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.

 

a cultural tidbit

I have been thinking of culture again for some reason probably having to do with reading about neuroanthropology and their emphasis on how our brains do culture, and thinking more about Bourdieu’s habitus as the cultural way of doing things and how that does not seem to capture the knowledge structures that also contribute to culture, e.g., our values.  Along with this I continue to ponder with reverence Monod’s analysis of religion, science and values and his exhortation that an ethic of knowledge will lead to a knowledge of ethics.  And being a modern American I frequently worry about the media term, ‘culture wars’, as I resist the notion that people with conflicting values necessarily must clash and war over them and search for other metaphors to capture this phenomena.

I recently read a Vanity Fair article about Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, who advocates for acculturation as a way of assimilating the dispossessed, including immigrants, into mainstream society.  That is an interesting contrast with some in this country (and others) who assume that others must adopt on the own and immediately the general culture and its values to some specific degree or else be rejected as outsiders and alien.  Macron wants to help those who do not already participate in the majority’s cultural tradition to appreciate what he considers to be a friendly French culture and to incorporate new aspects from the cultures these ‘others’ bring with them. Sounds so very civilized, even normal, including the criticism that Macron is focusing on the cultural facet enjoyed by the more highly educated, even Parisian as some gasp, and that his effort to assimilate some cultural bits from others amounts to appropriation by the dominant majority (elite).  While I still think his effort to be inclusive is laudable, this notion of ‘high’ culture is what stimulated Dorothy Parker to pun, “You can lead a horticulture [whore to culture] but you can’t make her think”.  I think my country is now demonstrating that being an advanced nation with great material culture, even an educational system once held in high esteem, is no guarantee of intelligence, especially of a critical sort.

I also think that this notion of culture is like icing on a cake, lovely icing sometimes, not too sweet, but it is the cake underneath that is the basis of culture. This is why Bourdieu’s idea of the habitus is so apt, i.e., the habitual way a cultural group does things.  This applies to such things as eye contact, e.g., what is respectful between children and adults or younger adults with their elders, physical distance when conversing, e.g., Americans stand a couple of feet way, many Europeans move closer, emotional expression, e.g., boys don’t cry, some Asian societies maintain impassive expressions, how children are disciplined, etc, etc., etc.  Bourdieu did much cultural research into how marriages are arranged and determined to be good for both families in some Arab societies.  Look at how different cultures manage what are acceptable roles for females or the role of fighting between young males or more generally what is respectable or orthodox.

I read in The Encultured Brain, a primer for neuroanthropology, that some less modern cultures regard knowledge of healing practices as secret and that if shared outside the healer-patient relationship, the knowledge becomes useless, i.e., the practice consisting of magical chants will not be effective. Contrast this with western medicine where healing knowledge is publicly disbursed and evaluated so it may be made more effective.

Then I also read there:  “Long term neurological and perceptual adaptation to the tasks we set ourselves is a form of enculturation”.  In a chapter about how equilibrium varies among cultures Greg Downey focuses on his training in capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian form of martial arts, where it seems you spend some time upside down or sideways and must keep you eyes on your opponent, thus you cannot use vision to maintain balance but must train your body to rely on body awareness and vestibular feedback.   Acknowledging that maintaining one’s equilibrium is not really a conscious task, i.e., the more you have to focus on balance, the less you can focus on otherwise, he maintains that equilibrium is a learned skill and that makes it a cultural one (I am not sure about that).  He cites research showing that toddlers just learning to walk use vision more to right themselves; older kids rely more on vestibular sensing; again this seems biological more than cultural.

He also mentions that many Japanese walk using more of a lower leg focus, e.g., knee to foot, while many Westerners organize their gait from their hips and so take longer strides.  I found this interesting for a couple of reasons.  I spent my teenage years in Japan and remember that many used a more shuffling sort of gait, i.e., short steps, coming down less severely on the heel, almost stepping flat-footed but not quite.  This was more prominent with elders and with women and I attributed this to the constraints of their clothing and their wooden sandals that have two vertical strips of wood underneath the flat bed rather than a raised heel, instep, etc. like our shoes do.  (These sandals seemed especially apt on rainy days.)  Any way, another cultural feature is that they never wear shoes in the house, only slippers.

Another reason is that with two joint replacements and a bit of age on me I find walking in the dark more difficult, harder to maintain my balance without visual input.  And our farm here in a high mountain valley has no level or even ground anywhere except garden patches, so I find that a knee to foot gait with shorter steps and less emphasis on heel-toe ala Japanese is quite adaptive to maintaining balance on this terrain.  Now here is my question:  What is the distinction among cultural phenomena, adaptive skills given age, terrain, etc., and training specific abilities to a higher level?

Culture is an amorphous concept with many levels, from the high culture historical identity, the arts, key values, and form of governance down to more basic levels in roles ascribed to females, males, etc., and body language and social mores.  A martial art such as capoeira is certainly cultural, so I guess the subsidiary training for proficiency is also cultural, but I also wonder if skill development should really be termed cultural.  Sure play and sports contribute to culture because they are social forms (mental, behavioral, cognitive) that are shared amongst members of the group. A kid on the playground practicing dribbling with either hand and between the legs or a farmhand working to pick faster with both hands while still handling the fruit carefully do not, to my thinking, share cultural forms as much as they concentrate on one’s individual ability.  True that ability is for cultural practice but that seems to me a social frame or role. Otherwise I think everything we do might be called cultural when I think everything we do is biological and culture should be reserved for the social constructs governing our participation in group interactions, i.e., habitus, or this is how we do things and how you perform some of those things is your own making special your performance.

Complicated issues here and I must say these are my first thoughts upon reading in The Encultured Brain.  One sign of a good book is what thoughts it provokes and I am enjoying reading it.  Think about this a little bit before traveling on.

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.