naturalistic aesthetics

– looking at art from a darwinistic point of view

Ellen Dissanayake says:

  • Art is not a set of objects or compositions or paintings
  • Art is the behavior that leads to a set of objects or compositions or paintings
  • Art is not handed down only to a select few sensitive souls. Art, she says, is “making special,” an act that gives us belonging and meaning. It is passed from mother to child. Its origins lie deep in the human past
  • Art makes us human
  • I explore the bodily origins and interconnections of the felt rhythms of art and love, tracing them to what may appear to be inconsequential or even unlikely psychobiological beginnings in the earliest months of individual infancy

Just as the survival of the human infant during the long evolution of humans depended on the relationship it inspired in the mother, so the survival of early hunter-foragers depended on the cohesion of the group. It required “not only resourceful, competitive individuals but also strongly bonded social groups that could work together with confidence and loyalty, convinced of the efficacy of their joint actions”.

Dissanayake talks about levels of aesthetic response. The fourth and highest level in her naturalistic aesthetics is what she calls “satisfying fullness,” that rare, transcendent response to art in which one feels as if “something has been accomplished by the work or activity, and a sense of completeness or sufficiency is felt–rightness and even perfection.”

“My first experience was in Pullman, Washington, in Bryan Hall, when I was about seventeen years old, listening to the Boccherini Quintet. They played a slow movement that as it unfolded affected me so strongly. It was a complete surprise. I found myself crying, as if I had entered a transcendent realm. This experience is probably the source of my desire to understand the arts and their power. Since that time I’ve been able to understand a lot, but experiences like this cannot be ‘explained’ or ‘analyzed’ in any way that is commensurate with the transformation that I felt.”

What I would like to do, is to see what happens if we bring Dissanayake’s ideas into the contemporary art scene. While de Botton & co focus on art as therapy, the Dissanayakian way, I believe, would be to look at art as contemporary ritual.

If this is so, if art is a common ritual, how come todays art world seems more preoccupied with excluding than including the public?

Comments, anyone?


18 Comments Add yours

  1. I think ritual exists to exclude as much an include…if one of the purposes of ritual is to create a sense of cohesiveness among a group then it excludes those who are not part of that group. One of the purposes of the ritual is to set ‘us’ apart from ‘them’. Academic, business, political, religious rituals all perform this function so why not the ritual of art? The common denominator among humans is the impulse to engage in ritual, what that ritual focuses on, be it art, religion or whatever is one of the ways we humans separate ourselves one from the other into our various tribes.

    1. Rio says:

      I agree completely that ritual serves the function of a kind of punctuation for a groups activity and the “style” sets one group apart from another but disagree in that art is biological/neurological. I think it arises even in isolation, without society and is a part of our processing reality. Not exclusionary at all.

      The extent to which it is explored, expressed and preserved may be exclusionary but if anything, art it unhinges the separations between us, I mean, when it hits us.

      1. Hello Rio,
        Yes I agree art breaks down barriers when It hits us. The medium of art is one of the greatest tools humans have for bridging the gaps created by our fears. I am not so certain it can arise in isolation, or if it does what it would look like and how it could be identified as ‘art’. It is a very interesting philosophical thought experiment. As for human behavior I believe it is all biological/neurological.

      2. Sigrun says:

        If it is so, that art arises even in isolation, I would say this is a sign of inherited characteristics and thereby a biological trait. Actually I think this is what Dissanayake has found in her research. Art is an inherit human trait.

  2. Harold Rhenisch says:

    I think if one were to drop some common terms of cultural mythology, such as “art”, much inclusive activity exists. Walking practice in the U.K., for instance. Might not the impulse to define first have to create division, in order to have something to define? This is not as silly as it sounds. Plato, for instance, wrote endless, difficult dialogues that dissected series of contrasting points, which are a natural outgrowth of the nature of Greek language. In translation, they can be difficult. In Greek, they are natural grammatical effects, and Plato’s dialogues are coffee house chat. In another sense, the word ‘ritual’ crops up, but, again, in order to speak of ‘ritual’ one needs to first divide a ritual from its actions. After that, the attempt to define ‘ritual’ is largely an attempt to give to it again the immediacy of those actions, lifted to a sphere of intellectual distance and observation. This is the legacy of the Enlightenment. If one steps aside from its presuppositions, however, there is much integrative activity. “Art” and “ritual” are umbrella terms, embracing large swathes of activity which are experienced quite differently in action than in contemplation. If the terms were wiped away, what would be in their place? I think that’s a fruitful place to look. To put that another way,

