Talk: From the aesthetic mind to the human cultures: there and back again

Maratja Brown, aged 9, being painted by Gali Gurrwiwi with designs given by the Gälpu clan for his initiation at Galiwin’ku on Elcho Island, Arnhem Land, NT. Photo: Yasunori Hayashi 2008.

Lorenzo Bartalesi – Talk to the International Conference “From the Aesthetic Mind to the Symbolick Mind” (Firenze, 26/10/2017)

The talk sheds light on the links between aesthetic behaviours and cultural dynamics in human evolution. We’ll begin by describing the phenomenological and cognitive complexity of aesthetic behaviour before examining the role of such multidimensional phenomenon in the processes of cultural transmission. This analysis will lead us to consider aesthetic behaviours as a dynamic through which a particular socio-cultural system is perceived and transmitted. The aim is to suggest some remarks for a research program on how the several dimension of the human aesthetic mind (behavioural, cognitive, social, cultural) are involved in the course of social interaction creatively transforming and transmitting the cultural meanings.

Aesthetics across place

In every culture, aesthetic practices play a role in magical, religious and political contexts. The ethnographic literature is rich with examples of aesthetic as a performative dimension of culture – connected with mimetic behaviours and ritualized actions – to be used in the restoration of the individual’s physical, emotional and mental resources and in the development of cultural identity.
A classic example is the body painting practices of the Indigenous Australian Yolngu people during circumcision ceremonies. As shown by the anthropologist Howard Morphy, these body ornaments codify the clan structure and demarcate territorial boundaries (Morphy 1991). Fluctuations in cultural meanings are not restricted to material expression and can be achieved in connection with a mnemonic archive of tacit knowledge and virtual images of Yolngu culture. The aesthetic effect doesn’t lie in the geometrical forms and brilliant colors themselves, but rather, it emerges as a result of their ability to make real the complete interconnection of all social meanings, in a non-propositional way and beyond any logical and temporal nexus.
Ethnographic descriptions of this kind show us that the aesthetic should be viewed as a complex synthesis between physiological reactions, high-order categorizations, emotions, social learning, and episodic and cultural memory. Aesthetics is an integral behavioural and cognitive component of heterogeneous social practices that plays a crucial role in functions of primary importance like the interiorisation and transmission of norms and the creation and maintenance of social institutions.

Aesthetics across time

There is no reason to believe that this anthropological significance of the aesthetic dimension is of little importance to the great civilizations of the past, nor to the Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer societies. Archaeological reports provide fully illustrated accounts of how aesthetic behaviours and expressive activities have carried out a crucial role in our evolution. The perfect symmetry of the Acheulean amygdales (Mithen 2003; Currie 2011), the systematic pigment use in the middle Pleistocene (Barham 2002), the shell beads put together to form complex ornamental displays (Vanhaeren, d’Errico 2011), the fascinating creations of the Upper European Palaeolithic such as the Chauvet Cave and the now famous Venus of Willendorf figurine are all testimonies to an aesthetic world before history.
Although it may be reasonable to believe that, at least since the upper Paleolithic, many forms of human expression have been symbolic representations, it is much less so to assume that this is the only way in which such images or artefacts have been experienced. Recent evolutionary investigations into human’s disposition to culture, such as intersubjective attunement (Frank, Trevarthen 2012; Trevarthen 2012), ritualization or making-special behaviours (Dissanayake 2009), have furnished evidence of the evolutive value of aesthetic behaviours. All of these studies encourage us to revise the dominant “symbolic revolution model” of human cultural evolution (Tattersall 2016), monopolized by the role of language in symbolic and figurative art, while downplaying, if not overlooking, the aesthetic way to produce meanings and knowledge. At least it is reasonable to suppose a new perspective on what is traditionally called the “creative explosion” in human evolution; long before they began scaffolding their world through an articulated symbolic language, human beings had been transmitting their knowledge via non-verbal and performative forms, employing extant cognitive processes for expressive functions.
This hypothesis appears all the more credible if we consider the notion of “aesthetics” in a very fundamental way in keeping, for example, with the work of French anthropologist André Leroi-Gourhan. According to him, the field of aesthetics involves the aesthetic implications of nutritional behaviours and bodily affectivity and includes all of the products of rhythmic creation (Leroi-Gourhan 1964, 95). Remarkably consonant with John Dewey’s naturalistic conception of aesthetic experience (Dewey 1980, 19), the aesthetic dimension is a kind of “physiological judgement of value” that displays the quality of an affective and dynamic equilibrium between an organism and its environment and that underlays the plurality of other symbolic and cultural forms, such as language and art.

