Ellen Dissanayake is an independent scholar whose work focuses on the anthropological exploration of art and culture. She is credited for re-defining art as 'making special'; that is, art making involves taking something out of its everyday use and context and making it somehow special.
As she states in her preface to 1995's Homo Aestheticus:
At first glance, the fact that the arts and related aesthetic attitudes vary so widely from one society to another would seem to suggest that they are wholly learned or "cultural" in origin rather than, as I will show, also biological or "natural". One can make an analogy with language: learning to speak is a universal, innate predisposition for all children even though individual children learn the particular language of the people among whom they are nurtured. Similarly, art can be regarded as a natural, general proclivity that manifests itself in culturally learned specifics such as dances, songs, performances, visual display, and poetic speech.
Dissanayake's birth name was Ellen Franzen; she was born in Illinois and raised in Walla Walla, Washington, where her father was an engineer and her mother a homemaker. She received a B.A. degree from Washington State University in 1957. She lives in Seattle, and is affiliated with the University of Washington. She has taught at the New School for Social Research in New York City, the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, Sarah Lawrence College, the National Arts School in Papua New Guinea, and the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka. In 1997 she was a visiting professor at Ball State University in Indiana, and the following year taught at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada.
Her work emerged from her lived experience in the countries Sri Lanka, Nigeria, India, Madagascar, and Papua New Guinea, where she observed first-hand the cultural differences and attitudes toward art and culture amongst this variety of peoples.
In Homo Aestheticus (University of Washington Press, 1995), Ellen Dissanayake argues that art was central to the emergence, adaptation and survival of the human species, that aesthetic ability is innate in every human being, and that art is a need as fundamental to our species as food, warmth or shelter.
What art “makes special”
This aesthetic ability, she says, enabled us to ‘bracket off’ the things and activities that were important to our survival, separate them from the mundane, and make them special. We took the objects and practices involved in marriage, birth, death, food production, war and peacemaking and enhanced them to make them more attractive and pleasurable, more intriguing and more memorable. We invented dance, poetry, charms, spells, masks, dress and a multitude of other artifacts to make these associated activities, whether hauling nets or pounding grain, more sensual and enjoyable, to promote cooperation, harmony and unity among group members, and to also enable us to cope with life’s less expected or explicable events.
Methods of “making special” derived from our evolutionary inheritance
Using her own lived, anthropological experience and a wide knowledge of contemporary literature on the subject, she provides many examples of how this “making special” is done. She argues that in making things special we drew on those aspects of the world that evolution had led us to find attractive and to prize: visual signs of health, youth and vitality such as smoothness, glossiness, warm colors, cleanness and lack of blemishes; vigor, precision, agility, endurance and grace of movement; in sounds - sonority, vividness, rhythmicity, resonance, power; in the spoken word repetition of syllables, verses and key words, the use of antiphony, alliteration, assonance and rhyme. She adds to these pattern, contrast, balance, roundness, length, geometric shapes such as circles, squares, triangles, diagonals, horizontals and verticals) - and more complex forms arising from variation on a theme, or to put it the other way round, the absorbing of asymmetry and difference within a wider, encompassing pattern - the taming of the unruly wild. As such, she argues that art springs from the same sources and interacts with the same physiology as everyday life, but because it is so crafted, more intensely.
Art as a normal and necessary part of human life
In Homo Aestheticus, Dissanayake argues that Art is not an ornamental and dispensable luxury, but intrinsic to our species. And once we recognize this truth, she says “each one of us should feel permission and justification for taking the trouble to live our life with care and thought for its quality rather than being helplessly caught up in the reductive and alienating pragmatic imperatives of consumer and efficiency-oriented and “entertain-me” society.”
“Art is a normal and necessary behavior of human beings and like other common and universal occupations such as talking, working, exercising, playing, socializing, learning, loving, and caring, should be recognized, encouraged and developed in everyone. Via art, experience is heightened, elevated, made more memorable and significant”
Included in the book are more than 16 pages of references covering the emergent fields of Bioaesthetics, Neuroaesthetics and Psychobiology.
References to this work in the literature:
- The Chaucer Review 39.3 (2005) 225-233
- Philosophy of Music Education Review 11.1 (2003) 23-44
- Criticism 47.4 (2007) 421-450
- Journal of American Folklore 116.462 (2003) 444-464
- Leonardo - Volume 38, Number 3, June 2005, pp. 239-244
- Journal of the History of Ideas 64.4 (2003) 581-597
- The Journal of Aesthetic Education 41.1 (2007) 90-104
- Philosophy and Literature 23.2 ( 1999) 393-413
- Philosophy and Literature 25.2 (2001) 251-277
- The Journal of Aesthetic Education 39.2 (2005) 36-57
- Philosophy and Literature 18 (1994) also available here.
- "Art as a human behavior: Toward an ethological view of art", Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 38/4, 397-404. (1980)
- "Aesthetic experience and human evolution", Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 41/2, 145-55. (1982)
- "Does art have selective value?" Empirical Studies of the Arts II, 1:35-49. (1984)
- "Art for life’s sake", Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association 9/4, 169-178. (1992)
- "Chimera, spandrel, or adaptation: Conceptualizing art in human evolution". Human Nature 6:2, 99-118. (1995)
- "The pleasure and meaning of making", American Craft 55,2: 40-45. (1995)
- "Reflecting on the past: Implications of prehistory and infancy for art therapy", ARTherapy 12, 1: 17-23. (1995)
- "Darwin meets literary theory: Critical discussion", Philosophy and Literature 20:1, 229- 239. (1996)
- "Komar and Melamid discover Pleistocene taste". Philosophy and Literature 22, 2: 486- 496. (1998)
- "The beginnings of artful form", Surface Design Journal 22:2, 4-5. (1998)
- "Aesthetic Incunabula", Philosophy and Literature 25:2, 335-346. (2001)
- "Art in Global Context: An Evolutionary/Functionalist Perspective for the 21st Century", International Journal of Anthropology 18:4, 245-258. (2003)
- "If music is the food of love, what about survival and reproductive success?", Musicae Scientiae, Special issue, 169-195. (2008)
- "The Artification Hypothesis and Its Relevance to Cognitive Science, Evolutionary Aesthetics, and Neuroaesthetics", Cognitive Semiotics 5:148-173. (2008)
- "The Deep Structure of Pleistocene Rock Art: The 'Artification Hypothesis'". Papers from IFRAO Congress, September 2010 – Symposium: Signs, symbols, myth, ideology… (Pre-Acts) http://www.ellendissanayake.com/publications/index.php#journals (2010)
- "Doing Without the Ideology of Art", New Literary History, 42: 71–79. (2011)
- Crain, Caleb (2001). "The Artistic Animal" (a profile of Ellen Dissanayake and her work), Lingua Franca, October, 2001. Online version retrieved November 27, 2007.