Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Aesthetic Mind

The Aesthetic Mind

Our story of dominance is both a story of physical fitness and of societal innovation. Using technology to create objects which spur social innovation has been our prevailing evolutionary strategy. This has held fast from the computer today to the beaded necklace 100 kya. Our species has mastered this game. The creation of a temporally linear culture within the lifespan of a single generation is the final product of millions of years of evolutionary priming. These traits, and our genome and epigenome did not evolve overnight. The ability to use paints stretches back millions of years. Michael the gorilla lived from 1973-2000 and painted Apple Chase. It is a reference to his then deceased dog Apple and their favorite game of chase. Michael had a panoply of colors to choose from, but intentionally chose those which were closer to the dog's coat. Michael himself communicated the name to humans. Koko the gorilla who was born in 1971, painted the piece Pink Pink Stink Nice Drink. “The title references a very pink flowering area by a stream that is nice to drink from – a representation that translates a sense of the vision, smell, and taste of the three-dimensional word onto a two-dimensional canvas.” -Julie Ann Smith, Robert W. Mitchell. Pink Pink is Koko's sign for the color pink, Stink is her sign for a flower, and Nice Drink is her signs for good water. Upon request both Michael and Koko the gorilla have made paintings expressing specific emotions, such as love, hate, or anger. They had learned to put signs to these emotions through human sign language trainers. Koko herself understands 2,000 English words.

"Apple Chase" by Michael the gorilla

"Love" by Koko the gorilla

"Pink Pink Stink Nice Drink" by Koko the gorilla

Of course, it may be the case that the gorillas are putting colors on a canvas without reference to anything real, with their titles being misinterpretations by their human trainers. Even if that was the case, what distinguishes Koko's Pink Pink Stink Nice Drink from any human modern art? It only makes the painting more abstract if you remove any physical reference. If you were shown these paintings and other modern art by humans, you would have a hard time distinguishing which was which. The only actual difference between a gorilla's paint splatters and a modern art master is our historical and contextual interpretation. To say that one is art, and the other is meaningless colors relies on a strict definition which is all too relative. Using this strict definition: a director at an art gallery would have one opinion, while a director at the Gorilla Foundation would have the opposite. Regardless of its context, the ability for Michael and Koko to paint shows the early seeds of our modern aesthetic values. The gorilla mind can choose which colors to use in a piece, and the number of brush strokes and their positions. Millions of years later, hominins continue to refine this instinctual toolkit and with it we have birthed art history.

An artist's rendition of a band of Austalopithecines

Gorillas are not our only predecessors in this tradition. An Australopithecus Africanus about 3 mya found a strange rock and carried it over a distance of four kilometers. This is called the Makapansgat Pebble, and it was found in South Africa. While it is impossible to completely understand what our forebears thought of such an object, there must have been some reason to keep it. Some academics presume that this reason was because it looks like a face. This pebble is still a manuport, yet if it were kept because it resembled a face it would become our (hominin's) earliest art object. Needless to say, any and all interpretations of this object are heavily disputed. While some researchers such as Jean-Jacques Hublin and Robert Bednarik support the idea that it is an art object, many others disagree.

The Makapansgat Pebble, transported by an Australopithecus around 3 mya

When looking back at the artistic record of our genus, the small yet extremely divisive Makapansgat pebble may be the first item in that list. Continuing on, the creation of practically unnecessary objects continues with Homo Erectus. Our ancestor not only made cupules and meanders in caves, but made figurines and painted them with ochre. While we inherited lithic processing and cupule pounding from our hominin ancestors, it is debated whether we inherited figurine construction. Such unique cultural innovations may have only existed in small areas some of the time. Yet it is also possible that the invention of painted figurines was not unique or small-scale, but existed across the Homo Erectus' range. So far, with only two examples, making any large conclusions is infeasible, yet we do know it happened at least twice in two different locals in the historical record. Our species owes many innovations to Homo Erectus, such as caring for the elderly, cupule creation, Acheulean lithic processing, and transcontinental colonization. Do we also owe our creation of figurines?

