August 1, 2012

Can Evolution Account for the Arts?

From my new column in Taki's Magazine:
In "Art Over Biology," literary critic Adam Kirsch questions in The New Republic how the arts can be explained in terms of survival of the fittest:  
In his early story “Tonio Kröger,” Thomas Mann created a parable of one of the central modern beliefs, which is that the artist is unfit for life.…Love and marriage and parenthood are barred to Tonio, because he has an artist’s soul…. 
You may not have been aware that, on average, artists are relatively lacking in sexual opportunities. But just ask artists and they’ll tell you -- maybe over a drink up at their place while they are showing you their etchings -- all about the sacrifices they make for their art. “The artist’s decision to produce spiritual offspring rather than physical ones is thus allied to the monk’s celibacy ...” asserts Kirsch, who evidently hasn’t met many artists (or monks).

Read the whole thing there.

Speaking of Thomas Mann's Tonio Kröger, here's L.A. singer-songwriter Tonio K's 1978 single Life in the Foodchain.

45 comments:

a very knowing American said...

Another art/sex connection: A lot of the great geniuses of the 19th and early 20th century seem to have had syphilis. Schubert probably, Beethoven maybe, Jane Austen, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Joyce probably, Nietzsche. Of course plenty of non-geniuses had syphilis as well, and the bohemian lifestyle provides extra opportunities for infection. But you wonder whether the disease itself was stimulating creativity, and whether penicillin hasn't made life duller as well as safer.

The art/syphilis connection seems at least as strong as the art/homosexuality connection, but somehow you don't see a lot of professors pushing Pox Theory or teaching courses in Poxing the Canon.

(OK, OK, I made up the bit about Jane Austen. Sorry.)

Anonymous said...

Seems to me that music evolved to get young people to dance together, to lead to other stuff... Explains why music hits adolescents right between the eyes.

Steve Sailer said...

"The art/syphilis connection" is central to Thomas Mann's updating of Goethe in Doktor Faustus. The protagonist infects himself with syphilis to enjoy extra creativity at the expense of an early death.

Anonymous said...

"Can Evolution Account for the Arts?"

Yes, but that doesn't mean arts can always account for evolution.

Evolution works via procreation. Even if artists themselves may not procreate, their wish to create and leave something is an expression of the evolutionary urge to leave something behind. Thus, even when it doesn't serve evolution, it's an expression of evolutionary will.

Thursday said...

1. Artists do seem to have higher levels of bipolar disorder. The right side of the brain, which is associated with more art friendly thinking tends to have depressive tendencies.
2. The part of the brain responsible for self control also seems to inhibit creativity. Therefore artists would seem to get into more scrapes than the average accountant or computer programmer.

So, artists would seem to have more problems than other people.

----------------

3. Disinterested in the context of the aesthetic philosophy means the ability to look at something dispassionately, to contemplate it objectively. Your motives for creating art are a totally different subject.
4. However, you realy do need to love art for its own sake to do well in it. Money or chicks may provide additional motivation, but there are other ways of getting those, so there has to be at least some intrinsic motivation.

Anonymous said...

Maybe we need a word other than evolution. Evolution indicates changes of an organism through gradual stages to adapt to new environments.
But once an organism arrives at a certain point, it may not have to evolve any further to survive and expand. So, an organism doesn't necessarily have to 'improve' to succeed and spread all over. Look at alligators and crocodiles. They are ancient beasts but still dominant in many rivers. Look at all them fishes in the sea. They are still dumb as hell but spreading all over. Look at bacteria and viruses. They are as simple as they were 100s of millions of yrs ago, but they're all over the place. Insects too.

Viruses don't need brains and art to spread and dominate. They don't even have to evolve much more from what they are. They just need to be very infectious.

