Art and artifact






There really is no such thing as Art.

There are only artists.

(read more:  A&O READINGS from EH Gombrich)


I often find it illuminating to regard art as a process, the product of which is an artifact.  Both EXPRESSIVE and RECEPTIVE art (the behaviors of both the creation and viewing of art) meet biological NEEDS.

Such a need is communication–and I want to argue this is true within as well as between people:


So, works of  ART endeavor—beginning with the sensibilities of the artist—to “eff the ineffable” … works that, like words, represent feelings.  Feelings that often feel inaccessible—at least not well understood … Of progressively more subtle and precise meaning until –like a key—they unlock something within the viewer. You can almost hear the “CLICK!”    Of course, artists, standing back from their own work, and playing with perception—squinting—or  playing with the ecology of viewing conditions (including time and space) unlock something within themselves: a doorway between parts of one’s own mind.  Arguably, informing one’s self about one’s self is the primal motive for artistic expression.


COMMUNICATION—both within and between individuals—is about sharing states of mind [remembering that “to know and to be known” is at many levels the most urgent of existential and phenomenological human motivations] –in A&O we emphasize THE STATE OF MIND OF AN ARTIST as it is intertwined with their art … Art has become a powerful means of exploring the limits of communication–how completely one person can understand another (or how well can one part of one’s self understand another part– obviously connected to the ancient urging to “Know Thy Self“).   One is perceived by one’s actions, undeniably affected by one’s state of mind, but how much can we infer. How well are intentions translated into action? (one often hears, “unfortunate, but he/she had the best intentions”).  EVOLUTIONARY biologists are also concerned with changes in cognitive functions across evolutionary time, likely connected to changes in brain structure and/or development.  Also, what are the limits of inference? Is there reliable paleolithic/ancestral evidence for changes in cognition that enable functions such as spirituality–or at least ways of thinking that transcend what is likely required for raw survival.  What behavioral patterns that function as communication have been enhanced by art?  DEVELOPMENTAL biology is deeply interested in whether different signals are more-or-less effective at different stages of development of an individual. (think of “motherese”)  ECOLOGISTS might ask if communicative signals are more-or-less connected to specific environments.  This looks at art as a means of selective emphasis in expression that more effectively communicates with highly enhanced detail or subtlety … EVERY art form—alone or in combination—speaks to its respective sensory targets which in recipients are (or can become) exquisitely responsive (see A&O notes on PERCEPTION, then  A&O notes on Sensory Exploitation and A&O notes on sensory bias).

Art, then, can be viewed as a behavioral pattern which –like all behavioral patterns– is manifest by an organism (or population) because it is to their advantage to do so. The  evolutionary argument is that it  is an adaptive process meets biological needs that ultimately serves biological fitness. (The meanings of  “needs” and “adapted” are important here: see below)

CAN WE SAY that the PROCESS ends when the ARTIFACT is said to be “complete?” or does the process continue long after or even as long as the artifact exists?  IS the artifact merely  a punctuation mark in a longer process that began long before and will continue into an unknowable future?  Read  A&O notes on PROCESS and PRODUCT  –In fact, is the PROCESS the point of our undertakings, and the artifact a mere landmark along the way?  Pick your metaphor carefully, maybe the artifact is merely a stone in a growing structure… a cairn?


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.)

Let’s continue with this idea:  Artifacts are the enduring consequences of actions. Acts such as paying special attention to something or making something. IT IS on its way to being ART.    (is ALL ART an “artifact” of the artists state of mind? or of the observer’s ?)  (For example, see a long, lovingly compiled inventory of paleolithic “Venus” figurines: some found, others created: Venus Index )

We call the outcomes of our behavior “works of art” –they are consequences of a process.  Can we also call these works artifacts of the process?  And what can these artifacts tell us about the states of mind of their creators? (and how would we know?).  Were they “storing information outside their heads?”  (see “The Oldest Human Drawing” from New Scientist 2018).  What evidence to we have for a reasonably strong inference.  Insight into the evolution of our own competencies is what we seek here.  We must look at the cognitive ability to develop a Theory of Mind.  (Visit A&O site on Theory of Mind). Then read Michael Balter’s (2009) essay in Science: “On the Origin of Art and Symbolism.


FOUND ART  Can an item–man-made or natural–that is “found” by chance or serendipity  be regarded as a work of art ?

Visit A&O notes on “FOUND ART” – often known as objets trouvé    DOES ALL ART begin with something found? Something experienced which is more-or-less adjusted to the artist’s projective or receptive artistic ambitions?  


