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.