The Descent of Art. The Evolution of Visual Art as Communication via Material Culture

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This paper starts out by offering an analysis of three highly topical and influential evolutionary approaches for the origins of art: The first goes back to Darwin and suggests that art, like the peacock’s tail, was shaped by sexual selection to attract the opposite sex. The second proposal suggests that the main adaptive function of art is to attract and share attention, thereby promoting social cohesion and increasing the overall fitness of the group. The third model advances that throughout evolution, visual art has helped organ-ize mental structure and enhanced cognitive abilities—e.g. memory and learning. By contrasting these models against evidence of artistic behaviour from the archaeological record of the Upper Pleistocene—127 000-10 000 years before present, and especially from 100000-30 000 BP, it becomes evi-dent that none of them can fully account for the emergence and development of visual art as it is reflected in the archaeology. Based on that analysis the present work argues that: 1) Many important issues regarding the evolution of visual art in par-ticular have not been attended by existing models, for which an account that is compatible the archaeological record is still lacking. 2) It might be fruitful to pursue an alternative evolutionary scenario for visual art, in which this trait is conceived of as a communication signal in the form of stylistic variation in material culture. 3) An evolutionary model based on communication, material culture, and style can generate preliminary predictions for the emergence and devel-opment of visual art in the Pleistocene, some of which will be outlined. Consider the faculty of making art not as a special God-given gift re-served for a few talented individuals, or as an acquired skill that takes years to learn and master, but as a universal human behaviour. Consider behaviour not as a fixed action pattern, but as any action of an organism that changes its relationship to its environment. Consider the environment not as the ex-traneous surroundings of the passive organism, but as a system with which the organism is in constant interaction and of which the organism itself is an active part of.

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Straffon, Larissa Mendoza: The Descent of Art. The Evolution of Visual Art as Communication via Material Culture. In: IMAGE. Zeitschrift für interdisziplinäre Bildwissenschaft, Jg. 7 (2011), Nr. 2, S. 59-75. DOI:
 author = {Straffon, Larissa Mendoza},
 title = {The Descent of Art. The Evolution of Visual Art as Communication via Material Culture},
 year = 2011,
 doi = "\url{}",
 volume = 7,
 address = {Köln},
 journal = {IMAGE. Zeitschrift für interdisziplinäre Bildwissenschaft},
 number = 2,
 pages = {59--75},
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