    I was planting potatoes on land gifted to me for a year in exchange for pruning apple and cherry trees, and thinking, as I do. The meadowlarks were calling from the brushpile nearby. A magpie was watching me from the rose thicket. I was doing what any man must do while he plants potatoes: I was opening a hole into the earth, inserting a potato or a piece of a potato, and then closing up the earth again. When the sun became too hot, I drank out of a tap on the end of an old irrigation pipe, and started digging again. I came back later to hook up a water hose and a sprinkler. I brought my wife out later through the blown dandelions and the last of the apple blossoms to turn off the water. We talked about how many potatoes we might get, checked out the fruit set on the cherry trees, and then drove home for dinner, leaving the potatoes to the magpies and the meadowlarks and the darkness of the earth.

    I told you this story, because you’ve been asking about art and ritual, which got me to thinking. The planting of every potato is art. This story can be told from many points of view: the earth can be given a potato, which it nurtures; a potato can harvest the darkness; a potato can conspire to be planted by a man, and survive in that manner; my story above is an imprint of body and desire easily diverted by Freudian analysis. It’s all art. It’s all ritual. The insertion of the words ‘art’ or ‘ritual’, or of the tools of Freudian or even Marxist analysis, into the living earth requires that the separation they make be closed; if it isn’t, the painting of a Rothko will not be seen as the same act as the planting of a Russian Blue potato on the farm of a japanese-canadian woman born in an internment camp during the Second World War and hanging on to the earth she loves, even after her husband is gone to darkness.

    They are the same. Perhaps the words ‘gesture’ or ‘touch’ are better than ‘art’ or ‘ritual’. Perhaps they open doors that the others close. Perhaps the Greeks, with multiple gods, had no problem with any of this, while Christians, or the inheritors of Christian tradition, continue to seek for one unifying principle, which must remain ineffable; as soon as it is found, it ceases to be the ineffable, unnamable God.

    1. Sigrun says:

      Thank you, Harold!

    2. Sheila says:

      I really enjoyed your comments and perspective. It reminds me of some elements of a discussion heard some years ago when it was suggested that Socratic questioning was the first use of therapy. I agree that what-is questions might sometimes limit the discussion. Luckily, artful meandering abounds!

  3. Harold, I enjoyed your story of potato planting. It reminded me of how John Berger celebrates the life of the earth and the people who live within its cycles.

    So, are you saying that every act of daily life is a work of art, an art process? Does that mean that when I cough or scrape a chair, it is music? Everything is ritual?

    I suggest there is a difference between the ritual of everyday planting and weeding and the ritual of celebrating the yearly harvest of the grapes or the crops. And there is a difference between painting your house a lovely colour and Rothko painting his restaurant works. I think we know when we are in the presence of what is known as ART. We can experience an epiphany planting a potato – a personal, beautiful experience. But it is not art. It might be art when you make a story of it, as above, a film of it, or even perform it in a gallery. In other words, imbue it with ARTifice and SPECtacle

    Just as we all teach in our everyday lives – teach our children, friends , neighbours – we don’t all call ourselves teachers; just as we comment on works of art we don’t call ourselves critics. So we can cook and sew and plant and play the violin and sing in the shower; but we are not artists unless you sweep away all the understood meanings behind the word art. But why would we want to?

    What is it about ART that gets people so agitated? The perceived elitism usually. But is it really so elitist? As Ronald says above, any specialised activity necessarily excludes those who are not included. But art is so open to so many in so many ways if one is interested. All you have to do is look or make your own. If it is the ART MACHINE that disturbs, then I would say there are bigger and worse machines abroad at the moment, think GOOGLE, MICROSOFT etc

    1. Sigrun says:

      Thank you so much for going in depth with this post and its comments.

      Personally I am most interested in a what might be called a point of transgression, described by Dissanayake in these words:
      It was a complete surprise. I found myself crying, as if I had entered a transcendent realm.This experience is probably the source of my desire to understand the arts and their power. Since that time I’ve been able to understand a lot, but experiences like this cannot be ‘explained’ or ‘analyzed’ in any way that is commensurate with the transformation that I felt.
      Even if it is true, as Dissanayake suggests, that experiences like this cannot be ‘explained’ or ‘analyzed’, I am interested in finding out what these experiences are, how de are related to or define art, and how we can talk about them.

