Part 6: Conclusion of ‘Is art a spandrel?’

Returning to the two challenges of art, the social regulation of individual’s symbolic fecundity and the extension of trust so that delicate musings could safely be shared beyond one’s intimate circle, we find another feature of art making that is critically important to the modern mind.  Look again, if you can, at the early painting of a bison found in the Altamira cave in Spain and dated to around 36,000 BCE.  When first discovered by Marcelino Saenz de Sautuola and his daughter, he and a colleague dated the paintings to the Paleolithic era.  This initially met with great skepticism, the critics saying the paintings were too skilled for cave men, but subsequent chemical analysis has confirmed the Paleolithic origins.  It is the skill, however, that indicates the artist’s aesthetic touch.  The figure is stylized, albeit relatively realistic, and the lines composing it flow with energy.  This is clearly a work of art, i.e., a rendering not of what the artist sees but of the feeling engendered with the vision.  As Picasso said, “Painting is a blind man’s profession.  He paints not what he sees, but what he feels, what he tells himself about what he has seen” (55).  Langer emphasizes the intellectual nature of art, saying that the subject of any artwork is not an object and not even the feeling about the object but the idea of the feeling.

How is it we look at the Altamira paintings, or any paintings for that matter, or at any artwork and note the skill in its rendering?  How is it we examine any object and apprehend its aesthetic value manifested through such skill?  The answer lies, in part, in the perceptual process forming a gestalt, a whole figure whose parts fit together coherently.  We humans, and most likely other animals as well—we just don’t know this yet– find or create patterns out of almost anything, landscapes, stars, shadows, the grain in wood, a narrative, etc.  This pattern finding can become unregulated so that patterns can be found and given a significance they do not actually merit.  We see this in some forms of mental illness, e.g., John Nash’s paranoid schizophrenia in the film A Beautiful Mind, and in conspiracy theories.  One feature of Asperger’s syndrome can be an extreme talent for finding, creating and remembering patterns; in autism the pattern finding can focus obsessively on meaningless patterns.  The doctor who originally observed the syndrome that received his name, Hans Asperger, thought that this patterning ability was heightened as certain social skills reliant on empathy were lessened (67).  He further thought that this patterning was a normal trait or ability and that success in some scientific, e.g., astronomy, and artistic, e.g., painting, fields depends upon its robustness albeit within limits.

Be that as it may our ability to pattern and to complete gestalts based upon minimal information is remarkable, especially our ability to recognized faces and their expressions. The important feature here is that some patterns are felt to be ‘fit’ and some ‘askew’.  Consider language and its grammar.  Chomsky’s famous example, “colorless green ideas sleep furiously” illustrates how even a semantically void sentence can be syntactically ‘fit’, i.e., it obeys the rules for such a pattern.  Musical and visual patterns may not have a generative or prescriptive grammar, but they are felt to be ‘fit’ or ‘unfit’—some sort of ‘grammar’ must govern their composition.  (Of course modern art has advanced at times by violating that governance, e.g., cubists and other movements).

This sense of aesthetic fitness, then, operates in both the composition and appreciation of art forms.  This is a subtle feature of our minds but important nonetheless.  Going even further, as our intellectual abilities have developed and our cultural landscapes have come to include mathematical patterns and theoretical entities, our sense of aesthetic fitness has been extended to equations and theories.  Consider Paul Dirac’s equations that he developed based upon feeling that they were beautiful and later contributed to the foundation of quantum physics and predicted the existence of anti-matter (31).  (Descriptions of his character and behavior strongly suggest that his patterning ability and social skills were quite Asperger-like).

My contention here is that the aesthetic sense that governs the beautiful Altamira paintings also contributes to other arts and to the mental construction of mathematical formulas and other formal ideas.  The skill involved in any such composition is one whereby the person follows the intuitive form governing the whole, fills in the elements so that they fit together coherently, and so presents or embodies the felt idea in an illuminating manner.  Is this ability an evolutionary spandrel?  Perhaps a prior question should be posed before answering:  is this even a biological ability or performance, and if so, how may we approach understanding it scientifically and philosophically?

