New website is under construction.

Jun 9, 2009

Why Don't Ants Have Art?

Lady Glamis has a series on her blog on the nature of art.

Questions like this tend to send my mind down different lanes. Look at the beautiful sand castle in the picture. I would call it art if humans had crafted it. In fact, however, it's a termite fortress, and I wouldn't call it art. Not because it was created by non-humans, but because it wasn't created for any of the reasons art is created.

If you are like me (I hope, for your sake, you aren't), you spend an inordinate amount of your time asking yourself, "How do humans differ from the social insects? And why?"

Our species has, in some ways, much more in common with ants than with other mammals. No other mammals build heated and air conditioned appartment buildings, share nursery duties on a large scale, divide labor into different roles, wage wars. Ants do.

But ants do not paint, sculpt, write or dance. They clearly could, if they were moved to, just as they weave leaves into homes or build bridges across rivers. They just don't because, after all, what purpose does art serve?

What purpose does art serve? In the essay of Lady Glamis' friend, it's suggested art makes us feel; perhaps it also leads us away from wickedness and toward goodness. (This was a matter of contention in the comments section.) Perhaps. Ants, after all, don't have morality or religion either. Why on earth would we need external, physical objects made by our fellow beings to help us feel? Yes, it's a form of communication, but of such a subtle and subjective nature it cannot be of any use for the usual purposes communication serves.

From the earlies age, children naturally create art. All human beings, and all human cultures, crerate some art. We can argue about who does it better -- perhaps the competition to perform or create superior art is the only explanation for how it evolved? -- but that doesn't explain why we do it at all. Why we need it. Why the thought of a society which suppressed all art is an example of a living hell. Why the struggle to control art is dear the hearts of all who hunger for power over the minds of their fellows.

Suppose you were the last human being left alive on Earth. No agents, no audience. No buyers, no lovers. No reason to create art. Would you?

I don't know about you, but I probably would. It would, in fact, be only through the creation of art I would endure such a situation at all. And that's quite strange, isn't it?


Michelle D. Argyle said...

Tara, excellent post and thoughts. Wow. I think of Castaway, the movie. Doesn't he create art of some sort? I can't remember exactly, but he does create that ball Wilson. That's a creation of some sort. And perhaps he thought of it as beautiful. But since he created it for the purpose of keeping him sane (something to talk to), is it considered art?

That makes me think that maybe art is art when it exists solely to BE art. Although I have seen pieces of art that convey clever political statements or societal views. Are those art or propaganda?

I don't think I'll ever come up with any solid answer to what is art. As to your question of why don't ants have art? That may just be the answer to all sorts of questions. Haha. :)

Unknown said...

You argue that the "sand castle" isn't art...but couldn't it be? Does intent matter? In other words, does art belong in the eye of the beholder, or in the intent of the creator? know what, it's wayyy too late for me to be thinking this deep...I think I'll just crawl into my non-arty bed and sleep on it ;)

Liana Brooks said...

Beth has a good point... who decides what is art?

I love flowers. I think they are beautiful. I love sea shells. I think they artistic and creative.

But flowers and shells did not evolve as art. Their intent is not to be beautiful. Sea shells are a defensive mechanism. All the pretty spikes and colors serve an evolutionary purpose.

I'll confess, if you take me to a museum I'll gravitate to the statues, but I'm not appreciating them. I'm dissecting them. I want to know how the affect was achieved.

If I'm in a garden, I know how plants grow. I know the mechanism. And I appreciate the beauty.

What, then, is art? The statue or the weed?

Elana Johnson said...

I think some people have the desire to create and some do not. I also think women are more inclined to create than men--maybe it's the mother in me, I don't know. But for me, I've always had the desire to create something. I make handmade cards and scrapbook, I write, I like to "create" things that make me feel accomplished. I'm not sure this answers what art is, but I know it answers the question of what I would do if I were the last person on Earth: I'd create.

Davin Malasarn said...

I feel the same way about the last scenario you describe. I think I would do art even if no one else ever saw it. I do feel that need to express myself. I think I heard on some documentary that art was connected with leisure time. People only made art when they community was successful enough to create free time. Maybe--maybe--ants would make art if they didn't have to work so hard all the time.

Ban said...

not strange at all - i believe, in us all is the need to 'create' whether that be children, 'art' (in ANY of its forms ie: sculpture, music, photography, painting, etc.), stories, or what-have-you.

laughingwolf said...

to my mind, 'art' in wee ones is expressing what they have no words for... when words do come, they can still be inadequate... hence music, photog, drawing, sculpture, painting, even scrapbooking and rubber stamping, are used as aids to get ideas across....

Dave said...

Interesting post.

I love the photo, and must say that the moment you posted the picture of the fortress it became art. Perhaps someone could walk up to it in real time and say, "That's cool, but it is not art."

But, I would have to disagree. It's art in the same way that any human made architexture is art. It reveals a natural form, and somehow seeing that insects and humans can share that form baffles me. Seriously. It's weird. How did termites and medieval architects come up with the same basic fortress idea? It's the perfection of the form that makes it art, not the purpose.

I would call a sixty yard pass and a catch in the end-zone, with toes barely making it count, a work of art because of the form and the perfection of the moment. There is not way that the football players were out to create art, or to make people feel a certain way. The purpose was to win, and to defeat others. I've seen catches like that, and it strikes me that these big guys can move like giant ballerinas in battle. It's art in the same way that ballet is art. It shows the perfection of movement, and a focus on the moment--a passionate presence that is inspiring. More than anything art (be it insect architecture, sports, a painting, or a sculpture) makes my heart pang. And that moment of adrenaline makes me lean in closer to get a good look at something new that challenges me to admit there is more to life than I typically experience.