ART AND ITS ORIGINS
a rationale for Christopher R. Inwood's SUPERNORMAL STIMULI
You have had a few whiskey sours; its heat has just started to thicken your blood. The last rays of light bounce around the courtyard that you and your friends have been lounging in all afternoon. The pounding heart drum grumbles through time. The freak is ushered in on the mystery and promise of the blackness of night. What delights await.
I am trying to teach you what art is and what role it plays in our lives. Each generation has made its claims to what it is and what role it plays, with many artists harnessing the possibilities of art (hence the varying forms), but I think I have nailed that squiggling worm to the table. And the fucker isn't getting away. 'Transcendent art' is 'supernormal stimuli' that trigger our 'supernormal pattern' reflex. This theory encapsulates the entire spectrum of art and takes in the largest picture possible to explain the occurrence of art in the human race and its cultures. You may find it disheartening to see your sacred art ideologies crumble, but if we can be honest with ourselves, we will find it beautiful that we are beginning to understand our own nature and beginning to see the effects that art, in all its forms, has had on us and through an understanding of the biological system that art emanates from.
I agree, what the fuck does that mean. Stay with me, and I might be able to blow it all open for you. First, we have to define what we are talking about, and then we will get into it.
What is art?
This is quite a simple answer, and I think we all know it, but others have deluded our clarity. The art object or experience is the sensory affirmation of our collective reality. Simply put, art is the sensory input (sight, touch, sound, taste, thought, feeling, etc.) that confirms an experience of the world with another being. This has been the reason that a lot of art theories and artists have propagated the claim that art is anything and can be anything (and I mean anything, as the line between an object to the ephemeral is entirely inconsequential, as they are all filtered through our physical senses) that is put forth from one individual to another. I agree with those before me, who have claimed that art is anything.
But what we really mean when we ask 'what is art?' is, what is this 'transcendent' (a call to the higher, meaning, the sublime, beauty, etc.) feeling I get from some of the art but not all art. These works that can trigger that elevated emotion seem to be trying to communicate something beyond our comprehension and seem to ignite something primal within us. Art that has successfully been able to trigger these kinds of responses in the past have been called art with an 'aura' or 'high art' or 'fine art' or even 'art of genius' (the list of terms is extensive, and they all try to communicate the same thing). Here I will call these types of works 'transcendent artworks'. The art object or experience that can trigger these 'transcendent' emotions can be defined as a sensory affirmation of our collective reality that can trigger our innate ‘supernormal pattern' response.
What are 'Supernormal patterns'?
To answer this, we have to look into a field of study called Ethology which "is the scientific and objective study of animal behavior, usually with a focus on behavior under natural conditions and viewing behavior as an evolutionarily adaptive trait." Stay with me, it is a bit of a tangent but its background you need to understand what the hell I'm going on about. And thanks to the author Howard Bloom who lead me to the perfect microcosm of an example that exemplifies the theory that I'm putting forward. The scientist Konrad Lorenz and Nikolaas Tinbergen's work with seabirds helps to provide a foothold for our developing understanding. Their study focused on cliff dwelling seabirds, and the interesting thing that they examined in these nesting birds is a peculiar reflex. When these birds laid eggs into their shallow nests, their large bodies, on entry, would knock their eggs out of the nest; when they saw the egg out of the nest, their response was to reach with their neck and beak to drag the egg back into their nest. What Lorenz and Tinbergen surmised was that this reflexive neck sweeping response was developed to allow for the bird to save their developing offspring from its demise outside the nest. This reasoning seems pretty apparent, as it is within the interest of a creature to actively ensure their genetic survival. But Lorenz and Tinbergen began to run tests on these birds to see what and where the parameters are of the reflexive action. When replica eggs were placed into the nests, the birds treated these in the same way as their real eggs, triggering the neck sweeping reflex response that ensured the survival of its DNA even though it was a fake egg. The two then experimented with the appearance of the egg (size, shape, shell patterns, color, etc.) to see if the bird would respond in the same way to eggs that ventured outside the normal parameters. What they found is the fascinating part. These birds, when faced with a super egg that was much larger and browner in colour, would forgo the survival of its regular eggs and focus on sweeping the 'super fake' eggs back into the nest. This sweeping reflex was much more vigorous for the replica eggs than that of its own actual eggs, with the birds attempting to nurture the future of the 'super fake' egg (but it must be noted that not any combination of variation would work). They found similar results with other birds, including songbirds that took a basketball into their nest as their own egg. This basketball triggered a truly absurd response from the small songbirds.
