In the days after the horrifying and unbelievable attacks of September 11, 2001, millions of Americans left their homes and solemnly gathered at churches, parks, and other public places. They brought offerings of flowers, small flags, glass-enclosed candles. They also listened to serious literary and liturgical works from a variety of traditions and faiths; they sang and heard others sing; they moved in processions, holding burning candles in the night. Some wrote poems for the first time in their lives.

In short, in the midst of trying and perhaps even traumatic circumstances, they were moved to make art.

© © Paul Souders/Corbis

Indeed, throughout human history and around the world, our species has displayed an undying impulse to create art—to adorn ourselves, our artifacts, and our surroundings; to make music, dance, dramatize, and poeticize. And we often spend vast quantities of time, energy, and material resources doing so. What lies behind the age-old, persistent human urge to make the ordinary extraordinary?

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The most popular explanation for why we make art, proposed by evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller in his book The Mating Mind, is that displays of virtuosity, creativity, physical skill, strength, and stamina attract mates and thereby improve reproductive success, especially that of males.

But I do not think sexual competition alone can adequately account for many different instances of the arts. It certainly cannot account for the art created on September 11 or for other communally-created arts, such as the cave paintings or megaliths of prehistoric Europe, the temple of Kailasa at Ellora in south-central India, or the Gothic cathedrals of Europe.

Nor can it account for such practices as mbari, in which the Owerri Igbo of Nigeria spend a year or more constructing a ceremonial house of mud, adorn it with dozens of life-size sculpted and painted figures (some fashioned from specially collected and processed anthill mud), and then, after a week of ceremonial dancing and feasting, leave it to disintegrate. And competition cannot explain the custom, prevalent in many cultures, for all the participants in a group to make art the same way.

It almost goes without saying that sexual competition cannot account for the arts of men and women older than prime reproductive age, or for the obvious fact that the arts, even when they also serve competitive interests, are frequently co-created and performed by more than one individual. This last point is especially true for pre-modern societies, in which the arts transmit value systems and stories that serve to unite individuals in social groups.

So what does lie behind the apparently universal human urge to create art, an urge that to a modern, bottom-line thinker might seem unnecessary, and to an evolutionary biologist might even seem dangerously impractical and frivolous?

One clue emerges when we realize that most art, going back to pre-modern societies, expresses people’s hopes and fears around matters of life and death: finding food, assuring prosperity and safety, curing illness, preventing harm.

Indeed, despite the negative cost-benefit calculations of many evolutionists (or U.S. Congressional representatives arguing against spending public money on the arts), I believe that, in addition to assuaging anxiety about biologically important matters, what we today call the arts has been instrumental in fostering the kind of collective identity and bonding necessary to maintaining human societies.

By reinforcing a group’s like-mindedness and one-heartedness, artistic rituals and ceremonies help persuade people to devote themselves to ideals that transcend narrow self-interest: loyalty, generosity, hard work, unselfishness, patriotism, and even the sacrifice of one’s life.

Gitaga drummers and dancers perform in Burundi. Throughout history, artistic ceremonies such as this one have fostered social bonding. © © Kennan Ward/Corbis

Even if an ancestral ceremony failed to achieve its ostensible, immediate purpose of success in hunting, warfare, or healing, it benefited the participants, since the debilitating physiological effects of stress are known to be reduced when individuals have some sense of control over uncertain circumstances. “Doing something” to address uncertainty, as in a ritual enacted with the collaboration of one’s fellows, is arguably more adaptive than not doing anything or acting alone. Archaeologists studying such diverse vanished human groups as the Mimbres and the Dorset of North America, as well as the prehistoric inhabitants of Europe and of Arnhem Land in Australia, have noted an increase in signs of ritual activity—Paleolithic cave art production in Europe, art on rock shelter walls and ceilings in Australia—at times of environmental stress, such as when the climate changed or an invasion by outsiders threatened a group’s control over resources. It is as if participating in the arts provided the sense of solidarity and ability to cope needed in challenging times.

Born artists

Ceremonies and the various arts they comprise may have been important and adaptive for early humans. But where did this urge first come from? My own view may surprise some people. I trace the origin of the arts to a source almost the opposite of male competition and display: to the early communicative interchanges between mothers and infants.

Human infants come into the world ready to engage with others. During their first year, before being able to do much of anything else, they are exquisitely sensitive to human voices and faces—and particularly to certain kinds of sounds, facial expressions, and head and body movements that others present to them through the common behavior often dismissively referred to as “baby talk.”

In all cultures, people behave differently with infants than with adults or even older children. An adult who catches the eye of a cute baby in a supermarket checkout line or airport waiting area typically goes through a striking sequence of head movements and facial expressions. The head tilts sharply backward as the eyes widen and the mouth opens. Then the head drops and nods as the tongue clicks. This solicitation is repeated until the baby smiles, which, in turn, elicits a broad and sustained smile, accompanied by raised eyebrows and a high-pitched, exaggeratedly undulant vocalization—perhaps something like “HIIiiii.” These expressions, sounds, and movements, as well as the associated rhythmic touching, stroking, and patting, are all exaggerations and elaborations of the ordinary expressions of connection and readiness for contact that we use when we are with other adults. (Think of the quick eyebrow raise with which we acknowledge a colleague who enters a meeting late or the smile we flash when introduced to a new neighbor.)

