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.


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:


Zen Garden in Kyoto     photo credit:Cquest [CC BY-SA 2.5 (


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.

Prehistoric village map?

Check out this report on PLOSONE about a rock dated from 13,800 years ago carved with a series of semi-circles arranged together:

Or shorter version here on the LAT:

Of course we don’t know what this really portrays but we do know that it is different from other carvings and paintings of that period, which are mostly lovely beasts and some humanoid figures. The paleoarcheologists who did the work to find the stone say their best hypothesis is that these marks represent huts, which we are pretty sure were common back in prehistoric days, gathered in a village about the size expected of a local population then. And maybe it is such a rendering of their social domain.

Or maybe the marks map out local peaks where ancestors were interred. On our recent trip to Ireland we climbed Knocknarea and stood beside Queen Maeve’s tomb thought to date from around 4 or 5000 years ago.


Queen Maeve’s tomb atop Knocknarea in County Sligo

A large passage tomb, it is shaped like the marks on the stone as well, but more interestingly, from the top of that mountain we could look out over the surrounding coastal plain to a series of low mountains and peaks, and the information signs pointed out that cairns, smaller than the Queen’s of course, stood atop most of those peaks.


Each of the peaks surrounding Knocknarea has a cairn on top.

Maybe someone wanted to document where the bodies were buried, so to speak, as a mnemonic for reciting the old stories around the village fire. Or maybe the marks are poorly rendered stars of the Pleiades, the Seven Sisters, from where some say we all came, so they mark the way home.


We want to return to our home planet (or star cluster).

The scientists say that without more evidence and especially without better clues as to the artist’s intent, any hypothesis cannot be conclusive. Amen. It is a fine mystery.

In my readings over the past several months I have run by the word ‘intention’ several times. The concept is important, no doubt, but I fear that we are now using it to demarcate specifically human capacities, and that would be wrong. Birds sing, humans intentionally make music, as Peter Marler suggests in his essay, “Origins of Music and Speech: Insight from Animals” in The Origins of Music (a book I am excited to be reading). I know other animals also intend some actions. Maybe the mocking bird that claims our yard with his song does so intentionally especially when a rival dares to utter a peep. Maybe a politician claims the high ground of demagoguery intentionally, or maybe he is just an unconsciously self-righteous prig, er, well, let me not resort to name calling here, but I have my doubts about using some simple or undifferentiated concept of intentionality to characterize human-specific actions.

Let me regress again to my 10 year old self and wonder if I go to the bathroom intentionally, unlike infants who respond unconsciously (instinctively?) to pressure in their bladder and bowel. I watch the steers out my kitchen window grazing. They seem to empty one or both quite nonchalantly, even as they continue to graze, but I notice they never back up after doing so. A sign of intelligence, that, like a dog that refuses to soil its own space or a wolf pack on the hunt. Whatever the degree of their intention there, the operation of some value seems apparent.

Marler presents a clear, coherent and knowledgeable discussion of the possible relationships between human communication and that of other animals. He ends up focusing on the incredible creativity and the seeming pleasure of novelty as some bird species sing learned songs that are quite novel and individual and unconstrained by innate structure and function. Our mocking bird sings astoundingly some summer mornings when no other bird is to be heard.


We call him Mozart

I can certainly take it as a performance of pleasure, the same as when I used to dance about with no known pattern but the finding of new motion or as my wife paints to create a new space. So maybe that rock with the huts did initiate a new glyph learning curve that brought human structures into the imagination and memory of the people (or something else equally wonderful). Travel on.

Recalibrating the art history of music

So reading Robert Jourdain’s book Music, The Brain, and Ecstasy, I wondered some more about the biological roots of music. Mr. Jourdain observes that we moderns listen to music almost on demand in incidental and volitional ways and states that the special participatory nature of music has consequently diminished. Before the concert form arose in the parlors of the rich in the 17th century, he says further that musical experience was lacking for most and that to a peasant in the middle ages, music was mostly work songs and lullabies. I believe this neglects a lot of history.


