There was an article in the NY Times on Tuesday on some recent thinking about where art comes from. Why do we draw and paint and dance and sing and, as the article stated, “[tell] fables of neurotic mobsters who visit psychiatrists”?
I make the point in my arts speech that the impulse to create is universal, not only in the sense that every child in our culture sings and dances and draws and pretends, but also in the sense that every culture on earth has some form of art. They may not have a name for the number 42, but they have stories or pots or decorative tattoos or nicely decorated penis sheathes (not to be confused with penis gourds, which are not usually decorated, since that would apparently be a bit much.)
Anyway. Scientists have been puzzled by the creative impulse, because it just doesn’t make evolutionary sense. Where did it come from? It’s so energy and time intensive, it doesn’t make sense from the evolutionary point of view. Some have posited it had to be a sexual display thing, but that doesn’t make sense when you consider the Lascaux paintings, for example. Others have said that it came from having such a large brain and being bored easily; it was an evolutionary hiccup.
But Ellen Dissanayake, an independent scholar, says that it is an evolved trait. She argues from an interesting standpoint, that among other things art makes us feel good, and things that give us pleasure generally have not been left to chance by evolution. Actually, my reading of The Blank Slate and Parasite Rex suggests that everything is left to chance by evolution, but I see what she means. Eating, sex, swirling a Q-tip™ in your ear, or is that the same as sex?, have developed to produce yummy sounds in us.
There were two ideas in the article that struck me as especially intriguing and worth thinking about/discussing.
The first is the origins of art. Dissanayake suggests that Chartres Cathedral, the “Resurrection” Symphony, and Notorious B.I.G. all derive ultimately from the ritualistic interaction 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.
This makes a lot of sense, I think. However, how we got from cooing at the infant to cooing at each other is still a question.
The other idea I found illuminating is a suggestion she made about the nature of art. Unlike our current perception of art and artists as singular, solitary expressions of individual agendas, art in most of our history has been mostly communal:
…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… 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.
Of course, as a theatre person, I’m more ready to accept this idea than a painter or composer might be. It’s all communal for us, all “harmonic magic.” We won’t discuss “relative weakness of the individual.”
But it’s true that was my whole atttude with NCTC all those years. It was a place for all of us to come together to make theatre. I used to call it a place for the “citizen artist,” i.e., the non-professional, the “untrained,” the great unwashed. The undaunted. As the Equity actress whose name I’ve forgotten who drove from Atlanta to play Hermione in The Winter’s Tale said to me at the cast party, admiringly, “They don’t know they’re not supposed to be able to do this, do they?”
Indeed they did not. We began that production by having the large cast assemble on the stage and dividing: everyone who had ever done a play before on the left, those who had not on the right. Then I asked everyone who had never done Shakespeare before to join those on the right. Many people crossed over. Then I asked those who had never done Shakespeare with me before to cross. That left maybe three people on the left, maybe Craig Humphrey and Matthew Bailey and someone else. Having “leveled” the playing field, we then began to come together to make that play.
Basic instinct. Discuss.