That it must be biological seems to me a logical necessity.  Some might argue that it is cultural, but that is also a biological phenomenon.  Some might assert that it is not a universal feature of our species but all humans and our known ancestors back a half million years ago appear to have developed some culture including art as best we can determine, and besides other species also share features of cultural life, even bacteria (11).  We cannot ignore the role of our aesthetic sense in phenomena ranging from appreciation of nature’s beauty through artistic production and appreciation to the esoteric beauty of abstract creations and hope to understand the intuitive contributions to conscious mentality and mind in general.  While this seems obvious, many set limits on its admissibility to legitimate examination and discourse.  It seems all too apparent that eventually we shall have to examine in a more rigorous and detailed manner the nature of art.  Thus I ask if art is an evolutionary spandrel.

Art may be an evolutionary spandrel.  Like the redness of blood is a spandrel resulting from iron-based hemoglobin, art may be a spandrel of our symbolic capacity that in essence is our linguistic ability.  If a spandrel, what are the evolutionary pillars in addition to language’s symbolic capability that support the human mind but frame art as an incidental result?  One would certainly be our proclivity for patterning the world; we see patterns virtually everywhere, even the welter of stars at night, and our abilities at gestalt formation facilitate object recognition based upon very incomplete and novel input.  Another would be our remarkable empathy and capacity for mirroring that promotes the development of long-term bonds and intimacy amid the ongoing attunement to another’s mind.  Still another would be our autonoetic self derived from episodic memory that leads to our efforts to compose a narrative that forms the pattern of our life. Any and all of these and more may have joined in a confluence some 40-80,000 years ago as a broader human culture began to develop.

Of course my position is that art is not an evolutionary spandrel but is, instead, a central pillar of the human mind that enables the accordance of our individual subjectivities beyond the utilitarian use of our symbolic capabilities and that constitutes a basis for our ever widening social groups.  Our mental ability to feel and explore the mind‘s own creations amid the self’s experience is critical to the shape of our intellect, our sharing of otherwise private forms, and our social identity.  Art is done by the subject about the self, i.e., Dissayanake’s ‘making special’, or by the subject about the self’s experience, i.e., ‘making sense’ of life through the fine arts.  I draw a gradual distinction between Bourdieu’s habitus, that collection of shared habits of how to do things that evolved along the lines that Tomasello described, and deeper culture, that less utilitarian and harder to define symbolic world that composes our cultural identity and provides rationales of varying sorts for explaining the origins, finalities, natural phenomena, exigencies, possibilities, etc., needed to support the shared world view among different individuals, each of us with a creative and curious mind bounded by one’s perspective of life, and compose a group.  Art enables us to share a dream world created communally.  Art serves the creation, conservation and progression of cultural forms, providing both the landmarks or anchors for the cultural landscape and a means for advancing new ideas for consideration.  Art, then, is another way our intellect helps us carry on with life’s mandate, i.e., to share in ameliorating life’s exigencies and exploiting possibilities, given our apprehension of life’s limits and its difficulties, e.g., fall from grace or opening Pandora’s box, and our wish to control and find a some order even if not rational in an irrational universe.  To do this together would seem to be not a spandrel, but a basic and essential feature of our biological life as Homo sapiens sapiens.

 

Part 5: Is art a spandrel?

