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.


WP on art and the brain

So we have a wonderful audiovisual piece on art and the brain from the Washington Post: . I think it gives a good accounting of how our brains do art, though of course I have some quibbles. This work gets right its emphasis that art connects us to something larger, that it uses the mirror system, that narrative is important, that key elements serve to evoke emotions and that when those elements are congruous, the emotions are evoked more strongly, and that art serves a shared consciousness.

They understand that empathy is an important component to this process. We mirror emotions just like we mirror the ballet dancer’s movements and the quality of those movements convey different emotions. Though cited without any explanation or hint as to its complexity, metaphor is deemed critical to art. They understand that we feel more strongly (by some measure—I could carry on about this a bit but not now) with tragedy. They even speak about how a “performer’s separate motions [are] one psychologically rich phrase”, which is a dim echo of Langer’s discussion of art and rhythm. Perhaps the strongest message here is that while art is “the domain of the heart” science can and should help us understand the phenomena. And I would add that understanding only increases appreciation.

Being quite prejudiced, I noticed several instances where acquaintance with Susanne Langer’s philosophy would have clarified and emboldened their explication. In a silly pique I took exception to the phrase “wordless language of symbols” when Langer gives us plenty of conceptual support to talk about presentational symbols apart from discursive linguistic ones and I think the difference is important, as you know if you have followed this blog much at all. Likewise Langer talked about artistic import (vs. linguistic meaning) emphasizing the rhythmicity of the artistic gestalt and its elements, the interplay among different artistic forms, e.g., why happy dance and sad music might not kindle the same strong emotion as sad dance and music would but then art is not about purity of emotion, is it? Perhaps most importantly she emphasized the unity of the artistic piece and the rendering of personal experience into a vital experiential gestalt; the artistic form regardless of the medium must be unified, coherent and luminous. Oh, how I wish we would understand how our scientific understanding of the roots of our humanity is traveling towards what Langer has already elucidated; progress would be surer if we followed her guidance.

One more quibble, and please remember that I do appreciate this report more than almost any other I have seen for a long time, is that this story brings forth the notion of ‘neuroaesthetics’. Yes, neuro stuff is all the new sexy rage, but I am old school, really old school and a bit cranky at that, and so make two points. One is that ours is an embodied mind, as in my basic concept here on this blog of soma, its brain and the MEMBRAIN, and so art, as a symbol of vital experience, is also embodied in its operations. Sure, our brain and MEMBRAIN are mighty conductors of communal experience but that experience is lived in the soma, i.e., the body. Watch dance, ballet, modern, flamingo or otherwise without body awareness and you will have missed the point.  Parsing the soma out of art is just another example of cognitive distortion towards the discursive and rational excluding emotion and irrationality.  This brings me to my second point which is that we never should have segregated aesthetics from its biological role in the first place; then we would never have the need to for it to be neuro because of course it is—it is biological. So, just ‘aesthetics’ will do nicely, thank you very much, because I understand the biological context of human culture and its roots in empathy and symbolization. Travel on (and look at the Post piece).

Mixed metaphors

Things are about to get complicated here as I mix some metaphors up. To begin I will post this optical illusion developed by Gestalt psychologists in the early 20th century.  They used it to illustrate that the brain’s visual perceptual system can operate with one gestalt at at time.


You can focus on either the faces or the chalice but not both at the same time; one figure must be relegated to ground in service to the other. The gestalt theorists gave us a really good and useful concept there.  Simple enough.

Focus on the chalice for a moment.  Our biological roots have culminated in our symbolic capability.  Symbols carry meaning, so we must create meaning.  Symbols represent things even if those things are conceptual in nature; nothing like quarks or multiverses or Higgs fields or Zeus out there really.  For me the holy grail of neuroscience is to understand how our brains make meaning using symbols.  This may not be possible; it will certainly not be done easily.  Other goals, like understanding psychiatric disorders, are more important, but still, the pure science of the matter is that we seek to understand the basis of our humanity and this basis derives from our symbolization ability.  More later.

Focus on the faces for a moment.  Long years ago I became fascinated with conversations, the linguistics, the pragmatics, the paralinguistics of conversations.  Exceedingly commonplace with an endless variety of purposes and forms, conversations require that symbolic processing proceed rapidly, fluently, accurately about topics that are more often displaced in time and space and not immediately evident to our senses.  We converse by understanding another and expressing ourselves and the power and facility with which we do this is amazing.  Working as a speech/language pathologist I worked with children facing various challenges in conversing but they all wanted to converse just like they wanted to walk.  Conversing is in our nature and of course it is biological.  More to come.

So the optical illusion is a metaphor for the holy grail of neuroscience, symbolization, and for perhaps the most pervasive distinctively human behavior of all, conversation. One is ground for the other’s figure.  Stay tuned.