HOW is ART ADAPTIVE? A work of art may be adaptive for the artist alone (the artist works in order to understand), or for an audience of one (the artist works to be understood), or for a vast swath of humanity.  Whether you have an audience of one who is deeply respected or a class of viewers, or all people, social feedback is often essential to validate intuitions manifest as art.  This phenomenon may depend in part on how deeply the work can speak to shared layers of one’s being and how prepared a living being is to recognize, attend, and receive the stimulus.  Is this asking “through what layers of organization the information must ‘penetrate’ to find the shared understanding?” This is explored  when we looked at NEEDS MET BY ART.  


REVIEW:  Adaptation is … 

The processes by which 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 adaptive process is one of continuous assimilation of internally mediated consequences of the organism’s action on the environment and the resulting accommodation of these action schemes into the previously formed structure” (Piaget 1980)   

(from A&O notes on EVOLUTION & ADAPTATION)



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 (selective review below)


We are familiar with the power of place in relation to a work of art: the museum, the proscenium.  Places that enable safe meditative observation or the sense of discovery in the midst of uncertainty and danger.   These are particularly apparent, even poignant, when considering artifacts of the past–especially ancient or prehistoric past.   [See   (1993) essay review of  “THE POWER OF PLACE How Our Surroundings Shape Our Thoughts, Emotions, and Actions.” By Winifred Gallagher –from the NYT archive]



ANCIENT ART IN CONTEXT: “Is the universality of art a pernicious concept, a form of “cultural strip mining,” or is it an acknowledgment of art as part of our common humanity?” –Patricia Vigderman  “Vigderman’s approach is informed by Walter Benjamin’s concept of an object’s aura, a property embedded in time and history. Deprived of its original location, the object’s aura is diminished; yet do major works like the Parthenon marbles belong only to one place, since so many of them have resided in the British Museum for two centuries? Have they not now acquired a different aura, given their impact on generations of artists, from Canova and Rodin to Henry MooreMary Beard, whose astute history of the Parthenon lies behind Vigderman’s study, has described the marbles as “valued because of their deracination,” which charges them with a “cultural electricity.” …  “Behind the examples in this thoughtful book lies the realization that the relationship between the spectator and art is inevitably complex. After all, we can’t return art or history to a lost past; as the architectural historian Sigfried Giedion observed: “The backward look transforms its object. … History cannot be touched without changing it.”  [Giedion (d.1968) was an art historian who was very influential amongst architects] (from “Among the Ruins” Bruce Boucher Review of The Real Life Of The Parthenon By Patricia Vigderman. NYT Sunday Book Review Feb 25, 2018 p.21)

IS IT PALEOLITHIC ART or ARTIFACT?  (Read: brief comments from New Scientist)





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?  What needs might it serve to either individuals or groups?  or how is it 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.

Visit the A&O web page on the DIVERSITY of NEEDS served by ART


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).  [but what can we ever know of the artist’s intentions … even artists are sometimes unaware of their sources of  their inspiration or motives for actions that  may produce something that only other individuals may find an effective work of art?]

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.


Slight additions 4-24-2020 / 12-2022 / 2023

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


Hanen.org on how “theory of mind” (ToM) develops in young children)

During infancy and early childhood, children learn the early skills that they’ll need to develop their theory of mind later on. These skills include the ability to [2,3]:

  • pay attention to people and copy them
  • recognize others’ emotions and use words to express them (“happy”, “sad”, “mad”)
  • know that they are different from other people and have different likes/dislikes from others
  • know that people act according to the things they want
  • understand the causes and consequences of emotions (If I throw my toy, Mom will be mad)
  • pretend to be someone else (like a doctor or a cashier) when they play

Between ages 4-5, children really start to think about others’ thoughts and feelings, and this is when true theory of mind emerges. Children develop theory of mind skills in the following order [1, 4, 5]:

  • Understanding “wanting” – Different people want different things, and to get what they want, people act in different ways.
  • Understanding “thinking” – Different people have different, but potentially true, beliefs about the same thing. People’s actions are based on what they think is going to happen.
  • Understanding that “seeing leads to knowing” – If you haven’t seen something, you don’t necessarily know about it (like the Dad in the example above on the telephone). If someone hasn’t seen something, they will need extra information to understand.
  • Understanding “false beliefs” – Sometimes people believe things that are not true, and they act according to their beliefs, not according to what is really true.
  • Understanding “hidden feelings” – People can feel a different emotion from the one they display.

Children’s theory of mind continues to develop after age five. For the next several years they learn to predict what one person thinks or feels about what another person is thinking or feeling [4]. They also begin to understand complex language that relies on theory of mind, such as lies, sarcasm, and figurative language (like “it’s raining cats and dogs”) [4]. Some experts argue that theory of mind development continues over a lifetime as one has more opportunities to experience people and their behaviour [6, 3].

minor updates 20 April 2018 /December 2023