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Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy

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Art for Life's Sake

Ellen Dissanayake
New York City, NY
Published online: 27 Dec 2013.

To cite this article: Ellen Dissanayake (1992) Art for Life's Sake, Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy
Association, 9:4, 169-175, DOI: 10.1080/07421656.1992.10758958

To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/07421656.1992.10758958


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Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy kcciation, 9[4) pp. 169-175 0 MTA. Inc. 1992

Art for Life’sSake

Ellen Dissanayake, New York City, NY

I don’t know which is greater-the pleasure, and human psychology, art must be viewed as an in-
honor, or privilege of being invited to address the herent universal (or biological) trait of the human
members of the NAEA. I hope that the title of my species, as normal and natural as language, sex, so-
lecture, “Art for Life’s Sake,”-like the question of ciability, aggression, or any of the other charac-
the title of my book, What Is Art For?-will stimu- teristics of human nature.
late you to think about art in a new way, as well as to Before beginning, I would like to tell you how I
appreciate why thinking about art in a new way is came to develop this view, why it came to seem
important. mandatory. While a graduate student in art history,
I intend to give a brief history of Western art- writing my thesis on 19th-century French symbolist
art, I had the unexpected opportunity to travel to Sri
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not the usual “art history” of the practice of art but

rather a history of the Westen idea of art-and then Lanka, the small island nation off the southern tip of
present my own view of art for life’s sake. This arises India, formerly known as Ceylon. Eventually I re-
from an unfamiliar perspective, one that is so differ- turned there to live and married a Sri Lankan man.
ent, in fact, that it doesn’t have a name. In order to For 15 years I lived abroad, and during that time
call it something, I have occasionally called it “pal- also spent a year in Nigeria, two and a half years in
aeoanthropsychobiologica1”-an adjective that is Papua, New Guinea, and three months in India.
quite literally stunning-to suggest several things. Living in non-Western countries permits, indeed de-
First, that the idea of art encompasses all of human mands that you look afresh at all the cultural truths
history (i.e, as far back as the Palaeolithic or even and beliefs that you have grown up with and taken
earlier); second, that it include all human societies for granted. Among these of course was my idea of
(i.e., is anthropological or cross-cultural); and third, art.
that it accounts for the fact that art is a psychological Living in another culture also makes you realize
or emotional need and has psychological or emotion- that different as other people’s beliefs may be from
al effects. Most people would probably agree that one’s own, we are all still recognizably people-and
their personal “idea of art” includes all these things, so you wonder what is universal. M y way of ap-
but I will show you that as presently practiced and proaching these questions came to be biological or
taught in the West, art is a conceptual ragbag or cas- evolutionary-looking at all humans as members of
serole full of the most incompatible and confusing one species and then thinking of art as a kind of be-
notions. havior that developed as they evolved, to help them
My palaeoanthropsychobiologicalview is that in survive. It took many years of reading and thinking
order to include human history, human cultures, and writing to address the different aspects of this
approach. I am still finding new paths to follow and
new things to incorporate. In 1988 I published a
Editor’s note: Ellen Dissanayake earned her B.A. in Humanities book, What Is Art For?, that set out my general
from Washington State University and has her M.A. in Art Histo- ideas, and a second book which is called Homo Aes-
r y from the University of Maryland. In 1977, she received a grant
from the Guggenheim Foundation to pursue research at Oxford theticus: Where Art Comes From and Why (1992). I
University on the evolutionary significance of art. She has recently think these ideas have revolutionary implications for
received a Fullbright LecturinglResearch Fellowship to continue how we as a society think of art. Indeed, one of the
her studies in Sri Lanka.
Dissanayake’s work has been significantly influenced by the major insights to come from my studies was just how
years she has spent in such places as Sri Lanka, India, New peculiar our Western concept of art is-unprece-
Guinea, and Nigeria. Currently, she lives in New York City dented in human history, and I think it is extremely
where she is a lecturer for the New School of Social Research. She
has published two books, What is Art For? and Homo aestheticus important to understand this in order to see why a
(which is reviewed in this issue of Art Therapy). new view of art is required.


