Monday, 20 October 2008

The origins of art, part 4: The humanisation of nature

A decisive consequence of our evolution through labour was that we learned to objectify ourselves as human beings.

For primitive humans, nature must have seemed particularly immense, dangerous and frightening. Our human skills — constructing shelters, social organisation through language, making tools — helped us to bring nature to an increasing extent under our control and thereby improve our standard of life. But these unique capacities brought with them a curse unique to Homo sapiens: they introduced into us a dual nature. Instead of being instinctively a part of nature, as animals are, our self-consciousness separated us from it; as we are creatures of nature, we therefore also became separated from ourselves. The Biblical myth of the Fall — Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden — may express this fundamental human experience.

To put it differently, we realised that we are a subject and that the external world is an object.

Lenin summed up a fundamental tenet of Marxist philosophy when he observed,

Matter is a philosophical category designating the objective reality which is given to man by his sensations, and which is copied, photographed and reflected by our sensations, while existing independently of them.[1]

The objective world existed before humans, and would continue to exist were we to disappear — the human subjective consciousness is itself ultimately nothing but a process of matter. Marxism is not only materialist, however, but dialectical and historical, and applies materialism in the context of the development of society. Human consciousness therefore is not a passive reflection of reality but a participant in it, and subject to change — as seen in the process of evolution itself.

We shall explore Lenin’s ‘reflection’ theory another time. For now, we can simply observe that art does not reflect an abstract, never-changing ideal [2] but is part of a dialectical relationship between a human subject and an objective world. As we perceive the objective world, we reinforce our own existence as a subject that is in a relationship with it. We are separated from nature, but we are also part of it.

For animals, the external world is a fact that cannot be changed. Humans however can reflect upon their actions before they perform them. Instead of building a home according to instinct, like termites, we can plan it in the greatest detail before a stone is laid. When we could foresee the effects of particular actions, we became aware of new relationships that we were previously blind to: not least that by using tools and reason we could act to change nature. Here is Marx:

The operations carried out by a spider resemble those of a weaver, and many a human architect is put to shame by the bee in the construction of its wax cells. However, the poorest architect is distinguished from the best of bees by the fact that before he builds a cell in wax, he has built it in his head. The result was already present at its commencement, in the imagination of the worker, in its ideal form. More than merely working an alteration in the form of nature, he also knowingly works his own purposes into nature; and these purposes are the law determining the ways and means of his activity, so that his will must be adjusted to them.[3]

Animals simply use nature, by existing — humans make it their servant.

Other creatures have better eyesight, a better sense of smell, sharper hearing. But in combination with our human brain we can extract more meaning from our senses than animals can. Marx said in the 1844 Manuscripts:

It is obvious that the human eye enjoys things in a way different from the crude, non-human eye; the human ear different from the crude ear, etc... Only through the objectively unfolded richness of man’s essential being is the richness of subjective human sensibility (a musical ear, an eye for beauty of form — in short, senses capable of human gratification, senses affirming themselves as essential powers of man) either cultivated or brought into being.[4]

Human senses are not immediate like animal senses, but are governed by a human consciousness. Engels later concurred when he wrote:

Hand in hand with the development of the brain went the development of its most immediate instruments — the senses. Just as the gradual development of speech is inevitably accompanied by a corresponding refinement of the organ of hearing, so the development of the brain as a whole is accompanied by a refinement of all the senses. The eagle sees much farther than man, but the human eye discerns considerably more in things than does the eye of the eagle.[5]

Human beings, who are only human because they have learned to be creative, i.e. to make objects, perceive through their senses an external, objective reality. In this reality we objectify ourselves. “The eye,” for example, “has become a human eye, just as its object has become a social, human object — an object made by man for man” (Marx). As we became more human through our interaction with nature, we in turn made nature more human. After human manipulation, a stone formed by centuries of volcanic processes becomes a spearhead, or a statuette. These are objects that can never be produced by nature on its own. Humans’ products are created in response to needs, but through them we also invest nature and its materials with a human character: we externalise ourselves through our objects.

Here is Marx again:

The objects of his instincts exist outside him, as objects independent of him; yet these objects are objects that he needs — essential objects, indispensable to the manifestation and confirmation of his essential powers.[6]

In the 1844 Manuscripts, Marx writes of our Gattungswesen or ‘species-being’, the collective nature or essence of every human being. This includes a number of drives — the need for food, shelter, sex and so on. It also includes the desire for personal development and fulfilment, for the complete realisation of our powers as human beings.

