A few years ago, while I was at the Museum of Natural History in New York, I had a thought about art. There’s some text on the wall next to one of the dioramas that talks about human evolution and development, and it says – in that slightly musty way – that the decisive step in human mental development was the ability to manipulate our environment in a non-reactive way. That is, to make plans and then execute them; to be able to envision something that did not yet exist and then bring it about. Basically, that humans acquired the ability to manipulate a mental model of the world that could then be used to guide actions in the real world. I don’t remember quite how they said it, and it’s possible that I’m overshooting their point in my paraphrase here. Anyway, this was meant to introduce the advent of tool-making. Then – at least as I recall it – right next to that was a display about the first artworks – those fat little blobby goddesses. Maybe I made this up or maybe they were explicit about it, but I seem to remember the museum telling me that these things date back as far as the first tools; that as soon as human beings were able to manipulate their environment in useful ways, they were also manipulating it in, shall we say, non-useful ways.
And it seemed suddenly clear to me that art was just the junk output of a useful but indiscriminate brain function. Primitive man thought about killing a tiger and then made a spear. The next day, primitive man thought about having sex and then carved a woman out of a rock. Not quite as useful.* But, evolutionarily speaking, the guy who can make a spear is going to win out, even if he does happen to waste his time spreading pigment on the wall in the shape of the animal he’s thinking about. Whatever he thought that was supposed to do, I assure you, it doesn’t do it.**
So basically I came away that day feeling like I’d seen the nature of all non-essential human culture – our brains developed a very useful tool-building mechanism based on manipulating the world to match what we see in our mind’s eye, but only about 5% of what gets poured into that mechanism produces useful output – the rest is just freaky nonsense. I mean, a PICTURE of a thing?
But today I was reading a little book about art that I picked up for free from a bin on the sidewalk outside a bookstore, and I had a different thought.
Culture both forms and reflects the way we see the world. This, in turn – our mental modeling of the world – is essentially unlike the world. Just as a map of how the body feels, based on how many nerve endings we have, is completely distorted compared to an actual body***, our maps of pretty much everything – the ways we think about them – are crucially distorted. I don’t know anything about neuroscience, but from being a human I do know that we process things by breaking them down into chunks and then identifying them, recognizing them. Once it’s gone through processing, the sloppy sensory truth has been torn apart and reordered. A tree encountering someone’s idea of a tree would never recognize itself. If you know what I mean.
A child’s drawing – or a caveman’s dolly – reveals the quality and tendencies of the artist’s attention to the world. The kid looks at the same people we look at, but there’s only so much that he’s aware of such that he can manipulate it mentally. He’s aware that people have legs – and, if he’s sharp, feet – but this big chunk called “legs” overwhelms any of the other things he might have noticed about the foldings of cloth, or the anatomy of the knee, or light and shadow, etc. If he could grasp those things in his mind the way primitive man could grasp the idea of a spear, you can be sure he’d draw them. After all, if he remembers the toes, he WILL draw them all. The world projects an image in the mind; art is the projection of this image back into the world. From it, by triangulation with what we know about the world, we can deduce a good deal about the mind that produced it. The experience of art appreciation is the experience of empathy with our recreated version of the mental life that the art implies. This is so profoundly basic an idea in art theory that it is rarely stated explicitly. It wasn’t stated in my book, incidentally.
And – so my thought goes – the projection of mental life is actually a vitally important tool, from an evolutionary standpoint, in the creation of a social system. Any cooperative endeavor and any coordinated society – or more basically, functional communication – depends on mental congruence among the members of the society. If two or more cavemen are going to cooperate on a plan of building spears, surrounding the tiger, taking him down, roasting him over a fire, and so on, they’re going to need to be chunking their worlds in very similar ways. The kid’s stick drawing of legs, arms, torso and smiley-face is acceptable to us because at a basic level, that is the endorsed chunking. If the kid drew knuckles, uvula, and navel inside a big circle, he wouldn’t be able to participate in society. Okay, that’s just silly. But if you go, like I did yesterday, to the British Museum, and look at the representations of people from one culture to another, you see that what is being agreed upon about what “seeing a person” consists of varies slightly and crucially. This one really struck me – those Assyrian winged man-horse doorframe statues all have five legs depicted: two for the front view, and four for the side view, with the corner leg appearing in both. Check out the image. Even though this viewing angle, where all five are simultaneously visible, is not only possible but in fact the most likely viewing angle, the artists – for many centuries – nonetheless felt that the visible inconsistency was less important than the symmetry and beauty of the two distinct views from the orthogonal angles. What does this say about Assyrian mindset? I’m not sure how to articulate it. But it certainly says something, and if I had grown up Assyrian, it would have taught me something, about what matters and what doesn’t in the realm of seeing, and, ultimately, in the realm of processing the world at all.
That the artistic representation of the world reveals the mental parsing of the world is in fact the underlying philosophy behind Auerbach’s Mimesis, which I am very much enjoying. The only part of this thought that is specific to today for me is the idea that the fact that art reveals mental parsing makes it a tool for disseminating a shared mental grammar. That, evolutionarily, it would be advantageous to be constantly projecting one’s mental processes for one’s peers by illustrating what the world looks like after it has been processed. And that maybe, as children are internally primed to listen to speech and acquire language, we are always primed to look to art and subconsciously acquire new ways of breaking down and recognizing our sensory experience and putting it to use.
This functional theory of art as a tool for mental conformity could feasibly also account for the long contemporary crisis of art, with an argument along the lines of Henry Pleasants’ The Agony of Modern Music. To wit: that the romantic emphasis on art as the expression of an individual was a nineteenth-century aberration of necessarily limited scope since it distorts the essential nature of art. This trend ran the hundred years it had in it, and now we have long since exhausted the technical possibilities arising from the idea of art by and about individuals, but have so profoundly poisoned our idea of what art is that we cannot find our way backward.
I don’t know if I believe that, or any of the rest of it, but it’s interesting to think about.
* We don’t know what those little figures were about; they’re pretty attentive about the sex organs but they still might have been religious symbols by way of the concept of “fertility.” But no matter how you cut it, they’re still not a well-thought-out way to bring about children or crops or anything else Monsieur Caveman may have had in mind.
** Beth: “but couldn’t the purpose of the drawing be communication?” Well, yes. Right. But isn’t there still a definite difference between functional communication and art? Maybe cave paintings are going back too far to make that distinction, but only because we know so little about them. Is there any way of construing the Venus sculptures as functional communication? There may be, but I can’t see one.
*** I’ve seen this sort of thing illustrated somewhere, but when I went searching for a picture just now I couldn’t find it.