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« The Oldenburg Story, Part II | Main | Times Arts Frownlines 10 »

September 20, 2002

Cultural Evolution


I was reading “The Image & The Eye” by E. H. Gombrich last night and stumbled across what may be the common link between our interest in socio-biology and the arts. Discussing the development of what he terms 'the convincing image' in Western Art (a process by which any element of realism subjects the rest of the image to a critical process that will, in time, make it more realistic too), Gombrich offers a little tangential insight:

There is a real Darwinian parallel here which should not be overlooked. For the evolution of convincing images was indeed anticipated by nature long before human minds could conceive this trick. I am referring to the wonders of protective colouring and mimicry, of deterrent and camouflaging forms in plants and animals. As we have learnt at school, and as we can see with amazement in zoological displays, there are insects that look exactly like the leaves of the tree which is their habitat….

Moth on Tree

The eye and the brain of the bird from which protective colouring must hide the butterfly surely differ in a thousand ways from ours. And yet we can only assume that both for the bird and for us the butterfly and the leaf have become indistinguishable…[M]ight it not be argued that the shapes of art are also arrived at through adaptation to various functions…we may assume that evolution in art as in nature could also approximate other specifications than that of effortless recognizability. Maybe the immensely disquieting and expressive forms of those tribal styles we call ‘primitive’ also evolved step by step towards awe-inspiring or terrifying configurations…

One might imagine that it was merely felt that certain masks, images or ornaments were charged with more potency, more mana, than others, and that those features that made for their magic power survived and increased in the course of time.

Maybe the reason I like art history, in addition liking individual pieces of art (a combination of tastes that, when you think about it, is by no means necessarily automatic) is that I’m seeking a sense of functional development in art. I’m like a paleontologist, looking for fossils that document the evolution of artistic ideas. Or maybe my interest in art stems from the fact that it offers a handy, concrete manifestation of the processes of cultural and biological evolution which one can more dimly sense occurring around us every day.

What do you think?



posted by Friedrich at September 20, 2002


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