Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Evolutionary Meaning or Utility of Art?

The evolutionary advantage of art may actually be quite elementary. Art, in the most basic sense, is that which gives pleasure to eyes and ears. Art is created by man but distills the essence of what we find beautiful or pleasurable in the physical or psychological realm. So, what is the evolutionary advantage of appreciating beauty? In the most basic sense, the ability to appreciate beauty makes complex organisms(humans being the most complex)want to live; it turns us into junkies of the pleasures of life. Before organisms pass down their genes through procreation–a process in which beauty and pleasure play essential roles(for higher animals anyway)–, they have to want to live in the first place. More complex an organism is, the more conscious it tends to be, therefore more self-conscious, therefore more vulnerable to emotional downswings and self-loathing, therefore more dependent on counter-forces to balance out the misery and uphold the rationale for living.

Without powerful reasons to live, higher organisms experience or encounter dissipation, thoughts of suicide, or reluctance to procreate. Humans have a tremendous will to live and ability to survive. The ability comes from our cognitive skills and physical dexterity. But, an intelligent and emotionally complex mind questions itself, the meaning of life, suffer from emotional turbulence, moral confusion, self-loathing, and so on. Instead of serving as a tool for survival and expansion, the human mind may cannibalize itself by obsessing on the negative aspects of life or asking circular questions about unfathomable matters. As higher organism is capable of greater depression and self-doubt, these tendencies must be counter-acted by capacity for greater pleasure, meaning, and enjoyment of beauty. Simpler organisms don’t have this problem because they either lack consciousness or possess consciousness focusing mainly on survival. As such, they do not fall into self-conscious suicidal traps.

Of course, too much of a self-serving will to live and enjoy pleasure can undermine the survivalist or evolutionary process; if the technology of virtual reality keeps progressing, people may lock themselves in fun-filled virtual worlds of great aesthetic and sensual pleasure and refuse to deal with real reality. Such are the dangers of technology, often explored in sci-fi works.
Anyway, capacity for pleasure makes people want to live. Consider anyone with suicidal thoughts. Why does he want to snuff out his life? Because he sees more pain–physical or psychological–than pleasure, more meaninglessness than meaning. But, why are people with suicidal tendencies still afraid or reluctant to jump off a cliff or shoot themselves? Other than the fear of physical pain, there is the fear of missing out on the joys of life. Life forms are addicted to the wonderment of life(and it could be argued that all appreciations of beauty or pleasure is a form of art appreciation). Even if suicidal people could die painlessly and be assured that their loved ones will be well-taken care of, they would still feel panic and fear in some part of their being.

Indeed, the very fact of being alive is filled with pleasure. It may not be intense or electrifying most of the time, but there is a degree of satisfaction and fascination in the very fact of being alive. Simplest organisms have an elemental life force that keeps the engine running. Consider insects whose life force within pushes them to consume, run from danger, and survive. Lower organisms can also be mindlessly ‘self-sacrificing’ for the perpetuation of the species as when bees or salmon go through the ‘ritual’ process of mass deaths so that a new generation can arise from it.
As organisms grow more complex, they gain consciousness and complex emotions. No longer driven by what might be called an automatonic life force, they need conscious reasons to thrive as organisms. A goldfish may thrive in the wild or in an aquarium, but a dog will grow sick if locked up in a small cage. A dog taken for a walk senses wonderment through smell, sight, movement, and so forth. The dog is aesthetically engaging with stimuli, and its life force is boosted by these joys. A snake may be content mainly to eat and sleep, but this isn’t true for organisms with higher and more complex–intelligence-wise and emotionally–forms of consciousness. It’s not just the dog’s hunting instincts on display but its ability(and necessity) to derive pleasure from interaction with the environment. There is HAPPINESS on the part of the dog. A dog gains greater life force through such activity. A dog locked up in a small cage may grow sick from lack of stimuli or attention. Of course, an animal has no concept of suicide and cannot attempt such a thing. But, a dog without a stimulating environment grows depressed, sick, and listless. We see the same thing in a child. A child is more excited about or engaged with life when he is given toys to play with or shown a cartoon. Toys and cartoons provide pleasure to a child. Pleasure makes the child more committed and more ‘addicted’ to life. In a way, art is toys for adults. Even puritanical religions that suppress sensual pleasures find roundabout ways to introduce music into prayer. Islam bans pictorial representations of men and animals, but this is compensated by a very flamboyant(one may even say ‘sensual’)use of Arabic on the walls of mosques.