Art works composed about experience also played a more subtle role in this extension of trust.  Within the family intimate communication could be more freely expressed than without.  This includes sharing of hopes and frustrations, loves and hates, and the wise lore gathered by the elders about life, its necessities and possibilities.  Not all lessons of vital experience are simply expressed through words, even in narratives that verge upon the parable or mythic.  Humans eventually developed the impulse to express the inchoate deeply felt subjective musings on one’s experience, akin to what the Japanese call ‘aware’ or the fleeting nature of life symbolized by the cherry blossoms or to ‘yugen’, the experience of profound feelings.  These are difficult to express for two reasons.  First, these are highly personal and intimate ideas.  One may find a way to express them to someone close but to share them beyond the circle of intimacy is a challenge of a different order.  Secondly, with the development of art not as an expression by the self about the self but as an expression by the self about one’s experience came a new possibility.  The person who made art took on a role different from other pragmatic, practical considerations, and their art work, though based upon personal experience, now conveyed the idea of felt experience in a less personal, more objective way, a way not didactic or organizational or efficacious but, if the artist was both skilled in rendering his ideas in an artistic medium and in composing the art symbol in a culturally competent way, was more a form luminous with being, that luminosity deriving from the internal compositional process interacting with the moment of social and cultural receptivity.  (Consider the modern version of what music becomes a ‘hit’ and what becomes a classic).  Art then became the way one expressed intimate ideas to a wider audience, and this contributed to the creation of powerful subjectively based landmarks that many took on trust, i.e., the artistic or presentational symbol, in the cultural field.

Returning to the first challenge, the cultural field helped to channel symbolic creativity into traditional forms and thereby to constrain the possibilities of untoward creations.  Art in this regard is both a conservative anchor and a dynamic agent of change.  The critical feature here, though, is how these cultural forms and art works in particular operate to promote both behavioral and subjective synchronicity.  Consider first the early arts of dance and music.  Langer called these occurent because they occur in time and then may pass into memory; I would prefer to call them performative, focusing on our active participation in their enactment.  Dance and music were and are participatory in inception and nature.  Their power or virtue, as it were, come from the behavioral and subjective synchronicity they engender in the participants; this is also the power of ritual, which is partially a derivative of these art forms.  Their vitality as art works comes from the participants’ experience of moving forward in time.  Indeed, this is their hallmark where past movements or notes guide not just what comes next but what may come next i.e., some developments feel fit or grammatical while others do not feel fit.  (I will neglect here the modern attraction to cacophonic or awkward forms.).  Dancing and music making, then, when done properly involves ‘feeling the future’.  The participants are flowing or moving in time synchronically.  They share a moment when time flows from the future into the past—that is their communal experience of virtual, vital time.

As humans developed their symbolic capabilities and our umvelt grew to include so many subjective forms created independently of autonoetic experience, we needed new ways to gain accordance in these culturally shared mental compositions.   The evolution of our mental life as it became transformed through our symbolic capabilities posed this challenge:  “What was the other one thinking about when they said or did that?”, because our topics became increasingly less about the concrete immediacy and increasingly more about our virtual abstractions displaced from any current time and place.  We became distracted by what was going on within and so needed new means for organizing our communal minds without.  One key in meeting that challenge was to develop the means for synchronizing our mental processes according to some temporal parameters, whatever they might be.  One way language does is this through tense and mood markers.  As described above, dancing and music synchronize our somatic experiences moving in time.

As our symbolic abilities developed along imaginal lines, thus embracing what came to be experienced as fantasy, mythic, spiritual, religious or something that I will term the ‘mystic realm within and beyond any one consciousness’, our deep culture then included compositions from/of a shared dream world.  Here temporal parameters became elusive yet still necessary if we are all to share in the dream. This may not seem such a challenge to modern minds because we are encultured almost from conception on with stalwart cultural forms that have steadily evolved over 10,000 years and stood explicitly on empirical footing for over 400, and because time for us means well understood natural rhythms and more importantly, what a clock ‘measures’.  As Susanne Langer noted, a clock is metaphysically suspect; what we call time by the clock is actually codified passage that we internalize as a gauge for our utilitarian actions.  Before the ascendance of large-scale civic governance, science and temporal regulation, however, humans experienced life in a less prescripted manner.  The world and time were multi-dimensional and those dimensions varied along cultural lines.  Art provided an important way society could organize and regulate individuals’ imaginary creations into a cultural landscape, i.e., we all shared a dream world, and came to provide the means by which such imaginal forms were kept in mind and memory, i.e., art forms reinforced past orthodox compositions, for the current generation and transmission to the next.

