The Functions of

The aesthetic has often been defined in opposition to the pragmatic. If we view art as something that transcends our immediate material needs, it looks hard to explain in an evolutionary way. Selection is usually assumed to favor behaviors that promote survival, but almost no art theorist has ever proposed that art directly promotes survival. It costs too much time and energy and does too little. This problem was recognized very early in evolutionary theorizing about art. In his 1897 book The Beginnings of Art, Ernst Grosse commented on art's wastefulness, claiming that natural selection would "long ago have rejected the peoples which wasted their force in so purposeless a way, in favor of other peoples of practical talents; and art could not possibly have been developed so highly and richly as it has been." He struggled, like many after him, to find a hidden survival function for art.

To Darwin, high cost, apparent uselessness, and manifest beauty usually indicated that a behavior had a hidden courtship function. But to most art theorists, art's high cost and apparent uselessness has usually implied that a Darwinian approach is inappropriate, that art is uniquely exempt from selection's cost-cutting frugality. This has led to a large number of rather weak theories of art's biological functions. I shall briefly consider their difficulties before attempting to bring art back into the evolutionary framework.

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