Cover image for Art and intimacy : how the arts began
Art and intimacy : how the arts began
Dissanayake, Ellen.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Seattle, Wa : University of Washington Press, [2000]

Physical Description:
xvii, 265 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
General Note:
"A McLellan book."
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
NX180.S6 D58 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



To Ellen Dissanayake, the arts are biologically evolved propensities of human nature: their fundamental features helped early humans adapt to their environment and reproduce themselves successfully over generations. In Art and Intimacy she argues for the joint evolutionary origin of art and intimacy, what we commonly call love.

It all begins with the human trait of birthing immature and helpless infants. To ensure that mothers find their demanding babies worth caring for, humans evolved to be lovable and to attune themselves to others from the moment of birth. The ways in which mother and infant respond to each other are rhythmically patterned vocalizations and exaggerated face and body movements that Dissanayake calls rhythms and sensory modes.

Rhythms and modes also give rise to the arts. Because humans are born predisposed to respond to and use rhythmic-modal signals, societies everywhere have elaborated them further as music, mime, dance, and display, in rituals which instill and reinforce valued cultural beliefs. Just as rhythms and modes coordinate and unify the mother-infant pair, in ceremonies they coordinate and unify members of a group.

Today we humans live in environments very different from those of our ancestors. They used ceremonies (the arts) to address matters of serious concern, such as health, prosperity, and fecundity, that affected their survival. Now we tend to dismiss the arts, to see them as superfluous, only for an elite. But if we are biologically predisposed to participate in artlike behavior, then we actually need the arts. Even -- or perhaps especially -- in our fast-paced, sophisticated modern lives, the arts encourage us to show that we care about important things.

Author Notes

Ellen Dissanayake has recently held Distinguished Visiting Professorships in the college of Fine Arts at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada, and at Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana. She has lectured and taught in a variety of settings, including the New School for Social Research in New York City, the National Arts School in Papua New Guinea, and the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

The latest from Dissanayake (Homo Aestheticus; What Is Art For?) pursues two grand and simultaneous goals: the first is to show that aesthetic experience in all its variety (viewing paintings, playing concerti, observing sunsets, etc.) shares basic features with experiences we call "love"Äwhether parental, fraternal or romantic. The second is to place these features within a theory of natural selection as it worked on primates and early hominids. For Dissanayake, love and art minister to a "hierarchy of needs" that recall the terminology of mid-century psychology. The first term of the hierarchy ("mutuality") has its prototype in the bond between parent and infant; the last ("elaborating") explains why we sometimes want art for art's sake. The superb first chapter synthesizes studies of mother-infant bonding in people, chimps and apes, and rebukes other "evolutionary psychologists" who attend to how babies get made, but not to what happens after they're born. "Elaborating" in premodern societies, Dissanayake contends, took place most often through communal ceremonies; today, we find this sort of satisfaction primarily in sex or in works of artÄone reason why society, and government, ought to be "taking the arts seriously." Provocative if not always convincing, Dissanayake knows she hasn't produced a fully fledged philosophical aesthetics and avoids the strident determinisms that often afflict "evolutionary psychology." The weakest parts of her book trail off into cultural jeremiads: video games are (surprise!) bad, handicrafts good. But the strongest elements bring welcome information from the social and natural sciences to readers who think, or want to think, about art in general. (July) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Dissanayake offers an account of the origin of the arts and a cleverly argued case for a naturalistic aesthetics. The premise is that "the biological phenomena of love is originally manifested--expressed and exchanged--by means of emotionally meaningful 'rhythms and modes' that are jointly created and sustained by mothers and their infants in ritualized, evolved interactions," and that "[f]rom these rudimentary and unlikely beginnings grow adult expressions of love, both sexual and generally affirmative, and the arts." The author, well aware of the high kitsch potential of invoking mothers and babies, deftly demonstrates that the two notions of "intimacy as love" (close affiliation or relationship as well as sexual intimacy) and "art" (the "arts") are fundamentally related in biological and evolutionary terms. Through artful elaboration, traditional societies have drawn attention to important life concerns and employed certain "protoaesthetic" elements, subliminally associated with their biologically relevant referents, which, when additionally made striking or beautiful, have yielded many of our common art forms. The work draws on disciplines ranging from cultural anthropology and art history to evolutionary psychology and cognitive archaeology, with contributions from infant and developmental psychology and neuroscience. This well-researched and interestingly written book would be a valuable addition to any collection. All levels. R. M. Davis; Albion College