Here we come to the other category of artwork described by Langer.  The first as described above is the performative; the second she called the plastic because they were constructed of material, e.g., paint, stone, etc.  I want to refer to these as ‘artifactual’ because they exist stably in time for anyone’s leisurely examination, in contrast to performative arts that advance and depart without a trace except in memory.  The artifactual arts constitute ongoing reminders of experience both individual and cultural; they help keep past compositions alive in the present.  Consider the earliest known paintings and sculptures found in caves and dating from around 35,000 years ago.  These are representations of powerful animals, e.g., bison, mammoths, etc. and images of humans—the earliest are the silhouettes of hands, rough pictures of humans come a bit later.  The artists clearly wanted to keep the experiences with these animals present in the minds of others, whatever any other motives operated for their production, such as spiritual or religious or magical purposes.

As the cultural landscape was filled in, i.e., the shared imaginary forms came to compose an ongoing tradition, these early artifactual artworks, and to some unknown degree performative art as well, began to serve religious purposes and our cultural world became populated with gods and other mystical forces.  When oral narratives extended this tradition through myth building, art became increasingly a means to reinforce the understanding of the gods and their stories, to make concrete and immediate what was extant only in the minds of the people, and to anchor these conceptions in the history of the group.  This purposiveness, i.e., to keep virtual ideas extant, conserved, and socially/psychologically salient, continued and grew in ancient to modern times.  Walk through almost any art or archeological museum or religious building and marvel at how much of the art work before the Renaissance was given over to religious imagery.  For the Christian tradition consider how the surfeit of madonna-babe pictures and of crucifixion pictures served to reinforce and extend key narratives that played an important part in the religious milieu consequent events such as the Inquisition and Jewish pogroms as well as holidays such as Christmas and Easter.  Other traditions, e.g., Islam, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., have similar art-narrative interactions.

From this perspective, then, the early Paleolithic art laid the groundwork, alongside the utilitarian habitus of tool-making, cooperation, and social regulation, for the cultural growth based upon the shared subjective structures of deep culture.  As an aside, the hand silhouettes would seem to be an early manifestation of art as making special, i.e., the subject making art about the self, while the paintings and sculptures of animals would be a manifestation of what we today call the fine arts, i.e., the subject making art about the self’s experience.  Again, art, including mythic narrative and drama as well as artifactual artwork, enabled the sharing of material information that would otherwise be lost in time.  Art rendered the elusive and ephemeral experiences in accessible form.  It continues to do so today, though no longer constrained by religious orthodoxy.

Returning to the two challenges of art, the social regulation of individual’s symbolic fecundity and the extension of trust so that delicate musings could safely be shared beyond one’s intimate circle, we find another feature of art making that is critically important to the modern mind.

Last part coming up next.

Part 4: Is art a spandrel?

To be sure, this view describes how art would seem to function today, but consider the human past.  It seems a certainty that over the eons of our recent evolution and the millenia of our prehistory that the human umvelt slowly changed from one dominated by our perceptual-motor engagement within the ambient to one composed from information displaced in time and space.  Indeed, by 100,000 years ago our umvelt would seem to have been composed of imaginal forms that encompassed the great uncertainties of what we now understand as the human condition.  These would include life, birth, death, weather, the rhythms of the sun, moon, and stars, health and disease, family, friendship and conflict, hunger, and plenty.  It also seems a certainty that for our umvelt to transform to one dominated by mnemonic and imaginal forms and for this information to come under the control of symbolic processes, our neuropsychological capabilities developed both the intrapsychic mental landscape supporting the growth of enduring cultural forms and the interpersonal processes whereby cultural forms were composed and transmitted through language and artistic means.  Our minds began sharing virtual forms.

These neuropsychological capabilities, whatever the details of genetic change were that led to newly formed structures along with the re-purposing of older systems, and given the opportunity of an extended altricial period, emerged from the neo-mammalian processes of attachment, bonding and empathy coupled with ever more powerful communicative abilities.  One incipient condition for the evolutionary emergence of art was the marriage between robust conspecific relations that were empowered by very keen empathic abilities and the adaptive processes dedicated to analyzing and accommodating to the exigencies and possibilities of living in a complex and changing world.  The development of symbolic thought in its dual capacity to control subjective information and to communicate that objectively thus enabled humans to solve the problems of living communally.  One of those problems was communal life, and art, both about the self and about the subject’s experience, has helped solve that problem.

