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Monday, December 31, 2012

Why Is There Art?

Most of us take art for granted – it is around us and before us everywhere.  While there may be a difference of opinion on what is art – i.e., are crafts art?  Is popular music art? etc. – there is no doubt that if all creative expression were to cease, the world would be a bare, mechanical, and indifferent place.

Art has existed for millennia and is found in all cultures.  From the cave paintings to Lascaux, to primitive tribes in Borneo, to Western contemporary art, artistic expression is an integral part of human existence. Much art has been religious – or art least a way of explaining the unknowable.  In a remarkable exhibit, The Roads of Arabia at the Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC, stone carvings of almost 10,000 years ago are displayed:
Roads of Arabia
They are haunting, powerful, and emblematic of an art which was far more evolved than that of Lascaux:

Image result for images cave paintings lascaux

Human beings were expressing abstract thoughts through abstract design. The history of art, of course, is one which moves from the abstract to the symbolic to the representational and back to the abstract with fluidity.  Art has illuminated religious history, glorified kings and emperors, represented courtly and pastoral life; and is as varied and surprising as any human enterprise.

What purpose does art serve? asks Adam Kirsch in The New Republic (7.12.12), reviewing the works of well-known artists, philosophers, and evolutionary biologists.  Does it have an evolutionary purpose?

He starts by quoting Thomas Mann from an early story, Tonio Kroger in which the author expresses his feeling that the artist will always observe human society from the outside, from a perch of loneliness and isolation:
At the end of the story, Tonio has a vision of these two paired off in happy, fruitful partnership—a destiny he can never share: “To be like you! To begin again, to grow up like you, regular like you, simple and normal and cheerful, in conformity and understanding with God and man, beloved of the innocent and happy.” Love and marriage and parenthood are barred to Tonio, because he has an artist’s soul: “For some go of necessity astray, because for them there is no such thing as a right path.”
This vision of the lone and lonely artist on the fringes of society is not new, says Kirsch, but is particularly relevant within the context of Darwinism which Mann near the end of his life began to appreciate.  Does the artist play any important role, Mann wondered, if the course of humanity is determined by such a mechanistic and indifferent process?
In associating art with loneliness, sorrow, and death, Mann was not presenting a new idea but perfecting an old tradition. Everywhere you look in the art and literature and music of the nineteenth century, you find examples of this same figure, the artist banished from life: in Leopardi, the stunted, ugly, miserable poet; in Flaubert, the novelist too fastidious for bourgeois existence; in Nietzsche, the wanderer upon the earth.
What is different in Mann is that, writing in 1903, he has fully assimilated the Darwinian revolution, which taught him to think about life in terms of survival and fitness. In his great novel Buddenbrooks, Mann tells the story of a family whose fitness to thrive in modern society declines in tandem with the growth of its interest in ideas and art.
If art has nothing to do with evolutionary progress, then why does it exist at all? and as importantly, why has it existed since the dawn of time?

Nietzsche went further and stated that the artist is anti-heroic, and artistic enterprise stunts the expression of the will, which in turn is the force that forges historical endeavor:
When art seizes an individual powerfully [says Nietzsche], it draws him back to the views of those times when art flowered most vigorously.... The artist comes more and more to revere sudden excitements, believes in gods and demons, imbues nature with a soul, hates science, becomes unchangeable in his moods like the men of antiquity, and desires the overthrow of all conditions that are not favorable to art…
 Image result for images nietzsche

