Evolution and Aesthetics: Toward an Objective Evaluation of Art and Literature

Animal physiology and behaviour are shaped by evolution and based on a common shared reality; and congruence with a shared reality was a crucial artistic criterion in Greece, Italy, India and China as well as in Europe till the beginning of the 20th century. As a class Mammals show comparable behaviour based on the fundamental emotions/affective states, which evolved to enhance survival possibilities. These fundamental affective states naturally formed the themes and motives in art and literature, but whereas this was implied in Europe and China it was made explicit in Indian aesthetics, which, however also presupposed a transcendence of the self, or a shedding of the existential fear of death, before art could be appreciated thoroughly as being based in an absolute value (infinity/eternity), which could determine the artistic significance as subjective insight was a presupposition for the awareness of objective reality.

(I) A scientific perspective assumes that a common observable reality exists as a given phenomenon; (1) if the given reality (a sunrise, a Cherry Tree, an abyss) had not been a more or less shared experience there could have been no evolution, and no animal could have survived. Survival presupposes, like communication and every other interaction between species or conspecifics, that the external parameters the individuals see, hear and smell, are identical. That does not mean that the representation of reality the brain configures does not differ from individual to individual, or from species to species, only that the configurations have to resemble each other to such an extent that the idiosyncratic differences become insignificant; i.e. discrepancies between objective reality and its representational configuration in the brain will impair survival abilities and will hence become obsolete. So any hypothesis concerning the behaviour of living beings and the affective states that drive behaviour will have to be based on evolutionary and hence neurophysiological processes.

(II) Considering Mammals as a class it is far more remarkable what they have in common than what separate them as species. Though there is a considerable difference between Human and non-human Mammals, Humans have the same living conditions between a cry and a sigh (Yeats: Between his two eternities. Under Ben Bulben II) as any other animal, and the same needs, such as oxygen, water, food, shelter, social interaction and procreation; and considering fundamental traits with a long evolutionary past Mammals share identical features such as motor coordinates, proprioceptive inputs, as well as a highly developed sensory system and comparable basic behaviour. (2)

(III) In order for a Mammal to survive, evolution has favoured nine basic motivators or affective-emotive systems, all originating in the periaqueductal grey of the midbrain, from where they spread upwards to the cortex, viz. 1) resolution-exploration-interest, 2) sexuality-love, 3) joy-play, 4) bonding-care-attachment, 5) anger-aggression, 6) fear-anxiety-angst, 7) pain-misery-despair, 8) disgust-loathing, and 9) wonder-awe. (3)These feeling states make Mammals curious about their environment, desirous of mating, joyful when playing, eager to take care of their offspring, angry when confronted by competition or obstacles, afraid when in danger, dejected when lacking food, shelter and social interaction, disgusted when exposed to unwholesome food, and astonished when confronted by something new or unexpected; and all the complex interaction these affective states engender presupposes a common shared reality as a reference frame.

(IV) The existence of a common reference frame and of universal artistic criteria has in the last five or six decades, been doubted (Post Modernism) in favour of a the relativisation of perspectives and values. The assumption that values are purely subjective/idiosyncratic and incapable of being verified objectively, has been endorsed by the present inclination to doubt everything apart from doubt itself, as it can be argued that all perspectives are equally good or bad, depending on taste or predilection. Trans-cultural comparisons show that there are basic patterns in human behaviour, emotional display and thought structure, but that the details in these patterns differ according to place, time and genetic profile, or expressed differently: there are variations over basic themes. But trans-cultural comparisons also indicate that the core element, more or less explicit, in art is the self-insight that is a function of the awareness of the numinous, for it is self-insight that determines the degree of congruence with internal and external reality as well as the values that sustain affective states and subsequent behaviour. (4) Genuine self-insight, which is a function of awareness (5a, 5b) (a fundamental given), (6) is by its very nature pre-conceptual and prior to semantic delineation; but it may, subsequently, be suggested or implied by art, facial expressions or behaviour; and this is not attainable with or through language. Relativisation of values reduces them to interests; and insistence upon uncertainty, irony, ambiguity and doubt as being fundamental, can only occur in the absence of felt reality, in the absence of a predominant emotion/affective state.

