18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
Creating something "special",
This review is from: Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why (Paperback)
Tracing evolutionary roots to human creativity is a risky endeavour. The Romantic Era dismissal of "nature red in tooth and claw" misapplied to humans has its adherents even today. In more modern terms, the "postmodernist school" attributes human creativity solely to cultural environment. Dissanayake takes up the challenge and responds to these allegations from widely spread scholarship sources. She makes a solid case for human universals in many areas of expression, from graphic art through music and dance to poetry and prose. Even spoken language is addressed with an eye to derivations and commonalties.
She presents her support for a Darwinian basis for art and expression with flair and enthusiasm. There's no hesitation in offering new terms or definitions as means of breaking the bonds of tradition or rigid thinking. Acknowledging that some of her ideas are ironic, or even heretical, she intends to builds a new framework for where art truly sits in our lives. Among other "heresies", the author roundly denounces the notion that "art" is a separate or fleeting aspect of human existence. Instead, she contends, art is integrated with religion and other human social conditions. Some aspect of art is as necessary as eating or sleeping to our species. Dissanayake contends that art must be raised in importance when considering what is valuable to us.
Perhaps, Dissanayake suggests, in order to break the bonds restricting our view of "art" we need a new term. She coins "making special" for various objects or activities we now call "art". The "special" relates to the common means all organisms have in separating the mundane from the unexpected - the "extra-ordinary". If something extraordinary can promote emotions of delight, we can recreate it as something "special" and pleasurable. It might be removed from the mundane aspects of life, but the mundane may become art. A pot is made for storage or cooking, but if it's decorated in ways that bring a sense of "good" or of "pleasure", elevating it to art isn't a false promotion. Noting that both Nature and artefacts can be beautiful, only the beautiful that is created can be considered art. Much of Nature is beautiful, but only humans can create beauty. Hence, she declares that considerations of art must be "species-centred" or "bioevolutionary". Species-centrism, she warns, must not be misconstrued as detaching us from the rest of Nature. Indeed, as part of our evolutionary heritage, "species-centrism" is essential to understanding who we are. And what we can achieve.
In her final analysis, Dissanayake notes that a radical idea arose toward the end of the Enlightenment. Art was placed in a realm where only the few educated in its precepts could comprehend it. The "critic" became a mediator between the artist and the observer. The too-common expression, "I don't know about art, but I know what I like" represents this break. Later, the "French philosophers", known as the postmodernists, insisted that everything should be reduced to text. This concept has further widened the Enlightenment detachment of art from the beholder. She scorns this notion, reminding us that for nearly all of Homo sapiens' existence, none could read nor write, but art flourished. In contending with the postmodernists, the author hails the work of linguists who seek evidence of a Primordial Language [PL]. PL is another indication of the unity of expression among early humanity that was disrupted only by time and distance.
Dissanayake's analysis, which has been enhanced but not supplanted, has been strangely overlooked. The attitude of art as "outside" reality or only a distant adjunct to daily life apparently has an even stronger hold on our thinking than she suggests. Although she hasn't updated the book with recent work in cognitive studies, which can provide further insight, others have taken up the challenge [see "The Mind In The Cave" by David Lewis-Williams for an innovative example], this comprehensive work is an excellent starting point for understanding why our view of "art", or "making special" needs reconsideration. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]