Thus I will first outline how our peculiar or of money. (4)an emphasis on reason as the best
anomalous Western concept or idea of art has devel- means for understanding and controlling the matters
oped over the past two centuries, before setting out of life. and ( 5 ) the great political revolutions in
my palaeoanthropsychobiological view of the human America and France with their subsequent division
species, a species that deserves to be called aesthet- of society into workers and bourgeoisie and gradual
icus or artistic as much as it deserves to be called sa- weakening of the nobility and clergy.
piens or wise. What we now call “the Romantic Rebellion” was
a reaction to the goods and evils inherent in these
Development of the Western great changes. For example, while individualism be-
Concept of (Fine) Art came possible and people could be freed from tradi-
tion, custom and authority, they also became more
It is true that we can read about the word and alienated from their work and from other people.
concept “art” in early treatises from Greek and me- New possibilities for thought and experience were
dieval times. But it must be realized that these are accompanied by an unprecedented loss of certainty
translations and that the authors may not have meant and security about one’s place in the world. New
the same thing by the word “art” as we do. In fact, comforts and conveniences arose, but people also
Plato did not discuss “art,” but rather beauty, poet- became more regimented in their work and gradu-
ry, and imagemaking; Aristotle dealt with poetry and ally removed from the world of nature. While reason
tragedy. They used a word, techn6, which we have and critical analysis encouraged objectivity and fair-
translated as “art,” but this word was applied equally ness, earlier visionary and mythopoetic modes of
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to fishing, chariotdriving, and other mundane activi- thought were devalued, being nonlogical, although
ties. It meant “having a correct understanding of the their expression in communally shared traditional
principles involved,” rather as we understand the practices had given great emotional satisfaction.
“art” of salmon cookery or of motorcycle mainte- To artists, as t o everyone, t h e new o r d e r
nance. brought both liberation and insecurity. As the nine-
In medieval times, the arts were in the service teenth century advanced, their primary patrons were
of religion, as they have always been, but were not no longer the Church and the court. Instead it be-
regarded “aesthetically,” if this means separately came necessary to please the public-multiform,
from their revelation of the Divine. Renaissance art- faceless, swayed as today by hype and novelty-in
ists gradually replaced God-centered with man-cen- what was to become an art market. Aspiring artists
tered concerns, but their works continued to portray no longer were apprenticed in a guild system, but
a recognizable world, whether actual or ideal, and learned what standards were acceptable from newly-
the “art” was in accurately representing that subject established national academies and collections in na-
matter, using craftsmanlike standards of beauty, har- tional museums. Private dealers and galleries ap-
mony, and excellence. peared to intercede between artists and the public.
The eighteenth century is recognized today as Professional critics who wrote for newspapers and
having been a focal point in which a number of social newly-established magazines of art contributed to
and intellectual trends came together, intertwined the new milieu as did schools of art and scholars of
and influenced one another, and eventually became art who established their field as a sequential and
in combination and intensity what is now called developing history of particular works of art that
“modernity.” Among these trends I will mention- every well-educated person should know. The words
and I hope you will forgive the rather breathtaking or concepts of “art,” “genius,” “creativity” and
oversimplification-five important and unprece- “imagination” took on their modem meanings.
dented changes. (1)A gradual secularization of soci-
ety, whose aim became life, liberty and the pursuit Modernism:Art as Ideology
of happiness for individuals rather than acquiescence
to a humanly unknowable Divine plan. (2) The rise Included in the many new approaches and sub-
of science which not only fostered questioning and jects that 18th century thinkers turned their atten-
dissent but made possible the development of tech- tion t o was a s u b j e c t t h a t c a m e t o be called
nology and industrialization. (3) The social or inter- “aesthetics”-a concern with elucidating principles
personal changes that resulted as the emotional and such as taste and beauty that govern all the arts and
affective ties of feudal and kin loyalty were replaced indeed make them not simply paintings or statues
by instrumental relationships based on the exchange but examples of (fine) “art.”