Man is a species-being, not only because he practically and theoretically makes the species — both his own and those of other things — his object, but also — and this is simply another way of saying the same thing — because he looks upon himself as the present, living species, because he looks upon himself as a universal and therefore free being.

Through our labour, creative human beings fill the world with our objects, in which are concretised all our powers and contradictions. This humanisation helps us restore some of the harmony with the world that we have lost through the dualisation of our own nature. Art and work are commonly perceived as opposites, but both are a creative process by which we objectify our humanity and see it reflected back to us. This has often been recognised by artists. Cézanne wrote: “The landscape is reflected within me, becomes human, becomes conceivable.”

Paleolithic handprint from the cave at Pech-MerlePaleolithic handprint from the cave at Pech-Merle, France.

Adolfo Sánchez Vázquez, whose book of essays Art and Society contains an outstanding discussion of the humanisation of nature, offers this formulation: “Labour is thus not only the creation of useful objects that satisfy specific human needs, but also the art of objectifying or moulding human goals, ideas or feelings in and through material, concrete-sensuous objects.”[7] We do not here mean only physical objects in a crude sense — the argument applies not just to, say, an image painted on canvas or carved from stone but a dance, a song, or other externalised form.

This is one of the most essential concepts in Marxist aesthetics: through production we give our human ‘essence’ a concrete, sensual form, affirming it in external objects we can see and touch.

As humans began to express their power over the material world by creating objects, they were taking the first steps towards art. However, all our labour is creative. To understand art as a particular form of labour, we need to discuss the difference between utilitarian and spiritual value, of which more in a later article.

Such is the strength of our ‘humanising’ of external reality that we project human feelings onto phenomena with which they have nothing to do. The inkblots of Rorscharch illustrate our extraordinary ability to project human meaning onto random forms. The Paleolithic people who blow-painted their handprints onto cave walls had in part the same motivation as the adolescents who scratch their names on park benches.

The attempt to affect objective reality to our benefit has been a profound part of our evolution; in addition, our objects give ordered, external expression to the complex sum of our human intellect, abilities and emotions. Thus it is no wonder that art gives us such satisfaction, as it is an affirmation of our humanity. The English socialist William Morris wrote:

The Socialist claims art as a necessity of human life which society has no right to withhold from any one of the citizens; and he claims also that in order that this claim may be established people shall have every opportunity of taking to the work which each is best fitted for; not only that there may be the least possible waste of human effort, but also that that effort may be exercised pleasurably. For I must here repeat what I have often had to say, that the pleasurable exercise of our energies is at once the source of all art and the cause of all happiness: that is to say, it is the end of life.[8]

Nature threatens us; hunger in our bellies degrades us. As we were freed from immediate animal wants, and developed human senses that helped us give nature a meaning in human terms, we affirmed ourselves through our actions in relation to nature. The more conscious we became of sensuous, spiritual aesthetic qualities, the more possible it became to make objects in which these qualities were more prominent than utilitarian ones. This is the origin of art.



[1] Lenin, from Chapter Two of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1909). This essay was Lenin’s answer to the positivism advocated by the likes of Mach and Bogdanov, and is an advanced study of materialism. In his Philosophical Notebooks, Lenin later took his dialectical materialism further with his 1914 notes on Hegel’s The Science of Logic. There have been attempts to argue that he broke from his materialism of 1909 because it was supposedly non-dialectical, but these do not stand up to investigation — in the Notebooks Lenin enriches the earlier work rather than refutes it.
[2] We shall discuss idealism in greater depth when we examine aesthetics and the concept of ‘beauty’.
[3] Marx, from ‘The Labour-Process And The Process Of Producing Surplus-Value’ from Capital, vol. 1 (1867).
[4] Marx, third manuscript, ‘Private Property and Communism’ from The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.
[5] Engels, The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man (1876).
[6] Marx, op. cit.
[7] Adolfo Sánchez Vázquez: Art and Society: Essays in Marxist Aesthetics (1965, English transl. 1973).
[8] From Morris’s article ‘The Socialist Ideal – Art’ (New Review, January 1891).

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