I have an idea I want you to explore with me. It may seem at odds with ordinary thought, but the concept has risen in my mind slowly, building gradually through long experience as poet, earth educator and student of nature, until it sits grown inside of me.
Here is my thinking, put plain:
Art is biologically adaptive.
Art is an emergent property of human evolution.
Art of all sorts, both in its making and sharing, has ecological function.
The ecological function of art is to connect humans with the biosphere.
In words from another direction, much of what we make and share in poetry, music, dance, painting, sculpture, and the rest, is the biosphere celebrating or contemplating itself.
Making art, I have come to believe, is a process of integration of the human part of life with the whole of life. In system terms, human art-making is an emergent property of the biosphere that integrates the singular person with the enormous whole of Life. Art is a celebration of belonging.
Let me describe a few paths my thought follows.
Every human society creates a panoply of arts. What we humans do, universally, as a species, has little to do with the anthropologists’ “cultural relativism.” Art-making is a species-level behavior, and as such, it is biological, which is to say, it has function.
[There are those who argue that claims of function in biology/ecology imply causes and are teleological, thus irrelevant. The question is not “Why do we make art?” , but rather, “What does it accomplish?” Living systems, we know now, are self-organizing, open systems that are characterized by emergent properties which have functions.]
The concept “biological function” is a species level concept that fails to include relations with other species. The concept “ecological function,” is the more accurate term for my idea, because it is precisely human relationships with the rest of Earth life that are central to art, its making and sharing, and perhaps central to human survival.
Why We Make and Share Art
That said, we do have many intentions and purposes for making art, and these, of course, do vary with artist and culture. I suggest that two root motives have always generated art-making, namely celebration and healing:
Celebration: Shared joy grows. We express in arts our joy of life, our perception of beauty, our thanks for Earth in continual rites of jubilation that we name dance, music, poetry, sculpture, painting, story and religion. When we share what we have made, our joy expands, for we have enlarged our circle of self to include others.
Healing: Shared pain shrinks. Life is often confusing and filled with suffering. We express our pain through art-making, and discover that the act lessens pain. The art we make is first a kind of sharing within the self, which gives our speechless parts voice and moves us toward wholeness. Our pain has been taken out of our subjective universes and been made tangible, therefore shareable. We discover, over and again, that we are not alone. When we do share our made art with other people, they can empathize, which not only eases our pain but reinforces our knowledge of belonging to something far larger than the self.
Who Are We?
In popular cosmology, the claim is made that humanity is the cosmos regarding itself, the universe made self-aware. (Not just our planet, mind you, but the cosmos entire: galaxies, stars, dark matter, all the trillions of solar systems). Some thinkers regard our self-awareness as evidence that we are too great an improbability nested within many improbabilities for our existence to be accidental. (Search Goldilocks Effect ).
With anthropocentric hubris and tautological expressions, wishful cosmologists have devised the so-called Anthropic Principle, which seems an attempt to return humanity to the center of the universe, as if Sol still revolved about Earth. In a nutshell, this “principle” claims that since humanity is here to observe the universe, we must be the purpose of the universe. Can it be that Narcissus is still staring into the pool?
Who Are We Here, on Earth?
Let’s narrow the horizon. Instead of extrapolating to the notion that human consciousness is crucial to the whole universe, let’s just stick to Earth, the Biosphere, enormous and still mostly unknown to us, its rowdy children. This is our most intimate and physical connection: our flesh and bones are made of Earth. Since life began, it has built bodies with the readily available nutrients that compose the air and ocean.
Every living body on Earth is composed of atoms and molecules that have been parts of other living bodies countless times before. Our bodies are 100% post-consumer content. We are portions of Earth, not passengers on a planet. Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. We must learn to perceive ourselves as embedded in, and as an aspect of, the biosphere.
Our ambiguous gift is that we are parts of Earth that have become conscious, self-aware and introspective. As Homo sapiens emerged into the biosphere, the biosphere began to be aware, and capable of observing itself.
What is implied by the knowledge that we are portions of Earth become conscious?