Chapter One     Mutuality IN CONTEMPORARY NORTH AMERICA and elsewhere, the subject of love is confused and confusing. The word is used to mean everything from affection to devotion, from endearment to passion, from caritas to agape . Often, like intimacy, it refers automatically to romantic love and sex (" love making"). I use the words "love" and "intimacy" in this book because of their intrinsic appeal, but what I mean by both words is more usefully addressed with a less familiar (and less culturally freighted) word--"mutuality."     Although mutuality sounds, at least in English, rather boringly legal or financial, other of its dictionary definitions are more instructive, as well as more inviting: "directed by each toward the other or others," "having the same feelings one for the other," "shared in common," and "characterized by intimacy."     Obviously love and mutuality are not always quite the same thing, for we can love one-sidedly or unrequitedly, at a distance, in vain, too much, not enough. In these cases, mutuality is what love desires but may well not have. We might say, as people often do, that love is a funny or crazy thing, a mystery, a sort of divine madness. Or we are told (or tell ourselves) that love is an illusion, a will-o'-the-wisp; more clinically, it is viewed as projection, narcissism, self-delusion, or nature's trick for propagating the species.     Mutuality between mother and infant, as I will describe it, is none of these things--neither one-sided, unrequited, nor an illusion, projection, or trick. It is, I suggest, the originary source of subsequent affectional, affiliative bonds--many of which we call "love"--between individuals as pairs or members of groups. Further, the same rhythmic-modal capacities and sensitivities that evolved to make possible mother-infant mutuality also create and sustain these other ties of intimacy, including adult lovemaking--to be distinguished from copulation as dining is distinguished from feeding, or as expressing gratitude to a game animal after one has killed it is distinguished from throwing it in the back of one's pickup.     In my view, these considered ways of accomplishing vital subsistence activities should not always be automatically reduced, as evolutionary psychologists frequently have done, to nothing but immediate satisfaction of the underlying physical need. Humans evolved with the capacity and desire to perform at least some ordinary activities in special or elaborated ways. But that is getting ahead of my story.     Because sex is an obvious biological necessity, and we are predisposed to find it of compelling interest, let us first look more closely at the standard evolutionary view of love, before expanding the discussion with the subject of mutuality. THE SEXUAL IMPERATIVE Especially in modern societies, romantic love is the theme of countless songs, poems, novels, films, plays, operas--testimony to its pervasive importance in our lives and to the varieties of emotional turmoil that attend falling in love, courtship, sexual desire, possession, and the bliss of union, as well as jealousy and the end of love. This preoccupation with love is not uniformly the case everywhere. Although people in many other societies certainly compose and listen to love songs and love poetry, they are frequently even more interested in tales of adventure and valor or stories with built-in object lessons about correct behavior. Young men of Nilotic cattle-keeping cultures in southern Sudan devote considerable time and originality to describing and praising the unique features of their oxen (Coote 1992).     Evolutionists, of course, explain our preoccupation with love in song and story as a fundamentally sexual one--as evidence and assurance that people will reproduce. As I write this chapter, I am aware of a pair of swallows diligently fetching insects for their five babies in a nest on a little ledge under the eaves. They seem never to rest but, almost on the wing, quickly stuff one gaping beak and then swoop off again. This frenzy of activity, which so far as I can determine never ends from dawn to dusk, is the last chapter of the swallows' seasonal raison d'être: reproduction of another generation.     About a week after their arrival from South America, the pair together build a nest from pellets of mud which they place in regular layers mixed with long slender grasses. They line the nest with a circular mat of grass and top it with a blanket of soft white feathers. Altogether, nest building requires about a week of labor, after which the female lays her eggs. The birds alternate sitting on them and providing each other with food. The nestlings hatch after two weeks, and the parents then really go to work, collecting around nine hundred insects per day over the ensuing three weeks--a total of some twenty thousand weevils, chinch bugs, grasshoppers, beetles, mosquitoes, and other insects (Dunning 1994, 156)--until the young ones are able to leave the nest under their own wingpower. Even then, the parents still provide food, often on the wing.     