Maybe it's wrong to think of 'art' as art. Art could be seen as just another 'idea' or 'communication'. Seen that way, art is a meme that infects other minds. Such memes expressed through symbols, totems, tribal markings, and etc give a sense of unity to a culture. Thus, one Injun tribe makes headdresses in one way while another one makes headdresses in another way. And based on such outward expressions, one can tell which tribe it is.
In battles, one can tell who is friend and who is enemy by the kind of uniforms they wear and what kind of flags they carry. As forms of expressions, they are all part of 'art'. And nature designed creatures in such a way that, for example, red ants and black ants know they are enemies. Art is a kind of marking.

Since humans have good eyes but lousy noses, human 'scent' markings have to be through the eyes. Thus, by clothes, helmets, and architecture, each tribe or people could feel, 'this is us' and that is them'. Consider the color schemes in Kurosawa's RAN. Communism tried to do away with all that by making workers of the world wear the same blue uniforms, but all commie nations eventually reverted to their unique arts to express themselves in opposition to others.

But just like viruses and bacteria can spread, memes can spread. So, the art of one people could borrow from the art of another people and vice versa. This can be useful or destructive to a people, or both. Take the coming of Christianity to Europe. On the one hand, it destroyed the indigenous pagan cultures and sense of tribal identity. But it also led to the rise of a new kind of Europe with profounder spiritual foundation.
And look at China today. Most Chinese wear Western clothes and emulate Western institutions, but Chinese are merely using Western looks/symbols/expressions to serve Chinese survival and power.

Anonymous said...

There is no single kind of art, just like there is no single kind of personality. So, people like Kirsch should first establish what they mean by 'art'. Traditional art or modern art? Official art or personal art? Political art or subversive art? Intellectual art or sensual art? Populist art or elitist art?

Anonymous said...

What's happened in the last 500 years or so is meaningless evolutionarily speaking, no? Not enough time for it to matter. The evolutionary value of art has to be traced back to the thousands upon thousands of years on the African savannah. Under those conditions, the trbal mentality would revere and reward the man of uncommonly vivid imagination, for he could tell stories that would organize reality and stimulate the imagination of the less-gifted, which not only educated but gave the tribe a cultural core, a reason for staying together. Thus the gene for high imagination is coveted, respected, valued and protected and a million years later it produces . . . Spike Lee.

FredR said...

Shouldn't Bourdieu get a cite in a discussion of status theories of art?

Which reminds me that for a while I've been looking for a good account that integrates Bourdieu's status explanations with the sexual/coalitional display theories of evolutionary psychology (which you reference). It seems like you could get a really fruitful synthesis there.

Simon in London said...

Re clothes and cultural dominance - when I was young I would come from Belfast to visit London now and then, and marvel at all the Third World people wearing Western clothes.

Now I live in London, and I marvel at all the Third World people wearing their Third World clothes.

But increasingly I am marvelling at all the Western people wearing Third World clothes.

Frank Winston said...

Why the high % of gay artists I wonder? Could it be because chicks don't really dig artists much (unless they are super-successful)?

Maya said...

The autopsy showed that Jimi Hendrix actually did die a virgin.

Anonymous said...

http://www.nbcolympics.com/video/judo/highlights-urska-zolnir-defeats-xu-lili-to-win-gold.html

Slovene babe wins.

Anonymous said...

"th and early 20th century seem to have had syphilis. Schubert probably, Beethoven maybe, Jane Austen, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Joyce probably, Nietzsch'

Beethoven? I thought he pretty much lived alone in his apt with few friends? Wasn't he was a bitter,lonely, angry person with an obnoxious personality who fell in love with women who didn't want to marry him?

That was a time when fame didn't matter as much as social class I guess.


I think it was Mencken who said Beethoven would never had written the 3rd symphony had he been married.

Anonymous said...

""The art/syphilis connection" is central to Thomas Mann's updating of Goethe in Doktor Faustus. The protagonist infects himself with syphilis to enjoy extra creativity at the expense of an early death."

I wonder if Al Capone get more creative in his activities after he got it?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Yeah those theater people and musicians and dancers never have any sex at all, do they?

Nicholas Wade passed on the idea that creativity and art are signs of surplus intellectual resources, which might be useful in a pinch, baby.

Anonymous said...

Jane Austen
Jane Austen? Huh? Sources please. I would have thought certainly died a virgin. Unmarried,middle-class women did in those days.

Anonymous said...

Most of the artists I've met have been lazy people, worms who try to live off others.

Anonymous said...

"The autopsy showed that Jimi Hendrix actually did die a virgin."

Okay, I'm feeling really dumb here: how can anyone tell if a guy is a virgin. Even a woman with an almost wholly intact hyman can get pregnant. My friend bore two kids with such a hymen. She finally got it removed surgically.

Darwin's Sh*tlist said...

Denis Dutton, the late editor of Arts & Letters Daily, published a book on this soon before he died. The part I made it through had more to do with audiences than artists. Seems like good Sailerbait.

http://www.amazon.com/The-Art-Instinct-Pleasure-Evolution/dp/1608190552/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1343867958&sr=8-1&keywords=denis+dutton

JeremiahJohnbalaya said...

"The autopsy showed that Jimi Hendrix actually did die a virgin."

Okay, I'm feeling really dumb here


Hendrix was a hermaphrodite. Now, wait, a eunuch. Or something that made it so he never actually slept with all those groupies. Too busy making art, you see...

agnostic said...

Lots of confusion on this topic comes from restricting the data to modern Western art. Literacy and media are evolutionary novelties, so the focus should be mostly on art forms that involve performance -- oral storytelling, musical performance, and the visual arts that let the maker's group-mates see him performing the actions that give the work its final shape.

It's true that there have been visual arts going back to pre-history that were mediated, like cave paintings, not performed before an audience. But those are weird cases because they're stored way out of most people's view, deep into the caves. They must have functioned more as a membership badge for initiates, not showing off or signalling, given how few others would see them.

Anonymous said...

"Why the high % of gay artists I wonder?"

Consider all the fairly talented kids you knew in high school. You know, the ones who starred in every musical in high school. They could dance, sing, act, and many played an instrument really well. Then there were the visual artists, the ones whose talent in that area you recognized even in elementary school.

If you were one of these kids and straight, it's not likely you gave serious consideration to going into an artistic field as a career. There was too much competition, too little work, too little money. Your passion would just have to remain an avocation. After all, straight kids believe that down the road there'll be a wife or husband and kids and that life after high school is economic preparation for the eventuality of a family.

However, a gay kid doesn't see that family down the road. He has little to lose in chasing that dream of being a working actor or artist. He only has to support himself. Because he isn't thinking of the economics of family formation, a gay guy often goes into those high risk fields.

Hansen T. said...

I've often felt that modern art was the perfect art form for modern liberalism. Lacking in realism, at its core its an emotional feeling, and everyone is sitting around thinking its crap but has to pretend its something great because otherwise you're an uneducated fool.

No wonder the most liberal, biggest mouthpieces of liberalism- academic types like psychology profs, Identity studies slather their departments with it, and corporate CEOs pay homage by decorating their buildings with it.

Mike Y. said...

"Maya said...

The autopsy showed that Jimi Hendrix actually did die a virgin."

-Actually he did father a child, they just don't know who the mother was..."

John N. said...

"Maybe we need a word other than evolution. Evolution indicates changes of an organism through gradual stages to adapt to new environments.
But once an organism arrives at a certain point, it may not have to evolve any further to survive and expand. So, an organism doesn't necessarily have to 'improve' to succeed and spread all over.

- They're still evolving. They are subject to genetic drift, random changes without impact, loss of things that no longer matter, etc.

In some cases, if they are extremely successful, they'll colonize new niches, and then evolve towards an optimum life there- often over time leading to a new species.

Except for humans because as we all know, humans stopped evolving many years ago and all races are exactly the same otherwise you're an evil racist for thinking otherwise.

Dennis Dale said...