We do things that may be unique to our species:
These are our defining qualities. They allow us to speculate, wonder, be awed by and meditate upon the cosmos and the living planet Earth. They allow us to share our responses to existence, whether by making dandelion chains, carving David out of marble, or dancing under the moon, or simply smiling at the day.
Unfortunately, our skill at rationalization and denial has led us to savage the inherent sustainability of the biosphere.
In ancient and traditional cultures, the role of humans on Earth was and is to enable the proper functioning of Earth, by correct performance of the rituals of the sacred year. Self-awareness is obligation as well as gift. Time traditionally is circular, Earth’s spin around Sol, and the sacred year is reborn each orbit. The traditional human role in Life is to correctly perform the ceremony cycle that guarantees Earth's rebirth.
The Confluence of Art and Ecology
What is more interesting than an Anthropic Principle is that we--humanity--are aspects of Earth responding to its own existence. Each human being is to the Biosphere as Microcosm is to Macrocosm. (See Note 2 below)
Creating art is one of the primary and most durable ways human consciousness responds to existence. Art in this large view is a species-level response to humanity's own existence, and at the largest level of organization, art-making is the biosphere perceiving and expressing itself.
I suggest that much of what is made in the arts (poetry, music, dance, painting, and so forth) is earth contemplating itself.
The first principle of ecology is that everything is connected. Life on Earth is above all relational. All is connected systematically by relationships of energy transfer and matter exchange. All lives interweave with and depend on other lives. Most lives survive by ingesting the by-products of other lives. We, for instance, breathe the wastes of trees and algae. They in turn breathe ours.
As you know, the biosphere is the “sphere of life,” that surrounds Earth, and the rock, water and air that supports life. All parts of the biosphere are tightly coupled. The entire biosphere may be conceived as a vast pool of atoms from which living organisms briefly rise and fall back again. The atoms in this pool have been assembled into life forms then dismantled again countless times for two billion years.
No life exists in isolation; every being exists embedded in a context of relationships. This context is often metaphored as a network or a web, each knot in the net, or each node or intersection in the network, being an organism or physical event, and the lines between them their relationships. This enormous combination of ecosystems we call the Biosphere is so intimately integrated that the density of relationship blacks out the visual metaphor.
Integration and Wholeness
We have circled back to the beginning.
What is functional about all this making we call art? What does it accomplish?
Humans have another defining quality, one we are less clear about than the short list above, one we share with many other residents of Earth:
• We need to belong.
• We need to know that we are part of something beyond our selves;
• We have a drive to join up.
In spite of our adoration of idiosyncrasy, the arts are communal processes that emerge from every kind and age of human being, and build on themselves over time.
The process of experiencing art, as maker or re-maker, is the integration of the part with the whole. in Deep Ecology’s terms, art is the integration of self with larger Self. Art, in both its making or experiencing, names a kind of transpersonal process that connects persons with the rest of life, that integrates a bit of conscious earth with the living planet.
Art-making is one example of our urge to join up, to be symbionts, to cooperate. Our urge is to fit.
This may be hard to see, for our perceptions have been sadly skewed by the Neo-Darwinist applause of competition cozily joined by the central beliefs of corporate capitalism, which proclaims, with satisfaction, “It’s a jungle out there!” Well, actually no, it’s an ecology out there. And in here.
Recent microbiology has demonstrated without doubt that various collaborations and cooperations of living organisms are in fact the baseline organizations of life, that symbiosis within the living system is the central life process, not competition, although competition is important. (search symbiogenesis).
Humans are notoriously divided creatures; we are “of two minds,” we argue within ourselves and without, parts of our brain can speak, parts are mute. Venus and Mars battle forever. Our feelings are often at odds with our “good sense.”
“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I contain multitudes.” (Walt Whitman Leaves of Grass).
Our ordinary state is multiple; perhaps we yearn to be singular, to enjoy again the clear simplicity we once had.
We yearn toward wholeness, yet we are slow to grasp that consuming won’t get us there.
So. We are a kind of evolutionary Humpty Dumpty. Our “selves” are fragmented, and at times the “conscious” part does not run things. We are the creature that is always yearning to be whole, to “get it together.” We want for all our bits and pieces to be integrated into a smoothly-running whole, pieces of broken shell smooth ovoid again, yolk and white floating serenely within, thinking that it’s probably time to get down off this wall.