The activities of birds in spring vividly illustrate an imperative of nature that is true for all of life: you are here to make small copies of yourself and then (if, like the swallows, parental care is required) to do all you can to assist them to grow up healthily so that they can eventually make, in turn, small copies of their own.     Hence the importance of sex--our name for the urge that ensures that all this will happen, even if ordinary usage tends to restrict the meaning of the term to the physical activity of copulation. Yet for every animal, the act of mating is usually only a minute part of the whole--a means to the end of manufacturing offspring. Biologically speaking, sex (or, more accurately, reproduction) is a general behavioral category that encompasses nearly everything the animal does.     For males, this usually includes finding a territory and defending it, as well as acquiring and displaying other resources of vigor and virility (by such means as singing, showing off, even fighting other males), in order to attract the best possible mate. Females, too, display their resources--usually signs of youth and hence health and fertility--and then, after bearing young, give their all to raising them. In some species there are slight variations in these roles, as when both members of the pair share in nest building and provisioning. But in all creatures of two sexes, reproduction in this broad sense makes themselves, if not the world, go around. If this were not so, there would be no new creatures every season to replace those that have grown old.     Is this true for humans? As all-absorbing as sex may be at certain periods of one's day or one's life, most people believe that they exist for reasons other than making love or even reproducing. Apart from the burdens and satisfactions of child rearing, we have work-in-the-world that provides self-fulfillment. While some of us seem to do nothing but make and spend money, and others suffer from not knowing what we are here for, a lot of us probably feel (or hope) that we make a few others' lives better or happier. We are here to learn, teach, preach, serve, befriend, build, create, defend, help the helpless, and--so far as we are able--find hope and meaning in life.     In the earliest millennia of hominid evolution, some four or five million years ago, our ancestors--like other animals--probably did not think about the meaning and purpose of life in general or of their individual lives. Like the crustaceans, lizards, and antelope that they hunted for food (or like the swallows under my eaves), our ancestors existed to stay alive and to reproduce--that is, their daily lives consisted of engaging in activities that ultimately contributed to the survival of themselves and their offspring. If ancestral humans, like other wild animals, had not given their supreme efforts to successful reproduction, you and I would not be pursuing our individual existences today.     Because we live much longer than ancestral humans, long past the age of primary childbearing, and because we are shielded by a prosperous society from the pressures of primary subsistence, we may not be particularly aware of the significance of reproductive imperatives in our lives. But an evolutionary perspective helps us to realize that even though our lives may not be principally devoted to reproduction in an obvious sense, we nevertheless frequently behave like our ancestors in ways that in the past would have enhanced our reproductive success (and may, indeed, enhance it now).     We generally choose our clothing, makeup, and hairstyles in order to make ourselves look good for others--to attract mates and allies or to compete with rivals. We work hard to acquire a nice house, car, and other possessions. We strive to improve and display our skills--our athleticism and physical fitness, our kindliness, sociability, competence, leadership, prosperity, dependability, mastery, discernment, knowledge. Although these strivings benefit others and are socially useful, they also advertise our reproductively advantageous qualities even if we have no children or are, for various reasons, imperfect parents.     For males, the reproductive imperative further means enjoying the company of healthy young women with physical and temperamental features that indicate good childbearing potential. What we call "beauty" in women usually refers to signs of youth (and even a few traits reminiscent, subliminally, of infancy): smooth, light-toned, and unblemished skin, firm flesh, glossy hair, full lips, shapely firm breasts and hips with a proportionately narrow waist, and a friendly, receptive disposition.     