Today began with the solemn televised pageantry of Ronald Reagan’s funeral, and then many radio stations across the country segued into extended play of the marvelous music of Ray Charles, who died yesterday. Two completely different rituals thus beautifully celebrated the two lives at death. We humans mark culturally important transitions through shared rituals replete with artistic expression. Could these two lives have been effectively celebrated today without the theatrical and musical arts that so dominated the Reagan and Charles lives and their ritualized commemorations?
Ceremonial rituals typically focus group attention through elaborations (the very slow choreographed movements of military pallbearers, the effusive praise of accomplishment), and repetitions (the extended radio play of Charles’ music, the comments of listeners who called in with their Reagan and Charles stories). Death thus becomes larger than life.
In Art and Intimacy: How the Arts Began, Ellen Dissanayake argues that the arts are deeply grounded in who we are as a social species—and so are central to such ceremonial rituals as the carefully planned Reagan funeral and the spontaneous Ray Charles Music Festival.
Our upright stance and consequent narrow female birth canal led to helpless infants with a brain one-third its adult size, and so to a long dependent maturation during which our young gradually learn how to live successfully within our complex culture. Our upright stance also freed our arms and hands to carry, gesture, and fashion in ways that helped to define human life and art. Innate parent/child bonding is thus essential to a successful extended maturation.
Dissanayake argues that this primal parent/child love is initially expressed through mutually meaningful rhythms and modes—emotionally charged melodic interactions and imitative behaviors. These simple beginnings lead to analogous adult expressions of love and the arts—and to ceremonial rituals (such as weddings and funerals) that meld emotional human bonding with artistic elaboration. Five arts-related properties drive human life—mutuality, group membership, discovering meaning and importance, developing motor competence, and elaborating on meaning and competence.
It all begins with mother/infant mutuality, a symbiotic relationship that at its most fundamental level is an agreement that I’ll reduce the pressure in your breast if you’ll fill my empty stomach. My recent column (Gender-Related Cultural Confusion – Part 2) identified the molecular base of these bonds. Universally practiced child/parent behaviors strengthen them. For example, motherese is the term commonly used for the high-pitched, exaggerated, melodic, repetitive, wide-eyed, face-locked-on-face communication format that engages infants’ attention, even though they initially don’t understand the words we use.
It introduces a baby to the verbal and musical communication forms and rhythms that dominate human life—and the joy that infants typically express encourages parents to continue motherese until the child’s related verbal abilities begin to emerge. But music was there first, and we often return to music at times (such as a death) when words alone fail us. We also turned to music for support when we had to learn an important completely arbitrary sequence of 26 letters. Most of us have trouble remembering a seven-digit phone number, but setting the alphabet to music allowed us to easily memorize the sequence during early childhood.
Group membership is also an essential arts-related element of human life. We pair off, maintain family ties, join churches, and identify with political parties and sports teams. Adults strive to recapture and extend mother/infant mutuality through collaborative relationships that often contain ritualized aesthetic elements. We synchronize ballroom dance movements and choral singing, take turns in conversation and jazz improvisations, attend reunions and parades, wear uniforms and costumes, and imitate the behavior of others at festivals and sports events. Further, it’s difficult to imagine a theatrical plot that doesn’t involve group relationship issues.
Our social sense doesn’t occur in a vacuum, so our forebrain evolved to seek meaning and determine importance in our environment and behavior. This required us to connect present challenges with the past and the probable future. Language and its storytelling handmaiden emerged as useful vehicles for combining similar experiences into the wide range of narrative expression we now have—scriptures, dramas, novels, operas, films, TV, etc. It’s typically necessary to personally connect with a character or event in any such narrative for it to be meaningful, so successful narratives are those that psychologically connect with a lot of people—a group.
An earlier BrainConnection column (We’re Inside-Out Crustaceans) suggested that the principal reason that we have a brain is because we can move. Plants don’t have a brain because they’re not going anywhere, and so they don’t even need to know where they are. Our leg/foot motor system allows us to walk and jump—but also to dance and prance; our arm/hand system allows us to grasp and hold—but also to sculpt and strum; our face/tongue system allow us to talk and eat—but also to sing and act.
The elaboration of meaning and movement—often to virtuoso levels—is at the heart of the arts. Ordinary walking becomes extraordinary ballet. So art is a celebration of the ordinary. Dissanayake uses the intriguing phrase making special to describe what the arts do.
Technology emerged out of our limitations. We’re excellent but not perfect. Not to worry. Our creativity and manual dexterity allowed us to fashion many extensions of ourselves—hammers out of a fist and screwdrivers out of a fingernail. We’ve extended primitive shelters into million dollar penthouses, and legs into horses into cars. But technological utility wasn’t enough, and so we’ve always added an aesthetic touch to the tools that enhance the quality of our life—our clothing, our cutlery, our shelters. Nothing is too ordinary to be denied artistic enhancement.
In our search for meaning in life (and death), it’s thus important to discover meaning in the mundane, and we do this when we make things special. At death we all become ordinary matter, but invoking the arts to make ordinary matter into an extraordinary ceremonial ritual communicates to all of us that we’re special. Ronald Reagan was an actor who eventually got a leading role on a huge controversial political stage. Ray Charles lost his vision but not his vision, and so he marvelously elaborated on his superior aural capabilities. Two lives worthy of artistic celebration at the end—along with everyone else who died that day.