Essays, Analyses and Meditations

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A Brief History of Art/ A Theory of the Evolution of Art from Prehistory to Abstraction

  • Darwin thought that art could be explained by sexual selection. Ultimately visual art, music and dance evolved in animals (not only humans) as a way for males to attract females. Art was a highly competitive function, and sometimes a violent one (sometimes males destroy other the beautiful artifacts of other males). Therefore males were the first artists/musicians and females were the first art/music critics.
  • Later in human civilization it became pointless for men to seduce women with art because other forms of seduction prevailed (or, simply, arranged marriages).
  • Leisure, wealth and sexual "abundance" led to using that evolved skill for personal satisfaction.
  • Meanwhile, women learned the artistic skill from men.
  • At that point art was almost literally "useless": art is what is useless, otherwise it is technology or science.
  • Later, artists tried to convey meaning via art, basically turning art into philosophy, looking for a meaning to life beyond mere survival and reproduction, using art as a tool to understand the universe.
  • Artists wanting to make art socially useful turned it into politics.
  • Artists wanting to make art industrially useful turned it into design.
  • In the 20th century art faced one of its own major failures: it failed to find meaning. So it became a representation of the meaningless: noise in music, abstract forms in the visual arts, chance in both (randomness being a way to express the serendipity that lies behind most of life, knowledge and science)
  • It turns out that noise, abstraction and chance are actually closer to what we observe in nature than classical art and classical music were.
  • Now we see art everywhere in both the human and the natural world.
  • Furthermore, the definition of art expanded as a by-product of political democratization that makes the leader less heroic and of the scientific revolution that makes god more ubiquitous and humans less special.

An alternative plot:
  • Art uses human senses and human hands to propagate and evolve.
  • The signaler (the arts) and the receiver (the art audience) coevolve.
  • The beauty we observe in the universe is the real protagonist, and great artists, whether human or animal, are just a vehicle (one of many) to fulfill that project.

An alternative plot:
  • The beauty we see in the animal kingdom is actually a form of camouflage. The peacock's tail is a very visible artifact outside its natural environment but virtually invisible in its natural (flowery) environment.
  • Art may have originated simply as a way to create things that are visible to you but not to other species, i.e. things that camouflage with your environment.

  • Charles Darwin: "The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex" (1871)
  • Gerald Thayer: "Concealing-Coloration in the Animal Kingdom" (1909)
  • Hugh Cott: "Adaptive Coloration in Animals" (1940)
  • Helena Cronin: "The Ant and the Peacock - Altruism and Sexual Selection from Darwin to Today" (1991)
  • Ellen Dissanayake: "Homo Aestheticus - Where Art Comes From and Why" (1992)
  • Matt Ridley: "The Red Queen - Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature" (1993)
  • Ellen Dissanayake: "Homo Aestheticus - Where Art Comes From and Why" (1995)
  • Amotz Zahavi: "The Handicap Principle" (1997)
  • Nancy Aiken: "The Biological Origins of Art" (1998)
  • Edward Osborne Wilson: "Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge" (1998)
  • Arthur Danto: "The Abuse of Beauty" (2003)
  • David Lewis-Williams: "The Mind in the Cave - Consciousness and the Origins of Art" (2004)
  • Dale Guthrie: "The Nature of Paleolithic Art" (2006)
  • Iegor Reznikoff: "Music Went With Cave Art In Prehistoric Caves" (2008)
  • Denis Dutton: "The Art Instinct - Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution" (2010)
  • David Rothenberg: "Survival of the Beautiful" (2011)