The Venus of Berekhat Ram on the left, The Venus of Tan-Tan on the right
A beardless model of Homo Erectus, by paleoartist John Gurche

The earliest Homo Sapiens art objects were found at Blombos cave in south Africa. This cave was inhabited by early humans between 100-70 kya. This was long before the earliest evidence of Neanderthal marine shell beads, or the advanced Chatelperronian necklaces. A piece of ochre was found here which had one part of its surface rubbed flat. This flat surface was then covered in a repeating crosshatch pattern. These intentional patterns show not only the birth of human geometric art, but are also strong evidence for our developing pattern-driven aesthetic sense. Other artistic objects found at Blombos cave include the earliest human necklaces. Marine animal shells with pierced holes were found, which were presumably strung together as a necklace. While Neanderthals had art objects, they were not the only artistic hominins. Humans in southern Africa also independently invented necklaces. Such art objects and their independent invention are not only evidence of the creative human mind, but evidence of shared hominin aesthetic values.

The interior of Blombos Cave, South Africa

The piece of etched ochre found at Blombos

At the top of the picture are shells from a necklace found at Blombos. The threaded beads at the bottom of this picture were not found at Blombos, but are a reconstruction of a Middle Stone Age necklace showing one possible configuration

A model of a Magdalenian child, by Elizabeth Daynes


The famous Neanderthal hand axe with fossilized shell insert

The famous Neanderthal painted shell

Finally we return to the initial question with a renewed sense of context. Neanderthals imbued unnecessary symmetry into their hand axes, including interesting colors and fossils into their designs. The Tata pebble shows that Neanderthals understood symmetry outside of the context of hand axes, symmetry was not a property of a weapon but an abstract idea applicable to any carving. Neanderthals made unnecessary cupules, imbuing hominin symbolism into a cave ceiling. Neanderthals used pigment to paint themselves, but also mammoth tusks and shells. They took these shells and strung them together into necklaces, Chatelperronian Neanderthals even went so far as to make their own beads from ivory, stone, and bone. Neanderthals spent years caring for injured loved ones, and when they died spent immense effort building tombs and tumuli. They even burned something on such monuments, showing symbolic use of fire. Neanderthals cut the feathers off and talons off certain birds and used these to adorn themselves. So the question remains: why did Neanderthals wear painted necklaces and feather adornments? The answer is the same as to why anyone wears interesting clothing today, it is to attract the attention of others in your group. The beginning of a social culture stretches back millions of years, and all hominins as well as ancestors further removed share social innovations. It is only when you arrive at semi-modern hominins, around 100 kya, that the rate of cultural development kicks off. One morning, a hominin wakes up and puts on a painted bead necklace. This hominin is taking into consideration both its own aesthetic values but also those of its group, it is making itself attractive, probably in both an aesthetic as well as in a sexual sense. Until recently, we have assumed that this hominin was Homo Sapiens, but that is no longer the case. This hominin in question, one which wears aesthetically appealing clothing, could be either Homo Sapiens or Homo Neanderthalensis.

"The Thinker", a Neanderthal model created by LDA Sachsen-Anhalt

Both humans and Neanderthals share an attraction to interesting and appealing clothing. The expression of these social values are not limited to necklaces, Neanderthals designed symmetry and color into many different objects. If you lined up a series of flint hand axes next to one with a fossil insert, and told a Neanderthal to take one: which do you think they would take? They would probably take the one designed to catch the eye,the one intended to look desirable? Neanderthal craftsmen put aesthetic properties into objects through symmetry, feathers, paint, and fossils. Before making such an object, Neanderthal craftsmen would have to take into consideration the thoughts and minds of their fellow clan members. After such an object was completed, what made it any different than any other object? Traits such as symmetry and color distinguished these special objects from your everyday average objects. If these properties were designed into objects in order to be noticed by others, when a Neanderthal did notice such properties, what were they looking at?

A Neanderthal model in a suit

Primarily, they were observing their own unconscious cues and connections: a colorful shell was seen as clan affiliation, a symmetrical hand axe as a valuable tool, a tumulus as a memorial for the dead. Although aesthetic values were put into utilitarian objects, Neanderthals went to extreme lengths to add such values into these objects. This is evidence that their design superseded a purely utilitarian aesthetic, such objects may have been seen as both utilitarian and aesthetic, both useful and pleasing. If a Neanderthal took the time to stop and stare at a painted shell or a fossil insert, what did they see in such objects – what were they looking at so intently? They were looking ta art, and appreciating the aesthetic non-utilitarian values in such a piece as separate to its strictly utilitarian function. Color and symmetry both today still strike the eyes of Homo Sapiens as beautiful, attractive simply for the sake of itself. If the attention of a Neanderthal was similarly drawn to the same properties, in the same objects, for the same reasons: it is reasonable to think that they experienced (either partially or fully) the same emotion we experience from such activity today. This is the feeling that an object is beautiful. 

No comments:

Post a Comment