We find hints and paths toward personal integration in many traditions. In Asia, Taoist and Buddhist traditions describe this sense of wholeness as a loss of self, as a loss of ego, a letting go. One way this very human desire to lose ourselves occurs is immersion of the entire self in an act of making, of doing. When we write, or paint, or compose, and become absorbed in the process, awareness tends to disappear into the process, and we are whole without, at the time, knowing it. Afterward, we may sense a loss and want that state of being back.
The Tao suggests that to fill, you must first empty. Buddhism also offers paths to becoming empty enough to be filled. But we sophisticates fear our own emptiness, for we are afraid that without our distractions and interior chatter, there is nothing at the center but the void.
Our culture rarely permits persons to be out of contact with others, witness cell-phone mania. The result is that people do not realize their strength; they have no way to discover it. We need ways for people to learn comfort in their own presence. Making a poem, a painting, a sculpture, a song is one such way. Soloing—being safely isolated for a day or two is another.
Our yearning toward wholeness was described beautifully by
the Oglala Lakota holy man, Black Elk, in the 1930s:
The Power of the World always works in circles, and everything tries to be round.… The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars.
The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same, and both are round.
Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves.
(from John Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks)
Everything tries to be round…what does that mean? It means, among other things, that we want to be complete, as a circle or sphere is complete. Perhaps our most ancient recognition of this is the Yin and Yang symbol— complementary opposites fused into one. To be complete is to be whole.
Every act of creation, of making some thing where no thing was before, has this ability to help us to become, however temporarily, whole.
We must recognize that humanity, especially in the West, has spent enormous effort and prayer and guilt in denial that humans are Natural. First peoples, indigenes, often find this refusal to accept obvious truth to be silly. We are culturally estranged from the rest of Nature, a willful biophobia. But my experience as a teaching artist leads me to wonder in what ways Nature inhabits the human mind.
The process of creating, of making where there was nothing, allows us to enter a state of being quite distinct from our normal waking conciousness. This making-state returns us to the natural creature that each of us are. It is like entering the sentience of a cat, that pure presence in the breaking wave of now. This making-state embraces a deep attention to and immersion in the moment.
As the awareness is intensely focused on doing, it is also oddly opened, enlarged; it forgets, as it were, its ordinary defenses. The sensation is of being whole within and at one with all life beyond self. One can only describe it after the fact, for there is no division of awareness during making, no observer sitting behind the eye, saying to itself, “I am whole, I am connected with the all.”
When the images we find are images given by nature, the process described above is enhanced; there comes an easing, a relaxation of boundaries.
It is as if one’s heartbeat merged with a larger pulse, the drumbeat of Earth. William James’ “blooming buzzing confusion” is not it at all.
There is beyond complexity a calm awareness of vibrant enduring pattern. In some way we are recalled to childhood. We re-discover what we all knew young, that we are natural beings.
Kids Being Natural Artists
When my son was five, he taught me something crucial about what human children contain. One day, as Owen played with match-box cars on the floor, I put on the stereo a new vinyl recording of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos. I noticed as I listened that he was not playing anymore, just listening. When the record was done, I asked him what he thought of it. He replied,
It made my feelings go
Like a buffalo hit me
with his nose,
and it was hard as light.
Since then, I have spent forty years in schools helping kids release the poems inside them. My most profound learning from kids has been that humans arrive on this earth already equipped to create in the arts. The role of the teaching artist is to help people release what is already inside, not to fill empty vessels with creativity. From the beginning, I became aware of how powerfully kids create when their images come from nature, from that intuitive awareness of being natural beings that kids have.
Here’s a poem by 7-year-old Tom Johnson:
My blood makes a circle
through my heart.
Earth makes a circle.
We, of Earth, are one part.
What Tom knows intuitively, what children are still allowed to briefly know, is that we are natural beings, and to image nature brings us to a place where we belong.
When asked to write about a healing place he could somehow enter when he was hurting, Tereance Walker, an inner-city sixth grader, found his healing energy in a dream forest:
THE NIGHT FOREST
I jump out my window and slide
under the old pine tree.
