Thinking about what we are doing, when we try to engage our creativity, provoked me to consider what Art is, today. We seem to label certain constructs as ‘Art’, be it painting, sculpture, video, music, dance or music. We all experience the uplift of mood from different stimuli, sometimes exposing ourselves to moods that feel closer to pain , than enjoyment. It seems to me, that I can stimulate altered moods by introducing visual or heard experiences. These are not necessarily confined to what is commonly termed ‘art’. Those nudges may come from the sound of water running, a brook, or the sound of the sea. I may be transported by the patterns I find in a rock, or the sensation of holding a rock in my hand. We have all felt those alterations to mood, responding to the minutiae and the mundane, as well as to the artistic endeavours of the virtuoso. Often, I have been disappointed by my inability to ‘feel’ a work of art, having entered an exhibition full of expectation. I have always felt the lack to be my own, understanding the reputation of the artist, and their ‘stature’. And of course it is, but that is not necessarily negative. The lack of response is not an inadequacy of the intellect, but a valid dialogue with the artist. I cannot engage with every person I meet, and in the same way, I cannot ‘get’ every piece of art I encounter. When the artist creates a piece of work, it is expressing his dialogue with his world. I may not understand the language of that dialogue. If I am curious, I may try to learn something of his language, and come to some further understanding. It may change meaning in the translation, in the way that prose and poetry can get ‘lost in translation’. What we can perhaps agree on is that art can make people feel good.It appears to persist in all human societies, and has done so since the Pleistocene period, more especially in the last 100,000 years. Art gives pleasure, and that is why we do it.
Ellen Dissanayake has written an interesting book about art as a behavioural complex, and argues that in the last couple of centuries, the thinking about what Art is has been hi-jacked by elitist,post-modernists ;
“It often seems to me that what we need to learn most from books is what life was like before books. We must turn away from “language-mediated ideology, and regard the affordances with which we evolved for millions of years: stones, water, weather, the loving work of human hands, the expressive sounds of human voices, the immense, mysterious, and eternal.”
I can associate with her radical thinking, and agree with the importance she places on replacing the term ‘Art’ with what she names ‘making special’. She asserts that the human has needs to make meaning in their lives, and one of the tools they use is their creative use of the mundane, to produce narrative, and to supply an aesthetic. When we see ‘beauty’ in nature, we are responding to this biological imperative, and making a construct of that beauty. It is in response to this human drive that we produce ritual, and ceremony to enhance the experience of living . Thus we all need to ‘ make special’ in our daily lives, and do so in a manner of practices, whether it be putting on a play, or making a special celebratory meal. In the past, societies have put great emphasis on ritual around ceremonies to mark birth, entry into adulthood, death. Denis Dutton comments on Dissanayakes theory;
“Today we humans live in environments very different from those of our ancestors. They used ceremonies (the arts) to address matters of serious concern, such as health, prosperity, and fecundity, that affected their survival. Now we tend to dismiss the arts, to see them as superfluous, only for an elite. But if we are biologically predisposed to participate in art like behavior, then we actually need the arts. Even – or perhaps especially – in our fast-paced, sophisticated modern lives, the arts encourage us to show that we care about important things.’
This new way of thinking about what Art is, and why we need it in our lives, inspires me to produce . The end result is not the important part, The engagement with the process is the art, the meaning. I have been trying to learn this over the past few decades, and one of the downsides of our complex, sophisticated world is the plethora of images and sounds that we can encounter, belittling our own attempts at creating anything. As a species, I think we ALL need to reconnect with the part of ourselves that can respond to the world we live in. I worry that in the aspirational, industrialised Western society we live in, we are shutting down to our own responses. I know I need to create meaning in my life, and the way I can do that is perhaps by increasing the ritual in my family life, and by persevering at picture making, storytelling, even a little piano playing (But only when I’m on my own!) There will always be a place in my heart for the greats, for the specialists, I would not want to live without hearing Mozart or Radiohead, but just as necessary is my expression of my experience, and how to find a variety of methods to fulfil it.
As Dissanayake affirms” the idea that art is for life’s sake, for the fulfillment of fundamental human needs, and for human survival… ” needs to be examined and considered. If youare interested in reading more about Ellen Dissanayakes theory on human evolution and art, go straight to: