Before the Age of Enlightenment religious belief was not the “option” it is today. Our ancestors didn’t live in a world where materialism existed. And so a huge majority of art was, for all the eons that humans lived before Darwin came along, created by those who were “religious”, and basing their knowledge of themselves and the world through their relation to a metaphysical power. And so even though know we know they were really apes, their own perception of themselves as being connected to a deity, as being more than just flesh, blood and DNA, surely has to be taken into account when we look at their work today. Self-perception is identity, and identity is core to creative work.
The Theory of Evolution is now accepted as fact. But when it comes to personal identity, all facts are relative. In imposing Darwin’s theory in one sweeping gesture on all human behaviour we risk negating a person’s own perception of themselves. We are effectively saying, “my theory trumps everything else you may believe about yourself.” I want to stand up for 1) those people in the world who believe their being and their history is something different, and 2) all our countless ancestors who believed they came from Adam and Eve because they didn’t yet have a plethora of theories to pick and choose from.
Besides, what does it really matter if you are right about the true nature of things? You can’t take away a person’s ability to know his or herself by whatever science or religion they choose. And relative to homo-sapiens existence on this planet, Darwin’s theory is breaking news. The majority of artists and scientists who have ever lived saw themselves intrinsically connected to a spiritual something – they lived in a world where metaphysical belief was as factual as science is today.
Exclusive focus on the fact that every artist is just an ape may give you some insight, but ignoring how they identify themselves, where the motivation to make their work comes from, and who they really were, just because it may be connected to religion, would mean running a far greater risk of not understanding them at all.
But it depends which view you value more: do we create the art we do in the way we do because of our genetic make up? Or do we create our art through our own identity? Both are valid to consider, but focusing on one to the exclusion of the other limits understanding.
We survive as artists because of the millions of artists who have come before us. We learn from them, and our successes are the product of their successes and mistakes, i.e. Artistic Evolution. Yet until recently our artistic mothers and fathers lived their lives with religion. So therefore if we are evolving their work, you could say we are actually evolving religion – we are taking the ideas that they formed in world overwhelmed with gods, and developing them. We might think we’re now shutting out their god, but I say that’s a naïve proclamation, and evolution itself that says that’s impossible. We are evolving the religious thought passed on to us in successful work.
Naturally and ultimately we have no choice but to create work Darwinistically, and hopefully ours will be the best at adapting and surviving. But within this natural system, the content of our art will continue to strive to express the spiritual principles our religion-devoted ancestors also expressed. Darwin already gave us all the answers, and yet we seem to keeping making art to ask more questions, looking for more answers. To deny that we are apes would be stupid. But to deny that there is a higher power beyond this is to deny that in art we are trying to find something new, express what (for us) hasn’t yet been solved.
“Every one who is seriously engaged in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that the laws of nature manifest the existence of a spirit vastly superior to that of men, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble. The pursuit of science leads therefore to a religious feeling of a special kind, which differs essentially from the religiosity of more naive people.” - Einstein.
Einstein isn’t arguing for religion against science, or the other way around. He is saying that they are one. There are many words for god, these include truth, nature, or principle. These are present in all life in the cosmos, both material and spiritual. They are present in art. They are present in our monkey bones. But art that focuses on them too much, that claims we are angels and not apes, is fluffy, pretentious and meaningless. On the other hand art that presents a too-limited view of the ‘real world’ and denies these metaphysical principles is also meaningless. And theatre that doesn’t strive to figure out things that we don’t yet know is boring as shit.
So because we are the evolutionary product of millions of ideas originally founded in a relationship with the gods, perhaps there is some hope for us. On the other hand, maybe there’s not. But if we die off in order to allow the fittest to survive, not to worry – heaven is for apes too.
(For a different argument in a similar vein, check out Ralph's 'Darwin made me do it' post from early 2012.)
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