Sunday, September 26, 2010

Sunday Morning Coffee: The Art Instinct; Herbie Hancock; Roy Hargrove; Frank Zappa; Jean-Luc Ponty; Dave Matthews

[Herbie Hancock & the Headhunters, "Chameleon", 1973]

[Roy Hargrove & RH Factor, "Riff," live 2005]

[Frank Zappa, with Jean-Luc Ponty, "Greggary Peccary Suite," live 1973]

[Dave Matthews Band, "You & Me," 2009]

Ever read a book that you agree with heartily...right up until the final few pages? Denis Dutton's The Art Instinct; Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution (Bloomsbury, 2009)is that book for me right now. I recommend The Art Instinct-- it is cogent, thought-provoking, stylish (Dutton writes very well, as we would expect from the founding editor of Arts & Letters Daily).

Dutton is bold: he seeks to explain the arts as a necessary driver and outcome of our biological evolution. In doing so, he sets his views against both many biologists on the one side, and many philosophers of arts and aestheticians on the other. If you like books by Steven Pinker, Steven Jay Gould and E.O. Wilson, you'll like The Art Instinct.

I was nodding my head on just about every page...until I got to page 223 and the first of Dutton's four assertions about what makes a masterpiece:

"The arts are not essentially social."

The bolding and italics are in the original-- Dutton is stressing his assertion, and then takes the next four pages to support his point. Dutton-- as he is throughout the book-- is nuanced and balanced. He acknowledges that the arts demonstrably enhance empathy, group solidarity, and cooperation. But he argues ultimately that the primary, most important role of art-making is to enhance the individual's ability to compete for a mate.

"My [i.e., Dutton, page 226] own view is that traces of sexual selection, a process that pits suitors against each other in a competition with real winners and losers, tends partially to undermine the communal spirit as having a defining role in the arts. [...] The motives of art, as even Darwin knew, are ancient and complicated-- directed towards a community, perhaps, but also created to captivate an audience of one."

Fair enough, and nicely qualified... and no one could doubt that music can play a significant part in sexual display/ selection. I would just flip the priority, and emphasize instead the group dynamics.

Quick example:

Decades ago, I was a stagehand for a musical in college. As we dimmed the lights to signal the end of intermission at one of the shows, the pit orchestra began to tune up. Imagine the usual sounds of spectators rustling and talking as they return to their seats, and the musicians noodling around, with random toots, plinks, and honks. Suddenly-- and now the lights were out entirely-- one line cut through the hub-bub: the bass player thrumming the unmistakable opening riff from Herbie Hancock's "Chameleon."

"Boim boim boim boim bummmm-bump, boim boim boim boim bummmm-bump..."

Over and over. If you can hear a smile in the dark, spreading from face to face on silent feet, then we heard the broadest of collective smiles.

The drummer joined in, and then the guitarist. For a minute or so, in the shared darkness, entirely impromptu (as far as any of us outside the pit could tell), the band jammed and the audience murmured and clapped and whistled.

And then, with a flourish, the band shifted into the entirely unrelated overture to the musical and we brought up the lights and raised the curtain.

One of those moments in life when you are randomly yet very certainly, viscerally, connected to a hundred strangers. Music did that-- it could have been any one of the arts, a painting, a poem. We could not see each other, and I do not recall (though I could be wrong) audience members rushing to the band afterwards for post-play erotics. The impact was profound-- a spark to defy the dark, a human note to defeat the emptiness that stretches out into infinity.

YouTube is a trove of live music. I picked three from hundreds of favorites. Watch for the joy communicated from face to face.

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