Just me and my pen
and paint and canvas,
and I draw until I am sleepy.
I head for the tree house
on the tallest and largest tree
of the forest,
take a glance at the mountains
behind the forest,
playing with the pink sky
and white clouds.
I pick up my canvas and draw me
riding on one of the clouds
until I fall asleep.
I dream of my family
riding with me on a cloud.
I wake up just in time
to head back to my bedroom.
I will be back, but for now
the gates of the Night Forest are closed.
—Tereance Jamile Reams Walker
Another 12 year old city boy found his energy in union with underbrush, the forest’s lower story:
MY SPECIAL WHISPERING BUSHES
In the whispering bushes
I talk to myself,
I sing a song until the winds come and join,
I hide behind the whispering bushes,
and in the bushes a gate
opens in and out with a special key.
To open the gate,
you have to use your mind.
I sing another song
when the light shines on me.
When daylight chills out
I’ll kiss this place good-bye.
In the whispering bushes
in and out I think for a little while,
In the whispering bushes,
talk to yourself,
sing a song until the winds come and join,
Soon you will be
In the whispering bushes.
—Ai Xiong, gr 6
These are not kids who know the woods. Perhaps Jung was right; maybe our minds arrive with a species-level memory, complete with archetypes.
An intense awareness of belonging is also a feature of kids’ writing:
An occasional sea spray,
powdery white sand mingled with wind & water,
I became one with the scape,
danced on the line between surf and sand.
Further out I skipped,
glints off the water, a stirring inside me,
I leapt, let go of my self.
Up with me rose the silvery creatures,
the harmony of surf & wind joined with my spirit,
two dolphins dancing with me,
all colors and feelings released, effervescence—
A wave rolled,
closed in and washed me over, made my skin glitter.
The dolphins dove,
They took part of me and left parts of themselves.
—Dee Dee Budde, gr 8
OVER THE WHOLE WORLD St. Croix River Valley
up in the sky
on a rock
over the big blue water
across the deep valley of trees
I stood … tall and full, like a mast-head of
a special ship, one that was alive.
I felt the earth move
around my body as I lay sinking into its love,
satisfied by caresses the wind gave me freely
all day the sun felt warm
and I sat on the edge of the cliff
dangling my feet over the whole world
playing an imaginary flute, the music
around me, sun warm and the river below
twinkled and quivered, showing off
rainbow patterns in its waves and flow,
sparkling like a wet Milky Way.
Jenny Prosser, gr 10
And just perhaps, even as I bewail the use of lovely nature images to sell distasteful products on television, those images are waking archetypes in childrens’ minds. Who knows?
However we explain it, the use of nature images enables kids to speak fluently and well.
The connection is there; they sense the breadth of their belonging.
Many naturalists and artists report on a childhood experience of epiphany when they were deeply struck by the awareness that they were part of the enormous living whole. This realization of connection has been described by people worldwide.
Thomas Berry describes his:
The universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects. And we have this from our first awakening to the universe. There’s one experience that has had a very deep influence on my life.
When I was about ten years old I saw a meadow and I saw it first in spring time — in early May. How wonderful this is to live in the universe where there’s a sun in the heavens; where there are so many wonderful creatures of Earth; where the song of the birds and the butterflies and the cicada in the evening.
What is all this? Obviously, it’s not a collection of objects to be used. Obviously, it’s a world to be venerated. It’s a world to be communed with, to be present, to be delighted in, and together to have a certain experience that might be called ecstatic.
Such experiences, described, can make people uncomfortable, especially in a society which denies Nature, and with it, our own deepest pulls. But this experience of mystical communion, while real, is only one of several paths to re-connection with Earth.
The process of making, or creating, using images of life, is another such path. Education can be such a path toward wholeness, but often is not, for information alone is never enough. Direct sensory experience is often what’s missing; experience of the body is what evokes emotion. Engage the heart, and the mind will follow.
We live embedded in Earth’s creative power. Earth’s creative force is ours, for we are one of Earth’s processes.