We have a bone flute estimated at 43,000 years old. We have the earliest literature derived from oral traditions mentioning bards, poets, songs, lutes and lyres from 8000 years ago. Musical scenes on pottery derive from the same time. Lao-Tzu mentions music and voice in the Tao Te Ching from the 6th century BCE. Drums are more fragile with time’s passage but I think it is a safe assumption that they are at least as old as the flute. We have visual art from 45,000 years ago, so some aesthetic sense was rising. (Remember we have an estimate that modern languages appeared 500,000 years ago, fire and cooking 1.8 million years ago, and tools from over 2 million years ago—see post 5/2/15).


As discussed a few posts below on 9/8/15, A. Patel in his masterful book, Music, Language and the Brain, says that the best candidate for a distinctive musical evolutionary trait is our ability to keep a regular, e.g., metronomic, beat (though more recent research shows some of the same in bonobos). Susanne Langer in Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, v. 3, imagines that dancing to the beat provided the opportunity for mathematical advancement in the discovery of patterns, even in fractions, as some rambunctious young dancer double-timed the steps and jumped the beat. And let us not forget Pythagoras (say 500 BCE) and his followers who found mathematical patterns in tonal octaves or even earlier, Apollo as the god of music.


The development of technology for making instruments, musical notation and finally recordings are in some ways analogous to the development of glyphs with oral language—we began a new learning curve. Same with the influence of photography on painting.   My point here is really that there is a long and largely unconsidered history to music that we are actually just beginning to explore with any rigor. Yes, music is participatory in its inception and now we listen more passively but so did the Greeks listen to Homer and other bards strumming the lyre, playing the pan pipes, and beating the drum. And music is pervasive in human culture. In the mid-19th century Alexander Carmichael gathered hundreds of songs and chants from the oral traditons of the Scottish people in his Carmina Gadelica. These pieces were about every facet of daily life and spiritual practice from both pre-Christian pagan times (say <400 C.E.) and Christian times. These accompanied, no doubt, a rising tradition of the Ceilidh, a social gathering centered around music, dance, and conversation (with perhaps some whisky about). Music, especially drums and trumpets, has been martial for a good while too. The English banned the great Highland pipes (bagpipes were known in 1000 BCE) in the 1700s as instruments of war (listen to a grand piper summoning the warrior spirit and you will understand). Later, with the development of excessive zeal from the reformation and the heightened superstition of the devil and dance, preachers ordered many of the Scots highlanders to destroy their fiddles, etc.

My, my, so much to consider, and here is one last item. Remember the research, again posted below on 8/27/14, that musical memories are some of the last to go in Alzheimer’s, even after memory of others’ and one’s own identity. So now we have music as magic, spiritual, daily, ritual, repression, expressive, mnemonic, emotive, martial, social, participatory, dance, mathematical, and starkly aesthetic as in sublimely artistic (think Mozart and Beethoven). Better travel on. And a one, and a two, and a . . .

prehistoric footprints

We have a special place for footprints:   Grauman’s Chinese Theater has recent celebrities’, Astaire studios have various dance steps on their floor for instructional purposes, the footprint in stone of the ancient king at Dal Riada in Scotland (in which my wife’s foot fitted exactly), and so on.  We have uncovered fossilized Homo footprints from long ago, including some in Kenya dated at 1.5 million years ago and another recent find in the UK dated at 850,000 years ago.  And then we have the footprints discussed in  the 7/11/15 edition of Science News (a fabulous edition with more blogs to come) found in France’s Tuc d’Audobert Cave.  Paleontologists brought in modern trackers from a tribe in Africa where everyone learns to track animals and to identify footprints of family and friends.  Pretty smart, eh?  Both the tribesmen and the scientists who brought them in to use their skills.  The trackers identified footprints from some ancients carrying something heavy and then those same ancients walking back to the the place where clay was dug to make bison sculptures.  The dug out hole matched the amount of clay needed for the sculptures.  The trackers were able to speculate knowledgeably about who these individuals were, e.g., sex and age.  Some paleontologists not associated with this effort expressed caution, saying people were different back then, but we are talking about only roughly 15,000 years ago and about prints easily identified as Homo, so I do not understand their hesitancy to accept that these findings have some validity (except as some academic prissiness).  It is a good read if you can find it.

