We need art. But for what? Can we view art as adaptive? Is it a by-product of our evolution, or just a bunch of pretty pictures?
Little bears are quite partial to pretty and fun pictures 🙂
David Walsh, Mona’s founder, asked some of his scientist buddies these questions. The result was four answers and four exhibitions. Or one exhibition in four parts.
On the Origin of Art, at the Museum of Old and New Art (Mona) in Hobart, is a unique attempt to take a look at the evolution and biology of a human practice many people view as entirely based in culture.
According to David Walsh, the museum was always “about learning, not indoctrinating”. He has been wondering about the origins and purpose of art since before the museum was even created, and now that Mona has been around for six years, the museum team are finally delving deeper into the topic.
A fan of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, Walsh believes that the postmodern art world, much to its detriment, pays insufficient attention to science, and art academics choose to avoid learning “things that are hard”, such as biology.
To ‘invoke evolution’ in the origins of art, Mona turned to academics with a track record of exploring this idea in their previous works. A wish list of ten people was whittled down to four accomplished writers and thinkers – Steven Pinker (cognitive scientist, psychologist, linguist and popular science author), Geoffrey Miller (evolutionary psychologist), Brian Boyd (professor of literature), and Mark Changizi (evolutionary neurobiologist, science writer and author). They were invited to curate four individual exhibitions that together form the larger whole of On the Origin of Art, accompanied by a hefty hardcover book that serves both as the exhibition catalogue and a presentation of their ideas in an essay format.
After nearly three years!!! of intensive labour, the end result is not just a curious intersection of art and science, it’s a dazzling display – 234 objects from 35 countries, spanning millennia; some drawn from the gallery’s collection, others on loan; some in Australia for the first time, and nine commissioned specifically for the exhibition.
Shaped almost like a labyrinth, the exhibition consists of four discrete pathways through disorienting rooms peppered with classical paintings, installations, artefacts and sculptures that span thousands of years and go across many cultures, from the stone age to the Ottoman Empire and Italian Renaissance. Characteristically to Mona, there are no plaques or essays on the walls – instead, visitors are guided through the rooms accompanied by the voices and words of the curators themselves via the museum’s proprietary app, the O.
The exhibition begins in a foyer space on the underground floor known as “the void”, with four identical doors leading to four very different spaces. Four experts in science, psychology and language – four men who, in line with Mona’s philosophy of rethinking how we understand art, are outsiders to the art world – have curated their own exhibitions to present their theories of where art comes from. Each expert asks and answers a different question about art, science and evolution – some more successfully than others, and some in direct opposition to others – for an overall experience that’s as fun to think about as it is to look at.
The first door leads to evolutionary neurobiologist Mark Changizi’s art selection that resembles the natural world – evocative but also grotesque “uncanny valley” sculptures by Patricia Piccinini, a commissioned installation by Brigita Ozolins exploring the resemblance of alphabet letters to the contours of nature – to show us that art is shaped to fit preferences our brains have already developed.
Mark Changizi’s exhibition aims to capture an elusive idea. To him, aspects of human culture – including art – mimic nature, giving humans the kinds of stimuli that our brains have evolved to process. For Changizi, we don’t have instincts for art and other ‘stimulus artefacts’ like music, language and design. These are inventions of civilisation; but crucially, they persist in (and possibly define) our species because they have been shaped to fit the preferences of our ancient brains. This is ‘nature harnessing’: the process wherein aspects of our culture mimic nature ‘so as to harness evolutionarily ancient brain mechanisms for a new purpose’. Speech, for instance, mimics the sound structures of the environment in which we evolved; alphabet letters, at the deep, unconscious processing level of our brains, resemble the contour combinations characteristic of our natural habitat. Music, arguably the pinnacle of artistic expression, is structured according to the sounds of people moving; we respond with emotion, and movement of our own.
Indeed, says Changizi, the highly evocative aspects of our culture most likely can be traced to the most powerful natural source of all our woe and joy, that which on our prosperity depends: other humans. Herein lies his hypothesis for art: that it exists not because we have an instinct for it, but because it responds to—harnesses—our instinct to engage with other people.
The second door leads to Brian Boyd’s exhibit. Of the four academic curators, Brian Boyd stands closest to the arts, with a career spanning both English literature as well as evolution and cognition. He argues that humans, like many other animals, engage in play behaviour that helps them succeed in their environment. And to him, art comes about through a human impulse to play with patterns. So Boyd homes in on patterns – in nature, in Shakespeare, in Indigenous art, in comics – which help humans make sense of, and play with, the information around them.