Life is creative. Autopoesis is the process of self-organization, self-creation, that continually demonstrates the biosphere’s creativity. Living organisms are processes forever in the act of becoming new, and renewed. Biotic communities continuously evolve, change, adapt, emerge again. Change is the constant thrust and dynamism of the biosphere. Change in living systems is triggered by both by events external to the system and by the internal pressure to grow and spread, named life-pressure by Vernadsky—an emergent property of the biosphere.
Emergent properties of living ecosystems, such as sustainability, exemplify nature’s creativity. Consider the making and sharing of the arts as emergent properties of the living system called humanity.
Recently in Western corporate culture, creativity has come to mean problem-solving, regarded as essentially cognitive. This “creativity” is analyzed reductively into a set of techniques and implemented by training seminars. This seems a rather pathetic way to describe an ability of humans that has given us Bach, Shakespeare, gamelan, blues and jazz, netsuke—in short the whole interwoven tapestry of song and print, movement and fiber, metal and stone that is human art. There is no doubt that “thinking outside the box” can lead to novelty, but to describe this process as creation is huge exaggeration.
Creating is a discovery process that engages and helps unify every portion of our selves. Creating is making something where nothing was. It requires the presence of the entire being: body, mind, emotion, and if you will, spirit.
On Microcosm and Macrocosm
To see the universe in a grain of sand
and heaven in a wildflower
hold infinity in the palm of your hand
and eternity in an hour --William Blake, circa 1800
Or see a lifetime in a flower. Or in a mayfly. These leaps from small to large embody an ancient, traditional way of seeing. While this way is undoubtedly as old as any chipped flint, for the past two thousand years or so it has been known as Microcosm/Macrocosm, literally, “small world/large world.” The term names one of the tools of human intuition. Once a child intuits the large within the small, she has begun to become fully human.
Once we accept that we are portions of Earth, one implication is the analogy that a person is to the biosphere as microcosm is to macrocosm.
Microcosm : macrocosm :: a person : biosphere
The idea works like this: in the Microcosm, the same energies and patterns exist as in the Macrocosm. Differences are matters of scale. See the universe in a grain of sand, a lifetime in a flower. The Micro- predicts the Macro—they are synonymous except for scale. The one mirrors the other. We have always been fascinated by things which seem intuitively “the same” even though vastly dissimilar in size. The Whole is embodied in each of its parts.
So in this way, little is big and big is little, high can equal low and inside can be outside. Paradox too can be an aid to thought. A traditional magic principle is "As above, So below." The Lakota see it like this:
The Microcosm/Macrocosm concept enjoys validation from surprising sources.
Recently, mathematics has described the fractal nature of much natural phenomena. Fractal geometry describes objects that are self-similar, or scale symmetric.
This means that when such objects are magnified, their parts are seen to bear an exact resemblance to the whole, the likeness continuing with the parts of the parts and so on to infinity. Fractals are used especially in computer modeling of irregular patterns and structures in nature. Many topographic features of Earth are scale symmetric. The irregular coastlines of Britain were the first such structures demonstrated fractally. Among the next were the edges of butterfly wings. So what appears to be chaotic and irregular is, in fact, predictable and regular.
The hologram provides another powerful validation of Microcosm/Macrocosm.
A hologram is recorded on a photographic plate. If you illuminate that plate properly with light (laser light and recently, incident light), it becomes a 3D reproduction of what was recorded. If you cut that photographic plate into say, fifty pieces of different sizes, and correctly illuminate them, each will present the entire hologram again, in miniature but complete. So what is truly amazing about holograms is not just their apparent three-dimensionality, but that each point on the surface of that photographic plate contains the entire hologram. Our “common sense” may balk at such a thought, but our ancient intuitions are affirmed. Microcosm–Macrocosm does help describe reality.
Yet another description of reality that may open you to Microcosm/Macrocosm rises from genetics.
Eons of time are encapsulated within every gene inside every eukaryote cell. Every seed contains the history of life.
So. A human being is a microcosm of the Biosphere’s macrocosm. This means that when humans create things, we are one aspect of Earth’s creativity. If this is true, and I think it is, then we must re-think the nature of art-making.