Darwin himself was at some pains to explain art in evolutionary terms.  On a superficial level he saw human artistic expression as little different from the strutting of male peacock; but on a more profound level found the human ‘excesses’ of art as accidental distractions and incidental to human development; and the implausible amount of energy devoted to such an avian display perplexing:
The problem plagued Darwin: “The sight of a feather in the peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick.”
In other words, human and animal nature are continually producing ‘beauty’ for no apparent or at least discernible reason.
“Many of the faculties, which have been of inestimable service to man for his progressive advancement, such as the powers of the imagination, wonder, curiosity, an undefined sense of beauty, a tendency to imitation, and the love of excitement or novelty, could hardly fail to lead to capricious changes of customs and fashions.” Such changes are “capricious” in the sense that they are unpredictable from first principles.
Dennis Dutton in The Art Instinct offered another view of art, and sounds much like Noam Chomsky when he says that our linguistic ability is innate and hardwired. Since art is everywhere, in every culture, and in every period of history, the ability to produce it must be innate:
As Dutton put it: “The universality of art and artistic behaviors, their spontaneous appearance everywhere across the globe ... and the fact that in most cases they can be easily recognized as artistic across cultures suggest that they derive from a natural, innate source: a universal human psychology.”
This may be true, but it still only describes what is, not why it is.  His supposition is that because art is universal, it must be innate; and if it is innate, then it must have an evolutionary purpose even though that purpose is not completely clear. Dutton does evoke Chomsky, however, when he suggests that art is a further expression of language – it is a non-verbal means of communication, as valuable for conveying essential elements of human progress and survival as language.  This conclusion is highly debated.

Stephen Jay Gould and Stephen Pinker weighed in on the debate with the contention that art was a by-product of direct evolutionary human traits.  In other words, art wasn’t necessary; it just came as part of the package of big-brain operations:
Stephen Jay Gould suggested that art was not an evolutionary adaptation but what he called a “spandrel”—that is, a showy but accidental by-product of other adaptations that were truly functional. Gould, Dutton writes, “came to regard the whole realm of human cultural conduct and experience as a by-product of a single adaptation: the oversized human brain.”
Having a large brain was useful to our ancestors, allowing them to plan and to forecast and to cooperate and to invent; and it just so happens that a large brain also allowed them to make art. Stephen Pinker suggested something similar, if more disparagingly, when he described the brain as a “toolbox” which, in addition to promoting survival and reproduction, “can be used to assemble Sunday afternoon projects of dubious adaptive significance.”
Brian Boyd, a biographer of Vladimir Nabokov, suggested that art served as a kind of mental calisthenics – not exactly related to evolution, but helpful:
Art, then, can be defined as the calisthenics of pattern-finding. “Just as animal physical play refines performance, flexibility, and efficiency in key behaviors,” Boyd writes, “so human art refines our performance in our key perceptual and cognitive modes, in sight (the visual arts), sound (music), and social cognition (story). These three modes of art, I propose, are adaptations ... they show evidence of special design in humans, design that offers survival and especially reproductive advantages.”
Boyd and I.A. Richards before him, thought that creating and appreciating art was a process of recognizing patterns.  Deciphering Shakespeare’s Sonnets, for example, was a valuable exercise:
If pattern is good for us, and if Shakespeare’s sonnets contain many patterns, then Shakespeare’s sonnets are good for us. Boyd’s concern in his book is to prove the minor premise, which is easy to do, and which he does intelligently and well. Like Helen Vendler in her commentaries on Shakespeare’s sonnets, Boyd emphasizes the verbal texture of the poems, the play with sounds and images, the parallels and the oppositions between different sonnets
Mark Pagel in Wired For Culture, suggests another theory – that art is part of a culture which defines societies, gives them a visible and recognizable emblem.  Art is, therefore, evolutionary because without art and culture nationalism would not be possible.
Culture in the first sense—works of art, music, and literature—is therefore able to justify itself as part of culture in the second sense, the sum total of practices and beliefs that define the particular way of being of a group of people. The first kind of culture gives us paintings, the second gives us patriotism; and while paintings are not obviously adaptive, patriotism is.
Finally Kirsch discusses – and dismisses – the work of Eric R. Kandel (The Art of Insight), a neurobiologist who describes how the brain functions to perceive art, but who offers nothing in the way of explanation why art is important.

In summary, all of these theories seem reasonable but in the end unconvincing; and perhaps looking for meaning only in evolutionary terms is not the only way to understanding.  Many religious philosophers have suggested that art is the highest expression of a God-given soul – it is the spiritual voice rising above the practical, mundane, but necessary noise of survival.

It is easier to accept either one or the other – that is, that art is an important tool for human evolution, or that it is an expression of God within us – than to accept that it is only a ‘spandrel’, in the words of Gould, or the result of Pinker’s Sunday afternoon pastime, accidental and irrelevant human trifles.

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