Friday, 4 December 2015

Musings on 'A Hypothesis of the Evolution of Art from Play' by Ellen Dissanayake

Over the next few weeks, our weekly MFA seminar programme will involve each of the 2nd year MFA students selecting a text relating to their dissertation, sharing it with the group, and then chairing a discussion about the text.

This week was the first in the series, and I was the person to select the text and chair the discussion.
I chose 'A Hypothesis of the Evolution of Art from Play' by Ellen Dissanayake for a number of reasons. It is one of the few academic papers that I have found to address the relationship between art and play. Most papers address play in relation to children and their development, whereas this takes an alternative, and rather novel approach.

The text gives an overview of the characteristics of play and then considers how these are applicable to both the making and appreciation of art. It provides an ethological explanation for the relationship between play and art. She uses the study of animals to propose that art arose from play. Just as play is a form of social signalling for animals, and a means of members of a species communicating with each other, art is a means of communication, and therefore could be regarded as a civilised form of play.

She acknowledges that aspects of play, such as seeing something as something else, could have led to artistic activity that had a social purpose, but realises that what may have originated as a purposeful action becomes completely disassociated from its original purpose. She therefore accepts that to regard art as existing purely for this purpose would be reductionist. It is through this disassociation that art develops beyond play and becomes something else.

Art stems from an action that is playful.

Play is not an unbound activity. It is often limited by constraints, whether that is as a child only being able to play until a certain time, or in a certain place, or as an artist having to make an artwork in time for an exhibition, or to a set budget.

Dissanayake makes the argument that “By giving artistic form to real or imagined events and objects, man gains perspective on the objective as well as the subjective nature of experience.[1]” The self-awareness or self-consciousness that is allowed to emerge through the artistic process is of high value for humanity.

It is interesting to consider the development of self-consciousness that arises through the artistic process as being both generative, but also a restraint. Playfulness can somehow switch off anxiety, but anxiety can also be useful in forcing us to produce something. Too much anxiety can preclude an artist having the confidence to be able to make something.

The term playful or being in a state of playfulness should not be confused with unthinking or a lack of criticality. For an artist, being playful happens for a period of time, and then there is an important point of reflection and evaluation, where critical decisions are made as to what is working and what needs developing or editing. It is at this point of reflection that the artistic process is no longer playful.

Ive included the text below if you want to read it for yourself. It's quite a challenge, but hopefully you will find it interesting. Let me know your thoughts / interpretations / understanding of it, and ENJOY!
[1] Dissanayake, E. (1974) A hypothesis of the evolution of art from play. Leonardo. 7 (3), 216. 

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