The reason so many people in so many cultures prefer a landscape painting to other art is that in the Pleistocene and earlier times, pastoral images were part of finding something to eat. So suggests philosophy professor Denis Dutton in The Art Instinct. While landscape art may indeed be etched into the unconscious mind as remembrance of happy hunting grounds, lots of other valuable points can be found in Dutton’s widely lauded book:
Connecting Darwin’s evolutionary theory to the making and appreciating of art, Dutton says that art had its origins as a display that might lure prospective mates. He views art-making as a skill that only an extraordinary individual could perform — a person who perhaps exhibited a degree of laid-back leisure and who didn’t have to expend full resources on the basics. This evolved artistic character could also be seen as taking part in casual, exploratory pursuits, the outcome of which was often unknown. Dutton’s idea is that art is a kind of specialized fitness display.
Many artists have known about and reflected on this idea. I certainly did in grade five when Shirley Fulton (the one with the cute smile and the dimples) said she “liked” my painting. Even with my primitive little brain, I knew that Shirley had actually started to like me.
Whether we were cave men or school kids, we soon found out that some of us were good at one thing and not another. Grade-five sport prowess, related as it is to spear throwing, was for the bigger kids. Some of the girls went for the athletic types. Other girls in my class were attracted to Jim Bone, who had smarts in practically everything and even bedazzled Miss Ledingham, the teacher. I stuck to art prowess.
There was a kid in our class who could do magic tricks and make things disappear — like rabbits and handkerchiefs — and he was popular all right, but I noticed that my kind of magic had longer-lasting effects — particularly if I gave a girl something I had made. This sheds light on another situation that Dutton touches on and can’t quite figure out: humanity’s well-nigh universal distaste for forgery and copying. Even though copies have a kind of appeal for some folks, it’s the genuine article — original art from the heart — that really cranks up the old endorphins, gets the oxytocin surging, and is the valued product in the well-motivated artist’s display.
PS: “The arts, like language, emerged spontaneously and universally in similar forms across cultures, employing imaginative and intellectual capacities that had clear survival value.” (Denis Dutton)
Esoterica: On the other hand, for some time I was attracted to Linda Cozlowsky, who could draw better than I could. Also, her colour sense was really exquisite. I watched Linda a lot. She didn’t last. Perhaps two artists in a cave is one too many — which brings us to the territorial nature of visual artists. We are apparently unlike dancers or musical artists, for example, who are more likely to try to be in harmony with one another. Further, individualized mutation in art is related to Darwin’s idea of survival of the fittest. The next time you put your work before a selection committee, consider, just for a moment, that you are also being subjected to the long-term process of natural selection.
Art is a lot more
by John Kuti
Dutton’s book is classic competitive natural selection, and some of what he says may be so. There is a biological competitiveness in males trying to impress females. Most rock stars say they started playing to get chicks. But I think it goes much deeper. I think art was meant to express the deepest psychological feelings we have. Its origin in caves like Lasceaux has been found to be directly parallel to the hallucinogenic rituals of the Isan people in S Africa. Many of the earliest art in caves was done where no one could see them but the makers. These early painting are similar to some current art — personal representations of a deeper reality. New research on mirror neurons shows that personal identity is a shared experience. A painting, a work of art, is an internal creation two or more people can share as a representation of our deepest feelings, our deepest reality. I think that art is a lot more than showing off for the girls or a genetic memory of lost grasslands.
(RG note) Thanks, John. And indeed Dutton does give a lot more examples than the business of showing off for girls or a genetic memory of lost grasslands — more than I could give in a short letter.
Birds do it
by Alan Feltus, Assisi, Italy
You seemed to be describing me when I was a very shy kid who disliked athletics and drew all the time. Do you know about the Bowerbird? That is one animal whose survival is largely based on how well the male does in attracting a mate through his making and decorating of a beautiful nest. The discussion about landscape though: Strange how the cave paintings depict animals and men and not landscape. And I remember a small landscape, maybe by one of the Lorenzetti brothers in Siena, as being said to be the first landscape, or landscape unto itself.
