Art, Origins of

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Art, Origins of

Some thirty-three thousand years ago a human being living in what is now Germany carved a figure like a man with a lion's head from a piece of mammoth tusk. Other ivory figurines were made nearbyfelines, horses, bison, and mammothsome with incised markings. Personal decorations appear even earlier. Some beads made from shells from distant shores indicate something special about the materials themselves. Some of the paintings in Chauvet Cave in France have been dated to thirty thousand years before the present, and other cave art may be just as old. Painted slabs from South Africa's Apollo Cave are more than twenty-seven thousand years old, and Australian wall engravings, though less securely dated, may be forty thousand years old. Early Aurignacian sites from thirty-two thousand years ago have produced multiholed bone flutes. Percussion instruments are nearly as old. Footprints beaten into the floors of some Paleolithic caves may suggest dancing.

Over twelve thousand items of Paleolithic portable art have been found in Western Europe alone. There are now three hundred decorated cave sites known, some with only a handful of figures, others with thousands. Humans have been producing art for at least three hundred centuries, portable and parietal, in varied materials, and in widely separate parts of the world. Unfortunately, it is not clear how much this knowledge reveals about the origins of art.

Temporal beginnings and the nature of art

Even asking where and when art began is more complicated than it seems. Because researchers depend on the vagaries of preservation and sometimes chance discovery, it is likely that many other works were created but not (yet) found. Even Chauvet Cave was unknown before 1994. A further complication concerns what qualifies as art or can be conceived as a "precursor" to art. The zoologist Jane Goodall observed wild chimpanzees engaged in a kind of rain dance. Desmond Morris found that apes like to paintthey do so without rewardsand their paintings show balance, control, and varied themes. John Pfeiffer detected among Homo habilis (an extinct member of the human genus that lived in Africa approximately 2.5 million years ago) a possible a preference for green lava and smooth pink pebbles, and the geologist and anthropologist Kenneth Oakley notes that fossils that may have been used as charms are common in Paleolithic sites. A rough female form on a pebble from Berekhat Ram, Israel, dated to 230,000 years ago. Is this art or our own imagination? The amazingly early date makes it both more interesting and more difficult to accept.

Art is not easily defined. Robert Layton notes an imprecise, shifting boundary, and different approaches that are hard to correlate, especially with regard to the aesthetic perspective and to art as communication. Anthropologists now commonly shy away from using the term art. Margaret Conkey and Olga Soffer advocate not thinking of these images as art but studying them as examples of human symbolic behavior. Some forms of art, such as song, dance, and storytelling, are transient, but other art is more enduring, separating communication from the constraints of time and location. External symbolic storage is of inestimable value in human history, and the arts were among the first media so used.

Sources of art: cogitations, motivations, adaptations, and inspirations

Just as fundamental as the timing and context of its first appearance are the sources from which art arose. Steven Mithin believes the dramatic development of culture, seen in some places as early as fifty thousand years ago and established wherever humans lived by thirty thousand years ago, represents a major redesign of the human mind. The premodern mind had consisted of a suite of relatively separate, specialized intelligences (social, linguistic, natural historical, technical) and the rapid appearance of art and religion is evidence that a generalized intelligence, similar to that of modern humans, allowed people to combine thoughts from the formerly separate intelligences.

Psychological explanations had proliferated even by 1900 when Yrjö Hirn's The Origins of Art reviewed many suggestions, from James Mark Baldwin's "self-exhibiting impulse" to Hirn's own preference for locating the art impulse in the human tendency to externalize feeling states, heightening the pleasure and relieving the pain of these feelings and awakening similar feelings in others. The nineteenth-century Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy similarly saw art as a communication of feelings, dependent upon and nurturing empathy. Jumping ahead many years and theories, Nancy Aiken also attributes the origins of art to its emotional effects. This need not involve beauty but could engage any emotion. Some of the same stimuli (lines, shapes) that naturally trigger reactions are used in art to trigger emotional responses that are evaluated as aesthetic. This connection with biologically built-in responses accounts for the universality of the human aesthetic response.

Many models are selectionist, proposing more or less plausible scenarios for how art aids adaptation and so is increasingly favored in early populations. Charles Darwin suggested that the ability to create feelings with music gave certain individuals an edge in attracting mates. Interestingly, his fellow discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace, believed natural selection could not account for artistic faculties and proposed a "spiritual essence," a kind of God-of-the-gaps view of human development. Some arguments involve ecological adaptation rather than the psychology of emotion or sexual selection. Pfeiffer proposed that art arose out of necessity to hold the group together, reduce conflict, and pass on a growing body of wisdom. Looking back, art is an advance, but Terrence Deacon believes it was really a desperate response to change, perhaps to a degrading environment. Such models seem to take a pessimistic view of human freedom and creativity, yet wracking one's brains for a solution takes as much creativity as dreaming on a sunny afternoon.

