As part of my practice-led research, I am currently investigating the ideas of Ellen Dissanayake (associate professor in the school of Music at the University of Washington) from her text Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why.
Dissanayake approaches the origin and purpose of “art” from an anthropological perspective. In this book she asks, “How and why would evolving humans perceive or create “other worlds” apart from the everyday? [..] the penchant for acknowledging an extra-ordinary realm is inherent in the behavior of play, where actions are “not for real.” The “as-ifness” of play, then, can be thought of as a reservoir from which more flexible, imaginative, innovative behavoirs can arise – as when we “play around with” an idea. And in ritual also (both the ritualized behaviors of animals and human ritual ceremonies), ordinary behavior is formalized and exaggerated, thereby (particularly in humans) acquiring a meaning and weight that makes it different from what it usually is: it becomes extra-ordinary.” (p.50)
She goes on to ask another question later in the same section, “What was it about humans that provoked or permitted them to recognize and then proceed to further elaborate “other” worlds, special fanciful worlds like those invented in play, invoked in ritual, or fabricated in the arts?” Later in the same section she explains her belief that, “At some point in their evolution, humans began deliberately to set out to make things special or extra-ordinary, perhaps for the purpose of influencing the outcome of important events that were perceived as uncertain and troubling, requiring action beyond simple fight or flight, approach or avoidance.” (p. 51)
In the text Homo Aestheticus, Dissanayake argues for the practice of “making special” as being the root of art. She explains, in part, in the section A Closer Look at Making Special;
[..] I emphasized the “behavior” or activity, rather than, as other art theorists have done, the results: the things and activities themselves as “works of art”.
“For if we step outside our blinkered Western modernist and postmodernist paradigms where art is either grand, rare, and intimidating, or socially constructed, slick and provocative, it should be possible to accept the larger, more inclusive entity, making special (including art, ritual, and play) as a universal behavior. That is, by expanding our notion from “art” or even “art as making special” to “the faculty for making and expressing specialness,” we can understand in a humanly grounded and relevant way how “the arts” (instances of making special) originally arose and why they not only enhance our individual lives as Homo aestheticus, but have been essential for our evolution as a species.” (p.56)
I pondered these ideas and their applications (or not) to my own lived practice as my husband Jeff and I prepared a family dinner party at our home in honour of my mother’s 72nd birthday last week.
These are a few pictures from that special evening..
Mum has said many times how much she loves the classy look of a mesh fascinator. In the days leading up to our dinner party, I had the idea to make her a special fascinator to wear for the evening. I delivered the gift to her on the eve of her birthday, and she wore it to the celebration – looking ever the classy lady that she is- on the eve of her 72nd birthday. Special like you, mum..
Dissanayake, E. (1992). Homo aestheticus: Where art comes from and why. New York: Free Press.