Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The roots of communication are the roots of esthetics

Natalie Angier muses today in the Science Times about art - from whence it came and why. Is it the product of oversized brains that have too little to do? Some theorists have deemed art a way of preening. Having worked in the field for twenty-odd years, I can certainly see the connection. It starts with putting pictures up on the refrigerator and tales of great divas let us know where it can end up. Others see art as a social glue - like religion. Ellen Dissanayake, a scholar of evolution and art, believes that, given the amount of time and resources art consumer, it must be an evolutionary adaptation. Unfortunately this article skims along the surface of the subject without really getting into it. Does that mean if one person makes art then it uses a lot of their time or does that mean that it uses a lot of an entire society's time? Is that statement supportable? By resources does she mean material resources or cognitive ones? She also asserts :
Art also gives us pleasure...and activities that feel good tend to be those that evolution deems too important to leave to chance.
Stated this way, it seems spurious to me. Ice cream gives us pleasure, we are not evolutionarily adapted to it. We are adapted to consume calories where we can get them, a by-product supposedly left over from when we were roaming the earth more dependent on the whims of nature than on Safeway. This would point more to art being a by-product of our evolutionary attraction to bold colors and sounds, or to pattern recognition. Additionally, art is not necessarily just pleasurable - it is sometimes more deeply involving, intellectually stimulating, a complex synthesis, a way to represent things that are meaningful to us, a way to commemorate death, a way to leave a mark. However it may be all these things because it is the essence of what is engaging and attractive to us and that is exactly why Ms. Dissanayake has begun studying the communing rituals between mother and infant for signs that they might evolve to become the building blocks of choreography or music. It's an interesting notion that Ms. Dissanayake's book Art and Intimacy: How the Arts Began no doubt gets into it in more detail. It is interesting to ponder that we might be hardwired to be engaged and attracted by themes and variations on sound and movement and that that is the origin of our finding a textile design or a church spire esthetically pleasing.

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