(V) A close adherence to a shared reality has generally been used as a fundamental criterion for the evaluation of art; and both the Greeks and the Romans valued realistic objectivity. Gaius Plinius Secundus (23-79) (7) followed the Greek precedent when judging a painting. It had to be realistic. In a contest between the two Greek painters, Parrhasios (399 B.C.) and Zeuxis, Zeuxis’ painting of grapes was so realistic that the birds flew down to eat them, but when Zeuxis asked Parrhasios to remove the curtain in front of his painting, Parrhasios showed him that the curtain itself was his painting. A similar emphasis on a naturalistic approach was present in India. The Citrasūtram (8) (a 6th century manual for painters) states that a painting has to follow nature, i.e. be naturalistic and show things as they are; and when the Chinese painter Han Gan (618-709, Táng) (9) painted Horses, one of his paintings of a Horse was so true to nature that the Horse came alive; and he explained that he became a Horse himself in order to paint. He would have had the ability to sense the nature of the Horse, the innate ‘Horsiness’ as a guide to his brush.

(VI) The importance of affective states is evident in philosophy and literature. David Hume wrote: ‘Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.’ (10) Henry James observed that the value of a novel ‘is greater or less according to the intensity of the expression,’ and ‘as people feel life, so they will feel the art that is most closely related to it,’and that ‘the province of art is all life, all feeling . . .’ (11) Ezra Pound insisted that the greater the emotional energy was the greater was the energy in the poem. (12) And Shakespeare’s emphasis on feeling is pronounced: ‘Eyes without feeling, feeling without sight,’ (13) ‘Thou canst not speak of that thou dost not feel’ (14) ‘I feel within me a peace above all earthly dignities,’ (15) ‘and canst not feele What ’tis to loue,’(16) ‘And prove it in thy feeling.’(17) Proust emphasised ‘la vérité ressentie’ (18), and Joseph Conrad stated that ‘[the artist] speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain, to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation -’ and ‘Fiction - if it at all aspires to be art - speaks to temperament.’ (19) We are what we feel; and that which we accept as the reality of our life is felt/body reality. Nothing else matters very much. It is the felt reality that determines motivation and behaviour.

(VII) The basic affective states that evolved to further interaction potentials and survival capacity in relation to the shared reality form the motives and incentives in art and literature. The Ilias would exemplify ‘anger,’ the Odysseia and especially Promētheus ‘resolution-fortitude;’ Troubadour poetry, Antony and Cleopatra, Romeo and Juliet, La Chartreuse de Parme et c. ‘sexuality-love,’ Les Fleurs du mal or Le Spleen de Paris ‘loathing,’ King Lear ‘despair-grief,’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream ‘wonder;’ À la recherche du temps perdu or Faust ‘interest-exploration.’ But there are always more than one of these fundamental motivators or affective states present in a work of art, for example in Othello and in À la recherche du temps perdu, love is accompanied by jealousy.