As the subject developed over the next century, meanings viewers were told they could find in the
a startling and influential idea took hold that, like skeins and blobs and washes of paint. Because these
the concept of “art,” was unprecedented. This was values were not easily apparent to the untutored ob-
that there is a special frame of mind for appreciating server, appreciating art became more than ever an
works of art-a “disinterested” attitude that is sepa- elite activity, requiring an apprenticeship and dedi-
rate from one’s own personal interest in the object, cation not unlike that of the artist. Never in question
its utility, or its social or religious ramifications. The was the “high” art assumption that works of art-no
work of art became a world-in-itself, made solely or matter how strange they looked or unskilled they
primarily as an occasion for this kind of detached seemed to be-were conduits of transcendent mean-
aesthetic experience, which was considered to be ing, of truths from the unconscious, expressions or
one of the highest forms of mentality. revelations of universal human concerns that the art-
“Disinterest” implied that viewers could appre- ist was uniquely endowed to apprehend and trans-
ciate any art, even the artwork of eras or cultures far mit.
removed from their own, whether or not they un- As the “isms” proliferated and art became more
derstood the meaning the works had for the people esoteric and outrageous, the role of the critic be-
who made and used them. I n this sense, art was came not only helpful but integral to the reception of
“universal.” Another corollary was that works of art works of art. Looking back, it seems inevitable that
in themselves, apart from their subject matter, gave an “institutional” theory of art arose to explain what
a special kind of knowledge-a knowledge which, art is. As formulated by philosophers of art like
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with the waning of religious belief, often took on the George Dickie and Arthur Danto (who were describ-
spiritual authority once restricted to the Church. ing what was the case, not advocating or defending
Still another was the idea of art for art’s sake (or even it), an artworld (one word) composed of critics, deal-
life for art’s sake), suggesting that art had no purpose ers, gallery owners, museum directors, curators, art
but to “be” and to provide opportunities for enjoying magazine editors, and so forth, was the source of
an aesthetic experience that was its own reward, and conferring the status “work of art” onto objects.
that one could have no higher calling than to open What artists made were “candidates for apprecia-
oneself to these heightened moments. tion,” and if the artworld bought and sold them,
As paintings became less and less like mirrors wrote about them, displayed them, they were there-
held u p to nature, so that viewers could no longer by validated as “art”-not before.
d e c i p h e r o r naively a d m i r e t h e m , c r i t i c s as Implicit in this account is a recognition that
mediators increasingly had to explain to the public what is said (or written) about a work is not only nec-
what made an artwork good or bad and even what a essary to its being art, but is indeed perhaps more
work “meant.” In England, in the early decades of important than the work itself. There is no apprecia-
the twentieth century, Clive Bell and Roger Fry tion of art without interpretation. We can tell that a
were extremely influential as they invoked “for- pile of stones or stack of gray felt in a museum is dif-
malist” criteria for appreciating the puzzling new ferent from a pile of stones on the pavement near a
work of Post-Impressionists such as Ckzanne, or the construction site or a stack of felt in a carpet store
Cubists-work that could not be understood with because those in the museum are viewed through a
the serviceable old standards (that anyone could rec- lens of knowledge of their place in a tradition. “To
ognize) of beauty of conception, nobility of subject see something as art at all,” proclaimed Danto, “de-
matter, representational accuracy, or communication mands nothing less than this, an atmosphere of artis-
of valued truths. Art had become if not a religion, an tic theory, a knowledge of the history of art.” In this
ideology whose principles were articulated by and view, there are no naive artists or naive art. Today’s
for the few who had leisure and education enough to artists can both explain t h e theories behind the
acquire them. works that are to be seen in museums and galleries
In the mid-twentieth century, more elaborate and place their own works in these traditions.
and abstract formalist standards were developed in
America by critics like Clement Greenberg and
Harold Rosenberg in order to justdy abstract expres- Postmodernism: Art as
sionism, a school of painting that affronted sen- Interpretation
sibilities and challenged what had previously been
acceptable as art. “Flatness,” “purity,” and “picture The assumption that interpretation is indispens-
plane” became the verbal tokens of the transcendent able to appreciating and even identifying artworks


