Ellen Dissanayake

Author and Lecturer

Affiliate Professor
School of Music
University of Washington

Photograph by Ekkehart Malotki

Photograph by Ekkehart Malotki

Books

Art and Intimacy: How the Arts Began

Art and Intimacy - How the Arts Began

2000  Seattle: University of Washington Press.

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Ellen Dissanayake has the rare gift of being able to integrate the advanced findings of a half dozen disciplines in a way that is intellectually responsible while keeping her exposition intelligible to the lay reader. Yet Art and Intimacy will also appeal to scholars working on the frontiers of aesthetics and art theory. Her focus on the psychobiological roots of human artistic practices in the mother-child bond remains a signal contribution to today’s renewed interest in developing a naturalistic aesthetics.

Larry Shiner, author of The Invention of Art. 


Although interdisciplinarity is much touted, its successful practitioners are rare. Ellen Dissanayake is among those exceptional scholars who produce truly enlightening interdisciplinary work. . . . . The implications of her argument for studies of musical structure and meaning are clear; formal elaboration is a means of promoting core cultural values by indexing social relationship, an idea that is central to the discipline of ethnomusicology and that might be amenable to experimental research in music perception and cognition. . . . Art and Intimacy is an intriguing, original, and ultimately courageous work. . .

For readers of Musicae Scientiae, Art and Intimacy is perhaps most significant for its potential contributions to research on the evolution of music. In particular, the focus on mutuality is a welcome counterpart to mainstream sexual selection hypotheses . . that posit sexual selection as the primary force behind the evolution of music. Furthermore, Dissanayake's emphasis on intersubjectivity is complemented by recent studies in psychology of music that characterize music in terms of its 'personality,' its status as a virtual person who discloses information about the self, and developmental research on infant protomusicality. Her work also meshes well with recent socially-based proposals on the evolution of music. Perhaps most importantly, Dissanayake successfully argues that we experience the arts in terms of love and relationship, a proposition that if taken seriously has immense implications for musical scholarship. If, in fact, musical form is never empty, but replete with social relationship, then music theoretical arguments that assert form as the determinant of content are woefully inadequate. If this is so, then empirical approaches to understanding musical meaning also need to be reconceptualized. On the other hand, the simplistic assumption that cultural context is the 'content' of musical structures also needs closer scrutiny. Perhaps by looking at the processes of human development and human evolution, as Dissanayake does so persuasively as she leads us from mutuality to elaboration, the inherent sociality of musical form can be brought to the fore, and thus be properly understood as a tangible trace of a continually emergent, intersubjective Becoming Human.

Elizabeth Tolbert, Peabody Conservatory of the Johns Hopkins University Musicae Scientiae (Journal of the European Society for the Cognitive Sciences of Music)


Ellen Dissanayake's intriguing piece of scholarship Art and Intimacy: How the Arts Began presents an original framework for advocating the importance of the arts in contemporary, ordinary life through a thesis which draws upon psychology, sociology, anthropology, human behaviour and religion. The interdisciplinary approach used by Dissanayake unifies cultural and biological aspects hitherto mostly considered as separate entities; this consilient approach reveals more than a synergy between biology and the arts—it reveals, according to Dissanayake, the common evolutionary origin of art and intimacy. . . . Her arguments for the biological genesis of the arts are fascinating and persuasive, and form the foundation for her call to take the arts seriously in contemporary society. . . . In Dissanayake's own terms, '...the antecedents of the arts—rhythmic-modal experiences—evolved to enable our human way of life in relationship with others.'

David Sudmalis, Department of Music, University of Tasmania MCA Music Forum 8/4 (April/May 2002)