are we innately art-making creatures?

christine morrow: interview, ellen dissanayake, (long version)

Ellen Dissanayake with Nokwe

Ellen Dissanayake with Nokwe

Ellen Dissanayake with Nokwe


Her notion of art is broad, including games and rituals and is drawn from 15 years of field experience in Sri Lanka, Nigeria and Papua New Guinea. In particular she argues that art makes things special, with evolutionary and social purpose, and has done so for long before our two-century old specialisation and abstract theorising of art.

Christine Morrow, Director of the Australian Experimental Arts Foundation (AEAF) in Adelaide recently interviewed Dissanayake prior to the writer’s visit to Australia to speak about “The Deep Structure of the Arts.”

Can you talk a little bit about how the arts were experienced in hunter-gatherer societies and give an overview of the differences that are thrown up when we compare them to the arts today.

The behavior of our hunter-gatherer ancestors adapted them to their way of life. These were small groups of people who had to work together in confidence and unity. They didn’t just have some people performing art and other people watching. Everybody participated. In modern and post-modern societies in the West, specialist artists—it is a very long story—worked for princes and for the Church and then there were the bourgeois audiences and collectors after the French Revolution. By that stage, art came to be seen as the province of wealthy people or cultivated people or people with the time and the leisure and the means to enjoy this thing, called art, that was very much apart from life.

If we used the high-elite or fine arts view that was predominant in universities ‘til around the 60s, then it’s easy to say that pre-modern people didn’t even have art. After that, you have the cultural changes, the protest movements and the real politicisation of art. It was pure accident that I started to look at art in the 50s both biologically and evolutionarily. I mean, I never, ever dreamt that I would be on the same quest as people who weren’t biologists—people looking at colonialism, and the arts of women, and trying to think of art more broadly than elite connoisseurs.

I’m not going to ask you, “What is art?” because we will get caught in a semantic tangle that may never unravel. But when you identify and explore this concept of ‘art’ and locate it within prehistoric, hunter-gatherer and other pre-modern societies, are you talking about the same entity as I am, coming from a contemporary art institution whose understanding of the concept is mostly defined in modern and post-modern terms? When you and I use the word ‘art’, are we talking about the same beast?

That’s probably one of the most important questions. I think it’s good for people of today to learn that under the skin we have a Pleistocene psychology. So that if we were born to that way of life, we would be satisfied with it. But, nobody wants to go back to live that way. I certainly don’t want to!

Me neither. [Laughs] I’m personally a huge advocate of modern dentistry…

Anaesthesia, antibiotics and even just a warm bed, right? But, you know, in our arts, I would say we are all still concerned with the same things. What I have learned from the arts of the past is that an evolutionary view tells you that people don’t make art about unimportant things. When people write poetry, they’re writing on themes—love poems, poems about motherhood and poems about nature. They’re all somehow about the human condition. And I think if you dig far enough even into the most outrageous art today, many of the works are political, they have to do with questions of power, and examining or subverting that power. They also have to do with the person’s own status. Where you stand in relation to others has been evolutionarily important. Hunter-gatherer societies are more traditional and everybody has their place, but individuals still want to become that role of mother or warrior or whatever.

I want to ask you if you have any particular reflections on two different things. One is primitivism in the arts—the way that different art movements and individuals have sought to appropriate the ‘look’ of elements from different cultures. The second one is that recent theorists have identified what they’ve chosen to call an ‘ethnographic turn’ in art. In 1995 Hal Foster published an essay called The Artist as Ethnographer. He was looking at the way that theorising cultural difference has become so important in the practice and interpretation of contemporary art. Like anthropologists, artists are exploring how we represent cultural difference.

Now, we know so much about the rest of the world and people have travelled and we are now living in multicultural societies, it’s easier to see our differences rather than our similarities. But you know, a bio-behavioural or an evolutionary view helps us see our similarities more.

You mentioned behavior and that’s your main focus isn’t it? The word ‘art’ operates as a noun but you’re interested in it more as a behaviour, a verb.