has opened a Pandora’s box that is now called “post- The uniqueness, authority, ideality and originality of
modernism,” a point of view that calls into question high art is challenged by borrowing (copying, pho-
two centuries of assumptions about the elite and spe- tographing or otherwise appropriating) images from
cial nature of art. While the term “postmodern” is past art to be used in new works, or by making many
used (and abused) as indiscriminately as “modern” repetitions or reproductions of an image or construc-
was before, postmodernists are united in repudiating tion. Pastiche and collage are popular postmodern
the “high” art (or modernist) view I have just de- media in which works are composed of fragments
scribed. They stress that theirs is not just one more that have no apparent relation to one another except
“ism” or movement but rather a declaration of the for their juxtaposition.
end of all isms and movements. Theirs is a radical Although the art praised by postmodern critics
change of consciousness, they claim, that challenges is puzzling, if not shocking and offensive, the social
the entire “modernist” ideology. problems and cultural predicaments it reflects can-
Rather than assuming that art reflects a unique not be denied. The works and ideas that are called
and privileged kind of knowledge, postmodernists postmodernist can be lamented or ignored, but like
point out that any “truth” or “reality” is only a point modernism’s works and ideas, they certainly reflect
of view-a “representation” t h a t comes to us the society that spawned them. After the political ca-
mediated and conditioned by our language, our so- lamities and barbarisms of the twentieth century,
cial institutions, the assumptions that characterize the Enlightenment and Victorian faith in human in-
individuals as members of a nation, a race, a gender, telligence and goodness or in the progress and per-
a class, a profession, a religious body, a particular fectibility of human existence seem as antiquated
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historical period. Artists, just like everybody else, do and untenable as medieval theology. Socialism and,
not see the work in any singularly privileged or ob- more recently, other underclass movements have
jectively truthful way, but rather-like everybody- challenged pretensions to achieving objective, uni-
interpret it according to their individual and cultural versal justice, law, and morality-as have the recur-
sensibilities. What has been enshrined as “high” art rent scandals at the very heart of government. After
is then to the postmodernist view a canon of works Freud it is hard to believe that objective rationality
that represent the worldview of elite, Western Euro- alone could drive human affairs, a hope also laid to
pean, white males. Hence “taste” and “beauty” and rest more mundanely by the success of glossy adver-
“art for art’s sake” are constructions that express tisements that effectively persuade us to overspend
class interests. To claim that o n e can appreciate on ever new and tantalizing non-necessities. Rela-
works from alien cultures is an imperialistic act of tivity theory in physics at least suggests the theme of
appropriation-molding them to one’s own standards relativity elsewhere. The polluting fungoid spread of
while blatantly dismissing or ignoring the standards the automobile and its concrete accoutrements of
of their makers and users. Art is not universal, but freeway and parking lot over city and landscape, not
conceptually constructed by individuals whose per- to mention other even worse environmental ills, cer-
ceptions are necessarily limited and parochial. tainly calls into question the wisdom of human tech-
Finding that modernist aesthetics masked chau- nological domination over nature. The proliferation
vinistic, authoritarian, and repressive attitudes to- of images in advertisement and on television makes
wards uneducated, non-Establishment and non- all events-from an exciting new dentifrice or room
Western people, and towards women, postmodernist freshener to a fire in the Bronx, a missile attack on
artists have thus set out deliberately to subvert or Tel Aviv, Johnny Carson’s monologue, a famine in
“problematize” the old “high” art standards, often Africa, the Super Bowl, or an earthquake in Peru-
parodying or otherwise flouting them. For example, appear equally real (or unreal), occurring as they do
enduring “timeless” works of art are replaced by in- in succession, compressed in time and space and sig-
termittent or impermanent works that have to be ac- nificance. The postmodernists’ exposure of the rigid,
tivated by the spectator or cease to exist when the exclusive and self-satisfied attitudes that often lay
performance is over. Or, challenging the aura of ex- behind the rhetoric of modernist ideology is, in large
clusiveness and religiosity of the museum, art is cre- measure, welcome, as is their preparing the way for
ated on the street, in remote deserts, or found in the liberation and democratization of art.
humble or trivial objects and materials. Postmoder- But I find postmodernist aesthetics troubled and
nist artists deny the integrity of individual arts by inadequate when it proclaims that there are a multi-
using hybrid mediums-sculptures made of painted plicity of individual realities that are infinitely inter-
canvas, or paintings made of words and numbers. pretable and equally worthy of aesthetic presentation


