Thursday, October 05, 2006

art for life's sake

William H. McNeill's review of a couple of new books on paleolithic art in the NYRB offer some ancient insight on the "why make art" question.

Guthrie [...] takes up the importance of play and more especially of art-making for enhancing creativity and shaping a distinctive human ecological niche for "the artful ape." He explains:

The evolutionary tack of more learning gained through a long childhood was a difficult route because it involved acquiring facility and wisdom through many mistakes—and mistakes can be costly. The partial evolutionary fix for this was to create a sort of virtual world, paralleling the adult world, a vital playground of make-believe.

Cave art is the principal surviving part of that "virtual world," attesting how "play, art, and creativity are all linked to the process of our becoming large-mammal-hunting specialists." He sums up his entire argument in the chapter's final sentence: "Paleolithic art is the first clear spoor of advancing creativity in the human line..., not art for art's sake, but art for life's sake."

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