Thursday, March 18, 2010

Snake Eyes: Could our Vision and Art Be Shaped by Serpents?

OK, so the above headline may be one of my most ridonkulous ever. But hear me out...

I've really been enjoying some of the criticism in the Atlantic lately. A couple of articles of note from the recent issue -- a look back at Walker Evans' work in the south and an analysis of Nurse Jackie-type dramas -- are up online for the reading.

But what really got me this issue was a short, glowing review of The Fruit, the Tree, and the Serpent: Why We See So Well , a book by California anthropologist Lynne Isbell. In what sounds like a fascinating train of thought, Isbell attempts to prove that primate (and therefore human) ways of seeing developed in response to the survival threat posed specifically by snakes. Even some vital basics of our communication skills, Isbell argues, were designed to give us an edge over cobras, rattlesnakes and the like.

Isbell doesn't, I think, extend her theory to include art—admittedly, it's a stretch. But it's interesting to ponder how snakes may have affected, by extension, the kind of art we see and how we see it. Could Bridget Riley's career, for existence, have existed sans boa constrictors? It's worth a think.

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