For the art world, one of the most frightening maxims is the one found in the first verse of what might be considered the most cynical of the biblical books. "There is no new thing under the sun", says the Qoheleth in The Book of Ecclesiastes. In our collective imagination, and due in part to the influence of Romanticism and its contemporary philosophies, we view art as a creation, a birthed oddity of sorts, a spurt of genius previously unseen and unheard. As Kant puts it, "fine arts must necessarily be regarded as arts of genius" (p. 136). Art is new matter that comes forth from the artist's creative mind.
Art is indeed intrinsically mimetic. From the time of its origins until today, it finds inspiration in its surroundings. The cavemen who first imprinted their indelible touch upon the artistic world in caves and crevices, and contemporary artists who minimize expression to lines and colors on canvases, are all responding to a preceding experience of fascination, wonder, or simple curiosity. They are imitating as they create, and yet their visions carry with them a tangible novelty and uniqueness. When had anyone ever seen Saint-Rèmy de Provence as depicted in the art of Vincent Van-Gogh, before Van-Gogh?
How could it be true that there is indeed nothing new under the sun if art is in a state of constant invention and renewal? The answer, as is the case with most philosophical questions, is a gray area of distinctions. Yes, art is inspired by its predecessors, and, in this sense, it is inescapably tied to its past; but at the same time, it is always new, always different.
A possible solution that helps unify the conception of art as both mimetic and inventive, perennially imitative, yet essentially innovative, is that of evolution.
In the vast amount of time since the Big Bang, there seems to be a strand of teleological becoming. Be it by chance or by intelligent design, from an atomic to a cosmic level, everything seems as if it is progressing towards an end. What that end is exactly, is unclear. But the evolutionary process, itself but a breath in the vast lifespan of the timeline of the cosmos, has a teleology, a progressive point towards which everything moves. The selective progress of millennia has brought about the advancement and survival of the fittest of the species.
Tying this back to the art world, imagine the progression of artistic production as an evolution of sorts, with an intrinsic teleology or purpose. Understanding art in the context of cultural evolution helps us map its progress and stability, and at the same time, it gives us a key to humanity itself, by pointing to the origins of art as a symptom of the "humanization" of a once primitive being.
The author Michael Walsh invites us to "think of art as the Big Bang Theory applied to the soul instead of the body; by imagining the creative process in reverse, we can approach the instant of our origins" (p. 13). If this is so, then the evolution of art, its history, and its progression through the ages is an evolution of the human spirit, understood as tradition and culture, the shared patrimony of humanity's search for meaning through the aesthetic. Art is born as a new creation but is never entirely detached from its surroundings. Rather, it becomes a new iteration of them. The artist endures and is affected by a time, a place, and an ideology. Beyond this, the artist is the subject of stimuli such as color and form, which have left their sensible impressions on him or her, no matter how inventive, no matter how creative.
Evolution is precisely that, a progression of matter that seemingly creates a newness from preexisting material, all the while preserving remnants of the old. It is both new and old, in no way contradictory or paradoxical, in that it is part of a process that by necessity incorporates both preexisting influence and new vision.
A further way of conceptualizing the history of art as evolution appears in Richard Dawkins's Meme Theory. Dawkins talks about a primeval soup within the minds of men, from which sprang "the soup of human culture". He then goes on to point out the parallelism between genes and what he calls "memes". For him, a meme is a "replicator", a "noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission" (p.192). Dawkins describes the function of the meme as propagation from mind to mind, a description that conveys the idea of imitation. Incorporating elements of Dawkins's Meme Theory into our understanding of the development of art as a type of evolutionary process gives us a better understanding of that process.
So if artistic transmission works towards a teleological purpose, what is that purpose? What ulterior goal does art serve? In Beauty, Roger Scruton gives a clear and convincing elucidation of the purpose of art when he states that "the impetus to impose order and meaning on human life, through the experience of something delightful, is the underlying motive of art in all its forms" (p. 128).
The origin of art points to the origins of human cognition, and reveals the birth of humanity's soul. Culture and tradition began in those early stages, and from then on they have had a rich evolution, always seeking to grace humanity with an evolved understating of the meaning of our lives. What is art, if not a purposeful look into our existence and the values and meanings with which we surround our lives?
For this reason, one of the most insidious problems within the world of art is the rejection of art's meaning and purpose in the quest for fame or notoriety. The teleological function of art is as an ambassador of the human soul to future generations, and, in order to achieve this function, it must be produced and consumed as more than a mere form of entertainment. Art for art's sake is not an act of emancipation. On the contrary, it is an imprisonment of art to fads and fashion. Art ceases to fulfill its function in reference to the human soul, to culture, and to the advancement of humanity's search for meaning. By serving itself, it loses its real teleological purpose and becomes ensnared in its time and place. As temporal, it loses its place within its own evolution. Stamped with an expiration date, it will eventually dwindle into oblivion.
Barnes, E. “Ernst Haeckel’s Biogenetic Law (1866)", The Embryo Project Encyclopedia, Asu.edu, (2014). https-//embryo.asu.edu/pages/ernst-haeckels-biogenetic-law-1866
Kant, I. Critique of Judgement. 1790. Translated by James Meredith, A & D Publishing, 2018.
Dawkins, R. The Selfish Gene, Oxford University Press, 1976.
Scruton, R. Beauty, Oxford University Press, 2009.
Walsh, M. The Devil’s Pleasure Palace : The Cult of Critical Theory and the Subversion of the West, Encounter Books, 2017.
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