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’.

Animal Artworlds 

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.
This definition has subsequently been refined by George Dickie and can be summed up in the following definition from his Aesthetics: An Introduction:
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.
The institutional theory of art was originally based, in Danto’s formulation, on a study of Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes*. It states that traditionally aesthetic considerations of the nature of an object (its ‘beauty’) are secondary to the context in which it is received. In other words anything – the most arbitrary of objects – can be art if the artworld (the institution) says it is art.
Prum’s somewhat radical development of this idea is that arbitrary biological characteristics (we might use the classic instance of the peacock’s tail**) have, for millions of years, been enhanced via sexual selection. Thus the biological acceptance of a ‘beautiful characteristic’ reflects the evolutionary state of the aesthetics governing reception of the arbitrary within these (animal) artworlds.
In other words our human artworlds effectively mimic those in nature and evolve, in response to our artists, in order to receive their art. In relatively recent art history we might therefore see a progression of ‘peacock’s tails’: impressionism … abstraction … the found object … minimalism  … pop art … relational aesthetics …

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.


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§ 2 Responses to Animal Artworlds – ‘it could be anything’

  • Great – deep and thoughtful. It got me thinking about something similar I’d read on ‘prospect-refuge theory’ in landscape aesthetics by Appleton, J (1975) in ‘The Experience of Landscape’, Wiley: London:

    “aesthetic pleasure in landscape derives from the observer experiencing an environment favourable to the satisfaction of his biological needs. Prospect-refuge theory postulates that because the ability to see without being seen is an intermediate step in the satisfaction of many of those needs, the capacity of the environment to ensure the achievement of this becomes a more immediate source of aesthetic satisfaction” (p. 73).

    Everything spirals back to bunkers with me I’m afraid…

    • pkevans says:

      Thanks Luke. You might also be interested in the work of the artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, who created a composite image called America’s Most Wanted based on a study of the artistic preferences of people from ten countries. The result: a landscape featuring water, trees and animals that would appear to reflect culturally shared preferences for the kind of landscape from which Homo sapiens emerged during the Pleistocene. Check out this video by the late Denis Dutton: – in particular the section from around 06.55. This kind of landscape is not so different from the managed terrain that we find in public parks today. Hillsborough Park, in fact, would be a fine example of such a landscape …

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