Wednesday, September 1, 2010

sexual selection drives art

Why we evolved larger brains:

Miller argues that during human evolution, “sexual selection seems to have shifted its primary target from body to mind.” It is sexual selection, therefore, that is responsible for the astonishingly large human brain, an organ whose peculiar capacities wildly exceed survival needs on the African savannahs. And beyond its sheer size, the human brain makes possible a mind that is uniquely good at a long list of features found in all cultures but which are difficult to explain in terms of survival benefits: “humor, story-telling, gossip, art, music, self-consciousness, ornate language, imaginative ideologies, religion, morality.” Miller offers us a new model to understand the evolved mind. It’s not Descartes’s ghost, nor the mental hydraulic system of Freud, nor the computer chip of cognitive science. From the standpoint of sexual selection, the mind is best seen as a gaudy, over-powered home-entertainment system, devised in order that our stone-age ancestors could attract, amuse, and bed each other. Bed, however, was not the only object, since the qualities of mind chosen and thus evolved made for enduring pairings, the rearing of children, and the creation of robust social groups.

Art is whatever that requires skill:

Again, admiration for the ability to do something difficult is not unique to art: we admire athletes, inventors, skillful orators or jugglers. Miller is claiming that this is at least as much intrinsic to art as it is to any other field of human endeavor. He cites Ellen Dissanayake’s much-discussed notion of “making special” as essential to the arts. But whereas she sees making special as something that tends to promote an intense communal sense in a hunter-gatherer group, he interprets the phenomenon as more connected with display: “Indicator theory suggests that making things special means making them hard to do, so that they reveal something special about the maker.” It follows that almost anything can be made artistic by executing it in a manner that would be difficult to imitate. “Art” as an honorific therefore “connotes superiority, exclusiveness, and high achievement.” Cooking as a mundane productive activity is one thing; elevate it to “the art of cooking” and you emphasize its potential to be practiced as a skill and achievement that could be a useful fitness indicator. Miller adds to this a mordant comment: it is because artistic activity is an important fitness display that people will argue so passionately about whether something is or is not a work of art. Thus might the whole philosophical sub-field of aesthetics be understood as an extension of courtship rituals.

Modern art may look easy, but it's not. Action painting is not easy to do and modern art is not just about the art object, but more about the originality and the theory behind the art, the narrative and credibility of the artist, the reputation of the gallery/agent/dealer supporting the artist, and so on and so forth. Modern art is not about the painting, but the packaging of the painting.

Miller is aware just how controversial these ideas are. He grants that these days artistic elites may prefer abstraction to representation, but it is in the history of the tastes of hoi polloi that we’re going to find the keys to the origin of the arts. So the vulgar gallery comment, “My kid could paint better than that,” is vindicated as valid from the standpoint of sexual selection, and can be expected to be heard in popular artistic contexts for the rest of human time: people are not going to “learn” from their culture that skill doesn’t count (any more than they will learn that general body symmetry does not indicate fitness). Moreover, even with the elites it’s really not so different: the skill-discriminations of elites are simply accomplished at a more rarefied level. Cy Twombly’s blackboard scribbles, which look to many ordinary folk like, well, children’s blackboard scribbles, are viewed by high-art critics such as Arthur Danto as demonstrating an extremely refined artistic skill. That the works do not obviously show skill to the uninitiated simply demonstrates that they are being produced at a level that the unsophisticated cannot grasp. The esoteric nature of art, and with it status and hierarchy, thus remains in place.

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