Vocational Selection

| February 10, 2015

Nonconformity is the highest evolutionary attainment of social animals.  –Aldo Leopold

Many think of science as the study of hard facts founded in theories regarding quantifiable things, from sub-atomic particles to stars and galaxies, and every configuration of matter in between. This characterization is known as the materialist view of science, which is distinct from the idealist view suggesting that material existence ensues out of immaterial things. Time and again we find that science, when pushed to the limits of knowledge, often reveals reality to be very different from what we wish to believe, or from what we consider to be within the boundaries of “common sense.” In particular, two sciences today are pushing the frontier of knowledge into realms defying many of our foundational beliefs about the nature of reality and how we perceive it – quantum mechanics and neuroscience, each in its way suggesting fascinating and perplexing observations about the ways in which our perceptions influence our individual realities.

Another way to think about science is as a means of deriving a general understanding from the study of anecdotal cases – articulating universal rules by studying their measurable or calculable expressions. A question now pondered by some scientists is whether such methods can be used to gain a deeper understanding of art. Given the astounding diversity of things falling under the umbrella of art, however, science may seem ill equipped to find commonalities among them. And yet, that is one of the goals for the new science of neuroaesthetics: to explain such things as art, beauty and aesthetic experiences based on measurable and testable hypotheses about the evolution and physical workings of the human brain. Understandably, to many artists this may seem anathema.

Lest one feels threatened by such pursuits, consider that when leading neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran was recently asked in an interview how much brain science can tell us about the way we experience art, he responded, “I think right now one percent or less is explained by neuroscience, but I think a time will come when we’ll maybe understand ten or twenty percent of it.” In other words, so complicated are the workings of the human brain – the most complex organized structure we know of in the universe – that some degree of mystery regarding such things as aesthetics, beauty and art, likely will always remain.

Evolutionary biology is founded on the concept of selection. In its most obvious form, selection is the process by which random mutations that increase an organism’s chance of survival (in biology terms, its fitness) persist over time, and those that do not are eliminated. This is known as natural selection. Upon realizing that natural selection still falls short of explaining such things as, say, the magnificent tail of a male peacock, which burdens its owner and makes it vulnerable, more nuanced forms of selection were theorized: sexual selection, keen selection and so on. More relevant to us, however, is the recent trend to seek evolutionary explanations to social and cognitive phenomena, including art.

As it turns out, there is no physical area in the brain that is dedicated to the production or consumption of art. Recent experiments and observations also debunked former theories of humans having an innate “art instinct,” or any special adaptations for the appreciation of art, and while art served various social functions in some human societies, not all art can be explained by such needs, either.

It would seem that selection manifested over long periods of time ultimately will lead to homogeneity – favorable traits will remain stable over time unless changing circumstances make them less beneficial. If true, one might think that things as diverse as art are inexplicable in evolutionary terms. After all, it is hard to make the case that an autographed urinal offers some existential advantage to its owner or creator over a marble statue or a cave painting. However, one evolutionary explanation for diversity is, in fact, the opposite of selection. Selection occurs under constraints, and when one trait offers benefit over another in tackling them. But, when a former constraint is lifted, traits that would otherwise be eliminated are allowed to persist, and diversity ensues.

Applied to art and photography we may consider challenges that once faced artists – from the iron fists of monarchs and religious institutions to an artist’s need to appease her patron in order to earn a living. At times of severe restrictions, art becomes more uniform, as evidenced by the profusion of religious iconography in some periods or of Daguerreotype portraits in other. Relax the restrictions and art booms and explodes in dramatic ways, as seen during the Renaissance or with the advent of Modern Art. In this sense, diversity of art can be thought of as a measure of social freedom.

With this in mind we now face yet a new reality – that of being an artist in an increasingly virtual and technology-driven world. We must now ask ourselves whether this new world of the Internet and camera-bearing gadgets is a free one in which diversity will thrive or whether it in fact imposes new challenges limiting creative work. As observed by creativity expert Rollo May, “Mass communication … presents us with a serious danger, the danger of conformism, due to the fact that we all view the same things at the same time in all the cities of the country. This very fact throws considerable weight on the side of regularity and uniformity and against originality and freer creativity.”

We see such pressures to conform from various art institutions: restrictive rules governing some photography contests, public shaming of those who manipulate their work in certain ways, and corporate brands using their marketing budgets to promote the works of those using their products over others – all detrimental to diversity and creativity. It is important, however, to acknowledge that such forces still fall short of being existential risks; they take advantage of our collective desire for social acceptance, for mimicking celebrities and for winning contests. They are forces that can be resisted, even ignored, with just a little courage and conscious effort.

Consider that much advancement in art required a degree of rebellion and often coincided with times of social upheaval. In other times, artists defended their creative freedom under threats to life and livelihood. Today, we are privileged to live in times when such dissent can be accomplished in relative comfort and safety and by the simple conviction to practice our art as fits our sensibilities. Let us fight the power… of vocational selection.

