Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Darwinian Philosophy of Photography

Big Cloud over Austrian Alps
For a number of years, I have maintained a passive interest in philosophy.  By passive, I mean regularly exposure to various aspects of philosophy without investing the requisite energy and time to truly study it.  One of my passive approaches is subscription to several philosophy podcasts.  “The Philosopher’s Zone” hosted by Alan Saunders is among my favorites.  A recent episode of The Philosopher’s Zone titled “The Art Instinct – Evolution and Aesthetics” was particularly interesting because it combined two of my interests – art (in the form of photography) and philosophy.
Garmisch Field at Sunrise-4
Allan’s guestwas Dennis Dutton, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand who argued a form of Social Darwinism or “Art Instinct” as an explanation for our attraction to art and even as rationale for why we prefer certain forms over others.  I’m afraid I would not give due justice to his nuanced explanation so I will take the easy route and simply cherry pick some of the highlights.
Mountain Lake View from Neuschwanstein Castle
Dutton proposes that one could have an art instinct because “the various aspects of our enjoyment or appreciation of art, our interest in creating it, could have some kind of survival or reproductive value, or it could be in some way by-product of something else that has survival or reproductive value.”  He goes on to say “there might be an instinct to produce creative objects which are admired by your fellows, in which your particular personality, your ideas, your take on the world, are expressed and understood and enjoyed by other human beings.” 
Mules at Stonington Lodge-2
So why do we want to be admired?  And here comes the bottom line:  “It also…can simply be very attractive to members of the opposite sex. I mean, it's not for nothing that we have this sort of folk tradition of groupies going after rock groups and so forth. But I think the rock group groupiedom, is as old as the Renaissance and probably a lot older than that. It goes back to the Greeks and the Romans.”
So, translating this to the photographer-artist, we arrive at the fist conclusion.  Conclusion #1: Photographers have fragile egos that demand the unrelenting adoration of their audience, and by the way, groupies are welcome.  Now we know why photographers make their art.  Pheeew – I’m glad I now understand.
Reflections in Breckonridge-4
Next we move on to what people like in art, and why.  Alan Saunders begins this conversation with a summary of the opening to Dutton’s book The Art Instinct.  “And it turns out that when it comes to painting, people the world over tend to prefer realistic art, landscapes are the preferred subject for paintings worldwide, and landscapes of a particular kind: a bluish scene with trees and open areas, water, human figures and animals. And this seems to be true, whether you live in the desert, the city, the North Pole or a rural area.”
Shenandoah National Park
Dutton responds by saying “…you find that if you look at calendar preferences, preferences for illustrations on the fronts of chocolate boxes across the world, you find this same Pleistocene savannah landscape, the most productive landscape that we enjoyed and where we reproduced well and lived well in the Pleistocene, and that our liking of this kind of landscape is not itself a product of our culture, that is to say, some conspiracy of calendar manufacturers to make us want to like this, it's rather that the calendar manufacturers are responding to our Pleistocene tastes…”
This leads us to the second conclusion.  Conclusion #2If you want to be a successful and psychologically healthy photographer while attracting adoring crowds throughout the world and increasing the opportunity of success with your throng of groupies, shoot savannah landscapes with some cattle or sheep - and a shepherd for good measure.
Shenandoah National Park-4
The final segment of the conversation is prompted by Saunder’s question of nature versus nurture (or culture).  Saunder’s asks “Did art emerge as a by-product of other evolutionary developments, is it to be explained on grounds of sexual selection, or is it to be explained because it's selected us to be adapted well to living and thriving?”  As part of his response, Dutton points out the value of art, beginning with the Pleistocene and extending through modern times, as a vehicle or tool for communication, documentation, and description that for which language fails.  The punch line comes from the statement that “At the same time, beyond the kinds of advantages that we have from fiction-making, from storytelling, in terms of natural selection, there's also the fact that storytellers are rather attractive, interesting people who grab our attention, who keep our attention, and who have a special place in our lives. And that seems to me to be an outgrowth of sexual selection.”
And of course, this leads us to the third and final conclusion.  Conclusion #3Photographers are handsome, captivating and attract many people to their remarkably interesting lives.
Shenandoah National Park-9-2
If you care to read the transcript without my highly insightful interpretation, follow this link to the Philosopher’s Zone. or subscribe via iTunes for weekly conversations in philosophy.
Have fun, and go shoot some landscapes of bucolic fertility…with some cows…or sheep…oh yea, and a shepherd, farmer or some other randomly placed person.  Then wait for your adoring fans to bloat your poor, suffering, anemic ego.  And finally, send your friends to this blog…I can still fit my head through standard size doorways.

No comments:

Post a Comment