By this point our early ancestors were probably also telling stories as they huddled around fires against the Ice Age chill—stories of glorious hunts and hard winters, tales of gods and tribal heroes.
By the time the first civilizations emerged in Sumer, Egypt, the Indus River, China, and the Americas, art was a well-established part of human life. Virtually every culture, at every period, has had some form of painting, sculpture, poetry, epic narrative, music, and dance.
Why did humans begin doing this sort of thing? Unlike tools for hunting, cooking, building, scraping animal skins, and the like, these artifacts have no clear survival value. Why did people whose daily life was a struggle for subsistence and whose life expectancy was probably less than twenty years spend time and energy making two-dimensional images in dark places? Why did they spend time and energy making instruments to produce rhythmic, tonal sounds? Why did they invent stories of things that never happened? What was the purpose of such activities? What needs did they satisfy? Why has art been such a pervasive feature of human life?
Some anthropologists argue that the appearance of art reflects a significant advance in human cognitive development—the emergence of a spiritual capacity in our species, the final stage in the evolution of the human mind. Although that is a speculative thesis, it is a plausible one, for art does satisfy needs that arise from our unique cognitive capacity: the ability to think in abstractions.
An abstract concept like "tree" allows us to think about an entire class of concrete objects that would otherwise confront us as an endless series of individual objects of perceptual awareness. As a cognitive device, the concept "tree" reduces this mass of perceptual data to a single unit. It allows us to identify properties common to all trees: that they are living organisms, they grow from seeds, they require water, etc. And it allows us to think about trees even when they are not present to our senses. The words we use to represent concepts allow us to communicate, learn from the experience of others, make agreements to cooperate, form societies based on abstract rules and laws rather than instinct, and transmit knowledge and culture to the next generation.
A consequence of our conceptual abilities that is particularly important for understanding art is the ability to conceive of ourselves and our lives self-consciously. Because we can abstract from the immediacy and concreteness of sense-perception, we can think about our futures, form long-range plans, imagine new ways of living, deliberate about what to do, and choose among alternative goals, projects, and actions.
The most obvious example of our ability to grasp our lives as continuous wholes is the awareness of death: the conscious knowledge that our lives are finite and will come to an end. The earliest known work of literature—the earliest narrative that has survived in written form—is in large part a meditation on death. In the Sumerian epic Gilgamesh, composed sometime before 1700 B.C., we are introduced to Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, as a warrior hero indifferent to the risks of death in battle. But grief over the death of his friend Enkidu sends Gilgamesh on a long quest to find the secret of eternal life:
“Bitterly Gilgamesh wept for his friend Enkidu; he wandered over the wilderness as a hunter, he roamed over the plains; in his bitterness he cried, ‘How can I rest, how can I be at peace? Despair is in my heart. What my brother is now, that I shall be when I am dead. Because I am afraid of death I will go as best I can to find Utnapishtim whom they call the Faraway, for he has entered the assembly of gods.’”
When his quest fails, Gilgamesh reconciles himself to his fate, and some versions of the narrative offer the solace that his name and works will always be remembered and marveled at by generations to come. These reactions to the inevitability of death—bravado, despair, and vicarious immortality through our works—have been played out in countless variations in works of art over the centuries.
But death is only the end of life. Along the way, we face choices about actions, goals, and ways of life. Precisely for that reason, we need some method of choosing among alternatives. We need normative concepts to guide our actions and expectations. We need some conception of which kinds of things are good for us, which bad; which actions are right, which wrong; what kind of person is honorable; what kind of life is worthy; and what goals are worth living for. In short, we need standards, values, codes of conduct, and ideals. Every culture has had some form of moral code that provided ethical norms and ideals, in the form of religious or philosophical outlooks, customs, traditions, and laws. Normative standards are a universal feature of human societies and cultures.
Normative abstractions give rise to a range of emotions that are uniquely human. We share with other animals the basic repertoire of emotions, like fear as a response to perceived danger and desire for things that bring pleasure. But our capacity for abstraction gives rise to feelings that have inherently conceptual contents: Indignation and outrage are reactions to something we evaluate as unjust. Reverence and awe are responses to things we regard as exalted in some respect. Romantic love is a desire for a kind of connection, intimacy, and mutual awareness that goes beyond the purely sensory aspects of sexual attraction.
But the question remains: Why are we drawn to artistic means of dealing with normative issues? Standards of good and bad, right and wrong, heroism and depravity, etc., are abstract. We can and do think about them as abstractions, in purely conceptual form, as in works of philosophy, religious sermons, self-help books, and advice columns. So why do we need stories, or paintings, or music? The reason is that art has the power to overcome the limitations of abstractions.
The power of abstractions comes from integrating an entire category of things into one cognitive unit, abstracting from the differences among those things and treating them as identical. But concrete things, whether trees, people, lives, or feelings, are not identical. In thinking abstractly, we forgo the specificity of real things.
