|The Biology of Art
by Joyce McPherrin
| What is art and what makes people create it?
Art has been present since the creation of mankind, from cave drawings to
the present. Man has been trying to define art and separate non-art perhaps
from its origins. Over time, many great philosophers have had lots to say
about art, including Freud, Kant, and Aristotle. Even the field of biology
has something to say about art. What exactly did they have to say about
art? Their opinions are diverse, as is the field of art. Exploring their
differences and looking at specific examples of art can perhaps shed some
light on the definition of the vast array of artifacts we call art.
Freud’s art theory developed from his psychological theory of personality, containing the id, ego, and superego. The id is the basic, primitive, almost animal like desires of the personality that longs for pleasure gratification. The id is controlled by the practical ego, a decision making database of social norms, rules, laws, and learned behaviors. Connected to the ego is the superego, which is concerned with morality and the difference between right and wrong. The id completely dwells in the realm of the unconscious, below the surface of awareness. Partially submerged along with the id are the ego and superego. However, the ego is mainly in the conscious world of awareness (Weiten 498). The id constantly bombards the ego and superego with needs and desires. The ego and superego decide whether to indulge in the desired behavior or to repress it based upon morals and learned social norms. Repressed desires are in conflict with controlled behavior, creating a war between the conscious and subconscious. Without an outlet, repressed behaviors lead to physiological problems (Palmer). Art allows repressed behaviors to be expressed in a constructive and manageable way, giving a “narcotic” affect” to both the artist and the viewers (Glover).
Art (like Freud’s dream theory) is a wish fulfilled in a physical, tangible way (Weiten). Freud further explains “[The Artist] longs to attain honour, power, riches, fame, and the love of women; but he lacks the means of achieving these gratifications. So, like any other with an unsatisfied longing, he turns away from reality and transfers all his interest, and all his libido, on to the creation of his wishes in the life of phantasy, from which the way might readily lead to neurosis” (Freeland 157). Freud believed that art was to close to reality, making it an ineffective devise to satisfy the id. As an ineffective escape, the longings build up within artist leading to neurosis. An artist neurosis can be seen in their artwork, because it lies heavy on their minds. The physical representation of internal conflict is the beauty, but also the darkness of the soul (Palmer 446).
In art the true longing or meaning may be hidden and hard to interpret. Autorretarto con Collre de Espinasy Colibri (see page 9) is a self-portrait of the artist, Frieda Kahlo, depicting a white woman standing in the jungle. She is wearing a white shirt and butterflies hold up her black hair. Around her neck is wrapped a series of vines, holding a black bird pendant. In the background, a black wild cat creeps and a small black monkey ties the vines around her neck. Small dragonflies hover above her and green tropical leaves fill in the gaps. A small bit of light blue sky can be seen peeking through at the top of the painting. Freud’s theory of art would say that the true content relates directly to the artist mindset. Perhaps he might say that she is not happy and has a secret longing to escape back to nature. Because it is a self-portrait, she is placing herself into the scene. Perhaps Kahlo relates to the wild cat, longing to attack and be free from the restraints of society. The vines around her neck may represent a feeling of restraint, wrapped around her by a child-like ape. Freud would surely say that the painting displays the artist true emotions, an unfulfilled wish and perhaps a mental illness. A biography of the artist would be very interesting to Freud. Learning about the artist relates directly to the artwork’s meaning and why the art was created.
Art aids survival by telling a story from which we can learn or reminding us of past struggles to stay alive. Objects and designs that originally were attached to potentially harmful or beneficial creatures or situations evoke instinctual reactions, such as fear, joy, and heightened awareness, to protect animals (including humans). According to the biological origin’s theory, art mimics objects and designs, such as eyes, leopard skin, or attractive members of the opposite sex, forcing an uncontrollable reaction. Mixed objects and designs, conveying different messages, intrigue audiences causing pleasure and contemplation. Great works of art elicit more reaction, emotion and thought than bad works of art. Other forms of art, such as novels and the theater, tell us a story, perhaps preparing us for what to do in compromising positions, making us better fit to survive in the world. Learning provides survival and art provides a medium to safely view situations before jumping in headfirst into the unknown (Conniff).
The biological origin’s theory art would also have an opinion about Frieda Kahlo’s painting. The black wild cat in the painting elicits a fear response, while the butterflies and dragonfly’s give a calming affect. The leaves in the background are reminiscent of the African jungle, the evolutionary origin of human kind. The woman in the painting has an almost animal like quality to her. The painting is both repulsive and calming in subject matter, stimulating the mind to thought. Evolutionary responses could explain Kahlo’s painting, however, the theory of biological origin’s fails to address why it was made, something that Freud covered almost exclusively.
Taste and beauty
Things of beauty possess “Purposiveness without a purpose.” The idea of purposiveness applies to Kant’s beliefs of “free play” between the faculties of imagination and cognitive thought. To be purposive, an object must have a “rightness” or quality that comes form a given harmony between the observers’ faculties. Good form, whether it is beautiful or not, invokes a harmony of the imagination and cognitive thought, which Kant called the “harmony of the faculties.” Kant believed that to truly appreciate the beauty, or “rightness,” of an object it must not have a tactile purpose. Although an object or artifact may have another purpose separate from beauty, to think of something as beautiful requires the observers’ separation from the objects original function, a disinterest. A horse may be beautiful, but to truly appreciate it for its beauty the observer must not be thinking about riding the horse. The observer must not be interested in the horse’s purpose, but rather its purposiveness of beauty (Freeland).
