Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Hypothesis of the evolution of Art from Play

Dissanayake, Ellen. "A Hypothesis of the Evolution of Art from Play." Leonardo 7.3 (Summer 1974): 211-217.


By Megumi Okamoto



            The similarities between art and play are elaborated in this article, which leads to a hypothesis that art originated from play and eventually evolved into an independent being that contains its own form. Evolutionary biology holds that there is no prevalent characteristic in species that does not contain survival value: this signifies that art is not useless as it often seems.  Art is, in fact, a fundamental necessity of life, just like play.

            The author first introduces numerous theories regarding play, including those by Schiller, Herbert Spencer, Karl Groo, Freud, Johan Huizinga, and Monika Meyer-Holzapfel. Then she proceeds to define multi-faceted concepts of play, which are mutually dependent and inseparable: First of all, play is "not serious," as it is not directly concerned with day-to-day survival. Play contains behavior that is spontaneous and undirected. It is sought out for the sake of the activity itself, and is self-rewarding. It often involves more than one participant: even when alone, there is often an imaginary partner involved. For this reason, play is social in character and functions to enhance contact. There are repeated exchanges of elements such as surprise, adventure, and whims. There are strongly metaphorical aspects. There are also elements of curiosity. Also, it is pleasure-oriented, as one can experience pleasure when overcoming self-imposed difficulties.

            These attributes of play mentioned above closely resemble that of arts. For instance, art is also normally considered unnecessary for survival. In fact, the uselessness of art has been elaborated throughout centuries by numerous aestheticians. Also, there is an element of combining apparently different ideas and images into a congruent whole that is shared in art and play. Also, art is self-rewarding and pleasure-oriented. It contains a relationship with an "other," taking the artist outside of him/herself. Furthermore, art is concerned with perceivers who would eventually experience it, creating another relationship in the social realm. Also, art contains tensions and releases, as it blends the unknown with the familiar and creates surprises and adventures. Lastly, art is highly metaphorical.

            The author points out that both play and art enhance sociality, which has a strong selective value in an evolutionary perspective. For instance, animals communicate with each other in ways that are not evident to human observers. Such social signals are known to be derived from a simple behavior that was not communicatory originally (such as a bird crouching before flying), but became biologically "selected" if it proved to possess some survival advantage. Over many generations, such motions and actions become ritualized, while the original movement with which the ritual started became obscured. Similarly, the author continues, artistic activity gradually became refined and ritualized, while the connection with its origin became lost in the process. Such development of stability in social code and art form is biologically beneficial. Yet, the author continues, it is natural for any canon of artistic rules to be replaced as life conditions change. Mankind contains an inherent dynamic between balanced order and experimentation and the breaking of the rules.  

            The author feels that one can gain perspective on the objective/subjective nature of the experience by giving artistic form to various events. By doing so and becoming a social being, one can control the environment. Thus, art contributes to sociality and self-assertion of mankind, as we can see in the long-term evolutionary view.  


This reading was especially helpful for me, since I came across Huizinga's play theory in so many of other articles. This is a rather old article, and it tends to focus on the social aspect of art without mentioning its other features. However, I feel that its main theme- that art is a necessity of life- is powerfully communicated.

One of the useful lessons that I have learned in the "Music and Brain" class was the profound relationship between human biology and music, which I have never been aware of before. And after learning this, it was natural for me to gravitate toward an article that provides a biological reason for people to make art, in the perspective of evolutionary science.

From relating play and arts, the author sees the importance of sociality and its function of survival that is shared in these activities. I think that this point is extremely important in the life of modern musicians (particularly performers) who spend uncountable hours in isolated practice rooms, which is a rather strange phenomenon. Being so immersed in isolation, it is easy to be pressured at the time of the performance when one suddenly becomes aware of the presence of the audience, and realizes that music does not fundamentally exist for the performer alone. In fact, there would be no musician at all, without the network of the social context around him/her. By accepting this fact and taking account the social context of music, I think that performers can see music-making in a new light.

Also, I feel that musicians could have more confidence and be proud of their position in life. Knowing that art is not useless as it often seems provides a sense of purpose, which is a crucial element in achieving the state of fulfillment. In fact, not only this article, but the Brain class itself was focused on music's ability to make an influence. I feel that this was directed toward strengthening the sense of purpose in each of us, thus helping us to become better performers and educators.      

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