The Laws of Nature

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Universality of Art and Artistic Behaviors

Art is tied to human nature, according to Denis Dutton in his book The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution. I'm intrigued by this idea and hope to discuss it here. Prof. Dutton was kind enough to comment on yesterday's blog, so perhaps he could give us additional insights as we continue to examine his book.

The author writes: Across cultures on this planet there has emerged the art of storytelling, drama, painting, music, bodily adornment, and all the other arts. I'll add that this is true for even the most remote and isolated populations that have little to no outside contacts. So, it seems that wherever people exist art exists in some form.

Dutton also writes that shared human psychology (e.g. the impulses of the same fundamental human nature) means that the arts should follow similar histories even in different nations. Although I didn't find specifics in the text to support this idea, it's not difficult to imagine the development of art forms evolving from primitive tribal expression with primitive materials toward more derived work with greater complexity as time advances. However, I've noticed that today there exist a few cultures that have retained primitive tribal art forms to the exclusion of other forms over millenia. Does this mean that there's not a universal tendency for art to evolve from primitive to complex with time? Could it be that these cultures need technological innovations and exposure to the art of other cultures to create more complex forms of art? And, is increasing complexity the natural outcome of time? That is, does human nature lead us to add layers of complexity to our creations as time advances in our individual lives?

I'll venture from this book a little further to ask if complexity in art is desirable. This is a bit of a slippery slope, because what is seemingly "simple" or "primitive" can also be very complex when closely analyzed. So, we'll limit the word "primitive" as it's applied here to mean unsophisticated or naive work that is not highly derived and complex. Returning to individual taste, what type of art do you prefer to view: complex or primitive? What do you prefer to create, a more complex work of art or a one that's more primitive in style and content?

I'll return to this interesting chapter in Dutton's book tomorrow.

Your thoughts??


Deborah C. Stearns said...

It's neat to see you unpack Dr. Dutton's book, as I just gave it as a gift (although I haven't read it myself).

I completely agree that artistic pursuits seem to be a universal part of human nature -- all cultures produce storytelling, music, dance, visual arts, etc. However, I am more skeptical about the claim that the arts should unfold in the same way in all cultures. This depends heavily on whether we believe that human psychology is universal or whether aspects of our psychology are shaped by sociocultural factors.

Let's take perceptions of beauty as an example. Some aspects of attractiveness do seem to be common across cultures. People rate symmetrical faces as more attractive than asymmetrical faces, for example, and smooth skin and an energetic gait are generally viewed as attractive (these are signs of youth). But then some aspects of beauty vary widely across cultures, including preferences for body size (thin vs. fat), body modifications (such as scarification or tatooing), and so on.

So perceptions of human beauty are both universal and culturally-specific. Why wouldn't art show the same complex interplay between nature and nurture?

I also completely agree that the terms "primitive" and "complex" are heavily weighted here and very difficult to define precisely.

Kathy said...

Hi Deborah - you provide important insights into the difficulty of constructing universal principles. I agree with your opinions, and your example of the cultural influence on what is or isn't considered beautiful is most relevant. I'm not a psychologist nor sociologist, so it's difficult for me to understand the causes and influences. It seems that to me that human psychology initiates our sociocultural views, but then they take on a life of their own and, in turn, begin to shape individual human psychology. I see it as a cause, effect, and then reshaping of the initial cause; cyclic in nature. Thanks for adding so much to this discussion!

Deborah C. Stearns said...

Kathy, your description of the cyclic nature is spot-on, in my opinion. Human beings seem to have an innate tendency to create culture -- social norms, cultural institutions and forms. This culture, in turn, shapes our socialization and influences our psychological development. We grow up to become cultural arbiters ourselves and socialize our children in turn. So there is an interplay between nature and nurture that is cyclic in nature.

The question, then, is: how does this apply to the development of artistic forms across and within cultures? What is similar across cultures, and what is culturally-specific?