The concept of love, for example, covers a vast range of human romantic and sexual feelings that widely vary. There's the prudent, mature, and tested love of Homer's Penelope for her long-overdue husband, Odysseus, as she manages his realm, raises his son, and holds off the many suitors who would like to take his place. And then there's the hot and headstrong passion of Shakespeare's Juliet, a teenager in the delirium of her first love, impatient for its consummation, hardly able to wait for Romeo to arrive. One could multiply examples of love in countless different forms, with diverse objects, contexts, and consequences.
Thus the price we pay for the enormous cognitive power of conceptual thought is the loss of the specificity of the concrete things it stands for. We also lose the immediacy of perceptual experience. The word "love" and the abstract statements we can make with it are pale reflections of the experience itself. Abstractions do not have the immediacy, the power, the reality, the felt constraint, and the sheer presence of the world as we perceive and react to it emotionally.
To keep our abstractions tied to the world, therefore, we need to re-embody them in concretes, to clothe them in specific forms that unite the universality of the abstraction with the specificity and immediacy—the reality—of the particular. This is especially important in regard to the normative abstractions that guide our lives. If these standards exist in our minds only as pale abstractions, they will lack the reality and the motivating power to guide our actions.
Human cultures have invented countless ways to embody abstractions. Rituals, ceremonies, and holidays help us appreciate the meaning of important events in personal and social life, such as birth, marriage, death, seasons, victories, and achievements. Myths and legends give us concrete images of our ideals embodied in the flesh. Embodied abstractions are not equivalent to direct perception—precisely because they embody abstract ideas, values, standards, and worldviews. They are human creations that are designed, deliberately or through cultural evolution, to convey meanings that are larger than the specifics of the actions performed in a ceremony or the events and people in a legend.
Art is the most powerful means of creating embodied abstractions. In art, we can experience perceptual objects and worlds that achieve an extraordinarily rich meaning through the artist's work of selecting his subject and shaping the work to embody his vision. In the hands of a master, artistic creation can provide the most complex, the most precise, the most subtle, the most evocative—in short, the most powerful and effective—form of embodied abstraction.
Art is especially important in conveying ideals. An ideal is a high point on some dimension of evaluation. It is the heroic act, the perfect day, the man of your dreams, the person of unimpeachable character. The need for ideals is inherent in the very nature of normative abstractions. Life is a constant pursuit of goals, a constant striving for what we conceive as good for us. It is in the very nature of goals that we value them, which means we conceive of them as values. It is in the very nature of striving for those values that we succeed or fail, show ourselves worthy or unworthy of success, take credit or blame.
Our lives are shot through with these normative judgments; we make them daily, about ourselves and others. Any such judgment implies a standard of comparison, a benchmark representing the best that is possible, and a benchmark is most effective when it is embodied. Ayn Rand
noted that a moral ideal is:
“almost impossible to communicate without the assistance of art. An exhaustive philosophical treatise defining moral values, with a long list of virtues to be practiced, will not do it....There is no way to integrate such a sum without projecting an actual human figure—an integrated concretization that illuminates the theory and makes it intelligible.”
Art has performed this function in every culture and religion. Ancient Greek culture, for example, placed a high value on physical beauty, grace, and, in men, athletic strength—as in the sculpture of Polyclitus, whose Doryphorus set the classical canon for the proportions of the male body. "Man was the measure of all things to the Greeks," notes the eminent classical historian John Boardman, "and the artist's aim was to portray him at his idealized best, indistinguishable from the gods whom he conceived in man's likeness."
It is striking that in three of the world's major religions—Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism—the founder was not only a teacher but also an exemplar of virtue. The followers of these religions see Jesus, Mohammad, and Buddha, respectively, as having lived so fully by the moral code they preached that they represent the very image of moral perfection. The figure of Christ as an ideal has been embodied not only in the canonical stories of the New Testament but in countless works of literature, music, painting, and sculpture, like Michelangelo's Pietà, where the self-sacrifice and unworldliness that Jesus preached are rendered in the form of his crucified body.
Values are not the exclusive domain of religion, of course, and artists in the modern era have created stunning embodiments of secular ideals. In Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, for example, the hero Jean Valjean's struggle for justice comes alive in the complexity of the narrative and the panoramic portrayal of nineteenth-century French society. The great American film On the Waterfront embodies the same ideal of courage in pursuit of justice through a story set in the very different world of a corrupt longshoremen's union on New York City's waterfront.
Examples like these could be multiplied indefinitely. There are as many ideals as there are virtues of character, realms of achievement, and modes of experience. And there are as many ways of representing them in moving forms as there are creative and talented artists. But regardless of the medium or the content of the ideal, the function of art is to embody the abstract standard in a specific, concrete form that has the immediacy and motivating power of direct perception.