David Rothenberg:
"Survival of the Beautiful" (2011)

(Copyright © 2012 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
David Rothenberg has written about the nusic of animals in "Why Birds Sing" (2005) and "Thousand Mile Song" (2008), and he has recorded several pieces of duets with animals.

This book starts out by examining some spectacular cases of animals and plants that invest energies into unnecessary floruish: the tail of the male peacocks, the unicorn-like tooth of the narwhals, the long tail of flycatchers, and especially the elaborate "architecture" (as Darwin himself called it) of the various species of bowerbirds (the satin bowerbird, in particular, with its obsession for anything blue). Ditto for the elaborate "songs" of humpback whales, mockinbirds and nightingales.

Darwin explained artistic skills as male means to seduce female mates: sexual selection is at work in parallel with the more famous natural selection. Males (and only males) use the beauty of an artwork or the beauty to a song as a tool to conquer females. And males can be quite aggressive in destroying or jamming the visual or sound art of other males. Denis Dutton pursued that line of thinking in "The Art Instinct" (2009), which tries to explain every known form of art as providing survival or reproductive advantages.

Rothenberg points out that Darwin's theory explains the reason why animals make these artistic investments, but doesn't explain the objects that they produce. Why is it that a colorful tail seduces the female peacock, as opposed to, say, a black and white stripe on the head?

Rothenberg believes that there is a fundamental law at work, a law of beauty, which accounts for a "survival of the beautiful" in parallel with a "survival of the fittest": "evolution producing preference for aesthetic traits, not practical ones". It is, after all, the same intuition that guided D'Arcy Thompson and Ernst Haeckel in their studies of natural forms. His own aesthetic sense is that the most beautiful art is the art that makes the world appear richer, which i assume means the art that makes us see "more" of the ultimate essence of nature.

(The opposite argument can be made, of course, that the dance of the honeybees was long considered purely aesthetic and now we know that it is a form of language that delivers precious information. Everything in nature looks like beauty for the sake of beauty until we find out that it has a function. What mesmerizes Rothenberg today might simply be something whose function science still hasn't discovered).

Rothenberg spends quite a bit of time introducing us to biologist Richard Prum and philosopher Arthur Danto, and to the general idea that the artwork and of its appreciation (the signaler and the receiver) coevolve. A chapter is about the hidden geometry of Jackson Pollock. The chapter on camouflage is one of the most interesting. The other possible history of art is that some of the most beautiful manifestations of animal life, such as the peacock's tail, are a form of camouflage, very evident to us outside their natural environment but not visible at all in their natural environment (a flowery wood in the case of the peacock's tail). And the first one to focus on camouflage was an artist, the painter Abbot Thayer.

Rothenberg mentions Roald Hoffmann and Carl Djerassi as examples of scientists who are also artists. It is easy to see how artists have used science (or, more simply, technology); but harder to find cases in which an artist's work has inspired a scientist to make a major discovery. Jane Richardson visualized proteins, and David Baker even created the videogame FoldIt so that the general public can figure out how complex proteins might be folded.

One chapter is a detour into Nicolas Bourriaud's "relational aesthetics". Relational art is a form of art in which the viewer is as important as the artist, the artist being merely the one who provides the means to involve the viewer. Then Rothenberg links this with Guy Debord's situationism and with elephant art. This takes Rothenberg to the origins of art (a theme that runs through all the chapters) and therefore to the various theories of Iegor Reznikoff, Ellen Dissanayake and Nancy Aiken about cave art. The mystery is why ancient artists preferred to paint in dark caves (my own hypothesis is here). In between we're treated to an introduction to Semir Zeki's neuroaesthetics. The next chapter examines some of the artists who bridge art and science.

The author's underlying belief is that "art can be considered as a tool to find greater meaning in nature". No wonder than that he believes art can be useful to science, and not only the other way around.

The last chapter is a survey of his favorite artists whose work straddles the border between art and evolutionary science: Casey Reas, Jonathan McCabe, Alexander Ross, Thomas Nozkowski, Karen Margolis, Anna Lindemann and the Barbarian Group.

See also my meditations on art-science integration and my essay on the evolution of art.

TM, ®, Copyright © 2012 Piero Scaruffi