Tuesday, March 9, 2010

What Is Art For? Reflections on Ellen Dissanayake

"What Is Art For?" "Homo Aestheticus"and "Art and Intimacy" are three books that Ellen Dissanayake has published. Her work has been described as burning a new path in the way art is critically addressed and defined. "Although human ethologists have speculated about the origin and evolutionary function of many kinds of human behavior, art, which is after all a universal characteristic or "behavior" of humankind has not yet received much serious biologically based attention." Ellen Dissanayake gives art some serious biologically based attention in her books while addressing subjects varying from what does art do for people, the evolution of the behavior of art and the importance of feeling.

At a recent lecture held at UCM, Ellen gave a brief introductory to the underlying anthropological philosophies used in her three books. Ellen broke down the information into three categories and them elaborated on each one. The major themes included;
1. Social and material lives for modern(industrialized) and premodern(non industrialized) life
2. Making and Material and its importance
3. Everyone is an Artist

According to Ellen, premodern life on the human timeline stretches back much farther than the short time that is considered modern life for current industrialized humans. With this shift in life styles there has also been a shift in the way our social lives have been treated, and in her opinion many base needs that were once met have become neglected.

Premodern life was described as;
1. hunter gatherer society - no food storage
2. small intimate groups - 10-20
3. kin organization - everyone is considered family(biologically or not)
4. shared ideas - group mentality same ideas/goals
5. assigned identities - everyone had a position they had to fill
6. ritual ceremonies pervaded life
7. everything made with hands

Modern life was described as;
1. earn money buy things/accumulation is available
2. societies of strangers
3. Nation states
4. pluralistic culture - no one mind set
5. create own identity - you don't necessarily have a position that has to be filled
6. scientific explanation - instead of mythological
7. push buttons or non physical creation
8. nature at a distance - no direct relation/AC Central Heat
9. elitist idea of Art

Ellen then went on to describe five emotional needs premodern life provided that modern life neglects
1. mutuality - one love with another / baby to mother / lovers
2. belonging - an identity within a group
3. Meaning - for what you do and who you are
4. Competence - being able/ watching and doing (incompetence - computer illiterate people = helplessness)
5. Elaboration - showing that you really care about something / embellishment   

Making and Materiality was the second subject that Ellen addressed in her lecture. She began it with the basic history of the liberation of the first humans hands for locomotion and their ability to be used in a creative manner. This was then developed into the pleasure of creating something new with your hands, body, and mind. This pleasure is something that has been neglected in everyday Modern life. Art was then proposed as the process of transformation. Linked back to the earliest example of culture or transformation and the example used by Bill Reid in his Book "The Raw and The Cooked", the act of processing food or cooking food was considered the earliest sign of culture or art. A more recent example was given with Herbert Cole's appropriation of the title with "The Raw the Cooked and the Gourmet." The idea that culture or art is created by the transformation based on aesthetic and high culture or art is the refinement or Elaboration of that transformation. Ellen then proposed that the term art be gotten rid of in total and that "ordinary and extraordinary" be instated in its place.

This statement transitioned the lecture into her final theme We Are All Artists. We all have the capability to make the extraordinary and to acknowledge things that are extraordinary therefor we are all artists. Through our most basic ceremonies and rituals we all make extraordinary events and objects. Whether it is the super bowl or the symbolic items we keep secret in our safest places, everyone has the capability to embellish and create symbolic significance.

As a whole this lecture made since to me in its most basic principles but i wasn't completely satisfied with the information. I will ask you the same question i asked her to see if i can gain some more clarity with this information. If we are all Artists and we can all make the ordinary extraordinary, what role do you think the Museum spaces and gallery spaces have in the definition, presentation and path of art and the artist?


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Ryan T. LaFerney said...

Lea, I think the roles of museums and their functions are to demonstrate and educate why we need and have developed the core principles Ellen discusses. For example, Intimacy can be seen in lactation motifs-the most common human experience besides birth and death. I mean there are tons of other examples. I don't think she was dismissing museums. Museums achieve a social function as well, you must remember.