Evolutionary psychologist Michael Tomasello has presented us with some interesting ideas about how humans came to solve life’s problems communally in two books, The Natural History of Human Language and The Natural History of Human Morality (69, 70). The essential idea here is that humans, as research by Tomasello and many others has shown, are very cooperative animals, significantly more cooperative than any of the other primates.  Given this powerful proclivity we have developed some high level social abilities involving cooperating to accomplishing complex tasks, role switching so that success was dependent upon group learning and not on any one special individual, and self/other evaluation as to one’s dependability in fulfilling any one role.  Thus, the social features of clear communication, standard protocols and fairness in interpersonal relationships grew to become cultural standards.  In Pierre Bourdieu’s terms, the human habitus emerged (5).

Tomasello has provided us with a very workable hypothesis about how we came to solve our problems communally and how we could regulate communal life.  Given the fecundity of our symbolic capabilities and the complexity of establishing group identity from diverse subjective selves, how are we to understand the creation of this communal mental life to be regulated?  How do we go from a habitus of procedural mores to a deeper culture of conceptual realities when those realities are nowhere in objective evidence?  How do we transmit and transmute that culture for inter-generational learning and ongoing adaptability?  Here we approach the evolutionary significance of art, whether it be a spandrel or a supporting pillar.  Today, after roughly 15,000 years of more or less continual cultural development, we are born into a cultural milieu of great expanse and subtle power.  The rise of agriculture and larger settlements, and the subsequent necessity of increased social organization, began the historical period of civilizations, but what culture came before and how it did, whatever it was, develop?  The evolution of Homo sapiens from its inception say 250,000 years ago to the ending of the neolithic period around 4,000 years ago came with brains capable of symbolic thought and social organization based upon symbolic processes.

When we embraced through our symbolic capabilities not just the practicalities of survival but also the mysteries of the human condition, e.g., birth, death, fate, disease, etc., and our deep need for family and social supports, we began the creation, transmission and deepening development of the cultural field.  Just as our brains map space, time and experience (that is a feature of our mammalian heritage), we also began to map the shared material from subjective musings about life’s exigencies, possibilities, and vicissitudes.  That came to include imaginative material and so began the composition of the deep cultural field, wherein flourished the narratives, beliefs, and mythic ideas about the forces of nature and the limits of life.

This development may have satisfied an incipient intellectual need for understanding and explanation, but more importantly, I think, the cultural field met two challenges.  The first was the need for social regulation of a sometimes all too fecund symbolic imagination by a shared and transmissible group of concepts related to the advance of the cultural understanding.  This established an authority of tradition and limits to what new gods, etc., could be created, because the traditions had stood the test of time.  The second was to ameliorate the distrust or mystery of what was going on in each person’s subjective musings.  So long as groups were organized around intimate social awareness and knowledge, e.g. families, clans and tribes, one could trust another not to be asocial and exploitative.  The ending of the neolithic period came about as agriculture led to larger settlements (28), so that trust based upon intimate knowledge was inadequate.  Metallurgy led to new sorts of tools and, critically, weapons, so that ability to understand another’s beliefs and intentions became a matter of vital importance. Finally extensive trading based especially upon writing brought contact with very different others, and this challenged the deep-seated mistrust of the others.  However, if their cultural field were similar to one’s own, e.g., gods were recognizable, myths spoke of familiar issues, and the habitus of interpersonal relationships were agreeable and valued safety and respect, then a basic level of trust could be extended beyond the intimate group.

For example, many cultures held that a guest or stranger be given a certain amount of hospitality, and that once admitted as a guest that person guaranteed mutual respect and safety.  Violations of these mores were not easily forgiven and if repeated, marked the offending group or individual as untrustworthy and uncivilized.  Other strictures, e.g., trading, marriage, theft, kidnapping, etc. operated similarly.  Some prehistoric art was certainly a cultural signal about group identity and what social mores might operate, just as a person’s individual art signaled something about their identity and social roles. Thus, the cultural field operated to regulate interpersonal and inter-group issues of trust, and art played an important because salient role in this domain.

