The Practitioner's Toolbox/Part One
Plastic form creation is unique to human endeavor and is above anything else an
activity. ‘Seldom does Nature succeed in producing a picture,’ as the 19th-century painter
James M. Whistler famously said in his ‘Ten O' Clock Lecture.’ It takes a lot of effort.
Humans have worked very industriously to go beyond ‘…the slovenly suggestions of
Nature…,’ as Whistler so colorfully dissents with the humanists of his day.
What did he mean by this? Well, it would utterly annoy him to hear me say that 'art' is
so universal across both time and population that it demands to be categorized as a basic
behavior of our particular brand of animal species. Though he would agree it is a signature
of our remarkable species. But he railed against the fact that so many do 'it,' and the
sensitive ones, the ones like himself who seek the hardest and struggle the most, can get
lost in the mix of this universal facility to fashion images with our hands.
Whether it was coeval with our particular brand and its primeval manifestations forever
lost by the veil of time, or whether the behavior was latent or adaptive, has little bearing on
the fact that it is ubiquitous from the standpoints of both production and legibility: We all
can ‘read it.’
If one approaches ‘art’ with this understanding as the general context, then the content
spilling forth from galleries and museums (to name merely the major repositories) becomes
much more obvious for what I believe it truly is.
These ‘images’ attracting the visual and touch sensations are but one means among
others we use to extend our perception of the environment, much like binoculars serve a
birder or loudspeakers a packed stadium. They are much-needed, enabling devices for
focusing our attention above the din of noise and distractions, and therefore also serve as
mnemonic devices. The purpose of this impulse for ‘amplification’ is to manage and predict
successful outcomes, in other words, to abet survival.
An inward ‘image’ is not ‘art.’ One cannot 'think' art. Capacity for something is
meaningless without action. Invention is the key and the cognitive crossroad between
ancestor species and our own. For example, we are born pointers—an intra-communal
signal. I doubt an early Christian hermit living isolated in the Sahara would sense the need,
though he might have the capacity. And wild apes might have this capacity too but don’t
execute it. Some feel they are capable but lack incentive, (Pika and Mitani 2009:166–180)
due to their behavior of antisocial dynamics.
They can perform a ‘directed scratch,’ a grooming preference much like your cat or dog’s
effort to get a good tummy rub when it rolls on its back, but that seems to be all.
Translating an inward thought by means of an outward gesture for the common weal is
just not the ‘ape’ mojo. But it is ours.
Crossing that bridge from idea to the activity, knowing that the action has a commonality
of significance that must be translated back as an idea in another person’s mind, is no
small feat. Those familiar with basic ‘cognition’ terminology will immediately know that this
supposition of commonality is called a ‘Theory of Mind.’ But that is already getting a bit lost
in the weeds. To get past the inherent complexity of this kind of cognitive formulation
through to physical performance is a question of incentive. It is therefore the degree and
nature of intent that is, at least for this discussion, of great significance. This is why for all
animals having some semblance of search criteria for food, mating, and shelter
preferences, they are not ‘artists’; only we are.
Decisiveness is key, an attribute that Harvey Cox considered the most distinguishing
characteristic of humans:
Although he seldom thinks about it, man knows himself as that
animal who must make decisions. (Cox 1967: viii)
This chapter states the obvious that ironically rarely gets stated—that image creation is
a physical endeavor not to be taken lightly and should factor as the first line of inquiry into
evidence for our advanced cognition, rather than cycling through the relatively useless
stacks of art critical exegesis and semiotics. That it hasn’t been treated to the same
scrutiny as it should logically be is due to the historicity, for better or worse, of its own
penumbral image—we have fallen in love with the long shadow these objects cast. We are
overwhelmed by the result and get lost in its ramifications rather than its behavioral origin
Physically transferring ‘it’ is art, though the terms of identification are rigorously debated.
In some respects, connoisseurs and bards might be correct about inspiration being the
impetus, though not for the reasons normally considered. What they are trying to explain
is that something extraordinary must trigger the crossover from inward imaging to outward
Scientists call an aspect of this process ‘capture,’ something we instinctively teach our
toddlers over delightful books such as ‘Pat the Bunny’ (Kunhardt 1940: fig. 1). It generally
refers to the fusion of data between senses, most often discussed in terms of auditory
sound correlating with vision. When we speak of eco-location, we are addressing ‘capture,’
finding the form to match the sound.
But this applies to touch and limb extensions too. For example, we come to understand
by trial and error the length of our own arm and calculate how far to extend it to grasp an
object. We acclimate our young to this knowledge through equations for seeing and
touching, and to audio and olfactory prompts. Every culture has its own battery of such
nurturing games that encourage planning and extending their limbs toward targets and for
foveating or focusing vision, a volitional determination about where to move the eyes and
how far to move them to regain their precise place, in this case, on the bunny page.
'We are hardly alone’ is this kind of tutelage. This cross-modality mash-up is best described
in the extreme by what happens when a blind person suddenly gains sight and has not
fused these sensations.
…They fail to identify seen objects with their felt versions… However,
they succeed on doing so after a few days of sight… this rapid learning
resembles that of adaptation to rearrangement in which the experimentally
produced separations of seen and felt perceptions of objects are rapidly
reunited by the process called capture….’ (Ostrovsky, Sinha 2006)
Art critics, connoisseurs, and ‘appreciators’ are generally correct. ‘Art’ can be