The Science of Art

I’ve been reading as much as I can on theatre theory in my off-time (and by off-time, I mean time I have while I’m not actually practicing the art), and one common theme I keep running across in all the books I have, is that theatre, and art in general, is never given a scientific justification.

I know that, unfortunately, there are not many artists whose interests intersect with the sciences, which is really a shame. While I consider myself a professional theatre artist, I am also an armchair scientist, particularly regarding evolution and human development. I am, basically, fascinated by people, which is I’m sure why I enjoy directing so much — I work on shows where I manage people, deal with individual personalities, in an art form that requires a lot of collaboration, and is solely about telling stories about ourselves to ourselves. It’s kind of narcissistic on a species level, but isn’t that why art is here?

I mean, I would assume. I have yet to find a single book published on how/why art evolved. I find this very sad. We’re a highly complex species that communicates on a lot of different levels — through writing, speaking, facial expressions and body language. You can mask your true feelings or intentions on some of these levels, but usually you can’t hide every single intention.

My guess is that art evolved as one more way of communicating complex ideas in a simple form. Music moves us emotionally as a group, theatre tells us stories so that we see eye to eye (or, at least, are on our way to seeing eye to eye, and have a jumping-off point), visual art tells a single story of a moment. It communicates a narrative that we all identify with on some level.

And yet, art is also subjective. Rarely does everyone agree what modern art is about, and often modern plays with unresolved endings leave audiences to their subjective, individual stories with something to learn about themselves.

Since I learned about Greek catharsis in high school, I’ve assumed that the purpose of theatre, at its very core, was to bring a community together with a heightened emotional experience, whether it was through the cleansing ritual of tragedy or the collective scorning of comedic characters. And I just assume that that need has a scientific basis, since we are, again, a complex social species. Since our tribes have long since grown and scattered, we require a ritualistic, stylized scapegoat to make us feel unified. In my experience, particularly small theatre does that for me. The intimate space, being so close to the actors and the other audience members, impresses a particular group experience on to me that I don’t get from large theatres or movies, because I am simply too far away from other people in the audience. I once read from an author that movies are individual experiences, where you are isolated from the performers by time, space, and usually economics, and you’re isolated from your fellow audience members as well. With the exception of huge, popular movies that particularly draw geeks and nerds, in my experience. Star Wars, Iron Man, Star Trek movies, late night screenings, and the Rocky Horror Picture Show are social experiences on par with what I assume the ancient Greeks were going for. They have a sense of single-minded devotion, specialness, otherness that you don’t get with your day-to-day, they can bring you out of yourself into a larger sense of being and belonging, and sometimes are even followed by such an extreme sense of relief as to be borderline religious, if I dare say so.

Now, there’s a lot of cultural and political indoctrination in our idealized view of Greek theatre, which definitely abused that level of communication and collectiveness to the Athenian state’s benefit. So, if we are such social creatures and we get so much emotionally rich experience from such events, I am surprised that I have yet to run across someone who has studied the psycho-chemical reaction in our brains, or someone who has studied the evo-devo side of theatre. I know there are a few anthropologists studying the subject, and I know there is only so far they can go, depending on how you define theatre (which is becoming a very vague category, with performance art groups all over the country). I suppose art as a whole could be studied, but I am really surprised that no one has considered the evolutionary importance of art. Jewelry has been around forever, as have tattoos, while cave art is a recent phenomenon compared to the two. There’s no evidence of theatre or story-telling during this time, but one would have to assume that as soon as people could speak they began relating tales of the huge mammoth that their great-uncle slaughtered by himself after he broke his leg, or something, and reenacting bits and pieces just for drama, as we all do naturally with body language as we tell dramatic stories.

Perhaps it is because too much of it is vague, too much of the evolution of art would be based on speculation, while science can come close to proving our need for cooked food, clothes, social structure, and a certain amount of happiness in our lives. But someone should, soon, study what the arts do to our brain. I know there is a lot of attention being paid to music, which started with the link between music and math. If we could only show that theatre, story-telling, or painting are just as important to us, just as intrinsic to who we are, perhaps we would stop cutting the arts out of our schools in favor of more prosaic, but equally important, subjects like math and science and sports; perhaps we would be able to see the inherent value in all art forms, ancient and brand new; perhaps we would stop talking about art in Victorian terms, of high vs. low art, of certain art forms being “good for you” and things you should expose your kids to (because you should allow your kids to enjoy, intake, and create any and all kinds of art, and encourage them to express themselves when they have an opinion about what they’ve seen).

I hope for a day when we have a deeper knowledge of ourselves as social creatures, I suppose, and learning more about the effect of art on the brain and on groups would be one more step toward that goal.

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