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 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.

An insomniac’s reverie

Nights can be full of adventure for an insomniac living in the country. I recently connected some dots on a side trip from my main journey, thinking about Pierre Teilhard de Chardin for the first time in a while, Dissanayake’s book Homo Aestheticus which I reflect on periodically, and Monod’s Chance and Necessity, which is a daily meditation. When I finally did fall asleep I descended through a lovely vision of Gaia covered with artistic impulses flashing, some darkly and some lightly, strongly sensed by some of us here on earth, perhaps hardly seen from a distance into space. Art has migrated from its inception around communal fires, deep in caves and ‘making special’ many activities and objects (thank you, Ms. Dissanayake for documenting the ubiquity and importance of art) to illuminating the noosphere with its luminous light.

Remember that colorful priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who helped discover Peking Man and whom the Vatican prohibited from writing and teaching philosophy? (See post 12/17/16). He developed a conception of Gaia as first a geosphere, the dynamic rocky planet earth, then a biosphere as life evolved and spread over our planet, transforming it into Gaia, and then the noosphere, where human knowledge analogously covers the planet. Some say his vision contained the world wide web in its view, but at the least he thought that we humans would continuously connect and those connections would self-organize into a more inclusive society. (Never mind about his theory about we are evolving to join with the divine at the Omega point. I don’t think that he would have thought that if he had known about how civilization would foment the conflicts and wars over the last 70 years or the degradation of American politics today).

Monod propounded a brilliant version of the biosphere when he wrote about “an intuitive global picture of living systems whose phenomenal complexity defies assimilation”. Consider the variety and spread of life here from single cell organisms on up through multi-celled ones including us: the soil on our farm is full of microbial fertility (as are we—check your biome), many of our trees are herd creatures needing conspecifics nearby for vital resiliency (see The Secret Life of Trees), fungi inhabit the earth’s surface in a astonishing net of somas and spores, etc. Consider the number of cellular generations over the past 4+ billion years and Monod’s idea “of the extent of the vast reservoir of fortuitous variability contained with the genome of a species—again in spite of the jealously guarded conservative properties of the replicative mechanism” when he estimates for modern humans with a 1970 population of then some 3 billion “there occur, with each new generation, some hundred billion to a thousand billion mutations.” Wow, that is some ‘reservoir’ of chance and necessity that supplies our evolution.

No wonder, then, that he can say, “What doubt can there be of the presence of the spirit within us? To give up the illusion that sees in it an immaterial ‘substance’ is not to deny the existence of the soul, but on the contrary to begin to recognize the complexity, the richness, the unfathomable profundity of the genetic and cultural heritage and of the personal experience, conscious or otherwise, which together constitute this being of ours: the unique and irrefutable witness to itself.” I will only add the comment that Monod here fulfills Chris Hitchens’ dream (before he even had it—see post 11/17/14) of bringing the noumenal out of the supernatural realm into the natural one. If it exists, it is natural; if it is not natural, it does not exist except in our imagination, which of course is natural.

Now remember an image of all the lights we have on earth at night as seen from space, you know, the maps showing cities as bright blotches, rural areas as darker, and North Korea as unilluminated. Now consider that every organism, small and large, comprises many energetic transactions in the course of its life, each a chemical spark of vitality brightening its drops of water, and you can glimpse how Gaia glows in the cosmos, our precious blue ball hurtling through space. Finally imagine all the human endeavors creating art that make the noosphere glow with a luminous aesthetic as we share our complex vital experiences of life’s opportunities and hard exigencies. You might ken then an old farmer-philosopher’s insomniac reverie while watching the land on a snowy spring night.

Beauty beyond evolutionary adaptation

An article in the New York Times reports that a biologist is challenging his peers to consider the appearance of beauty as exceeding the bounds of evolutionary success, i.e., sometimes beauty just happens without reference to reproductive success. Hurrah! Here is link: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/29/science/evolution-of-beauty-richard-prum-darwin-sexual-selection.html.  Richard Prum studies birds and so understands pretty well that the song and plumage of male birds as well as the nests of bower birds are important factors in female selection of mates. Given the exigencies of natural selection, we assume that such male traits and behaviors provide reliable signals about the viability of the genes the male contributes to the next generation. Of course genetic viability is difficult to assess, so I think that our assumption is just that and the question of whether the best genes for survival also promote the best signaling is still an empirical one. Anyone know of research into this? And not just for birds, but for guppies and lightning bugs and . . . .

