Our Aesthete Brains Evolving to Desire Beauty but Relax Into Art

2014/08/26 § Leave a comment

I have been reading The Aesthetic brain : how we evolved to desire beauty and enjoy art by Anjan Chatterjee.

Key message is that the diversity of form is directly related to environmental and selective pressures.

Where there is strong selective evolutionary pressure then, as an example, birdsong will be as unchanging as Egyptian art over millennia. Or, when there is strongly repressive government then art will be restricted to pro-government propaganda i approved form and genre, and as unchanging as the wild birdsong.

Where conditions relax then there can be a survival in a diversity of form, as in the diverse songs of domesticated songbirds compared to their wild cousins.

The middle bit of the book surveys the recent writing in neuroaesthetics and a number of evolutionary arguments about “why art?”. Unsatisfied by the answers involving “art instinct” or “by-product” he argues for a third way involving that relaxation of selective pressures mentioned above.

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I still feel Ellen Dissanayake‘s work is the best of “why art” in a evolutionary context, and I can see it fitting in with Anjan Chatterjee’s suggestions of relaxation to allow the diversity we see through time and across geographies. Both are at base material arguments, one for raising children, one for how they, and we, survive.

Suggestions of relaxed environments, if not attitudes, will probably work for any Dissanayake’s “making special” activities covered by other modern words like ‘religion’.

“Art” after all is primarily a marketing category, a very modern form. And perhaps one not relaxed enough yet to be any good. Especially all that conceptual art that just looks like bad science fiction made for people who do not read science fiction.

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