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Art and Intimacy

Dissanayake, Ellen (2000). Art and Intimacy. Seattle: University of Washington Press. Illus., hardcover, 268 pp., $29.95.

Reviewed by Annemiek Vink

br2001_06FSArt & Intimacy is the third book which has been written by the evolutionist Ellen Dissanayake about art and its evolution. She is well-known for her presentations and thought provoking ideas on this topic. Dissanayake argues that the arts are biologically evolved propensities of human nature, which assist people to adapt to their environment.

The book is a philosophical play illustrating how after birth, children are expressive of art in their very first attempts to communicate. This captures one of Dissanayake’s strongly held and stated beliefs, which is demonstrated in the first five chapters: art is an intrinsic way of communication and thus intrinsic to human existence. In Art and Intimacy she argues that art is intimacy as it all starts out with the development of the concept of love. It starts with the first interactions between mother and child: the rhythms they need to attune their mutual needs. The ways in which mother and infant respond to each other with rhythmically patterned vocalizations and exaggerated face and body movements is what Dissanayake calls rhythms and sensory modes. This concept is well known to music therapists who have read the works of Trevarthen and Stern. The rhythmic-modal signs she sees as essential for communication and are displayed in art, music, mime and dance. Dissanayake describes many examples of modern-day and ancient rituals in which we can recognize these communication processes, which she holds as strong determinants for commonly shared cultural beliefs.

Art & Intimacy is a fascinating and well written philosophical book. Regretfully, art is often used as a sort of a metaphor in this book and there are not many examples directly related to a specific art form. When you are expecting as a music therapist to get some resolve on your questions about how mankind has engaged in the process of music making, this may not be the book to start with.

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