The large owl butterfly (Caligo idomeneus) has “eye” spots which may have evolved as a sort of defensive mimicry. photo

Selfie or simulation?

Art either defines us or deceives a trout

By Justin E.H. Smith


A certain well-known platitude has it that life is art, or as the Stoics put it, that there is an art of living. Or, said somewhat more restrictively, some exceptional human lives are lived so well and so impressively that they themselves count as works of art. I suspect that the first and strongest formulation of these related claims is true, but not for the reasons ordinarily invoked.

Imagine some yokel creationist who tells us what he thinks about the origins of species. This is, it is safe to say, a confession of ignorance. When Vladimir Nabokov does the same, it is sooner an expression of his genius:

“Natural selection,” in the Darwinian sense, could not explain the miraculous coincidence of imitative aspect and imitative behavior, nor could one appeal to the theory of “the struggle for life” when a protective device was carried to a point of mimetic subtlety, exuberance and luxury far in excess of a predator’s power of appreciation.¹

What is art? For some, the simple act of smoking can qualify. YouTube videoThe difference has to do mostly with emphasis, and with the identification, given that nature is not a product of blind Darwinian processes, of the particular creative force at work. The typical creationist wants to say that nothing is nature, but all is art, or, more precisely, the artifice of a certain highly-esteemed Artificer. The Russian author, by contrast, wants to say that art is natural, that our mimetic activity is not an exception to what nature is doing all the time, but an instance of it.

I will not lend legitimacy to creationism by agreeing with Nabokov here. Or, at least, I will not affirm his claim as a scientific claim. But as an opening to a general theory of art, he is surely on to something.

The Romantics left us with the dead-end idea that art is the product of an artist’s struggle to get something out, something exceptional, something that belongs to him, uniquely, as a member of that rare class of creatures, the “artists.” What comes out, it has been thought, is something unlike anything else in the known universe: an artwork! There is no sense here that the work might be a species of secretion whose genus is much more widely distributed than to just a small group of human beings, or even more widely than to humanity as a whole.

A work of art might be the exuberance of nature, channeled through a human being.

The natural mimetics Nabokov observed in Coleoptera are not the production of paintings and sculptures, but the making of the beetle body itself. Of course, we know that insects do not literally make their own bodies, but even the most rigid Darwinists will speak as if the butterfly had intentionally pushed out that pseudo-eye on its wing in order to scare off predators. What a fine job it has done, we think, congratulating the insect as if it were not so much showing itself, but showing off its work.

Read the rest of this story in the Summer 2016 issue of Artenol. Order yours today

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