Buddenbrooks could be framed as an evolutionary tale. The Buddenbrooks are holding on for a time against regression toward the mean, bad marriages, declining fertility, challenged by a rival family that's visibly more robust--the heavy-limbed brutes even bully the tender young Hanno in the pool!

The last patriarch is so weakened by the strain in the end he's felled by a toothache! Thus the family is de-selected, and Hanno's genius lost, his swan song an unwitnessed masterpiece.

Or not.

Steve Sailer said...

Yes, that's what Buddenbrooks is about. Lots of the great novels of the era are Darwinian: Richard Lewontin wrote a long essay once complaining about how Zola's main series of novels is one gigantic exposition of his theory of dysgenics.

Dennis Dale said...

It's too bad The Magic Mountain is longer than the bible. It may never be read again!

Settembrini:
"Do you believe in truth, in objective, scientific truth, to strive after the attainment which is the highest law of all morality, and whose triumphs over authority form the most glorious page in the history of the human spirit?"

Naphtha:
"There can be no such triumphs as those you speak of, for the authority is man himself-his interests, his worth, his salvation-and thus between it and truth no conflict is possible . . . Whatever profits man, that is the truth."

Anonymous said...

Why does everything have to be pro-gay vs anti-gay, as if the only options are 'gays are holy saints' and 'gays totally suck'? How about 'gays are born that way and should be left alone to be gay BUT homosexuality doesn't warrant the recognition of marriage that is the bedrock of civilizational values integrating the way of nature and moral commitment?'

Why should the entire meaning of marriage be overturned to please privileged gays? Should we allow polygamy to satisfy Mormons, Muslims, and free love hippies too?

I thought liberals were sophisticated(unlike conservatives) and didn't reduce the world to a simple matter of us vs them or black vs white.
I guess I was wrong.

I mean no ill will to gays but I cannot recognize gay 'sex' as the equal of real sex. So that makes me ANTI-gay?

That's like saying you're anti-black if you oppose 'affirmative action', anti-women if you oppose free contraceptives, anti-Mexican if you oppose illegal immigration, and anti-Semitic if you criticize Israel's policies. So, this is how sophisticated liberals think? Oy vey.

If I oppose polygamy, am I anti-Mormon? If I oppose school prayer, am I anti-Christian? Ridiculous and hysterical.

Maya said...

"Hendrix was a hermaphrodite. Now, wait, a eunuch."

Well, yes, it is widely believed by the top experts that Hendrix was castrated before he reached puberty, so he could retain the ability to play guitar in those boyish tones.
However, it was JH's blood tests that provided the official confirmation of his eternal virginity. You see, when coming in intimate contact with a female body, a straight man runs a risk of contracting certain viruses and infections that he isn't likely to encounter anywhere else. Jimmi's blood contained no female antibodies.

scoobius dubious said...

"It's too bad The Magic Mountain is longer than the bible. It may never be read again!"

Hope that's not true. A man (or, more precisely, a young man, cough cough) can get a pretty good humanities education by reading just 'Magic Mountain', 'The Brothers Karamazov', and Turgenev's 'A Hunter's Album'.

The Magic Mountain is one of those odd books which may not be the greatest novel you ever read, or even close, but which somehow makes you a better person for having come across it.

In this, it resembles the great record 'Double Nickels on the Dime' by The Minutemen -- mostly not on anybody's top twenty lists, but which improves everybody who hears it.

scoobius dubious said...

"Seems to me that music evolved to get young people to dance together, to lead to other stuff"

Here's an example of a very old musical tradition that is quite explicitly designed for dancing; too bad the only one dancing in the clip is the soloist himself (who, btw, is an extraordinary practitioner):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=96bKIE37gwQ

Lucius said...

"This would seem to exclude from the ranks of artists such financially interested—if not downright financially fascinated—individuals as Pablo Picasso and Mick Jagger. Yet Kant can’t be wrong, can he?"

