Regarding Art Part 1

Regarding Art Part 1

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What is Art?

This is one of those questions which gets the guy or gal on the street rolling their eyes thinking – “another ‘pointless’ philosophical discussion”.

Now, I am not in any lofty position to say that I have the best or most knowledgeable answer, but I happen to have a take on this, so why don’t we see if you agree with me?

So one day I was listening to the excellent podcast of Radiolab, specifically in the episode titled “Words“. Now there is this interesting story in which we are introduced to Nicaragua in the 1970s. I actually do recommend you take a listen – it’s fascinating.

So Jad and Robert (the show’s hosts) are interviewing Ann Senghas, a psychology professor who investigated the first school for the deaf in Nicaragua. She did this with a linguist named Judy Kegel. They are interested in the school because they are able to watch the development of a language from scratch, because there was no teacher telling them how to sign. The language development was apparently quite spontaneous.

The interesting part begins when Ann and her collaborator got the students to retell a story about this guy who’s trying to fly. He sees a bird flying and he puts all these feathers onto his body and he climbs up to the top of the mountain. Flaps his arms and jumps and crashes on the ground.

So Ann and Judy noticed that the older students (those who were at the school earlier) seemed less physically graceful than the younger students (those who were at the school later, and therefore have the advantage of building upon what the older students had created in signing) in the retelling of a story. More interesting was that the younger students were able to talk about the guy’s feelings – how he’d tried but failed. So that seemed striking, that these kids were better at thinking about – “thinking” – other people’s thoughts, their inner lives!

And they set up a fascinating experiment: they showed everybody a comic strip, different from before. This one’s about two brothers.

ANN SENGHAS: There’s a Big Brother who’s playing with the train and the little brother is wanting to play with the train. And the big brother puts it under the bed and goes into the kitchen to eat a sandwich.

JAD ABUMRAD: And maybe before he goes he looks at little brother and says, “Hey! Don’t touch my train, don’t touch it!”

ANN SENGHAS: And then little brother while the big brother is out of the room takes the train out and hides it in the toy box. And then the big brother comes back and the question is where’s the big brother going to go to find his train. Is he going to look under the bed or is he going to look in the toy box?”

and here’s the kicker:

JAD ABUMRAD: And if you ask kids over the age of five most of them would say he’s gonna look under the bed because that’s where he left it and he doesn’t know that it’s been moved to the toy box. But here’s the thing, when she asked the older signers-

ANN SENGHAS: They would say oh look in the toy box.


ANN SENGHAS: They would pick the wrong one. These are thirty-five year olds.”

So basically – what they thought was that the younger kids had developed new words, an extended vocabulary, for various “thinking” processes, like belief, understanding, remember, forget and so on. While the older signers were stuck with just one sign for “think”.

ANN SENGHAS: Thinking about thinking. Understanding how other people understand. That’s something that having language makes you better at.”


Thinking about thinking. Understanding how other people understand. That’s empathy. Putting yourself in the the shoes of others. Feeling what they feel.

Now, for me, what was striking about this study was that this innate need for empathy, it didn’t surface just because of words! Being humans, we all have a need for empathy, to understand others and for others to understand us.

What I realized from the two studies above was the need for empathy spurred the development of language within a few generations of signers to allow higher efficiency and accuracy in empathy and expression – to the point where person A can tell person B about the inner life of person C!

But let’s take a step back – if we didn’t have language, what did we have to fulfill this need? Pictures, drawings, maybe dancing or mimicry. Personally I feel that drawings would be better than dancing or mimicry at projecting this empathy, because it allows a degree of abstraction (which is taken to an even higher level by language).

So that is the idea that I submit:

Art is the output of our natural need for empathy.

It is a form of expression/communications to let others know our inner state – our concepts, feelings, stories. It is a link between one mind to another (or others).

I submit that while language is incredibly efficient at performing this task of communications between human minds, art is still able to communicate concepts / emotions (or even combinations of) which have no linguistic equivalent.

And this is not even an original idea- it’s been put forth by Tolstoy. (He calls it an “infection”, which brings to mind the concept of a meme)

So that’s it for Regarding Art Part 1. I’ll put up further posts by taking up this idea further, hopefully in unexpected ways – stay tuned! Let me know what you think in the comments below!

Update: Part 2 and Part 3 are done!

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