Ellen Dissanayake: “What Is Art For?”

My own notion of art as a behavior…rests on the recognition of a fundamental behavioral tendency that I claim lies behind the arts in all their diverse and dissimilar manifestations from their remotest beginnings to the present day.  It can result in artifacts and activities in people without expressed ‘aesthetic’ motivations as well as the most highly self-conscious creations of contemporary art.  I call this tendency making special and claim that it is as distinguishing and universal in humankind as speech or the skillful manufacture and use of tools.

Making special implies intent or deliberateness.  When shaping or giving artistic expression to an idea, or embellishing an object, or recognizing that an idea or object is artistic, one gives (or acknowledges) a specialness that without one’s activity or regard would not exist.

…From very early times it seems evident that humans were able to recognize and respond to specialness – at least this would seem to be the explanation for Acheulean people of 100,000 years ago selecting a piece of patterned fossil chert and flaking from it an implement that utilized the pattern, or carrying about with them an unusual but “useless” piece of fossil coral.

…Perhaps the proclivity to make special existed even a quarter of a million years ago in the use of shaped pieces of yellow, brown, red, and purple ocher found among the human remains in a sea-cliff cave in southern France.  It might be supposed that these were chosen for the “special” color, and thus suitable for “special” purposes (Oakley, 1981).  Red haematite was brought from a source twenty-five distant toan Acheulean dwelling site in India, probably for use as a coloring material (Paddayya, 1977).  The presumably very ancient practice by humans of applying ornamental designs to their bodies can be interpreted as a way of adding or imparting refinement to what is by nature plain and uncultivated, of imposing human civilizing order upon nature – that is, making special.

Recognizing the ubiquity of making special, and its apparently effortless integration into the day-to-day life of many unmodernized societies (so that the sacred and profane coexist, the spiritual suffuses the secular), points out to us the degree to which art is divorced from life in our own society.  It helps us to understand why art, which according to the modern notion is autonomous and “for its own sake,” is still conceptually stained with the residues of essential activities and predilections.

From an ethological perspective, art, like making special, will embrace a domain extending from the greatest to the most prosaic results.  Still, mere making or creating is neither making special nor art.  A chipped stone tool is simply that, unless it is somehow made special in some way, worked longer than necessary, or worked so that an embedded fossil is displayed to advantage.  A purely functional bowl may be beautiful, to our eyes, but not having been made special it is not the product of a behavior of art.  As soon as the bowl is fluted, or painted, or otherwise handled using considerations apart from its utility, its maker is displaying artistic behavior….  The housewife who puts down cups and plates any which way is not exercising artistic behavior; as soon as she consciously arranges the table with an eye to color and neatness, she is doing so.  The functional, empty, unremarkable wall may be enlivened by a mural, or bas relief, or even graffito.

NB:  These passages are taken from Ellen’s book, “What Is Art For?”, Chapter 4, “Making Special: Toward a Behavior of Art”, pages 92 – 101, published by the University of Washington Press, Seattle, (c) 1988.

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