As one simplistic example, think of the influence of the taboo against representational art in Islamic cultures, and how that might have shaped artistic expression in those societies as compared to cultures in which such a taboo did not exist. Other factors might also influence art. Does the physical environment affect art (the quality of light, the weather patterns)? Are art forms different for migratory cultures as opposed to more settled cultures? What might be the influence of the development of agriculture or industry/technology on art? Or do we see significant commonalities in artistic forms and development across all these cultural variations?

Margaret Ryall said...

Deborah has raised many of the points that came to mind as I read your post. That makes my response very easy today. I can just jump ahead to the final query.

I am attracted to different kinds of art. If I look at my personal art collection it indicates that I am very interested in work that shows evidence of the actual process. I like the complexity of information provided by layering. It allows me to read into the work and put my own spin on the content. I am an active viewer so I don't like to be banged over the head with the obvious. I also like work that has obvious mark making that hints at hidden meanings. To be successful an artwork has to have the ability (through the artist)to bring me back again and again to the work. That might be complexity of process or content. I have a mix of non - representational, abstract and realistic work.

Gary Keimig said...

just a quick blog visit to say how much I have enjoyed following your blog and work this past year.
Keep up the great work and HAPPY NEW YEAR

-Don said...

Kathy, I think you Deborah and Margaret covered this topic quite well. I think I'll stay a passive reader today.

I will respond to your question about what I prefer to create. I like to create complex work's of art based on primitive content. I like to view "unsophisticated or naive work", but find that because of my training and experiences if I try to create such it becomes complex in order to get that sense across. One of my favorite quotes from Picasso illustrates this, "It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child."

Happy Creating!


Kathy said...

Hi Deborah - more great comments! I think the next two or three posts will answer your questions from the viewpoint of Denis Dutton. This WILL be interesting :) Thanks again for your substantive comments.

Hi Margaret - like you, I tend to work toward greater complexity. It keeps me interested! But, I'm not that great with subtelties, which you've mastered. Guess I'm a "head banger!" Thanks for sharing :)

Hi Gary - Thank you! and Happy New Year!

Hi Don - the Picasso quote is great! Thanks so much.

Mark Sheeky said...

Unlike Picasso it took me four years to paint like a child. The first four!

A fascinating discussion. Australian aboriginal art came to mind as having lasted for centuries and coming from a socially and visually sophisiticated culture but lacking perspective, pictorial realism etc. I agree with Deborah on all of her points!

PAMO said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
hwfarber said...

When I visit a museum I'm drawn to the primitive which, I think, shows raw emotion.

Makes you wonder whether the few tribes who retained primitive art forms actually "attained" a superior form.

It's very hard to simplify.

Kathy said...

Hi Mark - I was thinking of the Aborigines as well. Thanks for offering this.

Hi Pam - it's good to get in touch with what appeals to you most, and perhaps the designs you create in quilting are similar to some of the geometry and symmetry in primitive art(?) Thanks for commenting!

Hi Hallie - very true! I shrink back a little when I use the term "primitive" because it has connotations that I don't mean to imply, especially when it comes to value judgements. Thanks for commenting!

Peggy Stermer-Cox said...

What sprung to my naive mind was something I've read recently in my art history book. Oh boy, let's see if I can make sense. It seems that our art changes and evolves along with our cultural changes. For example, how we look at ourselves and our role in society is vastly different than it was for people in Medieval time. For Western, European influenced societies, our religious, scientific and cultural views have all changed as has our art. Man/woman's sense of self is very different. I wonder in cultures where the change is not so radical, perhaps the art has not changed radically either. To put another way, perhaps the degree of change in art is linked to the change in culture. I am over-simplifying, and I am certainly not qualified to debate the point. But, I wonder. Does this make sense or raise further questions?

Thank you!

Kathy said...

Hi Peggy - that makes a LOT of sense to me, and you stated it very well! Thanks so much.