Art as an evolutionary adaptation

San Francisco Taiko Dojo performs in SF; a drummer pauses mid-stroke, batons in the air
You can probably tell, but that’s not me. CC –mark–

When I lived in Japan, I played taiko and learned and performed traditional Japanese folk dances the entire time I was there, all three years. It was great. I went and hung out with my crew, the Takenoko Taiko Budo Dance Circle, twice a week to practice. Then we would have one performance (okay, sometimes two or three) on the weekend. We played weddings and festivals. We performed at old folks’ homes and mental institutions, and did workshops with preschool classes and special needs elementary school programs. There were volunteer gigs, but most of the time we got paid. Part of the money always went to pay for the rental space where we practiced and stored our drums, and part of the money we took and got lunch.

We ate well. We went to secret, hole-in-the-wall noodle shops and bustling izakaya pubs, but our favorite was this out-of-the-way kaiten sushi place, widely regarded as the best place in town. My taiko club mates all put away 7 or 8 plates worth of fish and eel and egg-on-rice, but I could almost never do more than 5.

It felt great, eating as much and as little as we did. We had earned our bread (or rice, as it were). This was our reward for training, for hauling our instruments and props all over town, for smiling through the entire performance (always a challenge for me; my default performance expression being similar to someone in the middle of an algebra test they haven’t studied for).

Playing taiko at all but also for so long is a touchstone for me. It’s an important part of my identity. When I think about how I learned to be an adult, how to be good to people who are different than yourself, how to feel like it’s okay to work really hard for something you really want, my whole experience with Takenoko is absolutely clutch.

That’s what art can do to you.

Why drummers drum

In On the Origin of Stories, Brian Boyd helpfully articulates five separate theories that define what art is, which is the first step when trying to make an argument about anything. You’ve got to get your reader to agree to the terms (which is part of why we’re spending so much time defining what a story is–could the theory part alone take a whole year?–at the beginning of the HEY STORYTELLERS project).

Boyd explains the theories (or philosophical schools) like this (these are his words):

  • Mimetic theories stress art’s function as representing the world.
  • Expressive theories see art’s function in terms of artists’ compulsion to express themselves in their art.
  • Communicative theories find art’s function in the responses art engenders.
  • Theories of artistic form focus on the structure of a work of art as the product of the artist’s design and the cause of the audience’s response.
  • In response to the challenge to definitions of art posed by modern art, from the urinal Duchamp called Fountain to Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup cans or more recent conceptual, installation, and performance art, philosophers of art have for some time been as preoccupied as artists have with the boundaries of art, and have proposed not functional but institutional or historical theories.

Boyd points out the shortcomings of some of these theories with regard to imagining the origins of the artistic impulse–especially with that last theory–and he points out problems with any one of these philosophies of art apprehending the totality of the artistic impulse. I have to agree.

There’s a legend that taiko drumming was originally created to mimic the sound of a mother’s heartbeat in the womb. While that would take care of that first mimetic theory of art, there’s no question that I and some of my comrades in Takenoko (the name means “bamboo root,” literally “child of bamboo” or “children of bamboo”) played because it was fun to play, that the expression we achieved through drumming was more fun than other things that we had tried. I had originally sought out taiko because I was tired of martial arts, karate and aikido, which I had done in the states and wanted to give up after I moved to Japan.

And different taiko pieces communicated different stories and emotions to the audience. Chichibu Yataibayashi, for example, was sort of a classic get-quiet-get-loud rising-action-to-climax piece, a musical piece with a structure similar to a classically framed short story. Bourei Taiko, an elegiac piece written by my friend Nobuhiro after the death of his mother, had an explicit funerary purpose other than auditory pleasure.

The question, for me at least, isn’t “What single philosophy of art that completely comprehends taiko (or any art form)?” I’m skeptical that there is one.

The question, for me, is, “Is it reasonable to think that the impulse to play Buchiawase (another taiko piece) is related somehow to Degas’s impulse to paint and Toni Morrison’s impulse to write?” Not that I’m the Degas/Morrison of taiko. I’m not even the Carrot Top of taiko.

But I want to know if all of these forms are somehow related. Boyd says yes, absolutely, they are, they have to be.

The human universal

Here are Boyd’s reasons for believing art is a coherent form that needs a biological/anthropological explanation for its origins:

“There are good reasons to suspect that we may need biology as well as culture to explain art: (1) it is universal in human societies; (2) it has persisted over several thousand generations; (3) despite the vast number of actual and possible combinations of behavior in all known human societies, art has the same major forms (music and dance; the manual creation of visual design; story and verse) in all; (4) it often involves high costs in time, energy, and resources; (5) it stirs strong emotions, which are evolved indicators that something matters to an organism; (6) it develops reliably in all normal humans without special training, unlike purely cultural products such as reading, writing, or science. The fact that it emerges early in individual development–that young infants respond with special pleasure to lullabies and spontaneously play with colors, shapes, rhythms, sounds, words, and stories–particularly supports evolutionary against nonevolutionary explanations.”

What’s interesting right now–in 2014, I mean–is how all of these different forms–music, graphic design, writing–are all part of digital storytelling and media construction tools available to anyone with a computer. Whether it’s reasonable to clump these artistic forms together or not, people are making them all (or many of them) regularly, and I suspect that the purposes (social, marketing) for making art (or “art”) are similar no matter whether you’re taking a photo or writing a song. The things in a person’s Facebook feed cohere in a way, even if the similarities are embedded (!) in art form as diverse as videos, photography, drawings, music, etc.

iMovie 5 interface screenI suspect that the workflow, the time management strategies, the aesthetic sense, and the storytelling motivations and strengths that we bring to iMovie are the same ones (or close enough to count as the same ones) that we bring to Photoshop/Gimp, iDraw/Illustrator, iPhone camera/DSLR, WordPress/Blogger posts.

And if my guess about all of this is even close to being correct, then we should maybe try to be intentional about what values we’re bringing to all of those things, if only to see when our one-size-fits-all artistic philosophy (inchoate, inarticulated, or otherwise) is getting in our own way.