Aesthetics and anthropogenesis

Starting from these cross-cultural and evolutionary considerations, we suppose that, in the historical processes of our evolution, aesthetic behaviours play a fundamental role in the symbolic practices through which human beings shape their second – and most likely only – nature. In these processes of anthropopoiesis (Remotti 2013), by which human beings mould their selfimage through ritual and institutional constraints, the bodily modifications are something more substantive and could play a role in the evolutionary process of hominization. This is what Charles Darwin proposed in the second part of The Descent of Man when he described how the ornamental shaping of the body and different aesthetic ideals had influenced the evolution of many human bodily characteristics. We should here remember that in Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, the “sense of beauty” is a powerful engine of change in structures and mental qualities of the species through a co-evolutionary relationship with the bodily features of individuals. From body paintings to tattoos, from headdress to decorations with shells, bones and feathers, the ornamental human body is a real selective force in human evolution according to the logic of sexual selection. Following this Darwinian biological notion of aesthetic sense, and in keeping with the fundamental Leroi-Gourhan’s notion of aesthetic sensibility, we can suppose that iconic differentiation and the origin of figuration have been made possible by a previous aesthetic evaluation of the natural and social environment (Lorblanchet 1999, 89-115). In the metamorphosis from protective membrane to surface that can be fashioned, the body becomes, for the first time in human evolution, an image, the genetic condition of Homo Pictor (Bredekamp 2010). With the release of aesthetic sensibility from sexual desire and its subsequent application to other classes of objects and elements of the environment a new and specifically human form of aesthetic evaluation arises.

A broad view of aesthetics

If we really want to understand the role of aesthetic behaviours in the cultural processes, we need a preliminary anthropological characterization of aesthetic phenomena. Appeals to aesthetics in the social sciences and humanities are still seen as falling within a prescriptive category, or a branch of philosophy, devised in the 18th century and fully realized in the modernist theory of art. This standard idea involves an ancillary and non-essential concept of aesthetics. Approaching non-western artefacts or antiquities from this perspective will obviously lead to misunderstandings. What we need is a broad view that assumes that the aesthetic is not a theoretical entity bound to the western philosophical tradition but an anthropological fact rooted in cognitive and behavioural dispositions that contribute to the survival of an individual and a society. But what are some of the characteristic features of the aesthetic dimension? The complexity of aesthetic behaviours can be potentially reduced to two specific traits:

  • The phenomenological trait  Above all, we can define the aesthetic as a specific way of experiencing the world. We note that all human cultures consider a form of affectively marked experience that is distinct from the ordinary experience of the world. Such qualitatively enhanced experiences emerge in instances where one’s concentration is focused on the present moment through a kind of total psychic engagement resulting in i) a distortion of the perception of time; ii) a sense of wholeness that overcomes all partiality; iii) a lack of awareness of the distance separating subject and object. The aesthetic is therefore a modality of experience capable of generating an existential frame whereby we become part of an “aesthetic field”, that is, an experiential situation involving objective, appreciative, creative and performative dimensions (Berleant 1970). Due to this phenomenological peculiarity, aesthetic dimension is inextricably linked to situations in which our emotional balance and harmony with the world is at stake, as well as our relationship to transcendence, to death, and to the need to attribute meaning to existence.
  • The cognitive trait From a cognitive point of view, and in a very general sense, we could describe the aesthetic relation as an intensified activity of exploration modulated and directed by attractors present in the perceptual field, where objects or perceived events acquire an emotionally marked and cognitively undetermined significance. In this broad definition there are essentially three elements to keep in mind.
  1. Aesthetic attention is historically and culturally situated (Manzotti 2011). The portion of the world that is the object of aesthetic attention appears to be a singular and subjectively modulated unit, generated in connection with the broader context of experiences, gestures, and languages.
  2. Aesthetic experience is the result of a specific relationship between cognitive discrimination and affective reactions. In an aesthetic experience attention is “captured” in a cognitive, self-inducing dynamic whose sole objective is to maintain itself through continuous feedback between attention and hedonic appreciation (Schaeffer 2000).
  3. Aesthetic attention is still very flexible, creative, and capable of a high level of cognitive innovation. Aesthetic attention involves both the “vertical” process of conceptual categorization and the “horizontal” exploration of contextual complexity (Hepburn 1963). It is therefore able to catch relations of affinity between heterogeneous configurations and aspects of reality (on “aesthetic schemas” see Desideri 2016).

