Art and artifact



I find it illuminating to regard art as a process, the product of which is an artifact.


Art, then, is a behavioral pattern which  –like all behavioral patterns– is manifest by an organism (or population) because it is to their advantage to do so.

And like all behavioral patterns, art is more fully understood when reviewed in terms of its origins and future possibilities.  (In fact, the realization of future possibilities is one of the ancient Greek definitions of art — helping nature become more fully realized.)


IF ART (the process) is known by ARTIFACT (the enduring consequences of the process) we can view art on a spectrum which, like all spectrum phenomena (see SHADOW SYNDROMES) is expressed depending on the precise way in which many variables converge: what moves”artists” to express themselves, their perceptions. the integrative processes that direct their action in a given environment, their expressive competence, the “target” audience.    Amongst the converging variables, many are clearly about meeting BIOLOGICAL NEEDS—arguably, biological traits evolve under the selection pressure of meeting needs in changing environments.  And this is no less arguable for the specific  NEEDS met by ART (reviewed below)




Traits are generally presumed to be adaptations (coping mechanisms) that exist because of their contribution to (or relationship with) fitness, a measure of biological success and productivity.  The manifest traits are also presumed to be the results of the activities of genes –which are, in turn, more-or-less affected in their activity by their environments (internal as well as external) –evolution is often viewed simply as “change in gene frequencies (manifested as change in traits) across generations”




The contemporary view of fitness involves the occurrence of traits that allow animals to cope with more-or-less ecological variability (spatial or temporal variation) and produce offspring. Three ways productivity of offspring contribute to fitness Jerram Brown (1980) in Krebs & Davies 3rd ed of An Introduction to Behaviourial Ecology, p. 266. are

1. Direct fitness for the component of fitness gained through personal reproduction (i.e. production of offspring),

2. Indirect fitness for the component of fitness gained from aiding the survival of non-descendent kin, such as siblings It involves: 1.  cost, 2. benefit, 3.  coefficient of relationship (r) “the probability that a gene in one individual is an identical copy, by descent, of a gene in another individual”  (formula in Krebs & Davies 3,   Intro Behav Ecol   p.267.), and

3. Inclusive fitness:  If we assess the fitness gain through both routes then we will have a measure of an individual’s inclusive fitness (Hamilton 1964)”




An adaptation is an anatomical,  physiological, or behavioral trait (or the process that leads to it) that contributes to fitness  If communicable to future generations it is subject to natural selection.


Adaptations are  manifested by “organisms or groups of organisms maintain

 homeostasis in and among themselves in the face of  both

short-term environmental fluctuations and long-term changes

in the composition and structure of their environments”

(Rappaport, 1971). 


The several senses of the term  refer to some kind of compensation for change in order to maintain the status quo (“if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”).    (The amount of fluctuation in an organism’s  environment that is tolerated before an adaptation can provide an advantage is sometimes termed “adaptive scope.”)




To invoke the insights natural selection and evolution to help us understand art –that is, to regard art as a trait subject to natural selection— we first confirm that the idea of art is amenable to evolutionary thinking:


(1) is this trait expressed variably in offspring, (2) does the possession of this trait contribute to differential survival off offspring, (3) does differential survival contribute to better fit and therefore fitness in a given environment, and (4) does gradual change in the trait contribute to progressively better fit.


The processes of art –the behavioral patterns that frequently result in what we call works of “art”  necessarily have their roots in  biology and have come to have their present form through evolutionary time presumably (certainly at least in part) because they serve our individual or inclusive fitness. 


A central element of evolutionary thinking is that a trait –however it might have come about–  would not survive in subsequent generations if its expression did not confer some advantage on the animal possessing — at least at the time that it emerged.  This advantage must somehow contribute to a richer representation of the animal in future generations.  Usually that means more offspring, but it could also mean offspring that are relatively more successful –particularly in competition with the offspring of other individuals.


The advantage a trait confers need not be immense, just one that aids in the competition for limited resources.  But once it appears, it is subject to subsequent changes that can affect its adaptive function.  Adaptations involve how well that trait serves an organism in a particular context –the environment in which it must survive and prosper.  However, the environment in which a trait evolved may no longer exist or may be rare. This is fundamental evolutionary psychology.



