Thursday, 15 January 2009

The development of the aesthetic sense

We have touched upon the idea that our technology demonstrated, over many thousands of years, a developing aesthetic sense. Where does this come from?

Creative labour is the result of human action to work upon the materials of nature towards our own purposes. Art and culture arose from this and must be understood not in terms of absolutes but of social and historical conditions. We have examined Sánchez Vázquez’s argument that labour is the humanisation of nature:

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. In this capacity to realise ‘essential powers’ — to produce material objects that express the human essence — resides the human potential to create objects, such as works of art, that elevate the capacity for expression and confirmation that is already present in the products of labour. [1]

In this article we shall explore in more detail how humans discovered the creative, spiritual labour specific to art, a discovery essential to the emergence of Paleolithic art at least 40,000 years ago.

‘Making alike’

“Fancy,” wrote V. Gordon Childe, “cannot work in a vacuum. What it creates must be like something already known.”[2] A crucial part of the experimentation that led to human technology is the concept of ‘making alike’.

We have already discussed how culture is a learned, not a genetic behaviour. This makes imitation, or mimesis, extremely important. To preserve our specifically human skills in controlling fire, making tools and so on, we had to carefully imitate previous generations so that their innovations were not lost.

Our technology was originally acquired simply through trial and error, because we were curious, playful beings that were always trying out new things. Of course, we are not unique in our curiosity — we share it with chimpanzees, for example. But the human imagination enables us to take control of what our curiosity shows us: to consider before we act, to pause in midstream and compare what we are doing to what we know has been achieved by others or is made possible by the properties of the materials involved.

Early humans will have picked up a stone and noticed that its edge could be used for cutting or pounding. Eventually they began to associate particular kinds of stone with such purposes, to compare stones with each another, and take note when one form proved more effective than another at a given task. After a while we realised that we did not need to wait until we happened upon the right stone — we could shape one ourselves. In doing this we imitated a form we had found in nature. Ernst Fischer, whose Necessity of Art includes an interesting Marxist discussion of humans’ early development, wrote:

Man made a second tool resemble the first and by so doing produced a new, equally useful and equally valuable tool. Thus ‘making alike’ grants man a power over objects. A stone which was previously useless acquires value because it can be made like a tool and so recruited into man’s service. [3]

Fischer’s analysis flows into a discussion of the proposed ‘magical’ purpose of Paleolithic art, about which we must be sceptical. Nonetheless, his argument stands that by copying, for example, naturally occurring flints to create axe-heads, then copying those axe-heads to make more axe-heads, humans won control over nature and learned to value imitation.

Our ancestors may have seen the benefits of imitation as a strange power, and this was not entirely fanciful. Imitation, and the powers opened up by it, created immense technological and cultural possibilities. Bows, spears and spear-throwers gave us the power to bring down a gazelle — something our scavenger ancestors could never have done. By introducing rhythm into language we created chants that made hard work easier, and poetic sound patterns helped us — when writing did not yet exist — to remember long ancestral stories. Drumming and dancing stirred the body and mind before a hunt. Our creations really did enhance our abilities.

The imitation of nature spread to other aspects of our lives to increase our ability to change and control them. While we scrawled shapes on walls, drew around our hands, and so on, we discovered a relationship between a created image and a real, living thing. Through a long process, there emerged an aesthetic based upon similarity and imitation. It was the desire to create an image of an animal that gave birth to painting; it was the recreation of an animal or human form that gave us sculpture. In the products of our labour, we could go beyond mere imitation and infuse those products with meaning. Here is Fischer again:

By his work, man transforms the world like a magician: a piece of wood, a bone, a flint is fashioned to resemble a model and thereby transformed into that very model; material objects are transformed into signs, names and concepts; man himself is transformed from an animal into a man.[4]

Early humans probably mimed animals in order to communicate information about them. With the acquisition of full consciousness, such mimes could become symbolic, integrating our knowledge of human and animal to create a mixture of both: the mimer could temporarily ‘become’ the animal.

Mimesis is therefore the probable basis of dance, storytelling and theatre. Our shared human experience meant that the miming or re-presenting of actions would be understood by an audience. Once we were able to mime a single event, which would have had an obvious instructional use, we could mime several in sequence, and thus build a narrative, rather like building a sentence. When combined with symbolisation, we had the structure, built upon shared experience, which was the basis for complex, imaginative storytelling, and assisted our development of language.

Utilitarian and spiritual need

We have asserted that “through production we give our human or species character a concrete, sensual form, affirming it in external objects we can see and touch.” This does not yet suffice to explain art as a particular form of human labour.