Even humans. Do the most attractive people (somewhat culturally determined) pass on the better genes? If so, are our half humorous stereotypes of the dumb (but handsome) jock, the vacuous beauty and all the other good lookers simply wrong? External signaling may fail to convey information about mental prowess (and presumably the genes that carry that forward) and I am sure that some nerds make great mates. We humans, though, find beauty in places besides evolutionary viability, and though I certainly believe that both the apprehension and the creation of beauty through art is a positive evolutionary development and that it contributes greatly to our species’ humanity and success, even that Picasso’s or Einstein’s or Spike Lee’s genes are quite important in that regard, I think that much happens on Gaia and in each life that bears little connection to reproductive success. So I applaud Dr. Prum’s prodding his colleagues on this point.

To develop a line of thinking that runs through my blog, artistic work seems to come two ways, both an expression of an individual, thus dependent upon the lonely self and its social expressiveness. The first is Dissanayake’s ‘making special’ where, akin to ‘signaling’ cited above, we mark our tools and objects and surroundings as special, e.g., a craftsman forms a tool of elegant shape for its function or adds designs to enhance its beauty or we bring flowers into the house or otherwise decorate our surroundings (see post 5/16/16). This I call art as incidental. Then we have art that is more central to its own intention, art for art’s sake in modern terms, though earlier art served a religious or spiritual purpose, which also seems a special class of intent. The difference is one of degrees perhaps, but the first is an expression of self (signaling the self’s specialness) and the second is an expression of the self’s experience (a symbol communicating some import of felt life, following, as always, Susanne Langer).

The NYT article cites a question by physicist Manu Prakash, “Why is there so much beauty?” How to answer? Just the way the cookie crumbles? Gaia only rolls that way? Or humans, and maybe other animals in their own way, notice patterns, and some patterns ‘speak’ more. I remember years ago reading about Paul Dirac, who shared the 1933 Nobel Erwin Schrodinger (see previous post) for his contributions to quantum theory. Dirac’s equation predicted the existence of anti-matter, and while many initially were skeptical, Dirac said he knew his equation bore some truth because it was “beautiful.” (For the record, Dirac seems to have operated on the genius end of the autistic spectrum). Another pattern are Fibonacci numbers, a curious set of integers where each one in the progression is a sum of the preceding two. Mathematicians have found various properties to these and biologists have discovered that they seem to operate in a variety of ways in nature; consider some genetic patterns and flower patterns like this chamomile flower with the Fibonacci pattern marked out for us.

FibonacciChamomile

By User:Alvesgaspar:derivative work: RDBury (Mother_and_daughter.jpg)

Now I am back in a period of reading books by and about James Joyce, so of course his aesthetic theory based upon Acquinas (at least that old guy got something right) comes to mind: beauty has 3 properties, integrity (unity), harmony (coherence of parts in that unity) and radiance (the light shining through the form illuminating the artistic import). The first two are well known in Gestalt Theory, e.g., the whole is more than the sum of its parts, but the third now, what about radiance? Consider this photograph:

cloudsocean

What’s it to be, luminous or numinous?

A cloud of billowing integrity composed harmonically of statically floating water condensation and, when I first saw it, a beautiful vision. We perceive (and some create) patterns; to some we bring radiance and thus we apprehend the beauty in nature and in our own artifactual creations. If there is a lot of beauty around, we bring it there ourselves (oh humans, and the converse as well).

Finally, back to evolution and the ocean of life. Last year we saw a beautiful (oh yes, there it is again) film, Tangerines, about an old man, Ivo, caught up in a civil war in eastern Europe who helps others without question and who, it turns out, has lost his son in the war and his family has left him to move back to Estonia and escape the violence, while he remains to help a friend with his tangerine harvest and to tend his son’s grave. The film’s artistic import centers around Ivo’s heroic effort to lead a good life in a world torn by war. And evolution? What do an old man’s tears over losing his family and home have to do with evolution? A koan for modern times. Linger here awhile before traveling on.

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.