and regard. The question arises: if everything is ented or skillful than others. In these technologically
equally valuable, is anything worth doing? Is sprawl- simpler societies, the arts are invariably and insep-
ing promiscuity really an improvement on narrow arably part of ritual ceremonies that articulate, ex-
elitism? Is absolute relativism a more credible posi- press, and reinforce a group’s deepest beliefs and
tion than absolute authority? Postmodernism aban- concerns. As the vehicle for group meaning and a
dons the crumbling edifice of modernist authority for galvanizer of group oneheartedness, art-conjoined-
an equally uninhabitable and esoteric antistructure with-ritual is essential to group survival-quite liter-
of relativism, cynicism, and nihilism that I claim ally art for life’s sake.
does not have to be the inevitable outcome of the In a highly-specialized society like ours, the arts
matter. are also specialties and may exist for their own sake
apart from ritual or any other purpose. This separa-
tion, peculiar only to modernized or “advanced” so-
Art for Life’s Sake cieties, makes art a problem. Art’s heritage of spe-
cialization and self-proclaimed irrelevance permits it
One way to begin to understand and resolve the to be dismissed by school and governmental budget-
perplexing contradictions, inadequacies, and confu- makers as a “frill,” while its aura of sanctity and priv-
sions of both modernist and postmodernist aesthetics ilege remains as a reproach to those whose upbring-
is, I believe, by considering art in the broadest pos- ing has not included exposure to “fine” arts.
sible perspective-the palaeoanthropsychobiological Dismissal, ignorance, irrelevance, and exclusivity of
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view that I mentioned-as a universal need and art are all artifacts of our own peculiar cultural pre-
propensity of the human species. dicament and not inherent in arts anywhere else.
Let me now jettison that tongue-twisting phrase The species-centered view of art combines mod-
and introduce a synonym, “species-centered. As ” ernism’s proclamation that art is of supreme value
medieval society and art was God-centered, that of and a source for heightened personal experience
the Renaissance man-centered, and ours perhaps with postmodernism’s insistence that it belongs to
best described as profit- or commodity-centered, I everyone and is potentially all around us. It does this
hope that a more human future society and art will by thinking of artmaking and experiencing as a
be species-centered-that is, will regard all humans human behauior. Let me explain.
as alike in having the same fundamental needs. In the evolution of the human species, not only
For my purposes here with you as art edu- did we gradually acquire certain characteristic phys-
cators, I would like to point out that one of the most ical and physiological adaptations-such as upright
striking features of human societies throughout histo- posture, an opposable thumb, relative hairlessness, a
ry and across the globe is a prodigious involvement nine-month gestation period-but behavioral adapta-
with the arts. Even nomadic people without perma- tions as well. Even though we no longer live in a
nent dwellings and with few material possessions hunter-gatherer milieu, these behavioral predisposi-
usually have elaborate poetic language or dance tions still characterize us as a species in their high
styles; more settled people generally decorate their degree of development and interrelatedness: tenden-
dwellings, objects of daily or ritual use, or them- cies to be sociable, to acquire and use language, to
selves. There is no known society that does not prac- make and use tools, to impose conceptual order, to
tice at least one of what in the West we call “the attempt to control or regularize the forces of nature,
arts,” and in many groups art-making is among their to join with our close associates in mutual endeavor.
most important endeavors. Among these tendencies, I claim, is also the behav-

I find it significant that the word “art” acquired ior or propensity to make special,” particularly
its modern meaning and its existence as a concept as things that one cares deeply about or activities
the arts themselves became practiced and appreci- whose outcome has strong personal significance.
ated by fewer and fewer members of society. In Something that is “special” is different from the
small scale, unspecialized, premodern societies, in- mundane, the everyday, the ordinary. It is extra-
dividuals can generally make and do everything that ordinary. Now all animals can tell the difference be-
is needed for their livelihood. There, while there is tween the ordinary or routine and the extraordinary
no abstract concept of “art,” everyone may be an art- or unusual. They would not survive if they were
ist-decorating their bodies and possessions, danc- oblivious to the snapping twig or sudden shadow
ing, singing, versifying, performing-even when that means a predator may be nearby. But when
some persons are acknowledged as being more tal- joined with the other abilities that evolving humans


