The Evolution of Art

The Science Times has an interesting article on some recent theories of the origins of art, as a human phenomenon (which reminds me, go check out my story, Venus Envy, now available online for the low low price of FREE at Fringe Magazine!)...

From an evolutionary perspective, what is the "use" of art? Why do we have it? How does it benefit us?

But while some researchers have suggested that our artiness arose accidentally, as a byproduct of large brains that evolved to solve problems and were easily bored, Ms. Dissanayake argues that the creative drive has all the earmarks of being an adaptation on its own. The making of art consumes enormous amounts of time and resources, she observed, an extravagance you wouldn’t expect of an evolutionary afterthought [sic]. Art also gives us pleasure, she said, and activities that feel good tend to be those that evolution deems [sic] too important to leave to chance.
Like far too many stories in the Science Times, this one too personifies evolution (saying it "deems" something, for example, implies it is an active force with intelligence, which is fun to think, but not true; evolution is simply the inevitable effect of dead animals not reproducing, while live ones can, and can pass on some of their traits, too).

So is art adaptive? Does possessing artistic qualities contribute to the survival of the species?
Geoffrey Miller and other theorists have proposed that art serves as a sexual display, a means of flaunting one’s talented palette of genes. Again, Ms. Dissanayake has other ideas. To contemporary Westerners, she said, art may seem detached from the real world, an elite stage on which proud peacocks and designated visionaries may well compete for high stakes. But among traditional cultures and throughout most of human history, she said, art has also been a profoundly communal affair, of harvest dances, religious pageants, quilting bees, the passionate town rivalries that gave us the spires of Chartres, Reims and Amiens.

Art, she and others have proposed, did not arise to spotlight the few, but rather to summon the many to come join the parade — a proposal not surprisingly shared by our hora teacher, Steven Brown of Simon Fraser University. Through singing, dancing, painting, telling fables of neurotic mobsters who visit psychiatrists, and otherwise engaging in what Ms. Dissanayake calls “artifying,” people can be quickly and ebulliently drawn together, and even strangers persuaded to treat one another as kin. Through the harmonic magic of art, the relative weakness of the individual can be traded up for the strength of the hive, cohered into a social unit ready to take on the world.

This is an interpretation that appeals to my way of thinking: I've never liked the image of the artist as an ego in need of expression. I've always preferred the image of the artist as conduit for the needs thoughts and feelings of a time and place. But wait, there's more:
As David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary theorist at Binghamton University, said, the only social elixir of comparable strength is religion, another impulse that spans cultures and time.
Talk about strolling through Amy's theoretical garden! I am of course entirely non-religious, but I absolutely love religion because it is the ultimate art form. Participatory, ritualistic, immersive, REAL. I don't think people would be ignorant of the wrongness of murder without commandments against it, but I do think that societies could not form without this kind of connective tissue. Some friendships are entirely based on a similar taste in music or films. More are based on similar tastes in God. Art can hold a society together. Religion is a closed system of art that take that on as its purpose.

So this leaves a final question: where does it come from? What defines its form?

Perhaps the most radical element of Ms. Dissanayake’s evolutionary framework is her idea about how art got its start. She suggests that many of the basic phonemes of art, the stylistic conventions and tonal patterns, the mental clay, staples and pauses with which even the loftiest creative works are constructed, can be traced back to the most primal of collusions — the intimate interplay between mother and child.

After studying hundreds of hours of interactions between infants and mothers from many different cultures, Ms. Dissanayake and her collaborators have identified universal operations that characterize the mother-infant bond. They are visual, gestural and vocal cues that arise spontaneously and unconsciously between mothers and infants, but that nevertheless abide by a formalized code: the calls and responses, the swooping bell tones of motherese, the widening of the eyes, the exaggerated smile, the repetitions and variations, the laughter of the baby met by the mother’s emphatic refrain. The rules of engagement have a pace and a set of expected responses, and should the rules be violated, the pitch prove too jarring, the delays between coos and head waggles too long or too short, mother or baby may grow fretful or bored.

To Ms. Dissanayake, the tightly choreographed rituals that bond mother and child look a lot like the techniques and constructs at the heart of much of our art. “These operations of ritualization, these affiliative signals between mother and infant, are aesthetic operations, too,” she said in an interview. “And aesthetic operations are what artists do. Knowingly or not, when you are choreographing a dance or composing a piece of music, you are formalizing, exaggerating, repeating, manipulating expectation and dynamically varying your theme.” You are using the tools that mothers everywhere have used for hundreds of thousands of generations.

To which I can only say, GOO GOO GA JOOB.

And go read "Venus Envy"! It's evoluta-riffic!

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