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Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why Reprint Edition

4.2 out of 5 stars 10 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0295974798
ISBN-10: 0295974796
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Making art is a biologically innate need as fundamental as the need for food, warmth or shelter, asserts Dissanayake, who teaches at Manhattan's New School for Social Research. In a provocative manifesto that extends the thesis of her previous book What Is Art For? she argues that art was central to human evolutionary adaptation and that the aesthetic faculty is a basic psychological component of every human being. In her view, art is intimately linked to the origins of religious practices and to ceremonies of birth, death, transition and transcendence. Drawing on her years in Sri Lanka, Nigeria and Papua New Guinea, she gives examples of painting, song, dance and drama as behaviors that enable participants to grasp and reinforce what is important to their cognitive world. Her illustrated treatise sets forth a plausible Darwinian perspective on art as a primal, indispensable activity.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

This book is an expanded discussion of the views Dissanayake put forth in her earlier work What Is Art For? ( LJ 10/1/88). Her central thesis is that the arts are universally present in human societies because play and ritual were essential to the adaptation and survival of our species. Utilizing the findings of anthropology and ethology--the study of animal (including human) behavior--she concludes that the arts have allowed us to differentiate the special from the mundane, thus enabling us to cope with unusual or inexplicable occurrences and to gain a communal focus that enhances our ability to flourish and survive. The author offers her theory as an alternative to the enlightenment/modernist and postmodernist views of art that grow out of overdependence on the written word. While Dissanayake may not have accounted entirely for art's unique role in contemporary Western society, viz. ritual and play, her discussion of the idea of "making special" offers many insights into human cultures. For specialized collections in the arts and anthropology.
- David B. Hegeman, King's Coll. Lib., Briarcliff Manor, N.Y.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: University of Washington Press; Reprint edition (October 1, 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0295974796
  • ISBN-13: 978-0295974798
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.7 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #379,269 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By John R Chang on June 7, 2001
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I just finished this book, and... for the record, there are over 40 pages of footnotes and references in the back of the book. I'm not a expert in the field, but Homo Aestheticus feels like a graduate level text, and is certainly more "scholarly" than most books you'll find in a bookstore.
That said, I found Homo Aestheticus to be one of the most unique and insightful books I've read. A few spots were quite detailed and dry, but overall I found myself underlining interesting points like a madman. The concluding chapter was mindblowing. The author somehow cohesively pulled together such topics as human experience, modernism and postmoderism, literacy and writing, oral tradition, language, symbols, and thought, meaning and reality, human and culture evolution, and, of course, aesthetics and art. Certainly, it will have a lasting impact on my thinking about "art." Very much recommended for interdisciplinary thinkers.
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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".
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Dissanayake marshals an eclectic hodgepodge of research, ideas, data, theories, and counter-theories to advance the simple claim that the aesthetic experience is fundamentally and innately a biological act born out of human adaptationism along the Darwinian struggle for survival. She grants that the adaptationist mechanisms may have subsided in more recent times, but the imprinting over eons of evolution still motivate us, and are still at the core of our aesthetic esperience. While entirely sympathetic to her objectives, I believe her excesses defeat her purposes.

Her core problem is wishing to remain with the 19th C. Tradition of "aesthetics" as the legacy of European Idealism while also appealing to more primitive understandings of "art." To straddle these disparate, indeed contradictory, traditions, one senses a desperation in throwing everything "including the kitchen sink" to defend her thesis. And yet, two primary resources she either does not know, or she choose to ignore, could have simplified her project immensely. But before adopting Aristotle and empirical empathy to her project, she would have to exclude the entire "aesthetic" tradition, which stands in opposition to it. She's unprepared to make that final leap, and that lack of daring in the end sabotages her project.

"Aesthetics" is a recent concept born of late-18th C. German Idealism that has made artistic behavior elitist, metaphysical, and quasi-supernatural, which as long as she accepts that model, she'll never reconcile her thesis to a more primitive biological model that has firmer and much older roots in classical Greek thought.
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In the four years since I first read this book, I have come back to it again and again, to verify points, to re-examine ideas, and to seek inspiration.
It is impossible to review this book adequately in 1000 words. Homo Aestheticus calls for a full-fledged course, to examine its ideas and implications, and to compare similar trends in cultures throughout the world.
Over and over as I read this book, I was amazed (and amused) to see how closely Dissanayake -- quite unknowingly -- mirrored Confucian concepts and reasoning. If I were a librarian, I would file this book under Confucianism.
Anybody interested in art, art history, culture, anthropology, psychology, or sociology will benefit deeply by devoting time and attention to this masterpiece.
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