Being locked up in prison is dreary not only for its limited space and lack of freedom but for its sheer lack of aesthetic stimulation. It’s all steel bars and concrete walls. Prison offers the basic necessities for survival, but prisoners serving long life sentences don’t really get a kick out of life. Of course, most inmates still don’t welcome the death because the very fact of being alive still has its pleasures. Meals are pleasurable. Social interaction is pleasurable. Using the prison library has its pleasures. Looking up at the sky and clouds during exercise period also has its pleasures. And, closing one’s eyes and recalling good times is also pleasurable. And, even if one is not surrounded by beauty and pleasure, one can think of beautiful things. One can construct an art gallery in one’s own mind. One can dream of beautiful natural scenery or naked ladies; one can compose music in one’s head or replay favorite songs in one’s mind. These may not be artistic activity in the technical or professional sense, but art is linked with all such emotions, desires, and mental habits.

One of the great pleasures of life is food. Hunger drives us to eat by causing pain and discomfort, but we also like to eat because it is pleasurable. The pleasure that comes from eating makes us look forward to the next yummy meal; that makes us value life and want to live. No matter how depressed you are, the prospect for another delicious dish or good sex makes you cling to life. Gourmet food is art for the taste buds, and sex is a kind of aesthetic/pleasurable experience for one’s eyes, ears, hands, and private organs. Not for nothing did Pauline Kael see cinema as a kind of sex. It was an art form that sensually engaged the most organs all at once. Cinema wrapped and connected with us in like the arms, legs, and private organs of a sex partner. In the film "Purple Rose of Cairo", we have a very unhappy woman with a nasty hubby and nothing happening in her life. If she were a lower organism with no or simple consciousness, it would be enough for her to eat and sleep. But, she’s an higher organism, and as such, filled with doubt, depression, misery, and so on. Yet, what keeps her wanting to live, what makes her cling to life? The ‘art’ of cinema. No matter how stupid or lowly a film may be, it may have some magical life-nourishing purpose for some. Of course, like I said, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. If one becomes addicted to the movies, one may prefer life-at-the-movies over life-in-reality. And, that is also the problem with the woman in "Purple Rose of Cairo". The movies keep her alive, but they also cut her off from what we consider meaningful living. Same is true of food. Delicious food makes us want to live to eat more delicious stuff. But, addiction to this yumminess may make us fat and unhealthy, in which case, too much of a good thing will turn us into fat slobs who die of heart attack at a young age.

The art of cooking is kind of like art. Chefs distill the flavors that are most appealing to us and cook up dishes that maximize our pleasure. Some would even argue that fine cooking is indeed Art. What we generally consider as art–music, literature, painting, sculpture, etc–is consumed through our eyes and ears; food is consumed through our mouths. In both cases, we are seeking and finding pleasure through our senses.
Of course, this can’t be said of much of modern art whose purpose is to provoke, incite, experiment, or even offend. Such may be more of an acquired taste and may not serve the interests of the life force or the will to live. But, some higher intellects or pompous asses may require just that sort of thing to get their jollies in life, in which case even such arts may have their evolutionary purpose.

In addition, such works of art may serve the same kind of function as genetic mutations. Most mutations are useless or harmful, but once in a long while one comes along that may actually present new possibilities and advance the species. Similarly, avant-garde-ism, though generally stupid or useless, may occasionally break through the sound barrier of culture and establish a new template for something very exciting and useful. .
Even so, most people understand art as a thing of beauty, and art appreciation for the masses, even in today’s post-modern culture, is about finding pleasure from works of beauty, humor, and other things that make people feel good. Even art that seems ugly at first sight may be appreciated for its truth–moral beauty–or its wit(a kind of intellectual beauty or elegance). Woody Allen is ugly and his comedies range from gross to absurd, but we can all appreciate the impressive acrobatics of his intelligence.

Art gives us pleasure and fills with a sense of wonderment. We want to return for more. This makes us want to live. Take Franz Kafka who was one severely depressed person. Yet, what kept him going until he died of sickness? He found meaning through art. And, I’ll bet people who read his books but contemplated jumping off a cliff thought, ‘but if I drop dead, I won’t be able to read any more Kafka.’ That may sound like silly, but it’s probably not. And, it doesn’t have to be what we call Great Art. Even taking a stroll and feeling the breeze and looking up at the stars is an aesthetic experience. Art is merely an extension of this pleasure/wonderment principle which is so integral to the higher organism’s will to live. And, cherishing our memories is also a kind of aesthetic experience. The mind does to events and happenstance what time does to grape juice. It turns them into mental wine. It becomes transformed, mythologized, aestheticized, etc. It becomes precious. The past becomes like a museum. It becomes sacred, and the sense of sacred is linked with the idea of art. Art is the sacralization of pleasures that gain special meaning for us. It is distilled and bottled pleasure with the vintage tag.