All the products of our labour are creative, in the very straightforward sense that we are making an object. There is therefore a certain overlap between what is art and what is not [5]. A car for example is a practical object: its purpose is to get us from A to B. At the same time, we may hear someone praise their car as ‘a work of art’. And indeed, we can see that the car has been invested with aesthetic qualities as well as practical — it has been painted a bright colour and polished to a shiny finish. These qualities are irrelevant to its dominant, utilitarian purpose. Other qualities may be more ambiguous: a car may have a graceful design which also serves to make it more aerodynamic. The difference between art and other labour derives from the tension between utilitarian and spiritual [6] functions. Let’s return to Sánchez Vázquez:

The usefulness of a work of art is determined not by its capacity to satisfy a determinate human need, but by its capacity to satisfy the general need that man feels to humanise everything he comes in contact with… Art is the creation of objects that essentially satisfy only spiritual needs; that is, these objects are distant not only from direct, physical, immediate needs, but also from the practical needs that are satisfied by the products of labour.

We can see from this that labour predates art. Labour was at first dedicated to strictly utilitarian tasks. It took thousands of years for humans to create — through the mastering of natural properties and of an aesthetic sense — the conditions in which art could be created.

Magdalenian spearthrower decorated with carvingMagdalenian spearthrower made of reindeer antler. Spearthrowers are designed to make a spear fly faster. However the artist has decorated it with a carving of a bison licking itself, even though it cannot have made the object any more effective. From the Flickr account of mharrsch.

Kant amongst others alleged a contradiction between art and work, and this idea persists as a common dichotomy — work is seen as strictly pragmatic, art is seen as free and creative. It is more correct to see labour as an activity by which humans express their powers and exert control over materials found in nature, with art as one particular form of it. If we see work as an unpleasant and arduous necessity and art as a pleasant ‘pastime’, it is because we live under the alienating conditions of capitalist society, where most of us depend for a living upon labour that is out of our direct control or even our full understanding [7].

All human creations, including art, must satisfy some sort of need, or we would not make them. Art satisfies, though not exclusively, a spiritual need.

Spiritual utility, which is specifically human, is already present within the narrow framework of the material utility of the products of labour: art in effect does no more than express fully and freely, and in an adequate form, the spiritual content that is already present in a limited way in the products of human labour. [8]

Human productivity must reach a certain level before works of art can be created, simply to provide the materials, the technical skills and the leisure time that are required. Labour and human consciousness must also have achieved a certain level of complexity before the separation of utilitarian and spiritual value becomes possible. For this reason, labour predates art and makes it possible. When art bloomed magnificently in the Upper Paleolithic, it resulted from humans spending hundreds of thousands of years exerting their powers over nature, testing its properties, and unlocking their own consciousness. Our very first tools were very crude — stones we picked up from the ground — but as we practised their manufacture we unlocked a range of powers. Sánchez Vázquez continues:

When man had at his disposal an instrument as subtle, as humanised, as the burin, capable of responding to the most delicate and precise movements of the hand, the conditions were ripe for him to trace the prodigious figures of wild animals found in the caves of Altamira, or to shape small statues such as the Aurignacian Venus of Lespugue. But the development of tools was not enough: the prehistoric artist had to know and recognise the natural qualities of objects — their colour, weight, proportions, hardness, volume, etc — so that he could effectively use them to endow objects with qualities that are not found in nature, with what we today call aesthetic properties.

Through our improvements in tool production, we discovered which properties were most effective for achieving certain ends, and engaged in a search for ever more perfect forms. Our satisfaction in contemplating these more perfect forms and knowing we had achieved them was the first step towards aesthetic pleasure.

Already in the Lower Paleolithic, with the appearance of symmetrical handaxes, we arguably see a sense of aesthetics at work. We also see rocks being chosen for colours and forms that people found attractive. These rocks were sometimes transported at great distances even when other rocks were more readily to hand. The likelihood is that aesthetic characteristics were first ‘discovered’ because they had a practical function, and only later was their aesthetic character pursued for its own sake. A hunter might make a tally of his or her kills by making notches on a stick; or, as archaeologist Paul Bahn writes:

For example, much of the simplest decoration of ‘tools’ and weapons, such as incisions near the base, was probably intended to strengthen the adherence to the shaft and to improve the user’s grip...[9]

Like Fischer, Sánchez Vázquez places great emphasis on the role of hunting magic, i.e. that Paleolithic people believed in a practical correspondence of images with reality. Modern scholarship suggests his emphasis is misplaced. It does not however invalidate the general argument, as he does not propose magic as the origin of art. To be precise:

Magic could make use of art because man, thanks to his labour, had already created the conditions necessary for going beyond the practical demands of the useful object, thus giving rise to the beautiful useful object, and then to the fundamentally and primarily beautiful object [my italics].

Once we had conceived the idea of incisions — or engravings, or other decorations — we could make them independently of the practical task they once performed. Thus spiritual labour was able to acquire some autonomy from utilitarian requirements, and humans became aware of themselves as creative beings, finding pleasure and self-affirmation in art.