(to explore further in Microcosm/Macrocosm, read Theodore Roszack’s brilliant book, The Voice of the Earth. )
A test: Macro EcoPrinciples Against Micro
Recent thought in ecopsychology has coined the terms “inner ecology” and “outer ecology,” which invests microcosm/macrocosm with relational awareness.
The table below shows six basic principles of ecosystem ecology on the left, and equivalent principles of inner ecology on the right.
Outer Ecology’s Principles
Inner Ecology’s Mirror
1.Life is powered by flows of energy from the sun
Energy flows from Earth and Mind and Other. Art-making is powered by a flow of images from the conscious and the unconscious mind, and by a flow of energy between self and Other. Making art is, in part, learning to tap these flows.
2. Life’s Materials Continuously Cycle and
Recycle: Life Lives in Circles
The continual cycling of our own memories, including the archetypal memories of the collective unconscious, is the mind’s creative wellspring
3. We all Belong to the Whole: All lives depend on one another and share ancient but common ancestry.
Making art rounds the circle of self, integrates our riven parts, gives each the power of symbolic action, and unites the self with Earth. Creative process makes the circle of self congruent with the Earth’s large circle.
4. All lives continuously transform:
Being is becoming.
Making art transforms us into Other through empathy and play, in processes of inspiration, catharsis, identification and ritual.
5. All lives seek Balance: Lives regulate themselves toward homeostasis.
Making art balances, integrates and heals;
Image-flow from Earth and from the unconscious into the aware mind is a balancing/healing process which provides us the images we need.
6. All lives Interlive: Lives find ways to live with and within each other in Symbiosis. Cooperation is a basic pattern of life.
Art-making is communal, a collaboration among artist, past artists, others, shared culture, and the shared unconscious
An Idea Whose Time Has Arrived
Ideas emerge in cultures in many places at once. We call such ‘ideas whose time has come.’ These synchronistic emergences of new concepts are not coincidences. There is something about them of a gestalt consciousness. They are the root of memes. There is here a hopeful spirit.
After I completed the essay above, I researched a bit to see who might be thinking about similar issues. I was delighted to find the work of Ellen Dissanyanke, who has written books such as What are Arts For? and Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes from and Why. However, I was disappointed that her conclusions do not rise from an ecological view. Instead, she argues from aesthetics and anthropology that making Art is essentially a process of “making special.” Painting, song, drama and dance reinforce and enable people’s ability to know what is important to their perceptual world and gives people resilience in the face of change. In her intuition that making art is an evolutionary adaptation she is correct, but “making special” seems a shallow result for such a universal adaptive behavior.
Literary scholars have also stirred this pot; some claim that evolutionary literary analysis is the best thing since deconstructivism.
Biological science has changed dramatically in recent years, and a few literary critics have tried to bridge the humanities and current biology with this new approach.
Joseph Carroll has published Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature, a collection of essays. It has been well-received, especially for its Darwinist insights into Pride and Prejudice and Tess of the d'Urbervilles. What I see once again in this book from a literary critic is another doomed retooling of past creativity, as if that might spark his own. What I do not find here is a grasp of ecology that might yield more than literary criticism.
There is also The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology, edited by Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm.
An organization has been founded called the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment, which publishes ISLE Journal: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, which looks intriguing for its willingness to explore cultural conceptions of Nature beyond purely literary studies.
Nancy Aiken in 1998 published The Biological Origins of Art, another iteration of the idea’s emergence into culture.
An apparent attempt to shift the terms is Biopoetics: Evolutionary Explorations in the Arts, by Brett Cooke and Frederick Turner, published in 1999.
In 2004, Greg Garrrard published as an introductory guide, Ecocriticism. It’s a fine book, accessible and wily. He covers such topics as Wilderness, Dwelling, Animals, Earth, and Apocalypse. It could be used well in a course named “Green Studies.” It was not Garrard’s purpose to plough new ground in this book, but to summarize a recent field of study.
The concept that the origin of the human arts is biological is floating around in environmental studies, literary criticism, formal aesthetics, and ecofeminism, to name a few. The questions remain: How is art-making adaptive? How does this evolved passion function for the human animal? How might it make a difference in our time?
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