The evolution of creativity

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.

18 thoughts on “The evolution of creativity

  1. Very interesting article. I can see the connection from infant and mother to music and dance and visual art. I’m having trouble making the correlation to writing. I suppose it could follow a more complex route from cooing to story telling to writing stories down and so on, but the experience of writing (and of reading) feels very different than with these coo-based art. And it incorporates the use of language, which is our superlative as a species; arguably our most evolved trait. I would hate to classify it as not an “art”. I guess that I just want it to signify something: that communication and language are our “something more” and that they do not come from biological instincts, but a more cerebral place.
    But then…we have been around a really long time. And I’m not one to debate an anthropological/evolutionary theory.
    P.S. Those penis gourds seem a little generous, no?

  2. What a terrific post. Bravo.

    Have you ever read “The Mating Mind?” The author makes us all out to be Bower Birds. Writing a symphony is a form of sexual display and all of that. Interesting stuff. Not sure that human behavior is that simple, though. One has to be wary of reductionist thought.

    Interesting that you should single out the number 42, specifically. Now there’s a frood who knows where his towel is.

    Actually, one of my favorite meditations on this subject is “The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music” (and one could consider Spengler’s “Decline of the West” to be a kind of sequel). I secretly worship Dionysus. Please don’t tell my rector.

    I like the whole idea of call and response as a starting point, not only for art, but for the development of thought itself. Where was I reading about this? I forget. There’s some creature on the savannah who has a specific cry for “snake,” and another for “bird,” etc. etc. And the other critters scatter in a specific way, depending on the type of cry used. Something like this has to be the beginnings of language. But it’s purely practical. Totally explained by evolution. At what point does the creature cry out “Snake!” when there is no snake present, as a practical joke? Now there’s the beginnings of something. To imagine what is not there. To play pretend.

  3. Re the studies on mother-child interaction and theories of art as extensions of primordial communication or sexual display, etc. What, I wonder, does such theorizing upon and interpretation of observed behavior get us, ultimately? Is it heartening to invoke the forces of evolution or the notion that art, too, is (just?) an extension of….perpetuating and sustaining species behavior? Is it that we are to set this perspective alongside and counter to notions of art as indicative of what might be exceptional in humankind or somehow the unique stuff of “human-ness,” or is it to tweak the noses of those advocating more Old Testament-derived views of human beings made “in the likeness of God,” etc?

    Who is too sit up and take notice of such research? Are we to see this as “scientists finally making some headway on answering questions about the nature of artistic expression”? Well gosh, it’s about time, we might respond.

    With my background being what it is, I respond positively to such theories and studies, of course. It is then interesting not only to follow how the “human-all-too-human” scientists situate their results within cultural, ethical, aesthetic and political frameworks, but then to note how those musings get taken up by the journalistic middlemen, intellectuals, social forces, what have you. Sometimes I think it’s just a researcher who is able to make the most of shaping a moment in time or able to stand for a moment in an opportune window and newly announce what has already been in intellectual currents for quite some time one way or another for quite some time.

    The communal and anonymous as a truthful essence of art is something I brood about. I wish it were so today. But do I wish for it because I, like most in our age who try to do art things, occasionally fantasize about what it might be like if my art became my ticket? Knowing it will never be my ticket, I try to see that longing as an indictment of a corrupt sensibility. “We should all be like the anonymous cathedral builders of old. ” Or, one I tend to favor also, “Artists should work in secret, silently shaping people’s spiritual realities, subtly orchestrating sublime shifts in sensibility.” I want to see the Cult of the Priviledged Creator as a distraction, as capitalism putting a stamp of predation and approval upon the enterprise.

  4. First: Purge thyself of all resentment. It clouds the eyes and poisons the brain.

    Second: Realize that language is a virus. (A sometimes pretty and often practical virus, but a virus just the same.) Think like a rock thinks. This sounds silly but it brings joy.

    Third: Engage life. (As an individual, as part of a commune, or both simultaneously — doesn’t matter.)

  5. I am fascinated by evolution, and this question is one that is really interesting to me. But it seems that when it comes to the evolution of artistic expression, science always seems to be able to explain up to point A and from point B onward. Points A and B may be different for various theories, but there is never an answer to how and why we got from A to B.