BUT what really caught my eye was this:  Some of the prehistoric prints come from heel walking, i.e., walking only on the heels which leaves less individually identifiable information than regular walking.  Paleontologists have hypothesized that these heel prints came from some ritual dancers, but the African trackers disagreed.  They said that for them, heel walking is a way of leaving no identifiable tracks, which would suggest that whoever left these tracks wanted to remain anonymous.

WOW!  One of my more imaginative speculations about why some prehistoric drawings were done so very deeply in caves is that the artists wanted to escape detection and censure from the authorities, i.e., art was frowned upon the chief or shaman (see post on ancient art of 6/17/15).  Maybe the sculptors here faced those very same issues.  Intriguing about our nature, I think.  Art is sometimes still a little edgy.  Travel on darkly.

Traveling on

Just back from a vacation in SW France where I had the great good fortune to see 3 caves with prehistoric art, Lascaux II, Rouffingnac, and La Madeleine.  Lascaux II is an exact (within 5 mm) replica of the Lascaux cave discovered during WWII by some teenagers (one with a good dog who actually found the cave’s entrance newly uncovered by a storm) including some from Paris visiting the countryside of un-occupied France. The paintings deteriorated greatly over time and so the cave was closed to the public with this replica (90% of the cave and its paintings) standing in its stead. It was not a deep cave; the paintings have been dated to roughly 21,000 years ago (+/- 4,000). Remember agriculture had its good start around 10,000 years ago and then cities in the Middle East grew greatly around 6,000 years ago. Here is a Lascaux figure: Lascauxhorse Rouffingnac is a strange cave, very long and deep, and the drawings are several kilometers deep into the hillside. An extinct species of large bear markings have been found down there as well. In addition to the many drawings of mammoths and other animals, graffiti was painted on the walls and ceilings before its access was controlled. Someone named ‘Iris’ was there evidently. Here is one of the prehistoric drawings, author unknown, from around 13,000 years ago: 24rouffignac-bouquetins La Madeleine is quite different. Here I saw rock etchings and carvings into the stone of an overhang. Archeologists figure the site was a village of maybe a 100 people around 11,000 (+/- 3,000) years ago. Stone and dirt covered the art over the years and it was discovered through archeological efforts. Here is a picture: 15000-BC_Magdalenian-bison_Dordogne

Now these artistic images present much food for thought. Our rather brilliant guide focused on the differences in how available the images were to someone beside their creators. La Madeleine would have been seen by everyone in the area, Rouffingnac only by those who went very deep into the cave, and Lascaux falls in between those two, in a cave but not so deep as to need many candles or torches to get to it (and possibly daylight would have penetrated almost to it). Why some very public and why some seemingly very private?

Indeed, why paint/carve at all? Humans had certainly been communicating with language (Langer’s discursive forms) for many, many generations by then. Remembering the timeline, fire-making, cooking, and burials had been done for tens of thousands of years. Susanne Langer posited two illusions underlying all artistic performance. The first is the primary illusion that is the creation of the medium itself, e.g., painting is virtual space, sculpture is virtual volume, music is virtual time and emotion. All permit the creation of vital forms rendering some specific complexity of life, or the secondary illusion, (Langer’s presentational form). By this line of reasoning, art arose when it did as our ancestors’ minds developed both the virtual capacity for rendering imaginary complex forms and the intuitive sense of ineffable vital, particular life, i.e., some feeling too complex and sacred (in a broad sense) to be spoken. And so a new learning curve began.

So why public/private? Perhaps the beginnings of some mystic sense of helping life forms emerge from stone and darkness or of some privileged caste protective of their medium (oh, those silly priests) or that the art lasted longer in private or that the cave ambience yielded a canvas and suggested palette conducive to artistic efforts or that fewer distractions helped the mind’s eye to awaken or even that perhaps the first artists were disapproved of and needed secrecy, e.g., the clan leader or shaman believed this new mode of expression was not good, that it was evil in some manner, and thus needed to be controlled, even curtailed. 10,000 years later Plato would ban poets from his ideal republic because of their nefarious potential, and goodness knows how many invading and conquering peoples have destroyed art that they believed pernicious. Consider ISIS today. The carvings of La Madeleine were thus more permanent and perhaps from a culture that first came to appreciate openly the value of good art and its function in forming community and its memes.

Anyway, it is a good trip that leaves so many paths yet to wander. Travel on.