There’s no verb for art. We have to say ‘make art’ but that’s also kind of ambivalent because even then art is always a thing or a product. That’s why I’ve come up with the expression ‘artify’ or ‘make special’—to emphasise it as a behaviour. I tried to figure out what was the common denominator among the arts of all people, of all times and places, who were artists, who were making crafts, who were professionals, or ‘Sunday painters’. I used the expression ‘making special’. Some of the biologists or some cultural critics would say that this is too broad. Now, I don’t define ‘making special’ as art because ‘making special’ is broader than just art. In play and in ritual, people also make their experience different from the everyday. Even children, when they play, are pretending. They exaggerate their voices and the way they move. Even puppies know that they’re not really fighting, right? So there are fuzzy edges between these categories of art, play and ritual.

Fossils and artefacts are concrete evidence of the past. But behaviour is to some extent ephemeral—except of course insofar as it can be shown to be either instinctive or innate. What evidence exists for the ways we should understand art as a verb and not a noun, as a behaviour and not a product?

Well I think you have to extrapolate from small-scale societies that we see today. My latest work has been to look at mark-making—what are called petroglyphs or carvings into rock. That’s the trace of the behaviour. We don’t know about the dancing and singing but we just have to assume by, say, looking at children. Even very small children are primed to do these things. So you would think, then, that if babies and toddlers just innately sing and move along with music without anyone teaching them to do these things, then that predisposition is there.

In your writing, you challenge the idea that art should be understood as a symbolic practice. If art were a symbolic practice, two- or three-dimensional elements would have referents. But if art isn’t defined as symbolic, then how else might we understand it instead?

I don’t think of art as a language.

We have a fundamental predisposition—I don’t like to say that art is an instinct—to make experience special. Doing that helped our ancestors to survive. The things that were important to them were the biological things of life: finding food, becoming well, having healthy children and being prosperous and getting along. So they artified those things with rituals that are full of art. When I say ritual, I’m really just referring to a bunch of different arts all assembled together. There is just a human proclivity to do much more than is merely necessary.

I could be argued with about that. A strict evolutionist would say that you don’t waste time and resources on something unless it’s going to pay you back in a big way in terms of reproduction and survival.

I have a problem with the archaeological establishment that looks back in time at early petroglyphs—from long before those beautiful cave paintings at Lascaux and Chauvet. The earliest petroglyphs are non-representational. They’re geometric. They have found carvings of parallel lines, perpendicular lines, spirals and diagonal lines that look as though they’re planned and deliberate. And archaeologists want to call this art. But in order to call it art, they feel that they need to say that it’s obviously symbolic.

But you know, artification is a larger human category than symbol. I mean, you can artify a symbol. It’s definitely not the case that once you learned to symbolise, you started making art. You were artifying all along.

Artification existed first but when language came along, when it was about things that were really important, it was artified. So when people give orations, they talk in a different voice, they use a bigger vocabulary, a more flowery vocabulary. They’re ‘making it special’. The impulse to artify comes first and I would speculate that it first appears in the form of body decoration. The human body, instead of having all of this hair growing like an animal does, its braiding it, it’s putting paint on it. It’s marking your body.

I think it is fair to say that you are the principal author of a new discipline. Before you commenced your research and scholarship, there was no systematic study of the evolutionary origins of art was there?

While I would agree with that, it’s definitely not for me to say! I’ve been working in this field for fifty or sixty years but it’s just been in the last ten years that evolutionary biology has really looked at the arts seriously.

There are a couple of other researchers I know, who are from my generation. They are both outside the academy. One of them, Nancy Aiken, wrote a book called The Biological Origins of Art. She shows how in the perception of animals and also in human perception that, for instance, we find zigzag lines to be threatening and rounded forms to be pleasing.

And then Kathryn Coe is an anthropologist who lived with Chachi Indians in Ecuador. She’s written a book called The Ancestress Hypothesis: Visual Art as Adaptation about the women teaching their daughters to weave and passing down their cultural history through this means. So she sees art as being a way of passing information down the line.

