Ellen Dissanayake On The Art of Making Special

Dissanayake 2Ellen Dissanayake is a self-taught scholar in a field she invented who takes an anthropological, evolutionary approach to defining art. Her work in India, Sri Lanka, Africa and New Guinea made her realize that Western definitions of what is art were culturally confined. Instead she proposes that art is a universal, biological imperative that all human beings have to make the everyday “special.” A musician by training without the “necessary” degrees her hard-won success in getting her work heard and published is an example to us all. The following excerpt is from her 1995 book  Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why.

My position, lone as it might be, is that making important activities special has been basic and fundamental to human evolution and existence, and that while making special is not strictly speaking in all cases art, it is true that art is always an instance of making special. To understand art in the broadest sense, then, as a human behavioral proclivity, it to trace its origin to making special, and I will argue that making special was often inseparable from and intrinsically necessary to the control of the material conditions of subsistence that allowed humans to survive…

…Evidence of making special appears as early as 300 thousand years ago, ten times earlier than the cave paintings in France and Spain that (being visual and of grand scale and astonishing quality) are usually considered to mark the beginnings of “art.” In a number of sites from that long ago, and consistently thereafter, pieces of red ochre or hematite have been found associated with human dwellings, often far from the areas in which they naturally occur. It is thought that these minerals were brought to dwelling sites to be used for coloring and marking bodies and utensils, just as people do today. (pp. 92-96)

REd Ochre

Read more:

About the author  http://www.ellendissanayake.com/

Interview http://www.washington.edu/alumni/columns/march09/art.html

Prehistoric red ochre http://activeartist.net/blog/native-paint-revealed/

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2 Replies to “Ellen Dissanayake On The Art of Making Special”

  1. I am very taken by this concept of “making special.” Markings and colors are evidence of activity. Interesting marks are prolific in on the walls of structures being dug, here in Orkney at the Ness of Brodgar. They seem chaotic, but clearly had purpose. Some are organized and are what we now see as designs. And evidence of color has been found too…..who knows what caused people to make a moment, a place, an experience, as special. I am reminded about the Jewish tradition of marking doorjams with prayers encased in small containers. But being on the site of Ness, here, one is filled with the complete idea that so much here was special. Even the way it was purposely covered incites great curiosity. See http://www.orkneyjar.com for details and look forward to a National Geographic article to tell more.

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