Animal Artworlds – ‘it could be anything’
May 18, 2012 § 2 Comments
This is the first of an occasional series of extracts from texts, critical readings, or personal reflections based on ideas arising from the field of cultural research that is now referred to as the ‘post-humanities’.
The following quote is taken from Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science and Evolution by David Rothenburg. It contains a very interesting appropriation of the institutional theory of art by the biologist Richard Prum:
“… art is a communication that evolves by co-evolution between the observed and the observer, a performance and an audience, through sensory evaluation. Basically there are an extreme number of biotic artworlds that we are observing from the outside: a nightingale artworld, a bowerbird artworld, a mocking bird artworld.”
Prum has derived the term artworld from Arthur Danto’s definition of art, as originally set forth in his 1964 essay The Artworld:
To see something as art requires something the eye cannot descry—an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art: an artworld.
A work of art in the classificatory sense is 1) an artifact 2) upon which some person or persons acting on behalf of a certain social institution (the artworld) has conferred the status of candidate for appreciation.
Prum’s radical (but to my mind very appealing) implication is that the cultural conditions that have provoked the concept behind institutional theory might actually be nothing new:
“We gotta get over ourselves. We are not the centre of life or the universe. Our culture is not the centre of culture. There is a seamless interaction between coevolutionary theory and aesthetics.”
* Although, in a 2003 essay entitled On Painting by Art and Language it is pointed out that Marcel Duchamp’s In Advance of the Broken Arm – a completely unmodified snow shovel – would be a clearer example of a work that requires institutional theory to ‘see it as a work of art’.
** In Darwin’s view, anything that could be expected to have some adaptive feature could be explained easily with his theory of natural selection. In On the Origin of Species, Darwin had admitted that to use natural selection to explain something as complicated as a human eye, “with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration” might at first appear “absurd in the highest possible degree,” but nevertheless, if “numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist”, then it seemed quite possible to account for within his theory.
More difficult for Darwin were highly evolved and complicated features that conveyed apparently no adaptive advantage to the organism. Writing to colleague Asa Gray in 1860, Darwin commented that he remembered well a “time when the thought of the eye made me cold all over, but I have got over this stage of the complaint, & now small trifling particulars of structure often make me very uncomfortable. The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick!” Why should a bird like the peacock develop such an elaborate tail, which seemed at best to be a hindrance in its “struggle for existence”? To answer the question, Darwin had introduced in the Origin the theory of sexual selection, which outlined how different characteristics could be selected for if they conveyed a reproductive advantage to the individual. In this theory, male animals in particular showed heritable features acquired by sexual selection, such as “weapons” with which to fight over females with other males, or beautiful plumage with which to woo the female animals. Much of The Descent of Man is devoted to providing evidence for sexual selection in nature, which he also ties in to the development of aesthetic instincts in human beings, as well as the differences in coloration between the human races.