--You must realize that "disinterested" goes way beyond money here. It's pretty much "disinterested" in the sense Schopenhauer will expand upon.

You may not know the right sort of artists-- or monks. Picasso and Jagger? Some of us still don't even count that as "art".

And Wolfe, god bless him, for all his fine essays, isn't necessarily Ruskin on these matters either. Wolfe is too often interested in his own cleverness or "knowingness" to really merge with the subject (or in art, object) at hand.

For that matter: since you clearly have an organic reader's relationship with Waugh and Wolfe, I'm scratching my head over the Mann. Whether one views Mann as a sort of satyr play to High German culture or not, reading him ought to equip one to see the Will to Life (not to mention the Ideas) a little more expansively than reductio ad evolutionum(em?) allows.

Schubert certainly had syphillis.

Anonymous said...

who evidently hasn’t met many artists (or monks)

After Culloden, Bonnie Prince Charlie fled to Europe, where he had an illegitimate daughter, Charlotte Stuart, Duchess of Albany, by his mistress, Clementina Walkinshaw.

Charlotte, in turn, had three illegitimate children, by Ferdinand de Rohan, the Archbishop of Bordeaux.

PS: "Rohan" - sound familiar?

jody said...

it's seems hard to explain joanne rowling as being evolutionarily motivated to write the harry potter chronicles.

sometimes people just have great ideas for a fictional world and spill them out of their brains and into a book, movie, or album.

i would say that especially with the advent of the video game, all the nerds who spend 3 years of dumping 12 hours a day into making the latest, greatest video game, are primarily motivated by the love and satisfaction of making their vision come to life. at minimum, the profit motive more likely explains their behavior.

99% of video game developers remain relatively anonymous even following sales of 10 million copies of their game - they have no visibility, and they are not going to go from totally obscure to famous, just because they wrote one of the best selling games of the decade. most people will continue to walk past them in the store, at the supermarket, at the gym, without recognizing "Hey, that's Gabe Newell, the billionaire creator of Steam," or whoever the particularly successful video game developer happens to be in question.

Dennis Dale said...

Love the Tonio K. I had completely forgotten about him, but listening to that title track it flooded back in immediately--KROQ played the record in heavy rotation one summer--I was singing along like it was yesterday. Holds up incredibly well too. Another under-appreciated LA original.
Those were some times!

Steve Sailer said...

Here's Tonio K's other forgotten KROQ hit, Funky Western Civilization:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w7B238iwAmw

Anonymous said...

If evolution works all the time, no species would have gone extinct.

Anonymous said...

"Buddenbrooks could be framed as an evolutionary tale. The Buddenbrooks are holding on for a time against regression toward the mean, bad marriages, declining fertility, challenged by a rival family that's visibly more robust--the heavy-limbed brutes even bully the tender young Hanno in the pool!"

Vell... sure, Mann the would-be-philosopher added those BIG themes to the novel, but I don't they are what makes it work. And if Mann hadn't intended such ideas, I don't see how the novel would be less good. Its real strength is the human story and vivid characters.
I like the female character who always refers to herself as a 'silly goose'.
As for the family decline, it's been such a familiar theme in novels. I don't think all that Spenglerian stuff adds much to the novel. It's not what makes it a great book at any rate.

Anonymous said...

I know that once I read Geoffrey Miller's book " The Mating Mind " I had no longer had doubt about the connection between artistic tendencies and sexual success, particularly for the male of the species. It's not natural selection that would favor artsy behaviors, it is Darwin's other great idea: Sexual selection. Art is the human's equivalent of the peacock's tail and the bowerbird's nests. I thought Steve had read the book, did you and everyone else on the blog forget it?

Luke Lea said...

Agree with anonymous: it's all about sexual selection.

"once I read Geoffrey Miller's book " The Mating Mind " I had no longer had doubt about the connection between artistic tendencies and sexual success, particularly for the male of the species. It's not natural selection that would favor artsy behaviors, it is Darwin's other great idea: Sexual selection. Art is the human's equivalent of the peacock's tail and the bowerbird's nests."

