Art. Art is what sets humans apart. Take away art, and you have a species trying to live, to survive and procreate, just like the scurrying ant or the dog sitting next to you.
However, we do not yet know if the aforementioned ant and dog have minds with conscious thought. And until we find a common medium to communicate, we will never know. But what we do perceive so far is that the ant and dog both go about their lives, eat, and in case of the ant, build communities, forage for food and replicate. However, so far, we have not seen them do anything beyond what is necessary to just live, survive and multiply. While the songs and elaborate nests of birds for instance could be considered art, or expression, they do so apparently to attract mates, not for self expression as far as we can see. We humans, however, spend time on creating things that are superfluous to our survival. We do not need art to survive. Yet, we spend time on art.
Ants of course and others can and do communicate with chemicals. And birds do sing to each other, whales bounce off sound waves, and dolphins do frolic rather adorably. However, do they make noises or frolic for no reason other than to communicate a particular imagery or thought that crosses their brain? While this is a strong possibility, we do not yet have a means to discern it. For Dolphins really have no reason to frolic if their tummies are full and they have their heart’s content of progeny by their side, yet frolic they do. So how is this frolicking different or any less an art form than a ballerina twirling?
In any case, the question is not if and how other species create art, but if art is defined as self-expression for reasons other than survival and procreation, why do we create art?
Through art, we try to express something that cannot be expressed through other forms of communication. Could Dali have communicated The Hallucinogenic Toreador or the Persistence of Memories with words or actions? Or more importantly, why did he even have to communicate these abstract and complex thoughts?
There is an evolutionary advantage to art. Art is but the expression of abstract thoughts that cannot be moulded into words and communicated to a fellow human being in the traditional sense. Thoughts might be a precursor to a design or to put it in layman’s terms, useful for survival and/or they could be an attempt to understand the subtleties of the universe we see around us. How do you explain the beauty of green grass against the shades of blue in the sky or the profundity of Rodin deep in thought? The entirety of that feeling is captured not by words, but in a painting or a sculpture we call art. Words as a communication tool hits its ceiling and cannot capture all the nuances of wonder and curiosity that arises in us.
Art is oftentimes portrayed as in direct opposition to science. Yet, art and science are both our attempts at understanding the world around us. When we take the path of science, we use logical deduction, words in sequence, to derive answers. The sky is blue, because…the light is diffracting because….and come to a conclusion that sates our curiosity. However, as an artist, we see the colorful landscape, take it in its entirety and try to retell it in terms of a photographic depiction or as our own interpretation. By repainting the scene or by capturing the essence of an emotion in splashes of color on a canvas, we have in essence, understood it deep in our subconscious in a way that cannot be described by words. Science chews slowly while art gulps it down. But both lead to a certain satisfied feeling of having had a well digested meal.