"Gabrielle and Jean" by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Ellen Dissanayake traces the origin of the arts to the mother-infant bond. © © The Gallery Collection/Corbis

I don’t believe we’re the ones teaching infants to prefer these peculiar antics; rather they train us to produce them as they respond to baby talk (though not to ordinary adult conversation) with unmistakable and irresistible signs of pleasure and delight.

Painstaking frame-by-frame analysis of videotaped interactions between mothers and babies as young as eight weeks of age show the pair to be in remarkable synchrony, responding to each other in subtle yet precise ways. The mother varies her pace and rhythm in order to fit in with the baby’s emotional state and—as necessary—gradually move that state toward greater calm or excitement. The baby, in turn, responds to the mother’s signals with kicks, hand and arm movements, facial expressions, head movements, and vocalizations of its own—often appearing to be participating in a mutually negotiated rhythmic “beat.” The pair engage and disengage, synchronize and alternate, practicing their “attunement” over the first five or six months of the infant’s life. Such interactions are not just pleasurable but are also known to contribute to babies’ linguistic, intellectual, and social development and to benefit their neurophysiological, immunological, and endocrine systems.

The sense of intimate engagement that arises out of mother-infant interactions predisposes us to develop the feeling of belonging to a social group. This occurs naturally in contemporary hunter-gatherer societies, in which a child moves from physical as well as emotional attachment to its mother toward social embeddedness within a group of children of different ages who then grow up together, sharing the same experiences, knowing the same people, and eventually reinforcing their bonds more formally in art-saturated rituals.

The components of these initial interactions between mother and infant are fundamentally aesthetic. In baby talk, mothers simplify and formalize their behavior. With face, voice, head, and body they repeat, exaggerate in time and space, use dynamic variation (changing between faster and slower, louder and softer, larger and smaller), embellish or elaborate on themes, and create and satisfy expectations—all in collaboration with the infant’s sounds and movements. Like mothers, artists working in all media use these same aesthetic features to gain attention and to provoke and manipulate emotional responses.

I suggest that when ancestral humans began creating ceremonies, they drew upon their evolved sensitivities to the emotionally evocative and compelling features of mother-infant interaction and elaborated them further, into what we now call the arts. These became efficient means of arousing interest, compelling attention, synchronizing bodily rhythms and movements, conveying culturally important messages memorably and with conviction, and ultimately indoctrinating and reinforcing “right” attitudes and behavior within the group.

Through being especially beautiful, rare, painstaking, and astonishing, a people’s arts are emblems to themselves of how much they care about the sacred beliefs that bind and preserve them. As their duet synchronizes a mother-infant pair, so does ceremonial participation instill general coordination, cooperation, and feelings of affiliation among members of a group, further enhancing the well-being of individuals. One can justifiably claim that the traits motivating this kind of cooperation are as fundamental to human nature as self-interest and competition.

Beyond the ordinary

On September 11, many people found themselves moved to make art, often for the first time in their lives--an example of art's power to unite members of a group around shared ideals. © © Kim M. Koza/Corbis

In subsistence societies, even though some dancers or singers may be acknowledged as especially talented, everyone participates in the arts. John Chernoff, an observer and practitioner of African drumming, says that the most fundamental aesthetic principle in Africa is that “without participation there is no meaning.” Yet in most of the modern world today, the arts are produced by specialists—artists—most often working on their own.

Nevertheless, our arts do retain traces of their origins. Although we may tend to purchase art rather than make or perform it ourselves, we still take special pains on occasions that are important to us, such as a party, a holiday, a wedding, or a big date. In addition, we adorn our bodies and surroundings—homes, office spaces, and even cars—so that they will not be “ordinary.” We probably don’t think of ourselves as artists when we do so. “Art” in the elite sense was probably one of the last things on Americans’ minds in September of 2001. But it might be time to broaden our view of this enduring part of our psychology and realize that what “great artists” do, in their specialized and self-conscious way, is an extension of what ordinary people also do, naturally and with fulfillment.

The objects from other times and places that fill our museums—sculptures, paintings, fine textiles—largely served religion and empire and were, like the ritual performances enacted in subsistence societies, judged by aesthetic standards of uncommon (that is, extraordinary) beauty, grandeur, sacredness, and seriousness. Today the reverse of such standards often seems to hold. The ancient urge to take time and care in excess of practical requirements is still there, but contemporary popular arts, like contemporary society itself, tend to serve not God but Mammon. Time, thought, and effort are expended on the elaborations and spectacles of rock concerts, blockbuster films, television extravaganzas, and athletic contests. And advertisements, together with the events or products they promote, have become the ceremonies that enshrine our beliefs and upon which our extraordinary communal efforts—creative and financial—are lavished.

But are these examples of today’s art really so unrelated to an embellished hand ax, a painted rock wall, or a spirited ceremony in celebration of a successful yam harvest? Each produces its emotional effects by transforming what is ordinary and expected into something extraordinary and astonishing, by serving to unite vast numbers of people. And each is still, at root, a response to age-old vital interests and concerns. And if I am right, all art, whether new or old and whether it promotes competition or conjoinment, emerges from the same aesthetic components that give rise to the oldest bond of all: that of a mother and her baby.

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