Kant’s theory of art is similar to both Freud and the biological origin’s theory. Similar to the biological origin’s theory, the perception of a given image is the basis of art appreciation. Both theories explain that art is universal to all people through a built in system, one based upon evolution, the other based upon the biological aspect of perception. Freud, like both Kant’s theory and the biological origin’s theory, was based upon biology. However, Freud’s theory of art centered around the reason why art is created, an outlet or escape from the harsh reality of suppression in the modern world.
Autorretarto con Collre de Espinas y Colibri has aesthetically pleasing elements for which Kant would declare it art. The image has a sense of harmony and an indescribable beauty. The cat, monkey, and women inspire imagination and thought. It is possible to have a disinterested response to the picture as well. It is possible to not imagine yourself with the woman in the jungle. Kahlo’s painting gives a “harmony of the faculties” which causes us to label it as art. Therefore, Kant would consider the self-portrait art.
Aristotle believed that art was a means of pacifying the masses, bringing politics to art (Palmer 451). Art stood to educate the masses using the audience’s emotions to stimulate the mind and senses. According to Aristotle, art was for the “vulvar” people; to pacify their needs and occupy their thoughts while the educated men thought of more sophisticated things, such as philosophy and politics. Good artistic content pertained to a deep human goodness, with characters that made mistakes, but still remained generally good. Such subject matter was good to pacify the masses, keeping up their moral reasoning by showing good examples. Anything that taught bad morals and praised evil deeds could provoke the masses to rise in revolt, rather than pacifying their tendencies (Freeland 32). True good art was meant to pacify instead of incite, appealing to the audience’s passion and senses.
Aristotle’s art theory also contained an aspect that art is a form of mimicry, which was also present in the biological origin’s theory and in Freud’s theory. Art is a representation of the real world around it, according to Aristotle, depicting nature and human tendencies. Since art is only a representation of true forms, it is mimicking reality. In the biological origin’s theory, the natural aspects of art where what appeals people to a given work. Instinctually, certain images, from nature, elicit reactions. Freud also included mimicry into his theory in his psychoanalysis of art. Art is a way to sublimate repressed feelings into a physical form. The physical form is a representation or mimic of the true emotion or repressed dream. Mimicry is common thread in many theories of art.
Aristotle would recognize the mimicry of nature present in Kahlo’s artwork. Kahlo’s painting has obvious elements taken from nature, such as the light blue butterflies, dragonflies, jungle leaves, woman, cat, bird, and monkey. Even the light blue sky mimics the natural sky above us all. Viewing the painting could be an escape for many from the harsh reality of life. It is easy to imagine yourself in the jungle along side the woman (which Kant discourages). Aristotle would consider Kahlo’s painting art because it has a way of pacifying the masses while capturing nature.
Despite the differences between Kahlo’s painting and Monet’s, Freud, the biological origin’s theory, Kant, and Aristotle would probably agree that Monet’s Path is art as well. Freud might comment that the path through the corn is a place that the artist might want to go, but is incapable of travelling to. The path is a wish that must go unfulfilled. Unlike Freud, the biological origin’s theory would say that the path is comforting, leading to water. Everything is visible and safe. It would be evolutionarily advantageous to be in a place like the path. Kant would like Monet’s painting for its aesthetic value. The image is undoubtedly beautiful, creating harmony in its perception. Aristotle would probably also view this as art. It mimics reality and is a productive manner of escaping reality. Although, for Monet’s painting, none of theories agree, they are all right in their assessments of the piece. By combining them, we can better understand the piece’s value.
The nature of art
Throughout the four theories discussed, certain ideas seem to resonate. Art is biological. Perception, internal conflict, and instinct combine to give art meaning, connecting it to all people universally. Art mimics reality. Nature and humanity in the world around us combines in art to form images that are easily recognizable. Art also has a role in society. According to Aristotle, it subdued the masses, but to Freud it shaped the mind, molding the ego and superego. Using examples, we can see that these concepts and theories work in combination to explain the phenomenon of art. Perhaps no one theory can explain every work of art, but in combination, we can better understand art. Since art is a reflection of our psyche, instinct, and society we can better understand others and ourselves.
Conniff, Richard. “The Natural Art.” Discover. November 1999.
Freeland, Cynthia. But is it Art? Oxford: Oxford Press, 2001.
Glover, Nicola. “Phycoanalytic Aesthetics: The British School.” The Human Review. 23 September 1998. Chp.1. 7 March 2003. http://www.human-nature.com/free-associations/glover/chap1.html.
Palmer, Donald. Does the Center Hold? Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publishing House, 1991. 436-452.
Weiten, Wayne. Psychology Themes & Variations. 5th ed. Stamford:
Wadsworth, 2001. 488-492.
Path Through the Corn at Pourville 1882 (Summer)
Autorretarto con Collre de Espinas y Colibri, 1940
(all pictures from http://www.art.com)
Animal Science (Pre-vet)
When I was thinking about a topic to write about for this assignment, I was trying to find theories that fit together. As a science major, things that are based in biology seem to make more sense to me. I had studied Freud previously and decided that his theories would be a good place to start. Then I decided to use the biological origins theory. The artwork I chose from suggestions at www.art.com. I would say my greatest inspiration was my science background and some free time. This was one of the only essays I have not procrastinated on and it turned out the best.