Aesthetics is integral to just about everything we do. People look for beautiful men or women for sexual partners. People with money seek houses not only for their functionality but for the aesthetic pleasures the houses provide. Architects don’t just build huts where people eat or sleep but houses which people can show off as their private palaces. One of the great advantages capitalism had over communism was that communism stressed the basic necessities of life and not much else. Other than the lack of personal freedom and liberty, there was an overwhelming sense of dreariness, drabness, greyness, khaki-ness, and humdrumness in communist nations. Sure, there was the occasional colorful rallies, splashy slogans, and loud songs, but it was mostly dull, dull, and dull. Capitalism was more colorful. There were fancy clothes for women, even poor women. There were lipstick and hair salons for gals. Capitalist movies promised more fun and pleasure. Remember the movie "Moscow on the Hudson"? What is the first thing commies do in America? They run to Macy’s and try to buy all the ‘narcissistic’ goods as possible to take back home. So, the commies were not only starved for better food but more color in their lives. Even Western leftists almost never defected to commie nations; indeed, look at most leftists and they are just as vain with makeup and fashion as everyone else. Radical feminism tried to be anti-sensual and anti-aesthetic, but the whole edifice fell apart when Madonna came along and shook her ass. (Again, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. This is where the Judeo-Christian religion has played an important balancing role in Western civilization. The pagan love of art & appreciation of nature is vital, life-affirming, and all that, but too much of it can lead to the kind of thing we see in the movie Ten Commandments when people take it too far and worship the Golden Calf and have orgies. And, we need only look at our own retarded girls-gone-wild skankass culture and the problems in the black community to understand what happens when pleasure becomes the ONLY principle of life. This is why capitalism needs to be balanced by moral restraint, righteousness, and sobriety). And, this may have been the reason why Italian Fascism and German National Socialism were so popular among their folks. Though both promoted a limited or narrow aesthetic philosophy, neither waged a war on beauty and colorfulness. Both were ideologies centered around the cult of beauty. However, the problem of both, especially National Socialism, was that they tried to ideologize beauty in national or racial terms; as such they tended to be blind to the beauties of other cultures and traditions. And, let’s face it. The reason why Che Guevara has become a great icon among the Left is because he was a beautiful man. Never mind his politics; he was the Latin Lover of the Revolution. If Che had been 4' 11 and looked like Elephant Boy or Baba Booey(on Howard Stern Show), no way he would have gained such an iconic status.

As social creatures, we also want to share the object or source of our pleasure with other folks. This makes for communal interaction. Every artist is also begging for attention and respect/higher status in the community. Even politics is a kind of art. And, it also inspires people to have children in order to pass down and share the things of beauty and sacredness(cultural heritage) that they enjoyed and cherished onto the next generation. I repeat, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. A person so immersed in his or her own pleasures may see having children as a hindrance or obstacle to one’s self-centered pleasure-seeking freedom. That may explain why so many young people hooked on videogames, movies, internet, and so forth do not wish to ‘settle down’ and ‘grow up’ and put away pleasurable but childish things and get married and have kids.

There is probably also a danger in too much thinking. Intellect allowed mankind to come up with better reasons and tools for building and expanding civilizations and empires, but at some point, intellect turns on itself and begins to obsess with thoughts like, ‘maybe life is meaningless’, ‘maybe it’s all an illusion’, ‘maybe power is evil’, ‘it’s all in vain’, and so on. Just look at your average Ingmar Bergman film and you get my drift. High civilization elevates our sense of ourselves; it turns us into super idealists and into proud folks. But at some point, we realize that our reality don’t live up to our ideals. We either lose heart or we seek radical ways to create heaven on earth. Either way, we fail. We also realize, through science, that we are part of the animal world, that human processes are essentially biological processes despite our sense of highfalutin exceptionalism and spiritualism. We hit an intellectual roadblock but can’t regain our lost innocence again. Too much of anything leads to infertility and inertia. Just look at what happened to Jean-Luc Godard ever since he crawled into a cave to ‘think’ about cinema.