Similar results were observed in territorial male stickleback fish, where the males would attack wooden floats with red undersides and painted eyes — attacking them more vigorously than invading male sticklebacks if the underside were redder. These results were also seen in response to giant peacock plumages that had extremely unplausible fake bodies, yet garnered greater attention from females than actual male peacocks. Again, these reflexes were seen in nesting chicks, where the parent bird would choose to feed a fake bird if its mouth was larger and redder than that of its own offspring. These kinds of objects (the 'super fake egg,' the red belly floats, the giant peacock plumage, and wooden baby birds with red mouths) that have this effect are called 'supernormal stimuli' and have the ability to bring about heightened reflexive actions. These heightened reflexive actions are called 'Supernormal Patterns.' The normal reflexive patterns have evolved through time, in response to normal stimuli to help with the survival of the animal, its offspring, and the species. For example, by attacking its red belly mating rivals, the stickleback fish has a greater chance to maintain its territory and thus, genetic survival. This reflexive response is maintained through natural selection due to its defensive benefits. However, when humans interfered with the fish's environment with intensely red paint, the fish's evolved reflex is hyper-stimulated which triggers a heightened response of the fish to attack the float with extreme vigor.
As Joe Rogan put it, "Ahhh it's like fake tits." Precisely.
The Lorenz and Tinbergen's seabird example helps us to understand the idea and allow us to remove our own biases. These biases come flooding back in when we discuss humans, and it needs to be made clear the core biological driver of all species or organisms is its own survival. This survival is achieved through many means, but its immediate survival is predominately achieved through individual survival, and when possible, genetic reproduction allows for survival through more significant periods. These two means of survival are never more accurate than in humans. These two drivers of human survival, individual and genetic, have developed their own corresponding 'normal reflexive patterns' in the face of 'normal stimuli.' One example of 'individual normal reflexes' is our ability to clearly see the ripe red fruit amongst other foliage, which draws our attention and can reflexively trigger salivation. Through the rational brain, we have examined the world closely and can distinguish between a bright red rock and a bright red apple; however, the rock in the right environment may trigger the reflexive salivation. Once this differentiation is realised, red rocks in the future are less likely to be mistaken for ripe fruit, however, these reflexive responses can be triggered through the use of 'Supernormal Stimuli.' For example the food marketing and branding of multinational companies such as Coca Cola, use hyper red imagery to entice a human into its consumption, paired with supernormal levels of sweetness, these manipulations can garner a 'supernormal patterned' response such as binge consumption and the results of these are seen throughout the obesity epidemics across the world (obviously, this isn't the only reason for obesity but is a contributing factor amongst a plethora of factors). The effect of stimuli depends on the repeated exposure to the object, as the rational brain is able to sort through the heightened reflexes and stimuli. These types of 'Supernormal Stimuli' function on our immediate survival pattern.
The immediate survival does not always take priority over the genetic survival; this is demonstratable when a parent protects the life of their genetic offspring, forgoing their own immediate survival in the face of a direct threat (lions and tigers and bears, oh my), even though the immediate survival is the more rational path of the two. This kind of response is also seen across the animal kingdom. For example, a human having a child presents a major risk to the mother and father, both in response to the resources (food, water, shelter) required for the child and in response to the environmental and personal dangers involved (predators, health, weather, etc.). Avoiding the risks associated with genetic reproduction would avoid major risk in regards to the individual's survival, however humans and many other animals are compelled toward such risk-averse behavior, and rationality alone has not stemmed the flow, which indicates a biological driver that forgoes our rationality in order for us to partake in such high-cost behavior, so as to propagate our species. This idea starts to demonstrate a biological system that allows a human to forgo rationality to participate in genetic reproduction, acting much like a reflex.
'Supernormal stimuli' can also act on our genetic survival patterns by subverting normal stimuli and triggering our reproductive 'supernormal patterns'. This is achieved by heightening emotions that dull our rationality to compel humans into risk-averse behavior. This is not to say that children do not offer a substantial reward for their risk, however, this reward of genetic survival has been commonly conceptualised through ideas of hope, future, utopia, heaven, and afterlife. These ideas play a major role in the core pattern of reproductive behaviour, which helps with the courting, mating, birthing, parenting rituals and behaviours across the human race. This 'blinding' genetic reproductive pattern will be referred to as the 'biological reflexive reproductive pattern.' The 'biological reflexive reproductive pattern' has been manipulated the most through 'Supernormal stimuli,' often being used on other humans for the benefit of the individual, and at times, the larger community.
This 'biological reflexive reproductive pattern' firstly requires a male and female to 'choose' each other as mates. This is the first of two stages, and is referred to as the 'courting ritual' of the 'reproductive pattern' and requires the sexual displays of both the male and female. Such displays, or 'stimuli', can work the individuals into a frenzy or an 'ecstatic' state that allows the rational brain to lapse and the emotional brain and primal urges to take over. The sexual displays are facilitated by a release of chemicals such as fermions, testosterone, and oxytocin. Once the sexual act has occurred, the trance-like state is broken and the rational brain is restored, with focus returning to the immediate survival concerns of the individual. A successful 'mating' can lead to 'parenting', which is the next stage of the 'reproductive pattern', however, if the mating is unsuccessful, the pattern returns to the 'courting' stage.
Generally, parents are pair-bonded with their children through a chemical release that occurs in response to their child's stimuli. These stimuli release oxytocin, dopamine, and vasopressin into their bodies, allowing once again for the individuals to enter a 'reflexive state' that enables the rational brain to take a back seat when it comes to the nurture and protection of the genetic offspring. This allows the parents to self-sacrifice for the infant until it reaches maturity. This section of the 'reproductive pattern' develops the conceptualised notion of hope and immortality, as the child is representative of genetic survival.
