In an earlier post, I argued that all humans have a sense of beauty. That is, they have a capacity to derive disinterested pleasure from things, and, in this Kantian sense, to find them beautiful. But, I continued, there is no universal explanation for norms of beauty—such explanations as are offered for why we find certain things beautiful fail to capture all of the things we find beautiful, and admit many things that we do not find beautiful in the Kantian sense mentioned above. Finally, I argued that all human cultures practice art.
In this post, I want to begin to consider evolutionary explanations of the universality of art. Here, I make a simple point: evolutionary explanations should (but typically don’t) account for the essential role of form in art. Accounting for form has a surprising result.
- Certain things are beautiful because they are adaptive.
- Art consists in the creation of beautiful things.
Let’s consider these propositions in turn.
Re. 1. When something is of adaptive value, it is to our advantage to possess an innate desire for it. For example, people say, it is of adaptive value to be able to survey a large terrain while remaining unobserved. Consequently, we seek out such perspectives. Can we conclude that we find such landscapes beautiful when seen from such perspectives? No!! At least, not in the Kantian sense. For the conclusion just drawn is that we desire these perspectives. And desire is the paradigm of an interested attitude. We desire sweet things; we desire warmth; we desire sex. None of these things is beautiful, at least not in the sense that underlies the objects that art seeks to create. If certain landscapes are beautiful, then, and if they are represented in art, it can’t be because they are adaptively advantageous.
Re 2: These most naïve accounts continue: Art is the representation of beautiful things. This can’t be right either. We do not consider all artistic representations of beautiful things beautiful. The shopping malls of Denver and Banff are full of the most banal and kitschy representations of beautiful mountain ranges. My iPhoto file is full of bad photographs of buildings, paintings, city-scapes. When I hum snatches of La Traviata, I get aesthetic pleasure, but my humming is not a work of art—anything but. These items are not art. There is something more to art than the representation of beautiful things (or even the representation of things that have aesthetic value).
Among other things, art is self-conscious about how it achieves its effect. Usually, this self-consciousness is mediated by a codified style. An artist does not merely represent things of beauty: she does so in a certain manner. The manner in which something is represented is itself an object of aesthetic (i.e., appreciation). Similarly, melody and rhythm are insufficient to make a piece of music art. If it were, Johann Strauss would be superior to Beethoven. Art has form; form is dictated, roughly, by style.
Now, the preoccupation with form is an impediment to achieving the goal that naïve evolutionary accounts assign to art. According to naïve accounts, art consists in the creation of aesthetic objects. Doing so in a formally interesting way makes this more difficult. As I remarked earlier, this situation is reminscent of Bernard Suits's analysis of games. Suits says that games have a "pre-lusory" goal—in soccer, for instance, it is putting the ball in the net; in mountain-climbing, it is getting to the peak. However, it is an essential characteristic of games that the pre-lusory goal cannot be achieved in just any way. In soccer, you cannot carry the ball into the net; in mountain climbing, you cannot take a helicopter to the peak. In games, players willingly adopt what Suits calls a "lusory" goal. This lusory goal is to achieve the prelusory goal in conformity with certain rules.
Art has a structure that is somewhat similar to this. The pre-artistic goal may be, as the naïve accounts say, to represent aesthetic things. However, the artistic goal is to represent them in a way that draws attention to the mode of representation. (Of course, art has other characteristics than form, but let me concentrate just on form.) This makes the representation of beauty more difficult. But if this is right, it immediately follows that the evolutionary value of art is not a mere spandrel to the sense of beauty. Art places obstacles in the achievement of this pre-artistic goal. It is an inefficient way of achieving this goal. It actually detracts from the mere presentation of beauty.
Why are there games? Perhaps, because games are play. Forcing someone to control a ball with her feet increases the competence of her use of her feet. Animals play like this: they exercise their skill in running, jumping, catching, flying. It is fun to do so, because it is adaptive to learn and improve in this way. Play is adaptive because it is an activity that improves skill. Games are human play. It isn’t clear to me that art can be explained the same way. It seems that the difficulty of art—the universal acceptance of formal constraint—needs to be explained. But it cannot be explained by appealing to the adaptive value of the objects that art creates, because art is a difficult and resource-wasting way to create these objects.
The argument is perhaps surprising. (In fact, I confess I am a little worried that it’s too simple or even . . . shudder! . . . glib.) The evolutionary value of art cannot be a spandrel that piggybacks on beauty because art is an inefficient way of representing beauty.
In a final post, I’ll say a word or two about the evolution of art and of the sense of beauty.