Even so, the pleasures of life, of which art is an important element, fill even the most depressed person with the life force. The will-to-life for higher organisms is largely based on the pleasure of living. The very fact of being alive is pleasurable and wondrous. Just being alive makes one feel special or blessed. Even when one’s bored as hell, it’s infinitely more interesting than being dead, which is to be a zero. Just being alive and feeling the buzz of life is, in an elemental way, a form of artistic appreciation. After all, our senses are always stimulated by something. We always react aesthetically to things around us. Even when we are surrounded by ugliness, we think artistically. We wish for things to be beautiful than ugly, pleasurable than painful(unless one is crazy enough to enjoy Chantal Akerman films). That is an artistic spirit within each of us–even if most of us don’t become professional artists. Even if we’re not professional artists, the way we arrange things in our homes, the way we dress, the way we react to other people’s looks, the way we respond to sounds, and so forth all involve an aesthetic or artistic process or appreciation. Even falling in love is a form of artistic process. A beautiful person is like a natural work of art. We love flowers for their natural beauty. Strictly speaking, art is artificial or man-made, but much of our art is a replica of what we find beautiful in the real world. Consider paintings of sunsets, flowers, beautiful women, etc. We preserve beautiful artworks because our pride and enjoyment of them serves to legitimize and validate our entire civilizations. Modern Greeks say, ‘our ancestors built the Parthenon, so our culture and tradition have a right to survive’. All political leaders lay claim to a certain cultural achievement which cannot be distinguished from art and creativity. The reason why blacks are so eager to lay claim to Ancient Egypt is because Egyptians were not only politically powerful at one time but because they built some of the most beautiful and astounding objects and structures known to man. Germans have been justly proud of their musical tradition. It’s as though most of us feel–if only subconsciously–that people that produced greater art and cultures have more right to exist than others. So, with both individuals and societies as a whole, art has a way of reinforcing the will to live and survive. Indeed, we would consider it a bigger tragedy if all of German culture were to vanish than all of East Timorese culture. All cultures are valuable, but loss of German culture would mean the loss of Goethe, Beethoven, Fritz Lang, etc. Loss of East Timorese culture would mean loss of wood carvings and necklaces made of coke bottle caps. (Just kidding if you happen to be East Timorese).

Art is merely the highest form of seeking and enjoying pleasure. It elevates pleasure by distilling or stylizing the essence of beauty we find in the world or in the structures of our mind. High art is an object of pleasure that has attained sublime proportions. As such, we sanctify it as something of eternal value, something worthy of universal and timeless appreciation. Societies do this with art, but we do it with our memories as well. There are certain experiences that we cherish over all others. In the psycho-temple of our minds, those experiences are given special place. They are remembered as the sacred moments of our lives. Without such memories, our lives would have much less meaning. In "Blade Runner", replicants seek memories, even filching them from others, in order to find a greater meaning for living. What is the thing that Batty(Rutger Hauer character)aches most about as his demise looms? It's the fact that all the wondrous and beautiful things he'd seen and stored in his memory will all be lost; death wipes out or utterly destroys the private art museum/cathedral in our minds; in a sense, art expresses or serves our desire to live forever; though we die, something about us--that which is most beautiful, noble, and excellent--will live on through art; it's as though a part of our soul(invested in the art we create, appreciate, or revere)will be reincarnated down through the ages; it's as though future generations who come to appreciate those works of art will, in some strange way, come to appreciate us as well; this is why family albums, diaries, and heirlooms become like 'art' within families.
If replicants in Blade Runner horde other people's photographs to imagine beautiful memories of their own, we watch movies to filch memories from others as well. In time, movie memories become our memories. We are all replicants hungry for images and memories of others. Such memories add meaning to our lives.
All life forms follow certain patterns. Without order, human society is not possible and that may explain our intrinsic attraction to symmetrical and geometric forms. Dada-ism notwithstanding, art cannot simply be arbitrary. Even the most cluttered or chaotic works of art follow certain rules; even violating all previous rules is a form of rule, and the work has to be measured a success or failure according to the rule it lives by. In that sense too, art is very integral to what we are as complex organisms. We don’t merely live in our surroundings but seek meaning and beauty through it. We don’t just use rocks but find ways to extract minerals we need from rocks to make better tools. A metal tool is better than a stone tool. Similarly, we don’t just appreciate beauty around us but try to extract the essence of beauty of nature and express them through art.


  1. A question, if I may...were you raised "Christian," at least in a surface sense?

  2. No. But, I have respect for it as the moral foundation of the West. But, too much of it--like too much of anything--is suicidal.

  3. Well, I'd certainly agree that "Christianity" (or judeoxtianity) as practiced today by most church folk is indeed suicidal. People who regularly ingest NutraSweet don't seem to be able to understand the simple fact that they're not consuming sugar or honey or a natural substance. Likewise, most folks who "go to church" today have no idea what they're doing, where its traditions came from, or why they feel the need to continue without examining the process or the results.

    Very enjoyable blog, by the way.