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The Natural History of Art

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 27, 2007

A few years ago in Discover Magazine, I wrote a piece about the evolutionary origins of art. (If I can find a copy, I’ll try to post it here.) But I like Natalie Angier’s take in today’s New York Times. My article focused on elements of fear (e.g., the artistic use of staring eyespots and snake patterns) and security (the tendency of landscape artists to include a rustic cabin in the distance as sunset is coming on). But Angier, always a graceful and engaging writer, emphasizes the importance of art for building community and connection.

November 27, 2007
Basics
The Dance of Evolution, or How Art Got Its Start

By NATALIE ANGIER
If you have ever been to a Jewish wedding, you know that sooner or later the ominous notes of “Hava Nagila” will sound, and you will be expected to dance the hora. And if you don’t really know how to dance the hora, you will nevertheless be compelled to join hands with others, stumble around in a circle, give little kicks and pretend to enjoy yourself, all the while wondering if there’s a word in Yiddish that means “she who stares pathetically at the feet of others because she is still trying to figure out how to dance the hora.”

I am pleased and relieved to report that my flailing days are through. This month, in a freewheeling symposium at the University of Michigan on the evolutionary value of art and why we humans spend so much time at it, a number of the presenters supplemented their standard PowerPoint presentations with hands-on activities. Some members of the audience might have liked folding the origami boxes or scrawling messages on the floor, but for me the high point came when a neurobiologist taught us how to dance the hora. As we stepped together in klezmeric, well-schooled synchrony, I felt free and exhilarated. I felt competent and loved. I felt like calling my mother. I felt, it seems, just as a dancing body should.

In the main presentation at the conference, Ellen Dissanayake, an independent scholar affiliated with the University of Washington, Seattle, offered her sweeping thesis of the evolution of art, nimbly blending familiar themes with the radically new. By her reckoning, the artistic impulse is a human birthright, a trait so ancient, universal and persistent that it is almost surely innate. 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. Art also gives us pleasure, she said, and activities that feel good tend to be those that evolution deems too important to leave to chance.

What might that deep-seated purpose of art-making be? 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.

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.

A slender, soft-spoken woman with a bouncy gray pageboy, a grandchild and an eclectic background, Ms. Dissanayake was trained as a classical pianist but became immersed in biology and anthropology when she and her husband moved to Sri Lanka to study elephants. She does not have a doctorate, but she has published widely, and her books —the most recent one being “Art and Intimacy: How the Arts Began” — are considered classics among Darwinian theorists and art historians alike.

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.

In art, as in love, as in dancing the hora, if you don’t know the moves, you really can’t fake them.

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