had-intelligence, resourcefulness, emotional and It is in ritual ceremonies where one sees the
mental complexity, the ability to plan ahead-the arts most profusely in traditional societies and where
“special” could take on a significance that was more I believe the nascent tendency to make special
than simply alertness to possible danger. would have had the opportunity to diversify and
We have to speculate about how early this flourish. Ritual ceremonies are group efforts to con-
propensity to recognize specialness arose, but it was trol the important things that people care deeply
at least 250,000 years ago-more than ten times ear- about-not only acquiring food but averting evil,
lier than the cave paintings that are usually called curing illness, securing safety and prosperity, and
the “beginning of art”-in Homo erectus and early resolving conflict. While rituals are unique in form
H o m o sapiens. and content in each society, they occur in response
The crucial factor for claiming the beginning of to strikingly similar circumstances-times of uncer-
a behavior of art, I believe, would have been the tainty, often of transition between one material or
ability not just to recognize that something is spe- social state and another (e.g., plenty and want; dis-
cial, but deliberately to set out to make something ease and health; childhood and sexual maturity; un-
special. This also seems to have occurred at least married and married; life and death).
250,000 years ago. In a number of sites from that I believe it is no accident that the arts are found
long ago, and thereafter, pieces of red coloring mate- prodigiously in ceremonial rituals and the parapher-
rial have been found, far from the areas in which nalia associated with these ceremonies. In fact, I
they naturally occur. It is thought that these were claim that the shaping and elaborating of behavior
brought to be used for coloring and marking such
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and of the material world that we today call the arts

things as bodies and utensils (which would have now were necessary to the performance of ritual cere-
of course perished without trace), as people continue monies. First, they made the ceremonies pleasur-
to do today-to make them special. There is also evi- able so that people wanted to d o them and would
dence of cranial deformation as early as 70,000 B.C. continue to do them, and they also made them com-
and toothfiling and tooth decoration were also prac- pelling and memorable so that they “worked.” The
ticed. These may not seem like “art” but they d o group participation in a common endeavor and the
show the wish to use form and color to “make spe- communally-shared emotion would strengthen the
cial.” general cooperation and feeling of affiliation that was
I suggest that to our ancestors it was essential essential for small bands of people to survive in a vi-
not only to make good tools-spears and arrows for olent, unpredictable world.
the hunt-but to make sure they worked by making One can then say that to begin with art was not
them and the activities that were concerned with for its own sake at all, but for the sake of the per-
them special. In hunting societies that we know of formance of ritual ceremonies. What was important
today, behavior made special (or “controlled” behav- to the survival of early human society is not that dec-
ior) is as much a part of preparation for the hunt as orating bodies or dancing in imitation of an ostrich
readying spears or arrows. Before the hunt, hunters would bring rain or create more game-although the
may fast, pray, bathe, obey food or sex taboos, group members certainly would have thought that
participate in special rituals, wear special adorn- was what they were doing. Rather it was the emo-
ment. tional bonding of the participants that gave the cere-
This control of their behavior and emotions can monies survival value. The making special, the
be interpreted as a way of vicariously demonstrating touching of or entering an extraordinary realm that
the control they desire in order to successfully making special encouraged and allowed, the unifying
achieve their goal. And although “behavior made self-transcendent emotions that were called forth,
special” need not be aesthetic or artistic, when one demonstrated the likemindedness, the onehearted-
exerts control, takes pains, and uses care and con- ness of the group so they would work together in
trivance to do one’s best, the result is generally what confidence and unity. As human life evolved and be-
is called artistic or aesthetic. came more complex, ceremonies and arts would be-
Along with control of one’s behavior-making it come more complex as well. They would be used to
special by shaping or elaborating it-would go mak- assist the transmission of group tradition and infor-
ing important tools and implements special, showing mation, as John Pfeiffer has so brilliantly shown in
one’s investment in their working properly, one’s re- his book, The Creative Explosion, which deals with
gard for their importance. Weapons and tools would the emergence of Stone Age art.
be prime candidates for being made special. For these reasons-unification, passing on cul-