(VIII) According to Indian aesthetics, based on a treatise on dramaturgy, the Nāṭyaśāstram (Chapter 6 and 7), compiled in the 2nd or the 3rd century (20), the (nine) fundamental emotional states, which the pressure of evolutionary forces have formed as circuits originating in (or differentiating in) the periaqueductal grey, determine the nature of a drama or of any other work of art. The Nāṭyaśāstram distinguishes between a feeling (bhāvaḥ) as it occurs in daily life and an aesthetic experience (rasaḥ), for example surprise (vismayaḥ) becomes as a rasaḥ as wonder (adbhutaḥ). A rasaḥ was assumed to be a sensation devoid of idiosyncrasy and existential fear - otherwise it would be difficult to explain how the sensation, for example, of the rasaḥ of bhayānakaḥ (angst, the corresponding feeling: bhayam) could be enjoyed or savoured. (21a, 21b) This generally accepted view, from the 3rd to the 9th century was elaborated and refined by two Kāśmirian critics and philosophers, Ānandavardhanaḥ (820-890) and Abhinavaguptaḥ (950-1020), (22) who, however, argued for the existence of equanimity-serenity, śāntaḥ, (cf. Spinoza’s beatitudo (23)) as an ultimate affective state as it consists of consciousness as such, i.e. awareness of the numinous. This entails a diminishing or a dissolution of the existential fear of death as identification with the ‘self’ or the ‘ego-structure’ ceases, and and subsequent emergence of peace and serenity. This system has not been localised neuroanatomically, but dissolution of the ego/self structure, which forms the beginning of the process that leads to awareness of the numinous, occurs with Default Mode Network disintegration, parahippocamus-retrosplenial cortex disassociation, and a decrease of alpha waves in the posterior cingulate cortex, as shown by arterial spin labelling, blood oxygen level-dependent measurements and magnetoencephalography during the influence of hydroxytryptamin agonists such as psilocybin or LSD (24). The crucial significance of this process is evident in philosophical and artistic works as well as in religious and spiritual traditions.

(IX) The ‘self’ or the sense of identity which every organism is bound to have could be defined by body boundaries, motor coordinates, proprioception, affective states and memories. This conglomerate appears primarily to have evolved from or to be closely associated with the basic affective state of resolution, purpose, will or desire for survival, and is as such in widely varying degree, present in all organisms. (25) In Humans an excessive focus on this structure leads to egocentricity or narcissism; and it is diagnostic that the major spiritual traditions emphasise the importance of overcoming egocentricity or rather the assumption of having a permanent self-identity. The sense of self changes with time according to new experiences (as Proust amply delineates in À la recherche du temps perdu), dendritic modifications and subtle shifts in memory patterns, but the act of transcending the self or the ego-conglomerate does not dissolve it; the sense of unity or identity it creates is a survival necessity; but in the absence of the existential fear of death, the clinging to a static sense of self disappears or lessens.

(X) An comparable perspective may be discernible in Aristotelēs’ Poetics. The process of catharsis shares several features with the concept of rasaḥ for a tragedy should be able to produce the pleasure (ἡδονή) of feeling pity (ἔλεοσ) and fear (φόβοσ), and the plot should produce a thrill (φρίσσω) of fear and pity. (26) If fear produced pleasure no animal would survive, there would have been no evolution; so a different kind of fear and pity or a special approach to them must be envisaged. In Politics Aristotelēs wrote that sacred music could intensify feelings of fear and pity so that a catharsis would ensure a relief; (27) and Platōn saw fear as being due to a poor or a mean state (φαῦλοσ) of the soul. (28) So a tragedy or sacred music might intensify feelings of fear to produce a catharsis which would initiate a transcendence of a sense of fear/permanent selfhood. This would suggest that the latent (existential) fear in the amygdala and the periaqueductal grey should reach a climax in order to be erased. A comparable conclusion is reached by James Austin in his attempt de delineate the neuropsychology of satori and the function of the amygdala in the generation of fear. (29)

(XI) So in Greece a drama could, like Dēmētēr’s mysteries, function as an initiation and/or a purification process by eliminating fear and dissolving a static ego-structure, but on the Indian scene this purification process was supposed to have taken place before the drama could be enjoyed whole-heartedly, i.e with the sense of a permanent self diminished or kept in abeyance. This expurgation of fear, which could result in a transcendence of a sense of self, was naturally the aim of yogaḥ and dhāraṇā or dhyānam, (regrettably called ‘meditation’ for meditatio, ‘thinking over’ involves thought processing whereas dhāraṇā or dhyānam functions by avoiding thought processes; Yogasūtram 3.1, 3.2). (30)