While some older women may be "interesting" and even have their own kind of dignified or mature beauty (and young women need not be all that "beautiful" in a Hollywood starlet sense), it is evident that, given the choice, most men prefer the company of young females to those who display signs of age (and its attendant loss of reproductive potential): wrinkled or pouchy faces, gray or faded thin hair, compressed lips, flabby, loose, blotched or darker-toned skin and flesh, a thick waist, and a "mature" (competent, assertive, or argumentative) manner. It is not simply a matter of general taste, because men do not have similar standards for their male companions. Again, this observation is not meant to imply that older women do not possess sexual attractiveness at all, but to point out that in most cases women of reproductive age tend to receive more attentive and favorable treatment from men than do older women. It does not seem fair, but there are unarguable evolutionary reasons for the bias.     Females, too, are romantically interested in young, healthy, attractive males, but unlike men, they usually require more than sex appeal before agreeing to sexual union. They look for indications that the man has "resources" (of time, money, attentiveness, and emotion) that he is willing to "invest" in the relationship. Although women may not be consciously aware of it, these are tacit signs of male willingness to stay around to help provide for any results of their mating, something that was of critical concern to their Paleolithic forebears.     Even when they are not particularly youthful or physically attractive, men with ambition, dominance, and status (social, athletic, financial, political) are usually attractive to women because they demonstrate superiority in acquiring resources that over the millennia have contributed to their mates' (and their eventual children's) reproductive success. These differences in how men and women present themselves to each other and in what they want from partners have been ascertained in numerous research studies. They are also evident from a brief perusal of the personals advertisements of any newspaper.     To be sure, men like women with status too, as trophies. But high-status women rarely mate with low-status men, whereas high-status men are quite willing to mate with low-status women and even to marry them if they are young and beautiful. Generally speaking, youth and beauty are sufficient resources for females.     While it is true that differences between males and females in both sexual behavior and sexual attitudes have declined in Western societies over the past four or five decades, there remain noteworthy differences in such things as frequency of masturbation (males do it more), timing and causes of arousal (males are aroused more quickly than females, females are aroused less by sight, which arouses men, than by touch), finding the trait of dominance attractive (females do, males do not), being willing to dissociate coitus from emotional involvement (males are, females are not), and motivation for coitus (Townsend, Kline, and Wasserman 1995, 31). For a female, the number of sexual offers she has is less important to the number of partners she will have than her expressed attitudes about her behavior, whereas for males, opportunity tends to be the major influence on number of partners, apart from what is claimed to be one's attitude (Townsend, Kline, and Wasserman 1995, 43).     Some might attribute American women's preoccupation with prospective partners' emotional investment to the ideology of rapturous romantic love that permeates the novels, popular songs, and films that many women avidly consume. One might ask, however, why--since romantic fantasy is so inescapable--it is females who patronize this stuff, whereas males generally choose adventure stories and films and read pornography more readily than romance.     Such differences in human male and female sexual attitudes and behavior are based in evolved biological differences. That is, for ancestral females, a fertile copulation required that she then invest in her offspring nine months of gestation, the perils of childbirth, two years or more of lactation, almost continuous tending of a helpless, demanding infant, and another several years of unflagging vigilance and solicitude. Her reproductive success depended not only on a healthy, vigorous mate to produce high-quality sperm that contained his healthy, vigorous qualities but also on having a partner who would be able to provision, defend, and otherwise care for her and the child, especially during the early weeks, months, and even years when both were most at risk. Ancestral males, on the other hand, theoretically needed to invest only their quickly replenished sperm and fifteen minutes of their time in a fertile copulation. Thus for a male there was far less need to look for anything beyond a prospective mate's youthful sexiness as a return on his physical contribution.     