Cultural transmission

We have offered a conceptual definition of the complex notion of the aesthetic, what about the other puzzling term of the relationship, the notion of culture?

In this talk, I stress the processual dimension of cultural systems, namely, the mechanisms of transmission, diffusion and innovation. This theoretical choice is consistent with the traditional view in social anthropology. Indeed, from Marcel Mauss, Evans-Pritchard, Alfred Kroeber to Claude Lévi-Strauss and Clifford Geertz, social facts are characterized by their transmissibility. What makes something “cultural” are the mechanisms of its transmission and the specificity of each cultural fact resides in its mode of transmission.
If we want to stress the role of aesthetic behaviours in cultural dynamics, we need a model of cultural transmission as a transformative system wherein the bodily, affective, cognitive and environmental aspects are part of a complex developmental process. Therefore, cultural transmission does not merely consist in spreading or copying “bits of culture” (ideas, concepts or propositions). On the contrary, cultural transmission is an historical process, subject to causality, dispersion, and innovation and it reaches down into the sensorimotor schemas, feelings, and emotions that constitute our meaningful encounter with the world. Every culture is constituted through processes of transmission involved in a field of practice and that go without saying.

How does cultural transmission work in the aesthetic regime?

Aesthetic transmission is a form of transmission that is continually responsive to perturbations within the perceived environment; it is ritualistic, highly creative and mediated through gestures, dance, music, smells, texts, images, artefacts. It is precisely in this form of performative interaction with the cultural environment, whereby a given individual’s knowledge is semantically undetermined and inextricably linked with a given location (theatre, ritual place, church, etc.) as well as to the individual’s body and affects, that we have proof of the transformative relevance of aesthetic attention in cultural dynamics.
From an historical and evolutionary point of view, we could assume that this kind of aesthetic transmission plays a crucial role in the construction of the human cultural niche (Laland, O’Brien 2011). Indeed, we might propose that a primary aesthetic interface with the environment shapes social relations and material culture. In other words, individuals are socialized into a world of sensation that resonates with their bodies and influences the way objects are experienced. If, as hypothesized by the research on situated cognition and on the epigenetic character of cerebral variability, the processes of the human nervous system are structured by the continuing cultural practices in which human action is immersed, then the aesthetic should be considered as a sensorial, conceptual, and ideational matrix of a given culture’s perceptual environment. We can pursue this reasoning a bit further and propose that the human cultural niche is experienced as a sort of aesthetic environment (Berleant 2002) or, stated differently, an aesthetic niche (Menary 2014). According to this perspective, aesthetics and the cultural environment are tightly and reciprocally bound to one another in an ecological process of anthropopoiesis. Human beings learn and develop in this aesthetic niche and the exposure to these sensory environments reorganizes neural circuitry, anchoring knowledge in memory through affective reinforcement, and habitual bodily activity.

Conclusion: a complex two-way mechanism

It is within this broader ecological framework that we can now reformulate the connection between aesthetics and culture. Western tradition has conceived of this relationship along a causal vector that goes from social organization to artistic objectification. I argue that it would be more pertinent to conceptualize the causal relation between aesthetic behaviours and cultural dynamics in both directions by considering the impact of aesthetic perception on the network of symbols, norms, beliefs, and institutions.
While it is true that an aesthetic act is always projected against the background of institutions, norms and habits that determine our judgment and reactions, it is likewise true that the aesthetic performs a crucial role in the work of incessantly reconstituting the symbolic framework of a given culture. Aesthetic cognition restructures the cultural contents of a social context by moving analogically within the individual network of imaginative associations, memories, and cultural meanings. Such an impact is closely related to the character of indeterminacy and the associative freedom of aesthetic attention that, as we have seen, depends on its specific cognitive operations.
In conclusion, the relationship between aesthetics and culture is a complex two-way mechanism in which aesthetic behaviours are influenced by social institutions, belief systems, and cultural frameworks, while a given cultural system is continually restructured by the semantic potentialities and symbolic connections produced by aesthetic operation of human cognition. Stressing the relationship between aesthetics and cultural transmission means providing an innovative perspective on the two major and recurring issues in the study of human cultures: the issue of diversity and the nature of social continuity.


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