March 21st, 2009

Brad Stroman, “Oak Creek Canyon,” 24″ x 24″, 2009

I was recently sent a copy of Columns Magazine, an alumni publication from the University of Washington. In it, Bruce Barcott describes the life and work of Ellen Dissanayake, an affiliate professor at the U.W. She’s written three books, What is Art For, Homo Aestheticus, and Art and Intimacy, all covering the topic of evolutionary aesthetics. She looks for meaning, definition, and reasoning to the question: why do humans need art?

Working in the fields of art history, anthropology, psychology, and ethology she has deciphered that “Art making evolved as a behavior that contained advantages for human survival– and those advantages went far beyond what Charles Darwin ever imagined.”

Dissanayake also asks the age-old question, “What is art.” Her answer? “Making Special.” Thousands of years ago, our ancestors made bowls and other utensils and tools. But what makes the Grecian Urn “art?” Decoration, or “making it special.” A poet takes every day vocabulary words and makes them special. A painter takes a canvas, board, or maybe even an Egyptian tomb wall and makes it special.

Think about it. Why do we need to make art? How have our rituals and decorations become a part of our everyday lives? What are the origins of art as we know it now? And how can we see it evolving for the future?

And why did we need to “make things special” in order to survive as a species? Dissanayake says that our cermonies, our music, and art is all a type of coping mechanism. We use art to mourn, celebrate, calm, and invigorate. Thus, art evolved along with our species as we continued to make things, and our world, special. Dissanayake is seeking the truth and explores in and pulls from many fields. She’s now researching the origins of music (What’s a musical lament? “How humans make crying special”) at the U.W. School of Music.

of course, not every art scholar agrees with her ideas and hypothoses, but that’s the true beauty of art and its discussion– why do we make art, and what is art? It’s all subjective! What do you think? Why do you create art? What do you make special? It mever hurts to add some introspection to your daily practice.