just as we use language to capture and communicate a segment or portion of our mental life, we use art in an analogous manner.  Langer says language functions more for objects and objective events along with our discursive considerations of such while art functions more for our felt experience.

“What discursive symbolism—language in its literal use—does for our awareness of things about us and our relation to them, the arts do for our awareness of subjective reality, feeling and emotion; they give inward experiences form and thus make them conceivable” (45: p. 71)

Art is an expressive form that lets us envisage the vital movement of our minds’ experience.  Art renders the “idea of a feeling” in a communicable form and so carries out important social functions necessary for the delineation of individual perspectives otherwise hidden in each one’s subjective realm and for the social composition of those subjective forms to be culturally shared among group members.  Art is not a spandrel so long as you hold that our cultural bonds are an important facet of our evolutionary adaptation (with the caveat that some cultural forms are maladaptive, e.g., Shakers on procreation, Mayans on human sacrifice or Atargatis priests on psychotic limits).  Art forms might be more aptly characterized as buoys mapping the cultural seascape, shifting as it does with different individuals transmuting the forms and different generations transmitting these forms according to their circumstances.  An artwork signals an individual’s particular place at a particular moment in the cultural seascape.  Seen from this perspective, understanding how art ‘works’ this way in the biological domain involves deeper understanding of the neuropsychological functions that promote both an individual’s awareness of life experience and the way sharing such an experience works socially.  Some key concepts help us frame this more clearly.

First we find Endel Tulving’s idea of autonoesis: the ability to know one’s self in relation to past, present or imaginal, e.g., future, experiences (71, 2).  This is initially dependent upon our episodic memory, i.e., our memory for autobiographical narrative.  Tulving contrasted this form of memory with semantic memory that we have for words and other abstractions.  Autonoesis is our primary means of knowing.  Jean Decety calls it the “neural default”, meaning that one’s brain first operates based upon one’s own subjective perspective (17).  Thus, developing empathy beyond the mirroring stage requires that we inhibit our particular perspectives in order to consider another’s.  Art, as conceptualized by Susanne Langer, conveys some import based on our autonoetic knowledge of our individual lived experience.  While its composition derives from such knowledge and feelings, its reception depends upon the audience’s inhibition of their own autonoesis, though identification will play some role in their appreciation, in order to grasp the artist’s import.  Thus, Aristotle in his Poetics posits that drama, and by my analogy any art, requires the willing suspension of disbelief. Or as Picasso said, “Art is the lie that helps us see the truth” (55).

Second, Lakoff and Johnson in Philosophy in the Flesh distinguish between the unitary subject of one’s autonoetic experience and the several selves that operate distinguished by and originating in one’s social roles.  This allows us to focus on the distinction between one’s own subjective sense of consciousness and how we structure that to form identities, i.e., selves, as defined by those roles, e.g., family, social or hierarchical and work relationships.  The concept of a subject, more often referred to as the self, is not yet clearly defined through neuropsychological research.  Antonio Damasio in his book, Self Comes to Mind, admits that initially he did not find the concept of a self a viable neural construct but changed his mind over his years of research (10).  While he gives a reasonable description of how the self is composed based upon evolutionary divisions of the brain, i.e., proto-self, self, and conscious self, these derive from the horizontal divisions in Paul MacLean’s tripartite brain: brainstem, midbrain or limbic system and neocortex.  To understand the unitary subject as described by Lakoff and Johnson and keeping with more recent ideas about neural systems, consider two simple functions based upon vertically integrated systems that contribute to the subject’s formation.

The first has already been mentioned, the processing of experience that results in episodic memory, the mnemonic retention especially for place, actions, objects and social others.  Explicating this system is beyond the scope of this paper, but it is already well known as the hippocampal memory circuit that stores information for comparison with new data to see what is old and new, significant and insignificant (25).  The second system is less well defined or understood, but it is the sense of agency that comprises the development of contextually relevant intentions, their motor plans, and finally the volitional energy for behavioral enactment.  These two systems, episodic or autobiographical memory and agency, lay the foundation for the subject to develop as the animal matures.  Per Lakoff and Johnson, selves then develop as social roles become established and compartmentalized.  We may think of our subjective sense of ‘I’ and awareness of our roles as conscious operations, but in fact, much more of them operate below consciousness in a realm often called the intuitive.

This brings us to a third concept of how art works because we can now understand a bit more clearly Dissayanake’s view of art as ‘making special’ and other forms of art that are less personal.  Art as making special is an action by the subject about a self’s identity.  The workman marks his tools to show his particular brand of workmanship, a dancer moves through traditional steps with his or her own special flair, i.e., a manifestation of the subjective self and identity, a person decorates their house to express their autonoetic notion of home.  However, art can also be an action by the subject expressive not of identity but about experience.  The subject then takes on the role of artist, quite different from the other utilitarian roles and identities, and composes art to make sense of some human experience.  Here the artist has inhibited, selectively to be sure, her own autonoetic identity or self to convey some otherwise inchoate experience relevant to others.  The artist uses his artistic composition to make sense of that necessarily autonoetic experience, maybe within a tradition or maybe pushing the inherited cultural boundary, that is relevant (hopefully) to others.  This art is a cultural buoy in the mapping of the group’s experience.  To quote Sperber as cited in Cosmides, Tooby and Barkow, “Cultural phenomena are ecological patterns of psychological phenomena” (2).  Art, then, becomes an expression of an individual’s subjective experience in accord with a group’s cultural patterning of their lives.  Again, so conceived, is art a spandrel or a central support?

To be sure, this view describes how art would seem to function today, but consider the human past.

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