Wednesday, March 17, 2010


I'm not sure how to classify Ellen Dissanayake. The interwebs call her variously an "anthropologist," an "independent scholar," an "art expert," and an "ethologist." Perhaps it doesn't matter. I enjoyed her book What is Art For?, and for its own sake, too.

Dissanayake takes great pains to present her idea that art, as a universal production of human cultures and societies, must somehow be biologically useful, or it wouldn't have survived millions of years of evolution. Like all scholars, anthropologists, or scientists, she has trouble defining precisely what art is, but she never allows this problem to bog down her book. She spends a bit of time discussing the similarities between art and play and ritual and religion, before neatly side-stepping its indefinability and focusing on what it is useful for, what does it do?, what are its purposes?; these are better questions to ask from an ethological point of view anyhow. I mean, we all know what art is, even if we have trouble putting it into words, just as we know what love is. But Dissanayake is more concerned with why we seem to like or need art. How has it helped us adapt and evolve and succeed? What about art and its creation and appreciation made the tribes or groups or cultures which had it last, while the others died off?

There are clever answers in her book. The creation of common bonds/myths/ritual behaviors/songs allowed a greater civic cohesion, a more reliable and sturdy mass identity, a more consistent world-view and value system to emerge. Through a process called "making special," Dissanayake associates art initially with useful every day items which are decorated, blessed, or otherwise differentiated from regular every day tools and utensils: for example, you might have a bland clay pot for chow and a decorated clay pot reserved for ritual observances or for guests or whatever. The decorated clay pot becomes through the ages and via extraordinarly complex adaptations and mutations Rembrandt's The Night Watch. The clay pot was useful, and Rembrandt's The Night Watch is too, but not really in the same way. You can cook and eat out of the clay pot, but if you're hungry in the woods you'd be hard-pressed to find a use for The Night Watch, outside of burning it to keep warm. And yet if someone were bombing Amsterdam this week the Dutch would spend a mint to hustle the contents of the Reichsmuseum to an underground bunker while clay pots would be left to explode. From that original idea of making tools more attractive or interesting via adornments our current love and appreciation of art emerges. Yes, I'm dramatically over-simplifying, but you need to read the book to learn this shit. I ain't trying to summarize the whole goddamn book for your lazy ass.

So there are extremely old tools which show aesthetic flourishes, like axe heads with fossils preserved in them which were obviously chosen by their workers for the beauty of the stone as well as its utility. Dissanayake says we are hard-wired to appreciate beauty and that making things special has assisted us in numerous ways as a species. Toward the end we get a touch of C.G. Jung and Modern Man in Search of a Soul, but overall the book is very similar to books by Stephen J. Gould or J. Bronowski or Carl Sagan which I read as a youngin. Where the similarites to Jung come in is in her argument that we are lacking something in modern Western civilization which some regard as a loss of faith and morality. Others think it's our dis-association from the natural world. Dissanayake thinks we've lost our participation in making things special, that we hunger for an "embodiment and reinforcement of socially shared significances." In other words, we're unmoored from each other in our lonely angst-ridden lives. FB ain't gonna help you, beyatch!

I'd like to re-read this some day. I found parts of it rather striking, and there are some bits to which I might object if I ever stop smoking ganja and get my mental mojo back. But before I re-read it I want to move on to her other books, most particularly Homo Aestheticus, which is somewhere in the stacks surrounding my night stand.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

ART!?!?!? What is it GOOD for? HUH!
:P jv