    Personally, I find the mother/child theory, while very intriguing, a little hard to swallow. Others of our great ape brethren, like chimps, bonobos, and gorillas, have been observed to mimic things that they see. If that’s not the early spark–albeit, very crude–of theatre, I don’t know what is. Mimicing animals that we hunted to attract them, turned into elaborate ceremonies of animal immitation to bring a good hunt, which turned into staging the performances for entertainment which would eventually become “Dancing with the Stars.”

    As our brains got bigger, so did our ability to abstract the ceremonies and stories. With our use of tools came the ability to carve and paint the stories. It’s not as romantic, but for my money is the most logical.

    There are very crude versions of what could be construed as artistic expression across the animal kindom. The simplest explanation is that at some point (between points A and B), humans made some sort of leap to be able to abtract these and do them for enjoyment rather than necessity. And for my money, wherever this point is between A and B, is the place we became human.

  6. So millions of years of evolution has all been leading up to “Dancing With the Stars?”

    (Another collective sigh.)

  7. I think what fascinates me about this (and I’m getting Dissanayake’s book so I can read more) is that there seems to be an evolutionary reason for our creativity. It’s not “exceptional” for humans to be dancing with the stars (the dreaded No. 10, as the cast of William Blake’s Inn would say); it is integral to being human. Our creativity, the arts as we now call it, is not extraneous, not frills and fripperies, but essential.

    There was an AP article in the Times-Herald today about business leaders quivering with fear that they needed ‘creative’ workers and they didn’t know whether schools could produce them. Can creativity be taught, the experts fretted? No, it’s inborn, you idiots. Stay out of the way of the child and you’ll have a creative workforce. Stop thinking you can get “good schools” by testing for factoids, and you might just have a chance at keeping some of the people who emerge from schools as creative as when they entered.

  8. As for the mother/child origins, go play with a baby and take notes on repetition and variation. Then write a sonata. I’m just sayin’.

  9. The mother/child thing for me is less “hard to swallow.” And I was bottle fed. (And why are things “hard to swallow?”–already that primordial relationship informs our sensibilities; why do writers drink? Or why did Pollock? It’s interesting to think about Pollock’s drinking in relationship with his process and possible echoes of mother/child interaction…)

    I love it when business technodroids try to capture “creativity” as a concept upon which they think they can exercise some kind of instrumental control or exploit as a form of capital. The creative people who hide from them are having too much fun laughing because the droids are so ridiculous. If they were the least bit creative, they’d see, surely, how ridiculous they are. Alas, they don’t and press on wielding their blind power, continuing to call the tune; we all keep rolling onto our backs like spaniels. It’s a world in which the cynical get the most out of it since they are creatives successfully playing the droid game. Profit and amusement.

    As artists don’t we get our first materials from the mOther? But to move on to mimicry and recreations of the hunt and the structuring of the social, it may be that are researcher is trying to read too much into the first dyad, granting the first nurturer too much autonomy, neglecting the ways in which Other factors shape, interfere with, even cut apart, the first bond. The mothering figure always is located at a complicated crossroads, and the infant unavoidably “feeds” upon that heterogeneous trail mix which is the human nurturing substance. Mimicry as a “natural” evolutionary trait is rendered contingent and ambivalent as the child is caught in the knot, gazing at the mom, resting as the object of the mother’s gaze, playing with that gaze as another sustaining substance, following the mom’s gaze to some third thing, wondering about that third thing, wondering what that third thing has that it doesn’t, looking around at other things, imitating and identifying with all of it, trying to “swallow” all of it, finding it can’t…

    Imitation, also, is a kind of magical behavior, isn’t it? Imitators are seen as possessing powerful transformative abilities by the socius. Making the thing appear where it isn’t supposed to be.

  10. There is some evidence that mankind used to have a bicameral brain, that the right half “spoke” to the left half, and thence visions and gods. I should go back and skim through that volume to see what information it might have that could fit into this puzzle.

  11. Poor Julian Jaynes. The work was never taken up by any “community” and furthered so far as I know. I wonder what the current status of his theories is.

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