I had no idea when I began this work that I would be relevant to anything. What I wanted was to show biologists and ethologists that, ‘Hey, you should look at art too!’ And I haven’t even really ever succeeded in that. My best audiences have been in Art Education or Music Education. They are always on the periphery of Art and Music departments. They’re not the soloists or the medallists or the star painters or sculptors. They’re teaching children. But they know that what they’re doing is art. They’re making experience special. And they know that the children or the patients—or whoever it is that they work with—have art in them to be developed.

The same is true with crafts. Because they are also on the periphery of the Art departments. Oh, you know: “That’s just craft”. But they are working with their hands, and doing things that people have done since the Stone Age, from the Pleistocene. (Laughs) Well, not all of them, of course. Now some are doing things with computers…

There’s a very very import aspect that I haven’t told you yet. It’s about the mother-infant interaction.

But, I’ve read your book, Art and Intimacy.

Okay, but I have carried that so much further now and I have extracted five proto-aesthetic operations that compose artification. The first is formalisation. Which would be like a composing or patterning or simplifying. This is what all artists do. They simplify. They don’t have the whole of a reality there. They’re performing these operations on reality to make it more than ordinary.

Then they use repetition. Whether its repetition of footsteps as in dance or beats as in music or repeating a motif that is part of an artwork, either in space or time.

The third one is exaggeration and that’s a really important one. Things are larger or smaller and they catch your attention. Imagination has made the subject more than ordinary.

Then elaboration, and then manipulation of expectation. As the perceiver experiences this artwork they have expectations about it. Especially in time: in music and in dance, while it unfolds, your expectations are being manipulated. But even within a more static style of art, your expectations are surprised.

Now these five things are what mothers use with their babies to attract attention, to sustain interest to keep the attention and to arouse and mould emotion. They manipulate the baby’s expectation and they formalize and so on.’ And the interesting thing is that that’s what the baby wants the mother to do. It is born wanting that kind of behavior and soliciting it from the adult.

In general, I’ve found that men are really not interested in a theory of mothers and babies. They want to be told that the evolutionary origin of art lies in men using it to show off so that they can seduce females and impregnate them.

Most recently, neuroscientists talk about perceptual primitives. They say that the visual system has ‘primitives’: it responds to an edge or a contour, a dot, a straight line or a colour. Those are called the visual primitives. They’re the building blocks of everything else.

So I am saying that these five things I’ve identified are proto-aesthetic primitives—that they’re there in our brains and we respond to them in any modality, whether it’s visual art or music or dance.

This is new. I’ve been working towards this a long time. This observation really grounds it in biology and if you say that artists of the present day are also using those same operations, then it does make a continuity form the Pleistocene, or actually from the bower birds or song birds to the present.

Everything I’ve read in Art and Intimacy accords with the experience of caring for an infant. It’s so obvious that I feel foolish that I never observed it or particularly reflected on it until I read your research.

Charles Darwin who had 10 children could not reflect on it. He didn’t even mention it. He said that he thought the feeling of ‘sympathy’ came from the mother-infant relationship. But obviously he never went into the nursery…

He was always in his study!

His children were with their mother and their nannies and cousins. But you would think that he would notice how different the voices are and the funny faces that people make for babies. Somehow that escaped him entirely.

I find it quite lovely that your research in that area is based on art and human capacity being founded in collaboration, collectivity and mutuality. I’m thinking about Western liberal philosophy and somebody like Thomas Hobbes writing in Leviathan…

That human life is nasty, brutish and short….and… competitive!

Yes and beyond that, there’s his idea that only through social co-operation can we fulfill our human potential. Can I ask you to speculate on the implications of this idea that competition and selfishness has been overstated in theories of human evolution at the expense of cooperation and mutuality?

Evolutionary philosophy has until quite recently taken that line—that if we cooperate at all it is in order to compete with other groups. But there are a few theorists who are writing more about collaboration. So it’s coming around. Neuroscientists I have talked to recently confirm that this ‘moving together in time’ and doing things like dancing together in a group, or being a mother and having this mutuality with your baby, all these things make your brain secrete oxytocin.

That’s the body’s ‘bonding’ chemical right?

