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Art Finds A Way- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Art Finds A Way- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Art Finds A Way


Disclaimer: No part of this post was written by AI, or maybe even Real-I.


In the movie Jurassic Park, the character Ian Malcolm (played by Jeff Goldblum, and influenced at least somewhat by Bruce’s postdoctoral advisor Stuart Kauffman) makes an observation about the developing situation and the extreme danger the protagonists are about to find themselves in:


Life finds a way.

-Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park


How does it do that? And what does this have to do with Art?

Nature does it by evolving, by continuously trying new things while keeping track of what was already tried, using a clever note-taking scheme called genetics and proteomics, namely the ingredients of life.

The thing itself is also the record of the thing, something that evolution has in common with Art.

Art has co-evolved with civilization, a (mostly visual) record of the collective human evolutionary process.

But is Art a byproduct of civilization or does it go deeper than that? Is it just something to do because you’ve got some spare time (as a group) or more than that?

This needs a bit of a detour into psychology.


Art & Maslov


In our present civilization, I believe that there is a tendency to think of art as a luxury.

This is no doubt partly due to the work of the psychologist Abraham Maslov, who wrote a paper in 1943 called A Theory of Human Motivation.

Maslov put forth the idea of a “hierarchy of needs” associated with the process of making a life, and later researchers arranged these needs into a pyramid as a visual organizational principle. 



Pictorial representation of Maslov’s Hierarchy of Needs



Note: Turning abstract and complex concepts into a colorful graphic means that the concepts were “Artified.”

The four layers at the bottom of the pyramid are called “deficiency needs,” meaning that the individual will feel out of equilibrium if these needs are not met. They will feel deprivation.

Maslov believed these four levels needed to be taken care of to be able to consider the higher levels.


Maslov assigned artistic creativity to the levels at the top of the pyramid, which made Art a kind of existential luxury.


You can only do Art when everything else is signed, sealed, and delivered.

You can only do Art if you’re comfortable and content, something that jarringly conflicts with the lives of many famous artists, either due to their own personalities or due to external circumstances.


Problems with Maslov


Maslov’s ideas have been roundly debated and contested in the eight decades since their publication. Other researchers have particularly found issue with the ordering and sequencing of needs.

Do you really need to address layers 1-7 before you can think about #8? And does the ordering change sometimes?

Subsequent studies have shown that the perceived needs can be a function of age, gender, national circumstances, and many other things.

The only thing that there was general agreement on was food and shelter.


Art Abides


Many of the concepts in Maslov’s hierarchy are concepts that have only existed for a small fraction of historical time, such as self-actualization or even romantic love, fun, and leisure.

It is unlikely that the average Egyptian in the time of the Pharaohs thought about self-actualization, they were busy with other things.



Egyptian pyramids



But Art has been around for the entirety of civilization, if we consider civilization as something that started around the time of the first agriculture and fixed settlements, about 10,000 BCE.

In fact Art precedes civilization by a great deal, cave paintings are three or four times older than the oldest human settlements. 



Cave of Altamira and Paleolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain, ~34,000 BCE



Perhaps Civilization is a byproduct of Art, not the other way around.


That’s a big claim, but perhaps they are at least on the same level, expressions of human consciousness that transcend the individual in both time and space, coherence and communication across historical time and different civilizations, a language sufficiently abstract to make the leap.


Not only did Art Find a Way, Art showed the way.


Art In the Time Of Crisis


One of the standard memes of the creative life is that of the “tortured artist,” borne of the observation that art rarely comes from situations and environments where everyone is as happy as a pig in mud and all needs are met. 



Uncomfortable Artist: Van Gogh with bandaged ear, self-portrait



Many of the most moving artworks come from times of turbulence, reflected on canvas. 



Francisco Goya, 3rd of May 1808



The European Renaissance was presaged by war, famine, poverty, and disruption.

It seems unlikely to me that the breathtaking flowering of artistic expression at that time sprung fully formed from nothing, like Athena born from Zeus’s head.


Brief Mythology Detour


The expression “emerging fully formed from someone’s head” comes from Greek mythology.

Zeus, having impregnated Metis, was informed by an oracle that Metis’ first child would be a girl and her second child would be a boy who would overthrow Zeus.

So Zeus did what any self-respecting god would do, ate Metis, unborn child and all.

Later Zeus developed the mother of all headaches.

After some Olympian consultation, Hephaestus, blacksmith of the gods, performed some basic surgery by splitting Zeus’ forehead with a wedge and out came Athena, daughter of Metis.

Because of her means of delivery, she became the goddess of intellect and wisdom.



The Birth of Athena from Zeus’ forehead, pottery image


End of Mythological Detour


It seems more likely that it was gestating amongst conflict and starvation prior to the Renaissance.

It did not start out at the top of the Maslov hierarchy, but rather spanned all of the levels, a kind of Grand Traverse.  



Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus (1483-5)



And what kind of time do we live in now?

It is an Age of Anxiety, full of big uncertainties, some of them on a planetary scale.

Will we render the planet uninhabitable through ecological catastrophe or war? Will democratic governments survive? Will our technological creations render us irrelevant and powerless?

I submit that most of these concerns have been present all through recorded history, but Art and Artists have kept going because they are driven to do so.

There is a voice that must be heard, and Art is particularly art-iculate.


Art Going Where No Person Has Gone Before


One exception to “the more things change, the more they stay the same” has to do with population.

We may be approaching the first time in recorded history where the worldwide population will fall. It may have happened before, but there was no worldwide communication and nobody keeping track back then.  

This population decline happened locally many times, particularly in the decades before the Renaissance.

The downtrodden became valued because there were so few of them, and an Age of Humanism grew out of the cinders of despair, different than what came before, spanned and celebrated by Art.

We have ridden the last few centuries on the coattails of endless growth, more of everything including people, powered by the Industrial Revolution and modern capitalism.

What comes after?

We don’t have a crystal ball, but whatever it is a safe bet is to say that it will include Art. 


Coda: Art Abides


It’s a good bet because it has been a good bet for a long time.

The philosopher and probability scientist Nassim Taleb has written about betting on trends, and using a kind of probabilistic analysis called Bayesian Analysis has shown that the only reliable predictor of something persisting into an unknown future is it having been around a long time. 

If you’ve only seen the Sun come up once in your life and you know nothing of orbital dynamics and nobody else tells you about it, a second time is uncertain.

If you’ve seen it thousands of times, confidence grows that it will happen again.



Sunrise, Mt Fuji, Japan



In Taleb’s book The Black Swan, he reflects on the nature of highly improbable events, so-called “black swans,” meaning that no number of observations of white swans prepares you for a black one.

(Incidentally, there are places in the world where black swans are actually common) 



Black Swan in blog post

Black Swan



There will always be black swans, things that we don’t know that we don’t know and therefore can’t use our existing knowledge (what probability scientists call “priors”) to predict them.


Millions of years of dinosaurs milling around do not prepare them for the asteroid strike 65 million years ago. 

Furthermore, there are big black swan events and little ones, with little ones occurring much more frequently but having fewer consequences.

The longer something lasts, the greater the number of black swans (of any size) it has encountered. In Art’s long history, it has encountered a whole flock of them.

So, bet on Art. Art abides. 


With gratitude from my studio to yours,




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