In recent years there have been several important books devoted to understanding art as a product of human evolution. The art historian Ellen Dissanayake is one of the more prominent thinkers pursuing this line. She argues extensively in her books, Homo Aestheticus:
Where Art Come From and Why and Art and Intimacy: How the Arts Began, that the defining feature of art is that it involves “marking something as special.” Unlike other animals, humans deliberately “artify, by shaping, embellishing and otherwise fashioning aspects of their world
with the intention of making them more than ordinary.” Literature, music, painting or dance involves taking objects or behaviors that are ordinary and making them extraordinary.
I think this is the best lens through which to understand the emergence of wine as a cultural phenomenon in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
Wine of course has been around for millennia and the historical record shows that wine drinkers have always made quality distinctions. But the intense focus on subtle aromatic and textural differences, the detailed recording of experiences, the tracing of these differences back to their origins in geography or stylistic choices, and debates about how these factors enhance quality show a wine community actively engaged in taking a beverage used to enhance meals or mark celebrations and making it “artlike.”
The claim that such a practice of artification can be grounded in evolution, thus conferring some kind of survival advantage on groups that practice art, is controversial. Dissanayake’s view is that art promotes the cohesion of communities which improves their chances of survival. For instance, ceremonies that involve dancing and singing promote cooperation and solidarity and thus contribute to a sense of belonging and the task of community building in ways that art is uniquely qualified to do. Art, in other words, makes the activities of community building more pleasurable and memorable.
I’m not quite persuaded that her theory can explain the judgments we make about art or wine. Most people prefer pretty landscapes, Justin Bieber, and Meiomi Pinot Noir to Jeff Koons, FKA Twiggs, and Guiseppe Rinaldi Barolo. Arguably the popular choices, which those in the art world would exclude from the realm of art, do more for community building than the esoteric preferences of connoisseurs.
Nevertheless, Dissanayake is right that we have a natural tendency to make the ordinary extraordinary and this is the primary function of art and the relatively new focus on the art of wine.