Yes, you release it when you breastfeed, and during sex, but also when you participate in the arts. This hormone increases trust and confidence. So the brains of those hunter-gatherers who were dancing around the fire and singing were being flooded with oxytocin. It made them trust each other and made them feel confident. Now, we have the neurobiology that shows that.

I was at a university in Canada a few weeks ago talked to people in the Psychology of Music lab and an experiment has been done with a group of children. Some of them are walking around and singing. And then when they finish doing that, a teacher drops some papers on the floor. And the ones who’ve being singing go and pick it up.


Altruism and mutuality and having sympathy for a person’s needs.

And in another experiment, also done in Canada: children were watching a stuffed animal playing a toy drum either on the beat or out of sync with the music. And the ones who could tell the difference—they were only fourteen month old; they could walk but couldn’t even really talk very much—they would help, they would go and fetch a pencil that the experimenter had dropped. She’s waving her hand across the table trying to reach it. Kids who are able to attune to a beat will be more helpful than the ones who can’t.

The next thing is that oxytocin also suppresses cortisol, which is the stress hormone. This is why people feel good when they’ve sung together or danced together. It’s the participation that is the important thing. So those are two very, very adaptive things that the arts, music and dance in particular, do for people. That explains why children are predisposed to do them and why we do them. Now that idea is not ‘out’ as much as it should be.

Being adaptive in the sense of creating trust and confidence so that people work together in unity and cooperate is getting rid of the stress hormones. This tells us that today the participation in the arts is the important thing. It’s not just going to a gallery and looking at stuff that is already there or even just sitting in an audience but actually doing it.

And especially in schools. If you want your kids—or your patient if you’re an art therapist—to develop things like trust and confidence, this is how it works. They’re getting rid of stress—in addition to all the stuff like the content that’s bothering them is coming out.

My generation of artists and art professionals is convinced that everything in life is relative and meaning is illusory. Can the search for, and understanding of, an evolutionary origin for art provide us with a fixed referent or set of values that may act as an anchor against uncertainty?

If you have a scientific revelation, as I did, that we are on this Earth and we are adapted to live here as hunter-gatherers then that is really bedrock. That is not relative. Also, it’s not relative that our parents are going to die or that we’re going to get sick or that our children are going to give us trouble…

We all face the same human problems. There’s pain, there’s loss, there’s illness—the Buddhist things. So the arts have from time immemorial been a way to investigate those subjects and come to terms with them as much as one can. To express one’s reaction to them. And so you learn from the arts of the past and your art is about that too. You can’t avoid it.

Anything that I hear people say about life, I test it against, “Well, would hunter-gatherers feel that way? Would they do that? Do they need to have, say, couples therapy? What did they do instead? They had their problems, right, but how did they address them?

How does an understanding of the evolutionary origins of art affect the way that we practice and experience it today?

Well you know Barnett Newman said that aesthetics is to art as ornithology is to birds!

I used to think that as soon as people learned that the arts had evolved they would just be so thrilled with that idea that they would just take it to their bosom. It would be like becoming a Copernican after you had been a ‘flat-Earther’ all your life. Because, that is what happened to me.

I think if you have a love or an aptitude and an interest in one or another art—and if you marvel at the natural world and the fact that we are biological creatures who emerged from that world—and if you find grandeur or transcendence in that knowledge, then that would enrich your experience that we are art-making creatures.

Ellen Dissanayake’s visit to Australia is hosted by Australian Experimental Art Foundation and the International Visitors Program of the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council for the Arts, and supported by the three partner presenting organisations: Canberra Contemporary Art Space, Sydney College of the Arts, and the Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart.

Ellen Dissanayake’s visit to Australia is hosted by Australian Experimental Art Foundation and the International Visitors Program of the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council for the Arts, and supported by the three partner presenting organisations. AEAF, Adelaide, March 19; Canberra Contemporary Art Space, March 20; Sydney College of the Arts, March 22; Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, March 26

RealTime issue #113 Feb-March 2013 pg. web

© Christine Morrow; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

25 February 2013