What is Art?

February 13, 2014 at 5:29 pm | Posted in Brain and mind | Leave a comment
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Alfred Sisley, The innondation at Port Marly, painted 1876. Presently in le Musée des beaux-arts de Rouen.

Alfred Sisley, The innondation at Port Marly, painted 1876. Presently in le Musée des beaux-arts de Rouen.

Art is anything that is contrived to elicit strong sensations in ourselves or in others.

What makes a deliberately created something into art, is that it is evocative.

That means that it resonates with something in the viewer’s or hearer’s brain, like a wine glass resonating to the sound of a violin, or a window of a house resonantly vibrating – buzzing – to the sound of a motor.

Anything that tries to play, like a musical instrument, the nervous systems of those who are exposed to it, is art.

That includes painting, sculpture, architecture, dance, acting, literature, and rhetoric (in its classical, general, not-necessarily-pejorative meaning): speeches, persuasive writing, informative writing, advertising, and even demogoguery.

But each brain is different – different experiences, different wiring- so what is evoked is different.

To some extent the impact of a work of art is measured not by what is evoked in each person, but by how many respond, and how strongly.

Here is a list of artistic activities.  Many of them are not usually thought of as being artistic.  Some give pleasure, others are deliberately unpleasant.  Some are evil.  But in each case you should easily be able to identify the presence of the defining characteristic of art, namely, the deliberate attempt to play the brains of the audience as if those brains were musical instruments.  In some cases  the intended audience is just the artist.  The redundancies in the list are there to better make a point.
– Humor, including stand-up comedy and informal jokes
– Circus acts
– Performing astounding feats for films or for on-line videos (attempts to impress or amuse, or to do both at the same time)
– Thoughtful photography
– Music, drawing and painting, sculpture, dance
(includes feats of art that are designed to impress as well as to please or inform: items featured on the Twisted Sifter, Cirque de Soleil)
– Fiction and expository non-fiction (written, or acted, or cartooned)
– Comic books, graphic novels, cartoon films
– Textbooks, instructional materials, user’s manuals,
– Web interfaces, other digital interfaces (such as those to an operating system or a programming language)
– All rhetoric in the classical non-pejorative sense: speech or other media that are designed to persuade
– Religious tales (Abraham and Isaac, David and Goliath, the birth, life and crucifixion of Jesus, Mohammed on a flying horse)
– Political claims, both true and false
– Demagoguery
– Advertising
– The deliberate giving of sexual or other sensual pleasure (to one’s self or to another), e.g., sensual massage, masturbation, erotica, sexual fantasies
– Its opposite: the deliberate imposition of pain, e.g., torture
– Fantasies, daydreams (but not involuntary dreams)
– Dressing for effect, couture, make-up
– Planning and hosting a party or other event
– Interior design and decoration, architecture, landscape design
– The design, crafting and wearing of costumes, dressing up (including for Halloween), jewelry
– Sports, including gladiatorial sports (boxing, wrestling, mixed martial arts)
– Ceremonies, rituals
– Public punishment (including executions)
– All entertainment
– The shock-and-awe component of terrorist acts (another type of attempt to impress)
– Intimidation, bullying

Clearly, we are an artistic species.

Clearly, not all art is benign.

All art is manipulative, even when the person being manipulated is the artist/daydreamer/fantasist.

Not all art has humans as its intended audience.  Art for pets and other non-human animals: pleasant environments for pets (wheels and tunnels and hiding places in a cage for hamsters), the design and operation of of zoos, …

In the future, not all art will have biologically evolved beings as its sole intended audience.  There will even be art and entertainment for autonomous robots.

Any deliberate attempt to strum the strings of a brain as if they were the strings of a musical instrument is art.  The brain may be the artist’s own, or someone else’s, or both.  The brain may be biological or artificial (designed).

But not all such attempts attain their goal.

If an attempt does attain its goal, it is good as art, whether or not it is also good ethically and morally.

