What is Art For?

“Art must be viewed as an inherent universal trait of the human species, as normal and natural as language, sex, sociability, aggression, or any of the other characteristics of human nature.” ~ Ellen Dissanayake

Imagine a wedding. The bride wears a carefully selected dress. Her bridesmaids wear gowns and carry flower bouquets. The groom wears a suit or a tuxedo as do his groomsmen. The guests dress up too but are careful not to draw attention from the bride. The music is familiar, the words are lyrical, symbolic rings are exchanged and rituals are performed. The specifics vary according to religious, regional or ethnic factors, but the basic underlying structure of the ceremony is ubiquitous and familiar.
Technically, none of these elements is required for a marriage to happen. However, this scenario illustrates one of the most basic of human instincts—the need to make ordinary human behaviors more special by creating rituals comprised of significant, formalized and symbolic practices. Anthropological evidence suggests rituals such as these have been profoundly important to the evolution of human beings since early hominids walked the earth.

Making Special

Recently, I had the privilege of hearing highly respected researcher, Ellen Dissanayake, speak at the Colorado Art Education Association’s annual conference. Dissanayake’s work focuses on the anthropological exploration of art and culture, a previously uncharted field of study. She is credited for re-defining the arts as “Making special”; taking something out of its everyday context and “artifying” it into something special.

For decades, Dissanayake, an accomplished musician with a master’s degree in art history, has pondered questions such as, what is the evolutionary purpose of art and why did early peoples spend time on artistic endeavors if it wasn’t necessary for survival? For the past four decades, she has made a case that the arts are intrinsic components of human nature—normal, natural, and necessary, contributing to our biological survival and reproductive success.
In the early hunter-gatherer societies of 200,000 years ago, religion and ceremony—with their accompanying art forms of hand-made symbolic materials, dance, music, costumes and rituals—permeated their lives. “To an evolutionist, devoting time, effort, and resources to apparently non-utilitarian pursuits should have made people less, rather than more, likely to survive,” Dissanayake says. “Yet the fact that they occur so extravagantly, so universally, requires an opposite conclusion: the arts must have enabled their practitioners to better survive than humans who did not go to such extensive and expensive extremes. Their ‘value’ had to be not only cultural, but biological.”
In her book, Homo Aestheticus, Dissanayake writes that throughout history, “ceremonies occur at times of transition. Birth, marriage, wartime, sickness, death—these are moments of great uncertainty and anxiety.” Making art gives us “the ability to shape and thereby exert some measure of control over the untidy material of everyday life.”

Dissanayake hypothesizes that engaging in ceremonial arts contributed to our ancestors’ survival in two ways. First, having “something to do” when facing misfortune or uncertainty helped to reduce fear and anxiety. Second, it instilled collective emotions of trust and belongingness, strengthening the community’s commitment to each other.

The First Relationship

Dissanayake makes a strong case that the “germs” of human art and music stem from the first and most important relationship of our lives, that of mother and baby. Mothers naturally engage their infants in a way reserved only for babies—high pitched, soft, rhythmic, undulant voices with a slow tempo, exaggerated vowels, and repetition of words. Physically, we make funny faces (wide eyes, raised eyebrows, open mouth, wide, sustained smiles) and rhythmic head movements. Mothers instinctively know that babies like gentle regular, repetitive movement like rocking and patting. Infants reward us with kicks, wriggles, smiles, and coos. This language of “Motherese” is found in all human cultures around the world.

Interestingly, we don’t teach babies to respond to these interactions; they actually teach us to perform them. In her research, Dissanayake has found that these patterned, dynamic, rhythmic activities released oxytocin in the adult, fostering maternal behavior. Interactive babies who elicited these signals from their mother and encouraged her to keep making them, helped to insure maternal care and therefore their own continuing survival—and the survival of the human race.

Where Does Ceremony Come From?

There are five identifiable elements of Motherese, subconsciously designed to alleviate anxiety, thus creating feelings of trust and confidence. These are Formalization, Repetition, Exaggeration, Elaboration and Manipulation of Expectation. These five elements are also present in rituals, ceremonies and other symbolic practices, which Dissanayake has characterized as a “collection of arts.” When these elements combine in the form of dance, music, symbols and costume to create ceremony, they represent a higher meaning than simple movements, sounds, objects and clothing did in their original ordinary form.

The fact that babies are receptive to exactly these things, in a multi-modal form, suggests that they are born ready to “artify.” Dissanayake concludes that the same five elements that create our first loving relationship have also created the arts—first as ingredients in ritual ceremonies and more recently as ways for individuals to make their ordinary lives something more-than-ordinary. When participating in artful behavior by themselves and with others, people express and transform their feelings, thoughts, and desires into something more. In responding to these displays and transformations, our feelings of well being also expand.

The Arts vs. Artifying

Over the last two or three centuries, the Western notion of capital-A Arts have become separate from ritual and can now be used in any context whatsoever. The downside to this separation is that people in modern society often dismiss the arts as unnecessary without realizing how deeply ingrained in human nature they are. While there is an important place in contemporary society for the kind of Art found in museum and galleries, Dissanayake argues, “the arts of our time aren’t just the things hanging in the ‘high art’ galleries. The arts of our time are advertising, blockbuster movies and participatory rituals like the Super Bowl or the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games.” Every time you make an aesthetic choice or participate in the act of making something special, you are engaging in the wider notion of artifying.

Picture again the wedding I described at the beginning of this column. There is an elemental and evolutionary reason why we artify special occasions, dress up for weddings, play love songs, send greeting cards and exchange symbols of our devotion. Art is the glue that holds us together, reduces anxiety and makes us feel loved, safe and connected. “Making special” is a fundamental as breathing.
When you look at the arts through the lens that Ellen Dissanayake has provided, it’s easy to see why it’s so important recognize the value of the arts. Since the beginning of our time on earth, humans have embraced art on a survival level, as important as food and shelter. It makes you wonder, what happens if we stop?

A special thank you goes to Ellen Dissanayake for providing lecture notes for use in the writing of this article.

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