(XII) Advancement in technology, astrophysics and biology displays a sharply increasing tendency as science rests on accumulated and easily transferable knowledge; but the arts, regardless of how they may appear to change, do not show any tendency to progress for they rest on innate talent, self-insight, and a sense of the numinous, all of which, arising and dying with the individual, are non-transferable. And art either expresses time and place contingent preoccupations, i.e. the Zeitgeist or it expresses individual preoccupations and perspectives; usually both though in greatly varying degree. While the Zeitgeist is interesting in itself both historically and sociologically it is not the external circumstances that form art. Art is based on talent/predisposition and self-insight/the numinous; hence art is valid across time and culture. Such ‘timeless’ art depends on a sense of an absolute, a sense of infinity-eternity (Eternity was in our Lippes, and Eyes). It is a sense of the infinite or the eternal in finite things that not only gives them meaning (i.e. interconnectedness) but which even make them ex-ist, as Nāgārjunaḥ states (Acintyastava 43): ‘Infinity is not different from finite things, but there would be nothing without it’ - bhāvebhyaḥ śūnyatā nānyā na ca bhāvo ‘sti tāṃ vīnā. (31)

(XIII) Taking emotional states as the tonic in drama, poetry, painting and music fit the cartography of human neuroanatomy, and the assumption about the necessity of having transcended fear and egocentricity in order approach a sense of the numinous does not only precipitate from a trans-cultural analysis, but also from an empirical neuroimaging investigation. This perspective is open to the only option that really matters, namely subjective experience/verification. The proof of the pudding is only in the eating. Dante has succinctly condensed the issue of participation in the numinous: E déi saper che tutti hanno diletto, Quanto la sua veduta si profonda Nel vero in che si queta ogn’ intelletto. (32) ‘And know that everyone has a degree of joy that depends on how deep he can gaze into that truth in which all thought finds peace.’ Self-insight, which endows an individual with a fundamental sense of value, furthers appreciation of art as well as the ability to live in the present moment (like any sane animal), and to see the world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower. The quality of art depends on its congruence with the living reality, on how precisely the drama, the poem or the painting suggests the living reality (reality as lived experience, not as fantasy/extrapolation) of the basic emotions that are neurophysiologically determined. This perspective has throughout history been taken for granted by poets, artists, readers and spectators, in tune with the right hemisphere of the brain as this hemisphere senses peace, empathy, love, complex music, values and the interconnectedness of phenomena, in contradistinction to the left hemisphere which senses things in isolation, propositional logic, simple music and self-interest. (33) Because of the advancement in affective neuroscience it is possible to corrobortate the explicit system of aesthetics based on affective states with the basic emotions that originate in the periaqueductal grey. An aesthetic approach that is grounded in evolutionary and neuroanatomical processes stands a good chance, despite all the epistemological difficulties, of providing criteria for an objective evaluation of art; though an evaluation that will confirm the general assumptions of history - that subjective insight deepens the awareness of objective reality. Self-insight furthers tolerance and humour, but also an innate sense of absolute value. Vincentio says in Measure for Measure: ‘Be absolute for death: either death or life Shall thereby be the sweeter.’ (34) The relativisation of values is hardly possible in the presence of death and hence of (shared) reality. (35)

(XIV) At least five criteria have to be present in art. (a) Beauty. Beauty, Truth and Raritie. A clear sense of beauty, more or less associated with a sense of empathy and ethics, must be pervasive. Such a beauty, which could be terrible or tender, is in harmony with nature. (b) Sublimity, a sense of awe, a ferly or semnic (σέμνη) sense, an immediate impression of a sublime quality, a spontaneous connection with or affiliation to eternity-infinity. A sense of eternity-infinity creates a sense of deep engagement though with little direct personal interest/desire. The egocentric notion fades away in the presence of eternity-infinity; and the reader’s, listener’s, viewer’s experience has to be akin, of the same kind, as the artist’s in order for a recognition to occur. (c), Truth, a close adherence to lived (suffered or enjoyed) experience/reality. The reference must be to something in the past, something actually perceived, not imagined. (d) A pervasive affective quality and content, delineating what it means to be alive. (e) An innate talent for expression (music, poetry) or for form/colour (painting, sculpture).

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