Struggling this morning with the maybe-novel, and getting nowhere, I asked myself a question familiar to most writers at one time or another: Why write? Why put oneself through this? Hemingway's answer -- "For love, glory, money, and the love of women" -- somehow doesn't seem to cover it.
A larger-but-related question is: Why create any kind of art at all? How did art get started, and how did it get to be so widespread? Every culture, even the most primitive, has some sort of art: ornamented axe handles, beaded designs on animal fur. Biologists would say that for this human trait to be so universal, it must confer some evolutionary advantage. What is it? Recently I read two intriguing, albeit conflicting, answers.
Geoffrey Miller, in The Mating Mind, says that art began in the same vein as the peacock's tail: to attract mates. A man who could carve a great axe handle proved both that he was a good enough hunter to have extra time for carving and that he could make a nice courting present (who can resist a really nice axe handle)? So art began -- although didn't stay -- as proof of fitness to mate, which makes the Sistine Chapel one great sexual come-on.
Jane Jacobs, in The Nature of Economies, has a different explanation. She theorizes that art -- painting, dancing, music -- took up spare time that otherwise might lead early humans to over-use their habitat and thus possibly wreck it, or each other. The endless grooming of chimpanzees and the endless sex play of bonobos serve the same function: deterrent to more destructive activities.
Why am I reading (or rereading) this stuff instead of writing? Because my book is going badly. It's always easier to appreciate somebody else's art than to slog away at one's own. And it's better than hurling things around my habitat (read "study") in an excess of frustration.