Art and Transformation

Today I’m reading Ellen Dissanayake. Yesterday I received two of her essays in my mailbox; Orphans and a Dog: Art and Transformation & If Great Art is Dead, Who Cares?

I knew her topics would interest me, but I had no idea her writing would be such a pleasure to read.

Here’s a snip from the first essay:

Art as transformation is not a new idea. (Everything important about art probably has been said before). But this is no reason not to say more about it, just as there is no reason not to draw a rock or tree because someone else – even you, yourself – has drawn it before. We continue to eat, we continue to make love, we continue to enjoy our children and walk in the woods, even though we have done these things countless times before. There are intrinsic rewards. They comprise what life is. They reveal us to who we are and why we are here at least as much and often much more than new experiences do.

There are intrinsic rewards in making art – there is, in my mind, also intrinsic rewards in experiencing art and literature. To use Dissanayake’s terms: It comprise (I am tempted to say embrace) what life is and reveal to us why we are here.

All living beings partake in the ongoing of transformation of the world, but in addition to being subject to the world’s cycling and impermanence, human transformation is also of a somewhat different kind. Humans transform naturally occurring things for cultural use. This phenomenon is described in a very thorough way by the French anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, in his book The Raw and the Cooked. There is yet a further characteristic, described by the American anthropologist, Herbert Cole by the following line: the raw, the cooked, and the gourmet, meaning that humans are not satisfied by transformation alone, we wish to transform nature and things into something more – gourmet (shelter into architecture, clothes into fashion, depictions into art, words into litterateur … etc.)

These are amongst the things Dissanayake is writing about –


Ellen Dissanayake, an independent scholar, has written three books on art, most recently, Art and Intimacy: How the Arts Began.

3 comments on “Art and Transformation

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