All art requires the artist to mentally mirror the minds in the intended audience.
For such an attempt to resonate with the brains of a wide audience, the ‘musician’ and the audience must share a culture, or mental mechanisms (e.g., adult humans affecting human babies or animals, or animals affecting animals), or the musician must at least be familiar with how the members of the target population respond.

Some non-contrived stimuli elicit the same sensations as art: sunsets, scenery, a flower, a baby, a puppy or a kitten.  They elicit the same stimuli as art,  because they share parts of the same processing paths in the brain.

Because we live at a stage of evolution when we are familiar with the concepts of an artist and of art, those sensations may also make us feel to that the  evocative stimuli were created by an artist.

To a being who had not been exposed to the concept of an artist, the same stimuli might be just as evocative, without suggesting that they were due to an artist.

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Mental Mirroring and Mothers

January 23, 2014 at 5:00 pm | Posted in Brain and mind | 3 Comments
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Discussion between mother and child, photographed 31 May 2005 by Marty from Manitou Springs, USA.

Discussion between mother and child, photographed 31 May 2005 by Marty from Manitou Springs, USA.

Several posts on this blog have pointed out how our ability to mentally mirror the feelings and thoughts of others might have developed, and might then have blossomed to give us our values, heightened sense of fairness and kindness, and our sophisticated intelligence, including our science, our fondness for narrative, and a proclivity for religion – that is, most of the the features that we regard as making us human.

Those posts are here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.  One post also constitutes an example of a human who is mentally mirroring a squirrel!

Those posts pointed out that other types of animals also mirror to some extent the minds of other members of their own species, and also members of other species.  For example, dogs that are able to sense the moods and plans of humans have, on average, thrived better than those who didn’t, and were therefore more likely to have puppies that would themselves grow up to have puppies.

Golden retriever puppies at 4 weeks, photographed 10 January 2011 by Koosg.

Golden retriever puppies at 4 weeks, photographed 10 January 2011 by Koosg.

Humans anthopomorphize inanimate natural phenomena, by applying to them the mental mechanisms that originally developed for mentally mirroring humans and other animals: the mirroring of inanimate natural phenomena produced science as well as  superstition.  But dogs, too, mentally mirror an inanimate phenomenon as if it were animate, as when a dog cringes and wimpers at the sound of thunder.

A mongrel puppy not more than one month old, photographed 6 February 2012 by Kcdtsg .

A mongrel puppy not more than one month old, photographed 6 February 2012 by Kcdtsg .

A new study has now given us more specific information about the initial development of mental mirroring.  The study was published in a free online journal, eLife (see here and here), and its results are described by Meeri Kim in an article in the Washington Post.

The study’s main result is that rats – and therefore presumably also some other kinds of mammals – empathize with and therefore help only rats that look like the types of rats that they previously lived with.

The aspect that is of greatest relevance here was pointed out by Peggy Mason, one of the authors, in a comment to Meeri Kim: “Helping and empathy are evolutionary advantages,” Mason said. “If Mom doesn’t know how her pups feel, the pups die — and that’s not going to work evolutionarily.”  (In that statement, the pups were rat pups, but the statement is true in general.)  Kim goes on to observe that “In social animals, including humans, empathy starts with the mother-child bond but develops to include a peer network.”.

This would apply to all species of mammals, some species of birds, and apparently, in the past, even to some species of dinosaurs.

Although the article in the Washington Post doesn’t say so, the same should be true for fathers, in those species where the fathers stay around to help feed, protect and possibly eventually teach the young.

Empathy requires mental mirroring.  It is quite likely that active parenting was responsible for a huge increase in our ancestor’s skills in mental mirroring, thereby opening the way for the advanced capabilities that were listed at the beginning of this post.

It would be very informative to see the results of experimental studies of the comparative mirroring skills of mothers and fathers in species where one or both raise the young.  A plausible hypothesis is that, on average, mothers are more skilled at mental mirroring than are fathers, and that, on average, mirroring skills are better in species that raise their young through several stages of development than in species that merely feed and protect the very young, and, finally, that on average, empathy and sympathy are stronger in the species and in the sexes that are more proficient at mental mirroring.

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