The essence of evolutionary change is the PRESERVATION OF USEFUL TRAITS – that is, traits that help organisms cope with and adapt to challenges to their meeting biological needs.  Traits are referred to as adaptations when their current or past contribution to biological fitness is clear.  Many biologists that all traits are (or have been) adaptive. 


How is art adaptive?


Art must confer a service to either individual or group needs or be necessarily related to some other trait that confers such a service.



Needs Served Building on a recent list of the functions that art might serve that would lead to its fixation as human disposition compiled by Ellen Dissanayake (Dissanayake, Ellen 1968. What is Art For? Univ Washington Press, Seattle. 249 pp.


Needs can be hierarchically arrayed according to their centrality to the “mission” of a successful organism: to be healthy, safe, socially acceptable, reproductively successful, fully actualized. In humans (the group for whom a “need hierarchy” was first conceptualized by Abraham Maslow), the first and last For Maslow, being fully actualized meant spiritually developed (he called it “self-actualization”) of these needs are intensely individual, while those intermediate needs are social.


But this is controversial:


Utilitarianism is implicit in the evolutionary treatment because if no advantage (or disadvantage) is realized from an act of art, it cannot be regarded as an adaptation subject to evolutionary forces.  (point also made by James W. McAllister (Philosophy, Leiden) in his paper, “The Utilitarian Value of Human Aesthetic Judgement,”  at the 1993 Amsterdam meeting of the European Sociobiological Society section on “Sociobiology and the Arts,” (abstract, p. 17)


Intentions are common criteria for art.   Many aestheticians feel that to qualify as art, there must be evidence that a craftsman has intentionally gone “beyond what was strictly necessary for utility. . . ” (Sandars 1985:34) Sandars, N. 1985.  Prehistoric art in Europe, 2nd ed. Penguin, London..    


For example, Kathryn Coe (Ariz State Univ.)  (in: 1992. Art: The replicable unit — An inquiry into the possible origin of art as a social behavior. J. Social and Evolutionary Systems 15(2):217-234.)  Feels that art must be defined in an explicit, empirical way and purged of appeals to affect, technique, or symbolism is essential to a cross-cultural analyses.  She ventures and defends her definition: “Color and or form used by humans in order to modify an object, body, or message solely to attract attention to that object, body, or message.  The proximate or immediate effect of art is to [deliberately] make objects more noticeable” (1992:219), and then tried to use it to identify an evolutionary origin for the phenomenon.  (She regards modification of the appearance of the human body, first seen during the transition between the Middle and Upper Paleolithic periods, as the first solid evidence for art. Intentional modification of the human body: by 70,000 BP two Shanidar showed evidence of intentional head binding by upper Paleolithic there is evidence of intentional teeth filing in Minatogawa man from Okinawa (c. 18,000 BP); by late upper Paleolithic, cranial and dental modification seemed more common and elaborate...  )


Coe’s definition requires intentionality. Speaking of the appearance of  an Acheulean handaxe of  Homo erectus  (200,000 BP), if the craftsman did not go beyond pure functionality it was not art: “Aesthetic ‘attractiveness’ thus may be an unintentional consequence of use, and hence not art” (p. 223).





  • Art is therapeutic: it integrates for us powerful contradictory and disturbing feelings (Stokes 1972; Fuller 1980,  in D1988)
  • permits momentary escape (Nietzsche 1872  in D1988);
  • creates consoling illusions (Rank 1932 in D1988);
  • promotes catharsis (Aristotle’s Poetics 6.2 in D1988);
  • Connecting of internal and external realities (D1988);
  • “Mastery of giving form to and integrating conflicting feelings” (D1988)



  • Art facilitates working with overlapping or multiple meanings, contributing thereby also to our toleration for ambiguity (But dreams and fantasy do as well as art although they may share some common properties with art (Kris 1953:258  in D1988:68))
  • Art is crucial to human cerebral evolution (Susanne Langer in D1988:67)
  • Art is a means of developing consciousness and skills (Herbert Read 1955, 1960 in D1988)
  • Art museums and concert halls should be called spiritual gymnasia (David Mandel 1967 in D1988).
  • Art contributes to skill in creating order in the world (Storr 1972, Humphrey 1980, Gombrich 1970 in D1988:69)
  • Art provides an otherwise unattainable zest for life: JZ Young said art has a central function “of insisting that life be worthwhile, which, after all, is the final guarantee of its continuance.” (1971:370 cited by D1988:70)
  • Art exercises and trains our abilities to perceive and discriminate shapes, distances . . (Dewey 1934:200 in D1988)  (“The very process of drawing a picture of something (say, an animal) is already an act of separating it as an object from its immersion in the totality of experience” (D1988:69)
  • Art dishabituates the routine habitual way of seeing things, providing a sense of new possibilities when old solutions are no longer effective (Morse Peckham 1965  in D1988:70).(What I have called elsewhere deautomatization).