Dennis Dale said...

Mann the would-be-philosopher added those BIG themes to the novel

No. Mann wrote the story of his own family, place and class in faithful realism; the biological theme is there because it is there in life. Writing around 1900 Mann took for granted the genetic aspirations of his family; he would reject our thesis because it's just so obvious. Or once was.

gummins said...

Evolution doesn't go for the bull's eye but for the shot gun approach. The pellets are shot in a general direction, and some hit the target, some don't.

I figure one of the features of evolution is Group Definition. No organism can be part of everything. So, it's not like all bees are part of one single hive. Instead, there are many different hives even among the same species of bees. Same with wolves. It's not like there's one single wolf pack for all wolves. For wolves and bees to operate at full efficiency, they must exist within workable units. So, a beehive can have so many bees. And a wolf pack can have only so many wolves. So, one group of bees developed skills to differentiate themselves from other bees. And one pack of wolves have ways of differentiating themselves from other groups of wolves.

And this is true of humans as well. So, even though a part of us seeks to create a larger community--nation or world organizations--, another part of us seek to form smaller communities of like-minded people so that we can operate more efficiently and meaningfully.

And the arts are one way of doing this. For the elite, there is high art to distinguish themselves from the rabble. For the working class, there is punk and heavy metal. For Negroes there be rap.
For intellectual types, there's modern art. Though modern art is ostensibly open to all and anti-tribal, its social function is neo-tribal. It creates a like-minded enclosed community since, all said and done, most people don't go for modern art.

Also, there is the aspect of 'hazing'. For a community to be worth its salt, it has to have rituals that determine THIS IS US as opposed EVERYONE ELSE. This is why fraternities and even sororities have some weirdo hazing rituals. If the hazing is too easy, that means ANYONE can pass the test and become a member, and that means one's group isn't all that special. But if the hazing is grueling, it means only the SPECIAL PEOPLE with rare skills or mettle will pass the test of membership; it makes the group more special. This is part of the appeal of joining special forces in the military. It's not just about serving your country but belong to a exclusive group or hive of special men.

I recall watching some TV series about Injuns long ago called HANTO YO based on novel by Ruth Reebe Geebler. In one scene, a young Indian had to go through a rite of passage whereby pegs attached to ropes were driven into his chest and he had to remain standing until the the pegs ripped freely off his chest. It was terrifying, but I can understand why Injuns had such rituals. It was to say 'we adult warriors went through some tough shit and proved that we are special'.

gummins said...

There seems to be similar dynamic at work in modern art community. I mean some of modern music and modern cinema are painful to sit through. I mean did anyone try to sit through all 3 1/2 hrs of JEANNE DIELMANN? I began to lose it after 90 min and left the theater. Has anyone tried to sit through all 4 hrs of TRAVELING PLAYERS by the dreary Theo Angelopoulous(or painintheassolopolous)? I still don't know how I managed. Or how about the godawful films of Hou Hsiao Hsien? Or some latter day Godard films? But they are like hazing rituals in the cinephile community. If you actually survive those horrors, it means you are 'one of us'. You passed the test.

So, it's rather ironic. Leftists and liberals say they are so universalist, but many of them favor stuff that serve as a test of 'are you ONE OF US or are you one of the worthless philistine rabble?' Though Bela Tarr is an important filmmaker and I much admired WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES, I had a hard time sitting through 7 hrs of SATANTANGO, but the likes of Jonathan Rosenbaum love to show off how they sat through all 7 hrs and not just once. Though they make reasoned arguments, I suspect a big part of the appeal is the dynamic of hazing. If someone sits through all 7 hrs of SATANTANGO, it means he or she is 'one of us'. It's the price of admission to enter the special tribal community.

Rosenbaum may be one of the best film critics in the past 20 yrs, but sometimes he's such an insufferable pompous ass punk:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e0MxsojoOBQ