Art works composed about experience also played a more subtle role in this extension of trust.

to be continued

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.

Part 2: Is art a spandrel

This follows directly from the 9/19/19 post:

With all of these perspectives of these various facets of our artistic nature, how do we begin to see the object, the gem, whole?

This was the intellectual challenge Susanne Langer set herself beginning in 1942 with Philosophy in a New Key (44), continuing with 1953’s Feeling and Form (45), and finalizing her project with three volumes of Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling (47-49) in 1967, 1972, and 1979.  The first two developed a broad theory of aesthetics based on a theory of symbols and the last presented her view of the biological underpinnings of mind and art.  Rarely cited today, her work seems to have been eclipsed by two developments that took the field by storm during the latter part of her career.  The first began in 1948 with Shannon and Weaver’s book, A Mathematical Theory of Communication (67), and Weiner’s Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and Machine (61).  The ensuing developments in information theory and technology revolutionized our thinking in virtually every area of scientific studies and most areas in humanistic studies broadly defined.  The second development was the transformation working in the life sciences with the discovery of DNA’s structure in 1952.  Three important milestones here would be Jacques Monod’s book Chance and Necessity (53) in 1971 and Richard Dawkins two books, The Selfish Gene(13) in 1976 and The Extended Phenotype (14) in 1982.  Later would come E. O. Wilson’s work promoting a sociobiological approach (77, 78).

The first development, information sciences, gave us powerful tools for studying the brain and its processes and a powerful metaphor of that brain as a machine of logic and information processes epitomized by servomechanisms.  The second development furthered the notion that genes are central to life and its evolution.  This reinforced the view of an organism as a machine, a rule governed series of chemical processes instigated and ultimately controlled by the genome.  More importantly, the gene-centered view of evolution motivated a keen focus on adaptive success.  If a biological feature did not contribute to future adaptiveness, it was at best a spandrel and more likely just noise in the signal.  This led, for example, to the sociobiological study of animal, including human, behavior.  Here beauty and aesthetics, if important, signaled mate robustness, thereby helping to shape the hereditary flow into the gene pool.  To be sure, both developments have contributed mightily to our understanding of human nature.

Yet each had theoretical and so also empirical limits to the furtherance in our understanding human nature and these in the last decade or two have been elucidated in important ways (56). Information machines process symbols regardless of their meaning. Their symbols are abstract enough to be governed by Boolean logic, and that leaves them without particular meaning or import.  In short, they are disembodied and while this abstraction is a powerful tool, it is not commensurate with biological processes.  Such a realization can be found in Lakoff and Johnson’s two books, Metaphors We Live By (42) and Philosophy in the Flesh (43), Varela, Thompson and Rosch’s landmark, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (72), and the writings of Nobel laureate Gerald Edelman and Giuliani Tononi, e.g., A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination (24), who used computer simulations powerfully in their research while maintaining the distinction between brain and machine.  Machine and biological (e.g., human) information and meaning, especially when given that the former is derivative of the latter, are distinctly different.

Similarly the limits of the gene centered view of evolution and life have been delineated by those who, once again keeping their theoretical efforts grounded in embodiment, find that a broader and more adequate perspective includes ecological considerations.  This is perhaps most cogently explicated by Susan Oyama in The Ontogeny of Information (56).  She articulates a much different view of life through her wide ranging polemic on various theoretical perspectives and research endeavors focused on understanding the nature of life, and so of human nature, that highlights the error of assuming one way control of life by its genome.  She shows, instead, that life is more aptly conceived as a developmental system, e.g., what is inherited is not just a set of chromosomes but also an ecology and, quite importantly, the history of the genome-environment interaction.  Deeply embedded in her view of biological processes is the understanding that life qua organism is autonomous and, though quite responsive to both external and internal information, engenders its own activity and course of actions.  Oyama as well argues that machine metaphors are both helpful and misleading; the search for mechanical processes such as found in servomechanisms in the brain is one example of how this assumption has both helped and misled research endeavors.  Again, organisms use feedback to guide their actions but their impulses are based more on feedforward and other sorts of autonomous and endogenous processes quite consistent with Edelman and Tononi’s idea of reentrant processing for constructing mental operations (24).