Of course it is better for a male's reproductive success if he stays around and helps the mother care for his infant. But his loss due to irresponsibility or careless mate choice is nothing like hers. (She loses not only a child but also at least a year of her life in hosting what is in fact an endoparasite, a "silent partner" that consumes a fair portion of the nourishment she takes into her body--not to mention the lengthy postponement of a child fathered by a more suitable partner.) Also, unlike the female, a male can never be absolutely sure that a child is really his. With mating success as an ultimate criterion, it pays a male to lay his sperm in other men's nests and let these men help raise the offspring with their resources.     This difference in costliness of reproductive investment also explains why females are often attracted to older, even less physically attractive men if they have money, fame, prestige, and power. It was Henry Kissinger who famously observed that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac. For successful male athletes, musicians, authors, artists, and politicians, groupies are legendary perquisites of achievement, a bonus that female athletes, musicians, authors, artists, and politicians are less likely to find--especially if they are portly, assertive, and fiftyish, as Kissinger was when he made his observation.     Males and females of today are not, of course, consciously assessing the childbearing or resource potential of the females and males they meet and judge. They may expressly want not to have children or may not be interested in a long-term association at all. But more often than not, and whether or not they act on their inclination, they will find appealing the characteristics of the opposite sex that during ancestral times afforded reproductive success. The neural circuits in their brains have been formed to respond to these signals and to elicit the appropriate behavioral response. We can and do love and desire less-than-curvaceous-juicy-willing women and men who are less-than-hunks-or-honchos. The sexy broad may be a bimbo and the hunk or honcho a jerk, so we gladly settle for less than a Perfect Ten since there are reasons other than sexual ones for choosing mates. But chances are that what turns us on in our less-than-ideal partners will be approximate or real characteristics that would have been desirable on the savannah. A MORE EMBRACING VIEW OF REPRODUCTIVE SUCCESS The previous section has been something of a caricature, although its basic outlines, like those of other caricatures, depict a likeness of human reproductive behavior--even if exaggerated. But it is only a partial likeness, not the complete story: sexual interest, choice, desire, and infatuation leading to copulation are only the beginning of reproductive success. Although humans, like other animals, have an interest in mate quality (vigor or other resources), in the achievement of fertile copulation, and even in the father's provisioning of the mother and young after birth, reproductive success in humans, in particular, has evolved to require something more than what sufficed in other animals.     Although maternal care is vital to any mammal's reproductive outcome, in human mothers and infants an emotional relationship of mutuality--expressed, coordinated, and elaborated in interactive behavior--became increasingly indispensable. Oddly, as I mentioned in the introduction, a preponderant proportion of studies of human reproductive success overlook or are unaware of this prominent and momentous fact. The First Relationship Humans share with other primates a close and enduring attachment between mother and child. People who have associated with monkeys and apes in the wild or in zoos and laboratories have reported the distress of both mother and baby if one is deprived of the other by death or accident. Baby rhesus monkeys raised in the laboratory as orphans drink milk from a bottle attached to a wire dummy in their cage but will spend time clinging to an adjoining cloth-covered "mother" and, when frightened, run to it for comfort (Harlow 1958; Harlow and Zimmermann 1959). We can be sure that the earliest hominids also had intimate mother-infant bonds, which for an urgent evolutionary reason evolved to be not only closer but even richer and more versatile than those of apes and monkeys.     As I described it in the introduction, bipedalism--walking on two rather than four legs--necessitated, rather paradoxically, that human babies be born in a helpless state in order to survive. Like the young of many birds, for which the term was first devised, human infants are altricial , from the Latin word meaning female nourisher--implying that the young cannot feed themselves. (In birds such as the swallows described earlier, both parents may feed the altricial young; in humans and other mammals, it is the mother who initially supplies nourishment in the form of milk secreted from her own body.) Altricial young who successfully induce their parent(s) to look after them will prosper; those whose parents do not feel rewarded when they regard their little one--who see a harbinger of hardship rather than a bundle of joy--will fail to thrive.     