(RG note) Thanks, Alan. Dutton mentions and discusses the Bowerbird of New Guinea, which seems to be one of the few species that builds elaborate and decorated “art” in order to win the approval of a mate. This is separate from other animals that display “art” in the form of bodily decoration, such as the peacock.
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Collaborating with the unseen energy
by Linda Saccoccio, Santa Barbara, CA, USA
I have often envied the collaborative projects that those in other arts have enjoyed. I yearn for some connection like this with a musician, writer or visual artist. Although, I have to admit I work best completely alone. I do learn and grow by witnessing the creativity of others. As I have taken to writing more in the past three years, and have attended the “Summer Writing Workshop,” at Naropa University, I have found great relief in being in an incredibly creative community that is not harsh and aggressive. It is more supportive and generous, with a desire for as many people to succeed as possible. It’s not like the rigid, competitive, even pessimistic environment that I have experienced in most visual art schools. In the visual arts it feels like everyone is playing king of the mountain with all the fear, suspicion and remove that those competing for power might display. I think it is incredibly valuable that you make a point of noting that even those who are supposed to have a certain amount of success and neutrality, who are in positions to judge art and offer constructive criticism are also caught, consciously or unconsciously, in their own survival issues. The roots of natural selection run deep for some. We come back to the point that we must be able to self-critique and self-motivate as visual artists. Perhaps this work must be without a human buddy, yet a deeper relationship grows with something indescribable that assists us directly. This unseen energy is what we get to collaborate with, and sometimes it takes our hand and guides us profoundly.
by Jenny Arntzen, Vancouver, BC, Canada
A few years ago I read the work of Ellen Dissanayake, including Art and Intimacy: How the Arts Began. Her theory was that we human beings are biologically evolved to appreciate art because it helped early humans adapt to their environment and reproduce themselves successfully over generations. Her argument was that, because humans at birth are immature and helpless infants, humans evolved to be lovable. Babies were born to be able to attune themselves to their caregivers from the moment of birth. Dissanayake described how the mother and infant participated in rhythmically patterned vocalizations and exaggerated face and body movements to build responses to each other. Dissanayake called these behaviours rhythm and sensory modes. She suggested that it was this predisposition to respond to rhythmic-modal signals that gave rise to the arts. The arts served beyond mother-infant bonding, to align and attune communities to be able to cooperate and survive. Those communities with the strongest affinities were able to survive the harshest conditions and procreate. Dissanayake noticed that all societies have elaborated rhythm-modal rituals, such as music, mime, dance, and display which serve to instill and reinforce valued cultural beliefs.
In my own art practice, I find the time I spend in my studio helps me to feel aligned and attuned to a greater sense of community. Although I do not sell or show my work, my engagement in its production serves to help me feel connected beyond the confines of my small world.
Quality control in visual arts
by Dwight Williams, Meridian, ID, USA
One difference I have always noticed between the performing artists and the visual artists is, though they practice a lot, their performance is usually before an audience where things must be right. We, on the other hand, can practice and perform in private which means our mistakes are throwaways never to be seen again. Our family has several professional musicians and I am very aware of this difference. Having painted watercolors for a living for forty years I could not even guess at the number of paintings (or attempts) that never saw the light of day. I call it quality control. The performer does not have this luxury.
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Questions about the animals
by Jeanne Jackson, Manhattan Beach, CA, USA
Most of the cave drawings in France were all about the hunt or about the animals that had a significant impact on the group. Were the artists calling upon the gods for survival assistance, along the lines of creative visualization? If I draw the image of a mammoth, will it help me capture it? Was the artist showing respect for the beasts that provided sustenance, such as the auroch, the warthog and the deer? There are also images of creatures that preyed on humans such as the big cats and the wolf. Were they attempting to somehow ward off those frightening animals by capturing their spirits on the walls?
One thing is clear. There’s not a flower, a cloud, or a tree in sight. Pastoral scenes arrived way after the original artists made their first marks in caves. There were also special markings, symbols if you will, on the entrances to the caves. To me, these seem more mystical rather than an elaborate attempt at survival of the fittest.
