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burning issue

are we innately art-making creatures?

christine morrow: interview (extract), ellen dissanayake

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Ellen Dissanayake with Nokwe Ellen Dissanayake with Nokwe
photo Ingrid Barrentine

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 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.” What follows is an extract from the interview which can be read at

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, it’s braiding it, it’s putting paint on it. It’s marking your body.

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 behaviour 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.

Can I ask you to speculate on the implications of the idea that competition and selfishness have 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, oxytocin, 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.

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.

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.

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

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. 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

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RealTime issue #113 Feb-March 2013 pg. 5

© Christine Morrow; for permission to reproduce apply to

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