  4. Does the explanation for our experience of moments of transformation lie within the realm of neuroesthetics, is it strictly a scientific explanation? I think probably and ultimately it is. In the meantime I am satisfied to analyze my experience of art with a word such as transformative. The emotional/intellectual impact of a particular work of art is commensurate with its aesthetic value/quality for me as an individual. I have no other way of explaining the experience other than as an emotional/intellectual response – joy, love, hate, sorrow…. So to answer your questions, the experiences are emotional and intellectual, they relate to or define art as something that elicits certain emotions/thoughts (joy, love, hate, sorrow) which I can believe are shared by others to nearly or the same degree, and we can talk about them in the plain language of emotional and intellectual responses to the world. Arguments and disagreements are simply to expected and in my opinion welcomed.

    If you want to exclude certain portions of the population from the discussion you can use the language of academic aesthetics or even neuroesthetics, but that only excludes them from the discussion not the actual experience of art itself which is as universal as joy, love, hate, sorrow etc. That’s my take on the subject in a nutshell.

    1. Sigrun says:

      Maybe arguments and disagreements also can enhance the experience of uniqueness?

      1. Arguments and disagreements can clarify points of perspective differences if handled with care. If we think of each perspective as unique (individual?) then sensitive disagreements could enhance “experience of uniqueness.” Discourse, maybe–rather than argument??

      2. Sigrun says:

        YES, absolutely with respect for the opposition, or different point of view.

  5. I agree with Ronald when he writes, “If you want to exclude certain portions of the population from the discussion you can use the language of academic aesthetics or even neuroesthetics, but that only excludes them from the discussion not the actual experience of art itself which is as universal as joy, love, hate, sorrow”

    What terms we use–what jargon we employ–perhaps those operate as exclusion/inclusion. Similarly, if you write about your art experiences in Danish or Norwegian or Greek, then I am excluded from your communication until it can be translated. So perhaps once the terms are translated to fit the viewer’s perception, we will find there is something quite universal about art (ritual, emotional, etc.), else we may perpetually be doomed to seem elitist. I think some of us educated in academia & its disciplines are inclined to employ elitist language simply because that’s what we are taught: how to be specific in our disciplines, which may be limiting (certainly limits the general audience’s inclusion in our discourses).

    But I, too, have had transformative, even transgressive, and certainly deeply affecting experiences when confronted with art in various forms. From personal experience, yes, these occurrences do happen and are memorable.

    Age 4: Swan Lake, Tchaikovsky. Age 7: Adoration of the Magi, Fra Lippo Lippi. Age 8: Alexander Calder, Mobile. Age 10: Lucas Samaras, Mirrored Room. Age 13: William Blake, Songs of Innocence and Experience. Age 14: Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Age 15: Monet, Water-lilies. Age 16: Bach, Kyrie, Gott Vater in Ewigkeit (in a Romanesque cathedral in Germany). Age 19: Gathering the Bones Together, by Gregory Orr. Age 20: Suite Otis, Alvin Ailey Dance Co. Age 22: Adagio For Strings, Samuel Barber… I am leaving lots of them out!!

    Did these encounters change my life? In some way–large or small, yes. Did these encounters lead me to create ekphrastic work of my own? In some cases, yes. Were these encounters therapeutic? Maybe, in one or two cases, maybe. Can I analyze why?

    Um, no? Or maybe just a little?

    1. Sigrun says:

      How wonderful that you can remember so much in detail what & when! I have a very bad memory, but I do remember what really got me studying literature: I was working as an assistant for an architect, planning to go on studying architecture (which I actually did for a short period), a secretary in the office said there was this one book she had, which was totally un-readable.
      Oh magic! An impossible text, is it possible? … The riddle stayed with me, and when architecture turned in to mathematics and engineering I said goodbye, and disappeared into the literature department – .

      Which text? Well, these were the days of postmodernism, the book in question was Italo Calvino’s “If a traveler …”

  6. And thank you–a terrific discussion here!

    1. Sigrun says:

      Thank YOU!

      ps: art as therapy? maybe not, but certainly life changing.

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