Boyd argues that to understand the origin of art, you need to look to the ‘signalling systems’ that all kinds of plants and animals use to convey information to each other. Think of the relationship between flowers and the birds and insects that pollinate them: flowers have adapted to reflect and amplify the preference of their ‘audience’. This interplay between audience preference and the artist’s desire to satisfy and expand those preferences creates a kind of a feedback loop that propels the trajectory of art history, and that can be seen in the diverse styles and techniques different groups use to express their identity.
Underpinning this diversity, however, is the status of art as a form of cognitive play. Play, widespread through the animal kingdom, is a mechanism that evolved to help us practice important life-saving skills in a safe circumstance. Because humans gain most of their advantages via intelligence, they are inclined towards cognitive play, and in particular, cognitive play with pattern. Humans are natural-born pattern-extractors: reading regularities in the environment is crucial to ensure our survival and prosperity. Art of all kinds uses pattern—on multiple levels, in intersecting, locally relevant ways—to engage the attention of its audience; the audience is rewarded with the opportunity to fine-tune cognitive skills needed to understand the world, and gain mastery over it.
Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller presents a much more Darwinian picture, arguing that the creation of art is one of many ways we signal our general fitness to mates in order to win the sexual selection game. “There’s a lot of sexual content in my exhibition; I’m not making the argument that there’s a direct link between the sexual selection theory of why people make art and depicting sex or nudity,” Miller explains.
Definitely a lot of sexual content in Miller’s exhibition and definitely not suitable for little bears!
Miller agrees with Brian Boyd that art is a signalling system—like a bee’s dance, a bird’s song, or a gorilla thumping its chest—but reaches a very different conclusion about the purpose and function of that system. It’s easy to explain the ‘receiver’ end of art, says Miller; we consume it like ‘eye candy’, in the sense that it stimulates our pleasure-responses to certain stimuli, the shapes, colours and patterns for which we have a ‘sensory bias’. But on the ‘sender’ side: why bother? Why invest ‘limited time, energy, and risk in growing ornaments, making sounds, or creating works that receivers might enjoy,’ when such efforts might be better put to more practical ends? The answer, says Miller, lies in Darwin’s explanation of art more than a century ago: that it arose—long before humans—as a mechanism for attracting mates. Art making is one of the many ways animals ‘signal their health, resourcefulness, intelligence, and / or general fitness’ to potential mates, in the same manner as do the splendid (but otherwise useless) feathers on a peacock.
Stephen Pinker, cognitive scientist, linguist and popular science author, makes perhaps the most compelling argument. He believes artistic drive has not evolved as a trait but arrived as a byproduct, piggy-backing on other adaptive aesthetics – our appreciation of “good” bodies (for reproduction), high status (for security) and pretty landscapes (for safety). For Steven Pinker art is not adaptive, in the sense that it’s not a heritable trait that enhances human reproductive rate; put simply, making and looking at art in Pinker’s view doesn’t result in more successful baby-making. Instead, the creation of art is a by-product of human tendency to seek out aesthetic pleasures in the same way that junk food is a by-product of human tendency to seek out sweet and fatty flavours.
Pinker takes issue with ‘lame and flabby’ theories for art that confuse questions about its worth and value at a social level, with questions about its function in a Darwinian sense. The proper question to ask is: ‘Is art a heritable trait that enhanced the reproductive rate of our ancestors?’ The answer, he finds, is that art is a by-product, a kind of side effect of other adaptations, such as the desire to obtain status via ‘conspicuous consumption’ (Veblen) of sumptuous goods, and to identify oneself as a member of the fashionable elite.
Art is also a vehicle for engagement with our evolved aesthetic sense. There are adaptive explanations why certain faces, bodies, patterns and habitats give humans aesthetic pleasure: ‘they are cues to understandable, safe, productive, nutritious, or fertile things in the world.’ Artists can choose to play with or flout the audience’s preference for such sensory stimulus, or to create ‘supernormal’ doses of it. Art is, in this way, akin to cheesecake: a ‘pleasure technology’ we have invented for no other reason than our own enjoyment and satisfaction.
On the Origin of Art doesn’t look to answer these evolutionary questions directly but prompts visitors to reflect on their assumptions and to be open to alternative ways of thinking about art.