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Dissanayake, Ellen, , . Doing Without the Ideology of Art
2011, New Literary History 42: 71–79.
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Abstract: My invited comment on Steven Connor’s essay, “Doing Without Art,” proposes that a fuller understanding of the implications of my notion of “making special”—referred to by Connor in his essay as somewhat relevant to his own position—would expand his view of the human art impulse and allay some of his disaffections. Rather than contributing to aesthetic theory, the ideology of art, my work proposes an ethology of art: it suggests why members of the human species, in all times and places, made and otherwise engaged with the arts (plural). An ethology of art requires a new way of regarding its subject, not philosophically as an entity or essential quality but as a behavior, something that people everywhere “do.” What characterizes all instances of “doing with art,” from prehistory to the present, is making something (a rock surface, face or body, implement, sound, space, place, movement, utterance) special. A summary of the development and ramifications of the concept of “making special”—called “artifying” in my most recent work—answers Connor’s three questions and suggests that placing our modern ideology or ideologies of art in the wider and deeper context of artification enables an understanding of the arts as intrinsic and even necessary to human lives everywhere.

Comment: Dissenayake makes her points clear and brief, and uses the opportunity to present the main elements of her evolutionary theory. This makes this paper not only an interesting voice in the scepticism about the definition of art debate, but also an excellent introduction to her wider work. The main question worth discussing in class is: should we replace definitions of art with an ethology of art? It might also be worth asking whether Dissenayake is right to claim that even the assumption that a theory of art is needed at all is elitist.

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Ellen Dissanayake, , . Art and Intimacy
2000, University of Washington Press
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Added by: Simon Fokt, Contributed by: Christy Mag Uidhir

Publisher’s Note: To Ellen Dissanayake, the arts are biologically evolved propensities of human nature: their fundamental features helped early humans adapt to their environment and reproduce themselves successfully over generations. In Art and Intimacy she argues for the joint evolutionary origin of art and intimacy, what we commonly call love.It all begins with the human trait of birthing immature and helpless infants. To ensure that mothers find their demanding babies worth caring for, humans evolved to be lovable and to attune themselves to others from the moment of birth. The ways in which mother and infant respond to each other are rhythmically patterned vocalizations and exaggerated face and body movements that Dissanayake calls rhythms and sensory modes.

Rhythms and modes also give rise to the arts. Because humans are born predisposed to respond to and use rhythmic-modal signals, societies everywhere have elaborated them further as music, mime, dance, and display, in rituals which instill and reinforce valued cultural beliefs. Just as rhythms and modes coordinate and unify the mother-infant pair, in ceremonies they coordinate and unify members of a group.

Today we humans live in environments very different from those of our ancestors. They used ceremonies (the arts) to address matters of serious concern, such as health, prosperity, and fecundity, that affected their survival. Now we tend to dismiss the arts, to see them as superfluous, only for an elite. But if we are biologically predisposed to participate in artlike behavior, then we actually need the arts. Even — or perhaps especially — in our fast-paced, sophisticated modern lives, the arts encourage us to show that we care about important things.

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