An attempt by the founder of Tel Aviv Univ.'s philosophy department to establish the biological roots of art or, as the...

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OF BIRDS, BEASTS, AND OTHER ARTISTS: An Essay on the Universality of Art

An attempt by the founder of Tel Aviv Univ.'s philosophy department to establish the biological roots of art or, as the author states, to prove ""that human art has prehuman origins."" While the premise is intriguing, however, Scharfstein fails to convince that the activities of chaffinches and chimpanzees are analogous to the works of Tchaikovsky and Chardin. The author is on especially shaky ground when he seeks to draw parallels between animals' goals of defending territorial rights and attracting mates, and the goals of human artists. To equate birdsong with human musical composition without noting that the avian activity is standardized is to contradict reality. If every sparrow were to ""compose"" an original and personal call, ornithologists would be unable to identify species by ear. Scharfstein's arguments are further weakened when he dismisses possible objections with a cavalier attitude of ""Yes, but what if. . .?""; there is a distinct taint of pseudo-science at work here. Nearly as disturbing is a sense of antipathy toward modern art, though Scharfstein is careful to deny any such feeling. He does, however, drag out the old bromide about the scribblings of a chimpanzee that were indistinguishable from abstract paintings. That chestnut has been around at least since the 1913 Armory Show. The works of children, ""primitives,"" and the mentally ill are also investigated for their artistic content. There are a few speculations here that are stimulating, as when Scharfstein discusses why abstract painting is apparently more acceptable to viewers than atonal music and that music more accessible than literary abstraction. For the most part, however, what's notable here is a lack of scientific objectivity and thoroughness.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1988

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: -

Publisher: New York Univ. Press--dist. by Columbia Univ. Press

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1988