These two stages of the 'reproductive pattern', courting and parenting, are triggered by stimuli that are reinforced by their corresponding chemical releases. These reproductive patterns, much like the eggs of the seabirds, can be manipulated and changed to facilitate a heightened response. 'Supernormal patterns' in humans are essentially 'reproductive patterns' and 'survival patterns' that have been heightened through 'supernormal stimuli'. For example, makeup, clothing, surgical enhancements, and resource displays are 'supernormal stimuli' that function in the same way as the original stimuli they imitate, however, they provide a heightened response. These enhanced features are 'supernormal stimuli' in their most rudimentary form, but function to trigger the 'reproductive pattern' or the 'survival pattern.' These more rudimentary 'supernormal stimuli' have been observed and enhanced by the individual, due to the heightened benefits that the stimuli can garner.
By combining the enhanced rudimentary stimuli, new forms of stimuli have been created, which trigger a variety of 'supernormal patterns' simultaneously. These collections of stimuli are what we commonly have called 'the arts'. For example, music is the combination of movement that results in sounds, which when combined in a pleasing pattern, resonates with us and can lead us to ecstatic states. These combinations can be even further enhanced by the vocal expression of a human, the clang of an electric guitar, the brilliance of a colour display of light timed to the music, the dances of the ecstatic performance by the musicians, or drugs. These combinations of stimuli trigger extreme ecstatic states that are playing on our 'supernormal patterns'. Think of the hysteria, ecstasy, and enchantment that audiences display in response to the Beatles' performances. These responses are derived from a field of normal stimuli that have been heightened, for example, the charisma of the Beatles is a display of mating viability, but the singing, music, art, colours and accompanying stimuli heighten the responses of the audience, causing ecstatic states, screaming, arousal and dancing, etc.
This combining of supernormal stimuli has also been used in fine art, architecture, poetry, theater, writing, design, and countless other fields to garner heightened responses and trigger transcendent experiences and ecstatic states. Throughout human existence, people have created Meme's to take hold of these patterns and supercharge them, using a variety of 'supernormal stimuli' to trigger 'supernormal patterns' that can be beneficial to an individual as well as a larger group. Howard Bloom states that reflexive responses to ‘supernormal stimuli' are present within humans, and these types of stimuli trigger "supernormal patterns of behaviour". For example, Bloom notes musicians (Prince, Michael Jackson), comedians (Joe Rogan), artists, and political speakers (Yeshua, Adolf Hitler), who create ‘supernormal stimuli' that push the buttons of our ‘super normal' reflexive response. Think of the hysteria and ecstasy that Hitler created amongst the German populous during his rise. The ecstatic rallies, the pageantry of military parades coloured by bold imagery and classical music that wooed the masses, speakers that are said to have created enchantment through the passion and beat of their speech, the illusion of hope in the form of an Arian nirvana, and the 'kingly' and powerful presentation of Hitlers dress, stance and form. These supernormal stimuli combined to evoke an ecstatic state in the moment but also functioned to drive (terrible) action beyond their immediate experience. This construction and combination of stimuli draw most heavily on the 'reproductive pattern', incorporating the 'courting rituals' by utilising the heightened stimuli of a charismatic partner (leader), which allows a lapse of logic (risk adverse behaviour), provides hope similar to that evoked by a child (the perfect Arian race) and a utopia for it to live (the New Order). These goals play on the normal pattern of biological reproduction and heighten and manipulate the experiences of individuals.
The example of Hilter and the Nazi party is relatively recent, however, the strategy of leveraging stimuli to combine, heighten and create Memes has been extremely common. Other ideological systems, including religions, monarchs, dictators, fascists, and Marxists, have used these combinations of 'supernormal stimuli' to influence and control their communities in order to direct the actions of people.
These ‘supernormal stimuli' are what humans have considered for the longest time as 'art', apparent in both object and experience. Our response to the ‘supernormal stimuli' is what we have defined as the ‘aura', 'power,' 'beauty' etc., of the artwork. These responses to the 'art' are subject to change through time, duration, context, exposure, and location, however, artwork that triggers our supernormal patterned responses is what has been fostered through the centuries. These changes through time are why the forms of art across each era and culture vary so widely in their output, yet the transcendent emotion caused by 'transcendent art' is the common thread. This understanding is why the definition of 'art' has been extremely elusive, as it changes and fluctuates over the centuries and does not have specific parameters through which it can be created every time. This is to say that 'transcendent art' acts more like time, as it is relative to the individual and less rigid in the way that one centimeter plus one centimeter will be two centimeters. These supernormal stimuli and the responses they trigger can be used by individuals for their own means, however, once you begin to notice all these 'supernormal stimuli' their effect on you will reduce, and it is only the new combinations of stimuli that can facilitate these reactions. A rigorous method of examination is required to use as a tool against these sorts of Supernormal stimuli and those who wield them.
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