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Art for Life’s Sake: The Necessity of Making and Viewing Art, from the Venetian Red Art Blog

Ellen Dissanayake « Venetian Red Art Blog, By LIZ HAGER. Originally posted March 10, 2010

Yesterday, the formal remarks of Bay Area sculptor Bruce Beasley at an Art in Action event reminded me once again of the absolute necessity to humankind of making and viewing art.

Beasley acknowledged that he was preaching to the choir; the room was filled with artists, educators, and parents sympathetic to the mission of Art in Action, which for 28 years has been bringing an otherwise-absent art curriculum into K-8 grades throughout the country.

A sea of heads bobbed in assent as Beasley talked about the right/left-brain dichotomy. Today there is much empirical evidence pointing to the hemispherical location of various cognitive tasks—sequential processing (left brain) versus parallel processing (right brain); rational versus intuitive thinking; recognition of parts versus recognition of the whole; rational thinking versus spatial recognition; words (labels) versus pictures (images).

Why should contemporary humankind, which operates in a culture that prizes  left-brain competencies, care about fostering right-”brainedness”?

Simply put, survival of the species.

In prosaic terms, humans with well-developed “ambi-hemispherical” cognitive abilities have had a better chance of survival (and thus of procreation). In a culture that focuses nearly exclusively on the development of left-brain skills, art is compelling for its ability to develop the right-sided brain.

Artists understand the ways in which they benefit from right-brain competencies, even beyond the process of making their art. While fashioning a piece of art, for example, an artist makes hundreds, maybe thousands, of decisions. That decision-making skill is invaluable for success in the world-at-large.

Dayak Shield, early 20th century.

Further, the ability of artists to imagine the whole picture (a right-brain activity) is a fundamental to problem-solving, no matter what the problem. Imagine what a fantastic holistic tool is created when seeing the whole is combined with a well-tuned ability to conceptualize the parts (a left-brain activity).

Artists are trained to see patterns, enormously beneficial in the navigation of the array of stimuli life throws up.

Organizations like Art in Action understand that teaching kids art is not necessarily about teaching them to be artists; it’s about fostering right-brain skills to make them better at creating open-ended ideas; better at solving problems; better at trusting their intuitions.

Andy Warhol, Campbell’s Tomato Soup, 1962
Synthetic polymer paint on thirty-two canvases, Each canvas 20 x 16″
(MOMA, New York)

The profound answer to “Why should we care about (making and appreciating) art?” which also has to do with the role of art in evolutionary adaptation of the human race. It’s a complicated discussion that has been approached in diverse ways not just by scientists, but by ethologists and aestheticians as well.

If art were just nice, instead of necessary, they reason, it would have disappeared long ago from the repertoire of human activities. Quite the opposite: from the Paleolithic cave paintings onward, making and appreciating art have been universally important to human beings. It has stayed pervasive across cultures and time.

Hmong girls in traditional costume.

Ellen Dissanayake, who has devoted her career to exploring the biological reasons for art, cautions that this is a topic that requires us to “step outside our Western-oriented paradigm of art as something rare and elite.” She looks back before the Renaissance (when our modern concept of “art” took shape) to conclude that at its core art has to do with “making special.” It is a fundamentally non-trivial social activity, which, in its various forms, articulates a group’s deepest held beliefs and concerns. I would add that, in this construct, a group includes both “artist” and “audience.”

“As the vehicle for group meaning and a galvanizer for group one-heartedness, art-conjoined-with ritual is essential to group survival; in traditional societies ‘art for life’s sake,” not ‘art for art’s sake,’ is the rule.” (Homo Aestheticus, p.222).

The separation of art from life is peculiar to modern (“advanced”) societies. Still, there’s no denying it: “making special,” whether in visual endeavors, singing, cooking, or dressing is still a fundamental human need.

Wider Connections

Ellen Dissanyake—Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why
Betty Edwards—The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain
Malcolm Gladwell—Outliers: The Story of Success

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