Humans have been painting for a very long time. The Australian aboriginals have been decorating rocks for over 50,000 years. We are all familiar with the caves in France and northern Spain. There are different explanations for these cave paintings. Some see them as a way of teaching but more than that seems to be going on. One intriguing theory was that these artists were experiencing sensory deprivation deep within their caves. This was to cause them to have powerful hallucinations, which they tried to capture on the walls. Archaeologists call this period the “creative explosion.” Shouldn’t those cave dwellers have been busy hunting instead of drawing on the wall? Why do we employ so much time and energy on art? These aesthetic objects are utterly useless but millions of people visit them every year in climate controlled museums and Mexican David Martinez Guzman, managing partner of Fintech Advisory, reportedly paid David Geffen $140 for Jackson Pollock’s No. 5.
Professor V.S. Ramachandran, Director of the Centre for Brain and Cognition and Professor with the Psychology Department and Neurosciences Program at the University of California, San Diego, has done some interesting work on the naturalistic nature of what we look for in art. He found some surprising answers in a historical experiment on seagulls carried out by the scientist Niko Tinbergen. Hs discovered that Herring gull chicks habitually tap the red-striped beak of their mother to be fed. In fact, they could be made to tap without any beak at all. When the researchers used a yellow stick beak, the chicks responded to it. When there were three stripes, the chick’s enthusiasm for tapping the stick and demanding food increased proportionally. Ramachandran sees parallels with human art:
“I think there’s an analogy here in that what’s going on in the brains of our ancestors, the artists who were creating these Venus figurines were producing grossly … exaggerated versions, the equivalent for their brain of what the stick with the three red stripes is for the chick’s brain.”
In the early 1990s Russian artists Vitaly Komar and surveyed people in 10 countries on their preferences regarding colour, subject matter and artistic style. With the help of the poll results they came up with a series of realist landscapes. You can find the results here. The American painting, for instance, absurd pastiche of grass, a lake, a few adorable children and the figure of George Washington – a Mcpainting if you will. What is interesting is the striking underlying similarity of their paintings. The 10 national landscapes may have differed in their details – the Russians wanted a brown bear, while the Kenyans plumped for a hippo. But the basic layout was identical. In each case, people wanted a painting that featured a large body of blue water, some open grass, a human figure and a few animals. According to philosopher Dennis Dutton, the survey results reveal our hard-wired preferences, which developed when we were Pleistocene hunter-gatherers exploring the African savannah. The landscapes we find most beautiful are simple reflection of those in which we evolved.
I have been trying to avoid this but we need to define what art is? It may seem like simple question but it has vexed philosophers for years. It would be nice to get beyond Justice Potter Stewart’s famous definition of obscenity –“But I know it when I see it.” It turns out that art is notoriously difficult to pin down. Denis Dutton identified seven universal signatures in human aesthetics
- Expertise or virtuosity. Technical artistic skills are cultivated, recognized, and admired.
- Nonutilitarian pleasure. People enjoy art for art’s sake, and don’t demand that it keep them warm or put food on the table.
- Style. Artistic objects and performances satisfy rules of composition that place them in a recognizable style.
- Criticism. People make a point of judging, appreciating, and interpreting works of art.
- Imitation. With a few important exceptions like music and abstract painting, works of art simulate experiences of the world.
- Special focus. Art is set aside from ordinary life and made a dramatic focus of experience.
- Imagination. Artists and their audiences entertain hypothetical worlds in the theatre of the imagination.
It seems reasonable to me but does art need to fulfil all these criteria or just some of them? I’m sure there will always be counterexamples. What is and what is not art will continue to be a controversy for as long as humans continue to express to express their artistic vein.