Through my four years at university I became vaguely frustrated by how seldom it was acknowledged that we are, after all, bunch a apes. Artistic creativity seems to hover off the ground, encased in its theoretical fluff-speech; as a pretty staunch materialist I’m interested in ways to anchor it to the real world. I had a strong suspicion that belief in art and science are compatible in the way that belief in religion and science probably aren't (though other bingees disagree). I suspected that art had something to do with hot-wiring our ape brains and hijacking our lazy perceptive rules of thumb to create new experiences- messing with the wiring which has been created through evolution...
So I loved this lecture by Brian Boyd. Broadcast in 2008 in Nelson by Radio NZ National, it takes a nailgun and staples art's feet firmly to the ground. He says art is an adaption (not a hijacker), and the whole speech is fascinating.
The storytelling ape
Art constitutes another Darwin machine, an evolutionary subsystem effectively designed, in this case, for creativity.
Art shows evidence of good design to generate and accumulate successful novelty. Darwin machines depend on the blind generation of variation. Randomness, nature’s way of exploring new possibilities, seems an intrinsic part of brain function. But without selective retention, randomness alone could not generate generate creativity that exists in en force. As in dreams, a cascade of new ideas could take and lose shape almost without trace.
A testing as well as a generating mechanism operates within art makers’ minds. The low cost of testing increases our opportunity to refine what we do, through online feedback. Because art involves external forms, the testing mechanism operates also in the mindset of other humans, in terms of their interest. Attention provides the selective mechanism of art. If a work of art fails to earn attention it sinks. If it succeeds it can sail on even for millennia.
Crucially, we need to imitate in order to innovate. Starting from scratch wastes too much accumulated effort. Far better to recombine existing design successes.Established artistic forms reduce invention costs by posing well defined problems and offering partial solutions.
And in a system designed to secure attention, the pressure to avoid habituation, the dampening of response to prolonged or repeated stimulus, encourages innovation. [Because of this], art faces consistent pressure for novelty.