Ellen Dissanayake's ethological approach involves finding core behaviors that natural selection could work on. Most important is "making special," through which reality is elaborated, reformed, and placed in a different realm, usually a magical or supernatural world, though often today a purely aesthetic realm. In contrast Helena Cronin suggests a pre-adaptation route in which art arose as an unselected by-product of some other adaptation. This may be true of many potentials of the human mind, some of which, perhaps, have yet to be discovered.

John Barrow pushes the causal nexus with the fascinating notion that the structure of the universe itself helped shape human creativity and aesthetic sense. Scale is importantif people were the size of ants, they would lack the strength to break chemical bonds as they do when chipping stones or carving ivory. Human associations of colors with emotions may relate to properties of light. Barrow also attempts to trace some aesthetic preferences to human adaptation to an ancestral savanna homeland. While intriguing, however, there really was no single "ancestral environment" upon which to base such an argument. Indeed, Rick Potts convincingly argues that the time of human evolution was marked by intense environmental variability and that the flexible cognition of human beings was an adaptation to instability. Perhaps human creativity and the aesthetic sense also developed in response to environmental instability.

Or did the arts grow from the human need to impose order on human intelligence and its capacity for self-revelation? Once human beings "left the garden," they needed art to cope with their new knowledge, for natural selection could not keep up. In thus recognizing art's connection with the deepest questioning of humans, sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson offers an almost theological argument, though his aim is consilience, the interlocking of causal explanations across disciplines.

Because of the human predicament Wilson captures so well, the arts have been deeply connected with religion. Much of the world's art is religious and so are many interpretations. Returning to the caves, the most influential is the idea, championed by the Abbé Breuil, that the art was involved in hunting magic. Structuralism, via Annette Laming-Emperaire and André Leroi-Gourhan, has also been important. Whatever one thinks of structuralism, art is deeply symbolic, and its meaning not easily perceived from another culture. David Lewis-Williams notes that Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper has little to do with men eating. And for Clifford Geertz, the cultural significance of art is a "local matter." Jean Clottes and Lewis-Williams argue for a connection with shamanism in which the caves are spaces for ritual such as making images expressing the trance and hallucinatory experiences of shamanic activity.

Noting Jeremy Begbie's defense of art as knowledge, John Polkinghorne sees art as a vehicle for access to truth, a view not uncommon among artists and writers such as Madeleine L'Engle, C. S. Lewis, Larry Woiwode, and John Keats, who famously wrote in Ode on a Grecian Urn that "Beauty is truth, truth beauty." Ursula Goodenough also sees in art a source of nobility, grace, and pleasure, and Thomas Dubay notes that even in mathematics and science, beauty is evidence for truth. Beauty and art are not coextensive but surely related. Polkinghorne points out "That a temporal succession of vibrations in the air can speak to us of eternity is a fact that must be accommodated in any adequate account of reality" (p. 45). Intimations of truth and contact with eternity are powerful motivations. In art and music, like religion, there is a dimension of reality that transcends the material world. Indeed, Alejandro García-Riviera suggests that if God is truth, goodness, and beauty, experience of these is an experience of God.

Interlocking causal explanations

An interlocking of explanations may be crucial for understanding the origins of art. Theological perspectives are not necessarily at odds with other ideas, and they may add an important dimension to theories of art's causation and motivation. Art as a window onto truth not otherwise apprehended makes sense of the deepest experience of art. It is a motivation for "making special" and may also be why the shaman creates art after one spiritual journey as an aid to the next. In some models, this "truth" consists in the capture and communication of an experience or feeling. This also makes sense, for whatever their ultimate sources, revelations and intimations come to an artist through experiences or feelings dependent on the human nervous and cognitive systems. And by whatever route, people have natural selection to thank for this wonderful facility for exploring truth. It is the universality of certain human experiences and certain truths so conveyed that allows (some) art to communicate across generations. Lascaux, arguably the most famous of the painted prehistoric caves in France, still conveys real truth, very possibly some of what the artists had in mind, if only in the back of their minds, so many centuries ago.

See also Anthropology; Culture, Origins of; Paleoanthropology


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paul k. wason