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Category: All Posts, Featured, Thoughts and Musings

About the Author ()

Guy Tal is an author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau—a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

Comments (7)

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  1. Some days photography reminds me of high school – everybody thinking they are unique by looking like everyone else. Guy, I love your phrase “just a little courage and conscious effort”. That’s all it takes to find your own way in photography… in life.

  2. Eric Fredine says:

    There’s is also a lot of discussion about the corrupting influence of art being purchased as an investment. It seems to support your thesis that one outcome is the homogenization of art.

  3. Misha says:

    Interesting, when thinking about the virtual and technology-driven world in which we live, my approach has been to consider the issues from the other side of the coin.

    Since technology enables pretty much anyone who wants to be an artist to be able to try their hand at it, and since there really are no bans or taboos on individuals making whatever kind of art they want to, my guess is there has been more art made overall during, say, the last few decades than in the whole prior course of human history.

    Not that I’m advocating conformity (I’m strongly opposed, actually), but I think one can reasonably ask what kind of standards are there for evaluating art in this kind of a world? What kind of standards should there be? If everything is equally valid, then nothing rises above or sinks below. And, the mere fact of being different often seems to be conflated with being good or otherwise worthwhile.

  4. Eric Fredine says:

    This post by Jörg Colberg, On Trends, discusses a similar theme coming: http://cphmag.com/on-trends/

  5. Steve says:

    I must say that you cover a great deal of ground in this essay. I don’t quite understand the term “vocational selection”, however. If you are tying-in the process of natural selection with need to create art then I would argue that we live in veritable wasteland of Art and that “comfort” and “safety” leads to a pathetic “dissent”. We are all fitting quite nicely into “vocational selection”. We all use the same tools process the same electronic bits, fit the bits onto a screen or print them out etc. Natural selection has told us that this is the way to get positive feedback from our species. We aren’t breaking any new ground. We are reletivley homogeneous with the masses. I have no doubt that the next great trend for Art will involve technology and it will last about two minutes before it is copied a million times over. The brave new world.

    Before science can quantify Art it will have to figure out what exactly art is. And if it is measurable would it not all-of-a-sudden fit nicely into one of those boxes that humans so love to sort things into. Certainly the death of our idea of Art, I would think. Perhaps science should approach Art from the opposite side of measurable and calcuable methods which is to say there is nothing to qualify. This would fit into the idealistic view. In Zen there are only first thoughts and everything else is not real. A first thought would be the moment you See when a photograph comes together, the spark. Everything else is a second thought. So most of Art is a second thought, the painting, the photograph, the sculpture. When a Zen Sumi-e painter puts ink to paper it is with one complete thought, motion, emotion, and when that moment is over the painting is done. It is also worth noting that the Zen artist does not consider the painting to exist either. My point is that Art comes from a place that is not tangible “there is no physical area in the brain that is dedicated to the production or consumption of art.” I would propose that the human brain does not yet have the evolutionary means to understand Art. And it will take a great deal of natural selection before we are able to climb onto that branch of the tree.

  6. Well I must say that I really do love Guy Tal’s artwork, and I do love a lot of his insightful writings about art. I have learned a lot from him, and hope to continue to do so.

    But for me, I just cannot accept that everything we see on this planet, and in this universe has come here by a process of selection through random mutations.

    From my point of view, every thing on this planet runs with amazing precision. Everywhere I look it speaks to me of the existence of a divine creator. There is a physical world that we all can see, measure, and evaluate. But there is a spiritual world too, and that world is not easily understood nor seen. For me the spiritual side of every person is very artistic, and creative. It is an energy from God.

    Science will never be able to figure out the existence of that spiritual world because they cannot see it nor measure it. Yes, science has it all figured out, and can calculate all of the physical composition of my body, and electrical brain energy. But science misses the fact that my spirit lives within this physical body, and that spirit comes from God.

    I am a living soul, living within my physical body, and that body will one day die, and my spirit will go back to it’s creator along with all of that artistic energy.

  7. Brad Mangas says:

    Quantifying art within the boundaries of neuroscience would seem to be a limiting faction and futile at best. The scientific study of art would, if applicable would therefore need to be countered with the artistic study of science. So where would we be going with this? It almost saddens me to know such effort is being put towards such a non-measurable endeavor. Even if an understanding of art within the neurosciences could come to pass it would not advance or improve anything that is associated with the pleasure of experiencing art. This is a field of study and to perpetuate the field participants must find “things” to study, reasonable or not. What is it we need to understand and why? What productive outcome would there be of such information? Data gathering serves no purpose if there is no betterment from the gathering of it. I am not talking on the individual level. We all have our own reasons for wanting to learn, grow, and advance our knowledge. These resonate at the personal level not based on laboratory conditions.

    As for a conformism when it comes to the arts, this should not be a revelation. This is a human reaction to the world that is lived in and has been from the beginning. I for one relish the idea of a conformed mainstream. This acts a guiding light for me in the opposite direction. If there were not conformism societal life would be scattered like seeds in the wind. Each person, family, group, town, city etc… working in complete entanglement of each other. Conformism is the sign, we have the choice. Follow or go astray. The vast majoring conforms, leaving open space for those who do not. Open space is good.