tural knowledge-individuals in human societies They are not merely a matter of playful and shifting
where ceremonies were performed would survive interpretations.
better and leave more off-spring than those who did Although “Art” as a concept seems to have been
not. And being crucial and intrinsic to ritual cere- born of and sustained by a commercial society, is
monies, the arts were crucial and intrinsic to human therefore only roughly two centuries old, and hence
survival-art for life’s sake. is relative, even discardable, it should not be forgot-
To think of art as a behavior of making special is ten that the arts have always been with us. So have
truly a change of paradigm. Usually art refers to ob- ideas of beauty, sublimity, and transcendence, along
jects-paintings, pictures, dances, musical composi- with the verities of the human condition: love,
tions, works of art that are the result of artistic be- death, memory, suffering, loss, desire, reprieve, and
havior. Or the appellation “art” is given to objects hope. These have been the subject matter of and oc-
that possess some quality-of beauty, harmony, ex- casion for the arts throughout human history, and it
cellence-and denied to those that do not. Yet if art is a grievous lapse when contemporary thought as-
is regarded as a behavior, making things special, em- sumes that because art is contingent and dependent
phasis shifts from the object or quality or commodity on “a particular social context” that abiding human
to the activity (the making or doing and appreciat- concerns and the arts that have immemorially been
ing), as we see in premodern societies where the ob- their accompaniment and embodiment are them-
ject is essentially an occasion for or an accoutrement selves only contingent and dependent.
to ceremonial participation. The species-centered view of art I have devel-
“Making special” is a fundamental human pro- oped here claims that there is valid and intrinsic as-
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clivity or need. We can see it in such simple things sociation between what humans have always found
as when we cook special meals and wear special garb to be important, and certain ways-called the arts-
for important occasions, and find special ways of say- that they have found to manifest, reinforce, and
ing important things. Ritual ceremonies are occa- grasp this importance. That the arts in postmodern
sions when everyday life is shaped and embellished society do not do this, at least to the extent that they
to become more than ordinary. What artists do, in do in premodern societies, is not because of some
their specialized and often driven way, is an exag- deficiency or insubstantiality of an abstract concept
geration of what ordinary people also do, naturally but because their makers inhabit a world-unprece-
and with enjoyment-transform the ordinary into dented in human history-in which these abiding
the extra-ordinary. Looked at in this way, art, as concerns are more often than not artificially dis-
making the things one cares about special, shaping guised, denied, trivialized, or banished.
and elaborating the ordinary to make it more than Adopting the species-centered view of art allows
ordinary, is fundamental to everyone and, as in tra- us personally to better appreciate the continuity of
ditional societies, deserves to be acknowledged as ourselves and our artmaking with nature. Art is not
normal-encouraged and developed. confined to a small coterie of geniuses, visionaries,
To suggest that art is more common and wide- cranks, and charlatans-indistinguishable from one
spread than has usually been supposed does not another-but is instead a fundamental human spe-
have to mean that all standards fly out the window cies characeristic that demands and deserves to be
and anything goes. (Indeed, even with the idea that promoted and nourished. Art-like activities exist in
art is uncommon and rare, that has already hap- all societies and all walks of life.
pened.) Nor does it imply that it is trivial and care- If you are to carry one idea away from my talk I
less. To make something special, after all, generally hope it will be this: art is a normal and necessary be-
implies taking care and doing one’s best so as to pro- havior of human beings that like talking, exercising,
duce a result that is-to a greater or lesser extent- playing, working, socializing, learning, loving and
accessible, striking, resonant, and satisfying to those nurturing should be encouraged and developed in
who take the time to appreciate it. This is what everyone.
should be meant when we say that via art, experi-
ence is heightened, elevated, made more memora-
ble and significant. Thus everything is not equally Editor’s note: Art Therapy would like to thank the author and the
meaningful or valid. The reasons that we find a work National Art Education Association for permission to reprint this
article. The article originally appeared in W h t is Art For? Key-
accessible, striking, resonant, and satisfying are bio- note Addresses of the 1991 NAEA Convention, Karen Lee Carroll
logically endowed as well as culturally acquired. (Ed.), pp. 15-26.