Art Works Blog

What is the (Adaptive) Value of Art?

Ellen Dissanayake holding a carved Nokwe figure from the Kwoma people of Papua New Guinea's Sepik River area. Photo by Ingrid Barrentine.

NEA Research Note #102 presents encouraging findings about the cultural and financial value of the performing arts in the U.S. in 2007. Considering the economic disasters that have ensued after that date, one cannot be optimistic that the financial amounts would be the same today, although the personal value of the arts to individuals might well persist or even increase in times of anxiety.

My work, in contrast to the reports on which the Research Note was based, is concerned with the arts of people of all times and places, from the deepest prehistory of the genus Homo to the present day and in cultures across the globe. This broad view lends itself to an evolutionary (Darwinian) perspective in order to address the question of why we find evidence of the arts in every society everywhere. Accordingly, I am concerned with the arts’ adaptive value.

Paleo-archaeologists and ethnographers tell us that from as early as a hundred thousand years ago (some say much earlier) until very recently, in many parts of the world, members of our species have spent enormous resources of time, metabolic energy, and costly materials (such as feathers and ivory from rare and powerful creatures or shells and minerals from far distances) to mount complex ceremonies in which the elaboration of bodies, surroundings, and paraphernalia is joined with vigorous and intricate dancing, dramatic performances, and complex songs, chants, and drumming. In other words, although they lacked money, they nevertheless invested their human capital in the arts.

Research Note #102 had to rely on studies whose design, for statistical reasons, grouped the arts and crafts with toys and (non-video) games, thereby indicating that arts and crafts are leisure activities. Such a role has emphatically not been the case in most of the world’s societies or cultural groups. Interestingly, subsistence societies, like those that have characterized humans for 99 percent of their life on earth, consider arts and crafts essential and primary, while individuals in modern societies with material abundance devote most of their efforts to their work and leave the arts to their spare time.

To an evolutionist, devoting time, effort, and resources to apparently non-utilitarian pursuits should have made people less rather than more likely to survive. Yet the fact that they occur so extravagantly, universally, requires an opposite conclusion: the arts must have enabled their practitioners to better survive than humans who did not go to such extensive and expensive extremes. Their “value” had to be not only cultural but biological.

I hypothesize that engaging with the arts of ritual performances contributed to our remote ancestors’ survival in two ways. First, having “something to do” when facing misfortune or existential uncertainty helps to reduce the damaging physical and psychological effects of the stress response—the release of hormones like cortisol that over time compromise such critical bodily functions as growth, tissue repair, energy release, immune system activity, mental activity, digestive function, and even reproductive physiology and behavior. The shaping or formalizing of a ceremony, its rhythmic repetitions, and its coordination of individual behavior with that of others, all serve to reduce fear or anxiety and thereby contribute to the well-being of participants.

A second survival advantage of ceremonial arts behavior is that it instills collective emotions of trust and belongingness. Not only are brain chemicals like cortisol suppressed by participating with others in formalized and rhythmically repeated activities, oxytocin and other endorphinic substances are secreted, creating transfiguring feelings of unity with others and strengthening their commitment to each other. Sharing experiences and strong emotions binds humans as much as if not more than sharing strong beliefs.

In premodern ceremonies, people are active participants, not passive consumers of others’ performances. Ceremonial behavior is art behavior: remove the arts and there is no ceremony left. Our ancestors discovered that giving form to and embellishing their sounds, movements, and bodies added emotional effect and conviction to their efforts and thereby reinforced the beliefs and precepts of the ceremony. Emotion is nature’s way of making sure that we care about and thus pay attention to vital subjects.

In modern societies, where music, drama, dance, painting, sculpture, and architecture are not automatically tied to religious belief, do they still have survival value? I have been told by more than one artist that art “saved my life.” Less dramatically and with wider scope, as arts educators and arts therapists well know, the arts have positive effects on those who practice them. Research Note #102 tells us that millions of ordinary Americans are involved with the arts and I think that if the data set were conceived differently, we might find that it is not only as a pastime. Apart from the well-known satisfaction of using hands and minds to make something exist that did not exist before, the arts bring other vital goods to individuals and their societies.

For individuals, the arts display and even help to create a sense of identity and belonging. Additionally, they articulate and affirm personal and collective meaning, build community and reciprocity, appeal to and exercise nonverbal parts of our minds, enhance the natural and man-made environment, and help deal with anxiety, in addition to bringing refreshment, pleasure, and enjoyment. The arts put us in touch with important life concerns: the giving, finding, and keeping of love, the inescapability of moral choice, sacrifice, suffering, longing and loss, life and death. The arts not only acknowledge the things we care about but allow us to mark or celebrate that caring.

Subsistence lives made our ancestors unavoidably aware of the enduring human verities just listed. In the relentlessly busy, fractionated, sometimes materially deprived and psychologically desperate lives that many people lead in the 21st century, there is often little time or opportunity to think seriously about the abiding questions that comprise the human condition and express our humanness. As they embrace immemorial themes of work, cooperation, friendship, exchange, heroism, memory of a lost past, life change, myth and cosmology, and the abidingness of the natural world, the arts speak to our better nature and affirm our deeper and higher selves.

Ellen Dissanayake is a scholar, author, and lecturer. She has written extensively about the connections between art and anthropology.

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