We’re not even sure women were allowed to see these cave paintings. Could they be more impressed by a drawing than the actual meat cooking over the fire? Of course, it’s an assumption that the artists were male. This assumption is based on the reality that women were too damned busy keeping the children alive; they had no time to paint in the caves. Maybe the male artists were the ones who were terrible hunters and had to do something to make themselves valuable to the group. Hmmm. It’s also been suggested that men do the things they do to compete with the ultimate creativity of women — that is to give birth. So much to think about here. Great question!
(RG note) Thanks, Jeanne. Animals play an important part in researchers’ speculation about idealized landscapes. Apparently, even today, people like seeing “game.” The singling out of specific species, such as are seen in French and Spanish caves, appears to be part of “removal” from the landscape, either as game or some spiritual or animist connection. There are no real answers to this, only speculation. Incidentally, in the landscape visions, sparse foliage on savannah-type landscape, with water in there somewhere, seems to be the norm. These open landscapes are neither too complicated nor too simple. Places to lurk behind are valuable. Dutton also speculates on the imagery provided by calendar art, a remarkably standardized form that is seen universally even in the humblest environments.
Art as history-keeping
by Hap Hagood, Clover, VA, USA
I tend to agree with those who consider the early artist to have been a storyteller, a historian. Having no alphabet, therefore no method of writing, Paleolithic man’s method of recording history was art, both painting and sculpture. There are the cave paintings of Lascaux, that are a record of those people’s lives and beliefs; the “Venus” sculptures of Western Europe, Russia, the Ukraine, and Morocco, that suggest societies that either worshipped a goddess or were matriarchal; the totem poles of the various peoples of the Pacific Northwest, depicting spiritual images of their animal gods. Then there are the pictographs and petroglyphs of the American Southwest and Aboriginal Australia, definitely telling the story of those people’s lives and spiritual beliefs. While modern man has no way of actually interpreting these ancient artworks, they definitely had meaning for the people of their day, and for one to say art had its origins solely as a display to lure prospective mates is to lessen the importance of the prehistoric artist as a historian who kept the stories of his people alive.
Girls attracting guys?
by Martha Faires, Charlotte, NC, USA
Is it possible that Denis Dutton, as brilliant as I am sure he is, is making some good observations but drawing the wrong conclusions? Could it be that instead of art being an evolutionary process that it is rather the reflection of humans having been made in the image of God who is the first Creator? I love to paint landscapes, but instead of making me think “food” they make me think of God who constantly creates beautiful scenes all day and night all over the universe. Further, I can’t think of a single guy who ever fell in love with me because of my art. Does it only work with guys attracting girls?
(RG note) Thanks, Martha. Regarding the attraction of men, we can all attest to stellar relationships where non-artistic men have gone for artistic women. It’s the mystery, the excitement, the focus of creative energy that is just as tangible as beauty, character or waist-hip ratio that are so often touted.
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Popularity of Darwinian hooey
by Mike Young, Oakville, ON, Canada
In common with most philosophers, Dutton must have plenty of time on his hands. I have not read Dutton’s book, but from the brief summation, it sounds like a load of hooey to me. I do note that Darwin is the historical figure de année and he seems to have acquired long coat-tails. As for pleasing people with one’s own original art, I have long held the opinion that the receiver of the original art, either through gift or purchase, derives satisfaction through the ownership of a fragment of the artist and also acquires part of the artist’s destiny. The artist symbiotically receives that most precious of qualities — recognition, and, of course, sometimes money. That’s my hooey for today. Maybe I have too much time on my hands.
Benefit of non-artist friends
by Kim Werfel, Pittsboro, NC, USA
Lately I’ve come to the conclusion that I really need to make more friends that aren’t artists. My world has shrunken to include mostly artists, and having been a teacher, art students. Your experience with Linda Cozlowsky, where you concluded that “two artists in a cave is one too many,” rings true. “Artist friends” of mine were constantly competing with me, looking over my shoulder, or worse, copying my ideas. They are not going to be routing for you when you both enter the same competition, festival or are hanging side by side in the same gallery. Musicians and dancers do harmonize together easier than artists do. Competing against friends changes the energy of creating art in the first place. Don’t like it. The only one I want to compete with is myself. I know this is unrealistic and idealistic, but there you go. That’s who I am.
