After reading this I couldn’t believe I hadn’t realized it already: “For eight-ninths of their history, humans could not read at all. Reading and writing did not begin to play a significant role in general society until the invention of the printing press five hundred years ago, a mere twenty generations back. … Once mastered, alphabetic script ‘dissolves’ and reading seems natural, although the skills that produce the material being read are not natural at all” (204). According to art scholar Ellen Dissanayake, if the vast majority of people who lived never read or wrote a word, then how we think of “art” deserves revision.
In her 1992 book about the role of aesthetics in human evolution, Dissanayake claims the invention of writing begat “art.” That is, without text and the modes of thinking that come with writing and reading, we wouldn’t have a separate category of human endeavor called “art.” She writes, “Until the Enlightenment, no other society had considered art to be an entity in itself, to be set apart from its context of use (usually in ceremony or entertainment) or the content that it portrayed or suggested” (196). The steps it takes for a mind to make sense of an alphabet also prepare it to look at the rest of the world with “disinterest,” which “implied that one could transcend the limitations of time, place, and temperament,” and appreciate artworks through aesthetic and supposedly universal criteria (197). These criteria saw images as representations not directly related to the things or gods or people they were meant to represent. To people who read, images appear more like text than they do to nonreaders, who have no concept of text.
Dissanayake’s approach strikes me as a little reductive—she makes sweeping claims about the role of art in Medieval Europe and Ancient Greece in order to ram those societies into her timeline—and she admits she’s oversimplifying. But in her presentation I find a compelling invitation to check my assumptions the next time I see an artifact or scene made by members of a non literate culture, maybe as clues for how people think without text as a tool for organizing. (I also find it funny and instructive that by reading I’m getting into this idea that reading might have changed human aesthetic practice for the worse.)
Dissanayake doesn’t mean other cultures have different ideas about what art is. She means that “art” may not be a part of these cultures’ worldview at all. The way people in our culture hold aesthetics somewhat separate, closed from the rest of life, isn’t the way everyone considers the beautiful or pleasurable. As a painter I find it well worth considering that other cultures probably have different ideas about how a necklace or an image of a face fits into their lives—that “art,” the whole idea we have of it, is constructed and perpetuated by our ultra-efficient, secular habits. Dissanayake asserts “this ‘literate’ approach takes for granted that art is objects—things, like words are things. Let us instead look at art as kinds of behavior, ways of doing things” (222).
This reminds me of the book of Genesis. Yahweh, through Moses, needed to teach people to spurn graven images because Judaism was a new and radical thing: a religion based on the word instead of the image. “In the beginning was the word and the word was God,” and so on. Without the invention of writing, what is God? (For a very involved discussion of the consequences that came with privileging “the word” in Western philosophy, read Martin Jay’s Downcast Eyes.)
Dissanayake’s art history work tends to look way back in human evolution, and it’s famous for its focus on social cooperation rather than competition in the development of the species. She claims art helped connect people, which was crucial to our survival. Think about the ways group choreography or chanting as a congregation lead to feelings of community. She pushes aside Kant’s disinterested “art for art’s sake” and replaces it with the mantra “art for life’s sake.”
It pays to reread good stuff—especially when it makes me rethink the implications of reading itself. When I read Dissanayake’s work a few years ago, somehow I missed this proposed link between the historical rise of text and the fall of a sense of fusion between acts of beauty and the rest of life. If in the distant past, nobody did “art” but everyone sang and danced and drew, it seems arbitrary to call anyone an artist today. Who’s supposed to say which cooperative, spontaneous social activities aren’t art? Or, since all of us used to toddle around our parents’ living rooms, dancing and singing and scribbling, was any of that art? When do we start being artists?