Integrating experience

  • Art “echoes or reflects the natural world of which we are a part” (in D1988:64);
  • Art builds on spatial or temporal “metaphor in our conceptualization of experience”  (Lakoff and Johnson 1980 in D1988).
  • “Art, it is sometimes said, makes use of and enhances evolutionary advantageous cognitive abilities”  (D1988:69)  
  • Art externalizes constructs of otherwise inaccessible neural structures for scrutiny by structures capable of cognitive analysis.



Communicating experience

  • Communication (Alland 1977, Hirn 1900, in D1988:73) 
  • Reinforce or represent social status; attract mates strengthen social bonds, arouse sympathy (Spencer 1857, Grosse 1897, Dewey 1934 in D1988:71) 
  • Deepening consciousness of social continuity (Sotho; Damane and Sanders 1974 in D1988)  
  • Aids social coherence (Hopi; Thompson 1945:546 in D1988)
  • Resolves dissonances in times of change (Bwiti; Fernandez 1966:66 in D1988)
  • Impact on social system of the processes and products of art (Firth 1951 in D1988:62) 
  • Rhythmic chants or song to encourage or facilitate cooperative work, hunting, fighting
  • Singing to unify, coordinate social group under stress (WWII London Blitz shelter singing; Trobriand Islanders; chanting during a terrifying storm (Malinowski 1922:225 in D1988) Freud suggested the pleasure of musical rhythm was by association with sex (1924).
  • Architectural/sculptural “territorial markings” (see Rappaport 1975 in D1988)




  • By allowing “direct, ‘thoughtless’ (or unself-conscious) experience . . . .art then can temporarily restore the significance, value, and integrity sensuality and the emotional power of things, in contrast to the usual indifference of our habitual and abstracted routine of practical living (Burnshaw, 1970). (see deautomatizing function)
  • By short-circuiting the analytical faculties, “art connects us directly to the substantial immediacy of things--we feel the direct impact of color, texture, size, or the particularity and power of the subject matter” ( D1988:66-67).



Notes: Mind and the social contract.  After incoming sensations generate a characteristic transient pattern of cortical activity it may reappear in contexts of other knowledge and seems to represent the meaning of a particular sensation.  What we learn of the world is attributable to constant updates achieved this way.  Changing your mind.  “Mammalian brains contain a mechanism that can loosen the grip of previously acquired perspectives on the world and lay the groundwork for securing crucial new knowledge” (Walter J. Freeman (Berkeley) in Societies of Brains 1995, Earlbaum, reported by Bruce Bower 1996, “Bridging the Brain Gap”  in SN,  2 Nov 1996 pp. 280-281)  


Existential connection: Bruce Bowers believes Freeman would endorse Sartre’s argument that “each of us constructs self through his or her own actions and that we know that self as it is revealed in our actions” (P.280).  (Recalling St. Thomas who believed that to attain our goals we must accommodate ourselves to the world) The psychologist James Gibson had a similar view that it is through our actions that we perceive meaning in the stimuli that surround us.   Freeman believes that brains are isolated self-organizing systems that are closed to meaning.


But sociality requires that the gap between isolated islands of mind  should be closed and Freeman believes that is what happens when the island minds have a reorganizing experience such as that experienced by voles when chemicals are released as part of the mating / birthing / child-rearing experience that stimulate parental behavior.  “Substances such as these may wipe away connections formed among neurons by experiences early in life and usher in a temporary period of cerebral malleability.   In humans, the  “meltdown of long-standing neuronal connections and their attendant attitudes and beliefs is frequently experienced as a frightening loss of identity and self control.. . ”   Witness, Pavlov and subsequent findings about  “brainwashing,” and the induction of brain states that are conducive to incorporating collective values.


Epigraphics: (left) Picasso (1945) bull #4 from artfactory.com; (right) from Chauvet cave (c. 35,000 BCE)