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Development of the addiction
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
I am sure the people who created the wonderful cave paintings gained some fame in their clan. Maybe their skills were thought of as magic. Drawing is magical. I have always chuckled at a quote attributed to Freud that goals of the artist were money, fame and beautiful lovers. Not a bad lineup. I was tiny and painfully shy as a first grader but had already developed a classroom reputation for drawing and coloring. My parents encouraged my efforts as well. All children want to be noticed, first by parents, then later by peers and the opposite gender. All humans want to be noticed. Specialized skills are a way to be noticed, whether it be sports, public speaking or drawing. Drawing is also therapeutic for me. I could escape my shyness and retreat to a calm dream world. There have to be rewards for any activity to be pursued. As an older artist I think my motivations are less primal. While it is nice that people like my paintings, I think I am more drawn to the personal challenge that each painting possesses. I would continue painting even if I never made another nickel at it or got another compliment. Art has become ingrained in me. I greatly admire those artists who do it much better than I can. I love the materials of my trade and putting the first strokes down on a blank paper. The process itself has great appeal to me. It’s an addiction that harms no one!
No approval, no joy
by Dianne Bugash, USA
I am an artist and teacher — my love of the arts has been with me my entire life. However, in my mid-career, I find myself working alone and isolated, becoming an aging woman, and being out of the center of attention. In 2005, I put on 5 shows of my work, with great enthusiasm and energy only to be disappointed by the end of the year with not one comment, thank you, or recognition for the hard work. Since then, I have not been able to work. It seems the joy has been overshadowed by the art “beast” or the art machine which grinds you up and spits you out (newspapers, galleries, curators, critics). Until today, when I met someone who said to me, you must do your work and get it out there. There was no feedback. What do you think? Must we (artists) all suffer and be doomed to a life of loneliness, misunderstandings and our work hidden away? What is to be done?
How does an artist get back up from a bad fall and believe that she can or that she should continue her life as an artist?
(RG note) Thanks, Dianne. I’m inviting members of our community to write to you with their take on your dilemma. In the meantime, my take is to indulge yourself in a degree of self delusion, empowerment, try to be in love with your processes and not your approval rating, and try to paddle your own canoe.
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You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Carole Mayne of Leucadia, CA, USA, who wrote, “When I was in sixth grade, my friend copied my landscape for homework in an art show. When the parents came to view the exhibit, I overheard someone say about mine, ‘That one’s too perfect.’ The blue ribbon went to her. That comment has stuck in my brain like an Amazonian parasite. The drive to portray the ”ideal” by artistic expression and the need to become more heart-centered and spontaneous has dogged me. Whether gained slow or fast, it’s wonderful to seek and find balance and wisdom in the tapestry of Life.”
And also Sharman Owings who wrote, “Your letter made me laugh on so many levels. I am a studio painter married to an MFA/Sculpture. I OFTEN tell people that there should be laws against two artists marrying. We have no adult in our home; no one to say ‘no.’ It’s magical.”
And also Carole Pigott who wrote, “What a lovely letter to come out after the last few weeks of having the ARTS described as PORK during the government’s debate on funding. It is too bad that our art representatives did not have the knowledge of Darwin’s quote or a dollar figure that represents the yearly total amount raised by artists by their donations to every charity imaginable. It is my wish that some of the money granted to the NEA is used to restore the image of artists to its rightful place. After all, if they had really been doing their job, we would have never been described as PORK.”
And also Elfi Baars of Langley, BC, Canada, who wrote, “This letter is truly strengthening my belief that art is some form of compensation for perceived inadequacies. I can create, so therefore I am, and as a bonus the process takes me away to a wonderful place, quite addictive I find.”
Enjoy the past comments below for The art instinct…