With this review we can see that the two large theoretical developments that eclipsed Susanne Langer’s work to construct a theory of aesthetics consistent with our biological nature have shifted enough for some of her light to shine through.  Art is, she explains, abstracted feeling, or better, abstracted felt experience.  These abstractions are different from what we usually refer to as ‘abstract’; they are ideas of feelings.  Thus, her two modes of symbolization are discursive, exemplified by language, and presentational, exemplified by art. They differ largely in their compositional elements, language’s lexical units of independent meaning and art’s arbitrary bits of no independent meaning, e.g., notes, colors, lines, etc., and their structure, language’s linearized syntactic open-ended constructions and art’s gestalt forms upon which elements are dependent for their contributions to the work’s import.  Language, she says, carries semantic meaning; art conveys aesthetic import.  This last is an important difference, because while the surface or public structures of both discursive and presentational forms are just that, surface and objective, it is in their deep structures where important differences in their symbolic processes of abstraction are to be found.  Presentational symbols, i.e., art, are vital forms; their deep structure, i.e., import, is a virtual (Langer was one of the earliest to use the word ‘virtual’ in this way) representation of felt life.  This idea is articulated by her early books, Philosophy in a New Key, Feeling and Form, and very concisely in Problems of Art (45).

From this perspective, our understanding of thought and feeling seems enfeebled.  As the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamono wrote, “Man is said to be a reasoning animal.  I do not know why he has not been defined as an affective or feeling animal.  Perhaps that which differentiates him from other animals is feeling rather than reason” (1). (Written in 1954 and cited in Aho in Existentialism: An Introduction 2014). Perhaps this is what William James referred to when he said humans have more instincts and not fewer than other animals (34).  Such a view is decidedly in line with preeminent neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s view that emotion is as important as cognition in our neural operations, as he has explained now in several books,  Descartes’ Error (9) and The Strange Order of Things:  Life, Feeling and the Making of Cultures (11).  And this no doubt motivated Langer to entitle her 3 volume work, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling.  (As an aside, the research by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman (37) and others shows that even trained academic minds operate more based upon heuristics than logical rules. We feel our way forward even and especially in our intellectual endeavors).

We can now approach the question, ‘Is art an evolutionary spandrel?’ from a quite different direction.

Next section to appear soon.

 

Prehistoric art: updated timeline

Apropos of my current focus on art as a spandrel (to be continued the next post), the recent 9/14/19 issue of Science News has a brief report on a new find of ancient art in China.  Two bones have been found with distinctively decorative cuts (not the kind found from butchering the meat), a series of straight lines that in one case were rubbed with ochre (see my post on red ochre from 10/13/18) to highlight the work.  These bones have been reliably dated back to 100,000 years ago, and the cuts may have been made by Denisovans who migrated from central Russia to southeastern Asia and the Himalayan region.  The article also includes a summary of other finds suggestive of artwork, the oldest being a shell carved by probably Homo erectus almost a half million years ago in Indonesia.  So our aesthetic sensibility has been evolving (or is it developing?) for longer than Homo sapiens has been extant.