The aesthetic is uniquely human

We have already discussed the difference between animal and human senses — the first operate under immediate need with no distance opened up between the subject and the object. Humans by contrast affirm their human nature by objectifying themselves, recognising themselves as separate from the external world. By creating human objects we celebrate our uniquely human power to act upon natural material and alter it according to our will. Our discovery of new qualities in objects helped to enrich our senses, and because of this, humans are sensuous beings. Sánchez Vázquez explains (his quotation is from Marx):

The aesthetic sensibility springs from this human process of affirmation. The aesthetic sense appears when human sensibility has been enriched to such a point that objects are, primarily and essentially, human reality, ‘reality of the essential human powers’… Man creates aesthetic objects by structuring raw materials to endow them with a human expressiveness they do not in themselves possess…

Thus humans unlock the aesthetic potential of natural materials, potential which exists only for us and which assists our humanisation of our environment. Only through human action does nature become beautiful.

But natural beauty is not arbitrary or capricious: it requires a material substratum, a particular structuring of sensuous, natural properties, without whose support there would be no human, social, or aesthetic meaning.

This needs some clarification. The aesthetic has nothing to do with an ideal — a perfect universal state, as in Plato, or in innate material properties such as the ‘golden ratio’ or Hogarth’s ‘line of beauty’. Just as a handaxe has no use-value whatsoever without a human to wield it, there is no innate beauty in nature independent of human senses. The aesthetic is an act of the human senses based upon a dialectical relationship with nature. It is not based not upon any particular absolute property in nature’s raw materials — colourful rocks, tactile fur, or whatever you like — nor is it based upon any particular biological fact in humans — a ‘beauty gene’, for example.

It is one thing to talk of the objectivity of the marble with which a statue is made — a physical objectivity which implies an independence from all subjects — and another thing to talk of the objectivity of the statue as an aesthetic reality, whose form and content do not exist outside social man. The aesthetic embraces the physical condition of the statue without being reduced to it.

This may seem counter-intuitive: surely we find a rainbow more ‘beautiful’ than a pile of animal droppings? Surely then our response must depend upon some intrinsic qualities in the material? Yet as soon as we attempt to find the aesthetic in the natural properties of objects, we meet a problem, namely that different humans at different times find different natural properties ‘aesthetic’. Convention may indeed claim, because of the particular historical development of such preconceptions, that rainbows are more ‘aesthetic’ than animal droppings — yet Piero Manzoni and Chris Ofili have both made art using excrement, and Andres Serrano used his own urine for his photograph ‘Piss Christ’. We do often find qualities such as colour, shininess, softness and so on aesthetically pleasing — something we will explore when we look at aesthetic cognition — but aesthetic qualities cannot be reduced to that. Something more is brought into play.

The problem disappears if these formal elements are seen as functions of a spiritual content… This allows us to conclude that unless objects, and therefore their formal elements, are humanised, charged with a spiritual content, they cannot be called beautiful… Mere physical reality must be transcended, transformed, humanised, if it is to have an aesthetic value.

Materials all have innate properties of form, colour, mass and so on, and a work of art cannot exist without materials in which to concretise a human content in sensuous form. This is part of the dialectic of art. But aesthetic value is an entirely human response. Max Raphael used stone as an example: early Egyptian sculpture stressed the heaviness and rigidity of stone to emphasise a transcendent and autocratic content; Gothic architecture by contrast tries to negate these properties entirely to create an illusion of immateriality; and Greek sculpture tries to render fleshiness and the subtle modelling of the stone’s surface [10]. All use stone, but stone’s innate properties are invested with different aesthetic values depending upon the creative intentions of the artist.

All our labour is creative, but art is creative labour at its highest level, for it satisfies the human need for self-objectification without being limited by narrow utilitarian purposes — in it we see human skill, imagination, intellect and feeling at its most profound, sensuous and unfettered.



[1] Adolfo Sánchez Vázquez, Art and Society (1965). All subsequent quotes from Sánchez Vázquez are taken from this work.
[2] V. Gordon Childe, Man Makes Himself (1936).
[3] Ernst Fischer, The Necessity of Art (1959).
[4] Ibid.
[5] The Indo-European root of our English word ‘art’ implies something that has been ‘arranged’ through the purposive action of an agent, or later, ‘something made by humans rather than nature’ — hence we derive the word ‘artificial’. Only in the eighteenth century did the word ‘art’ come to refer specifically to aesthetics.
[6] By ‘spiritual’ Marxists do not refer to anything religious or mystical, rather to humans’ emotional and intellectual life.
[7] Art, although it is seriously affected by alienation, cannot itself be alienated, for art by its nature affirms our humanity — we cannot create art objects if we are completely alienated from that humanity. We shall discuss alienation in detail in later articles.
[8] Sánchez Vázquez, op cit.
[9] Paul Bahn, The Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art (1997).
[10] Max Raphael, ‘Toward an Empirical Theory of Art’, The Demands of Art (1968).

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