It seems only natural that living creatures find parenthood rewarding. The sight of that eager gaping beak or the smell of that warm amniotic-fluid-soaked kitten somehow inspires mother and father bird or mother cat to do what is necessary and to go on doing it as long as required. Some primates have to bolster this natural tendency by observing and thereby learning from other mothers with babies.     Early hominids obviously possessed the motivations and social reinforcements of their primate cousins, which enabled them to care for their offspring, too. And so do most of us today, who admit to undeniable satisfaction while caring for a small helpless thing--especially when it is our own. Neurotransmitters such as oxytocin are released in mothers before childbirth and with suckling, so that "maternal affect," if nothing interferes with it psychologically or physically, is a demonstrable biological reality. And apart from that, our brain circuitry has evolved to respond with tenderness and positive emotion to such signs of lovability as small size, a round head that is large in proportion to the body, big eyes, plump cheeks, downiness, softness, and other indicators of infantility--in baby animals and in pets, stuffed animals, cartoon characters, and advertising images as well as in our own kind.     Although most people take human mother love for granted, it was an important evolutionary adaptation. Until the 1960s, psychologists generally thought of it as fairly straightforward: human mothers, like other animals, had "maternal emotion," and babies--through conditioning, like pets--gradually came to love the person who fed and looked after them.     In 1969 in England, John Bowlby, a child psychiatrist with an interest in ethology, challenged this rather simplistic idea in the first volume of a pathbreaking treatise called Attachment and Loss . He was acquainted with the reactions of young children who for various reasons--illness, death, wartime dispersals, abandonment--had been separated from their mothers, and he was led to propose that there is a positive need for infants to form what he called attachment with caretakers. By the age of about eight months, especially in circumstances of uncertainty, children in all cultures do similar things to attract and sustain their mothers' attention: they cry when separated, lift their arms to be picked up, cling to her body, stay near her, and even when playing happily look at her frequently. They do this whether or not the mother has shown them affection. In orphanages, young children often choose one staff person as a favorite, even if other individuals feed and tend them. Contrary to previous assumptions, the tendency to attach was observably separate from simple conditioning to a positive stimulus such as food or care.     Bowlby suggested that the evolutionary value of attachment was that the helpless hunter-gatherer's baby would not wander off, and when frightened or alone it would cry, reach out, move toward, or otherwise try to resume contact with a specific protective figure rather than remain vulnerable to predators or accidents. Many helpless young birds and mammals have comparable behaviors.     In the years since Bowlby's formulation, research with much younger infants has enriched his pioneering work, showing quite remarkable and unexpected earlier abilities and proclivities for interaction and intimacy. These suggest that attachment--which in Bowlby's scheme appears at about the time the baby is first able to move about on its own and is concerned primarily with the infant's physical safety through "proximity seeking"--should be viewed as a late-appearing consequence of a prior, equally innate and adaptive predisposition to engage in relationship and emotional communion, over and above any need for protection.     University of Edinburgh psychologist Colwyn Trevarthen (1979, 1998) has called this predisposition innate intersubjectivity . He sees it as a fundamental inborn readiness of the baby to seek, respond to, and affect the mother's provision of not only physical protection and care but also emotional regulation and support--that is, her provision of companionship. Trevarthen's studies, like many others, show clearly how the mother-infant pair together engages in a mutually improvised interaction based on innate competencies and sensitivities--an interaction, sometimes called "baby talk," whose importance was for years overlooked if not altogether dismissed. Long before the attachment described by Bowlby takes place, this common pastime, which falsely seems to be both trivial and inane, provides enjoyment and intimacy for both participants and significant developmental benefits for the infant. (Continues...)

Table of Contents

List of Illustrationsp. ix
Prefacep. xi
Introduction: Love and Artp. 3
1 Mutualityp. 19
2 Belongingp. 51
3 Finding and Making Meaningp. 72
4 "Hands-on" Competiencep. 99
5 Elaboratingp. 129
6 Taking the Arts Seriouslyp. 167
Appendix Toward a Naturalistic Aestheticsp. 205
Notesp. 226
References Citedp. 237
Index of Namesp. 251
Index of Subjectsp. 257