Art and Intimacy: How the Arts Began

Ellen Dissanayake, Author University of Washington Press $29.95 (265p) ISBN 978-0-295-97911-3
The latest from Dissanayake (Homo Aestheticus; What Is Art For?) pursues two grand and simultaneous goals: the first is to show that aesthetic experience in all its variety (viewing paintings, playing concerti, observing sunsets, etc.) shares basic features with experiences we call ""love""--whether parental, fraternal or romantic. The second is to place these features within a theory of natural selection as it worked on primates and early hominids. For Dissanayake, love and art minister to a ""hierarchy of needs"" that recall the terminology of mid-century psychology. The first term of the hierarchy (""mutuality"") has its prototype in the bond between parent and infant; the last (""elaborating"") explains why we sometimes want art for art's sake. The superb first chapter synthesizes studies of mother-infant bonding in people, chimps and apes, and rebukes other ""evolutionary psychologists"" who attend to how babies get made, but not to what happens after they're born. ""Elaborating"" in premodern societies, Dissanayake contends, took place most often through communal ceremonies; today, we find this sort of satisfaction primarily in sex or in works of art--one reason why society, and government, ought to be ""taking the arts seriously."" Provocative if not always convincing, Dissanayake knows she hasn't produced a fully fledged philosophical aesthetics and avoids the strident determinisms that often afflict ""evolutionary psychology."" The weakest parts of her book trail off into cultural jeremiads: video games are (surprise!) bad, handicrafts good. But the strongest elements bring welcome information from the social and natural sciences to readers who think, or want to think, about art in general. (July)
Reviewed on: 04/03/2000
Release date: 04/01/2000
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Paperback - 268 pages - 978-0-295-99196-2
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