Straight lines rubbed with ochre is not very artistic, I hear some say.  Well, sure, but we are talking the dawn of humanity here.  And sometimes less is more—simplicity is a virtue of much high art.  Consider the famous Japanese rock garden at a Zen temple in Kyoto where simplicity conveys an abstract truth about our experience:

512px-Kyoto-Ryoan-Ji_MG_4512

Zen Garden in Kyoto     photo credit:Cquest [CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D

 

Now consider two Japanese terms for aesthetic experiences, aware and yugen.  Aware (a-wahr-ay) refers to the feeling of the fleeting fragility of life and experience.  Susan Langer said that we became human when we realized that a life was one single act with a beginning and an end.  That realization underlies, I think, the aesthetic feeling of aware.  Yugen refers to a deep inexpressible feeling felt upon some aesthetic realization of mystery—our being becomes luminous with some complex felt experience.  Plumbing such depths does not come instantaneously; this ability comes over time as one engages steadily with beauty.  We will never know what was going on in the mind of the creature cutting those lines and smearing ochre, but I think a reasonable suggestion is that their ruminations over their artwork were incipient to the new feelings of aware and yugen—these meditations, silent or expressed, around the hearth fire with the shadows dancing around the gathering  were indeed quite important to developing humanity.  Travel on from here only if you must.

Is art a spandrel?

This post starts a series of posts in which I seek to answer the question:

IS ART AN EVOLUTIONARY SPANDREL?

Is art an evolutionary spandrel?  In other words, is art some concomitant or epiphenomenon of our species’ adaptation whereby our genetic heritage changed to promote better survival, e.g., enhanced cognition and memory, and these beneficial changes carried other incidental changes that were not central to our adaptive improvement, e.g., art?  Or is art one of the enhanced abilities that contributes centrally to our fitness?  Pinker and Bloom (61) use the example of blood’s redness as a spandrel resulting from the use of iron in hemoglobin to carry oxygen.  The red has little to do with the improved oxygenation of blood cells that increased survival value.  Gould and Lewontin [cited by Pinker and Bloom (61)] borrowed the word, ‘spandrel,’ from architecture, where two arches form a corner with the ceiling, leaving a triangular space that was later filled with decorative art.  The spandrel does not contribute to the structural integrity of the building though it does allow further modification for decorative purposes.  So my question becomes, “Is art is an arch or pillar supporting human nature or an ancillary decorative feature with small implication for who we are biologically?

To be sure, I use this evolutionary question not so much in a technical sense and more as a rhetorical device to explore how we think about art, human experience, and our biological nature.  The past few decades have seen increased efforts at understanding how Homo sapiens developed a sense of aesthetics and the production and appreciation of art. Some scholars have focused on sociobiological issues. Bioaesthetics(8) yields a broad survey of recent assays from this perspective. The Origins of Music(74) focuses specifically on this genre as music does seem to be a privileged art form.  Some focus on how our brains do art.  This is especially so with music, where several books examine the neurological underpinnings of musical composition, performance and appreciation.  Fine examples are Music, Language and the Brain(58) and This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession(50).  Others have focused on other art forms.  Notable neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran suggests one hypothesis about how the brain does visual art in a chapter of The Telltale Brain(62) and incidentally asserts that art does not contribute to survival value.  Nobel laureate in medicine Eric Kandel focuses on visual art and the neurological systems involved in its initial processing in his book, The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind and the Brain, From Vienna 1900 to the Present(39). Dr. Kandel also treats the issues involved in seeking to understand art scientifically in Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures(40).

Clearly understanding human art involves many perspectives.  Archeological efforts have so far discovered artistic artifacts dating back at least 100,000 year ears ago and one claim has been made based on a design etched on a clam shell dating back 500,000 years ago.  A bone flute from Central Europe is dated to around 44,000 years ago and suspected to be the product of our cousins, the Neandertals.  Reconstruction of its presumed acoustic properties suggests that it was skillfully made with knowledge of its musical properties (75). During this Paleolithic period cave paintings, sculptures and decorative objects became more prevalent.  In a related development humans (of one sort or another) began ritualized burials around 300,000 years ago and at some point these included artifacts, including tools and sculptures; such findings must also be figured into our historical understanding.  Going through history and the expansion of art in Neolithic and classical times, we come to our modern era where art is ubiquitous in all human cultures, the study of which led Ellen Dissayanake to call us Homo aestheticus (23).

With all of these perspectives of these various facets of our artistic nature, how do we begin to see the object, the gem, whole?

Stay tuned for the next installment sometime in the near future.  Until then, travel on.