Can we view art as adaptive? Is it a by-product of our evolution, or just a bunch of pretty pictures?
Last weekend the Museum of Old and New Art (Mona) in Tasmania launched its latest exhibition, On the Origin of Art. It’s 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 Mona’s founder, philanthropist 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 five years, the museum team are finally delving deeper into the topic.
A fan of Charles Darwin’s ideas, 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.
"It's the single best idea anyone has ever had," Walsh says about the theory of evolution. "If you think about life in its multifarious forms, it's very difficult to define - you end up with a whole list of things, like 'response to stimuli', 'growth', 'reproduction', but the list is not definitive.”
"When all else fails, invoke evolution," he adds. "It explains almost everything.”
So, 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 wishlist of ten people was whittled down to four accomplished writers and thinkers - Steven Pinker, Geoffrey Miller, Brian Boyd, and Mark Changizi. 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 - more than 230 objects from 35 countries, some of them 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 iPod app, the O.
For psychologist and linguist 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.
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.
"On the O device I make the point again and again that one of the best ways to attract mates is not to include sexual content, because then you look a bit desperate and creepy. So, if people listen to the device they should understand that."
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.
"Humans don't have any particular physical skills - we're not that fast, or robust - and while we do play physically, our advantages are really mental, and brains operate through pattern recognition," says Boyd. "So my hunch is that we develop our mental skills of all kinds by stimulating ourselves with playing with patterns."
Neurobiologist Mark Changizi goes in an altogether another direction, introducing his concept of nature-harnessing as a ‘revolutionary third option’ in the biology-versus-culture debate about art. To him, aspects of human culture - including art - mimic nature, giving humans the kinds of stimuli that our brains have evolved to process. It’s an elusive idea that his exhibition aims to capture.
"What we're really doing in this is cherry-picking in some sense. Which is not what we're supposed to be doing [in science]. So, my essay doesn't have any cherry-picking, but there's no getting around it - if you're building an exhibit, you have to cherry-pick," Changizi explains. "So, most of these things were chosen to illustrate some aspects or facets of my theory. Even if they're not perfectly representative of it, they allow to talk about it."
The curators all concede that the art exhibit is not supposed to be scientifically rigorous. Instead, visitors are invited to take it as a starting point, and an invitation to adopt a brand new perspective on what we already think about the human compulsion to create art.
“On the Origin of Art doesn’t hope to answer these evolutionary questions directly but prompt visitors to reflect on their assumptions and to be open to alternative ways of thinking about art,” says Mona’s Senior Research Curator Jane Clark.
Even though to him it’s “obvious that biology plays a role in art,” David Walsh also doesn’t expect art lovers to leave Mona enlightened to the wonders of science. Indeed, this exhibition could just as easily be viewed as a huge jumble of art from different centuries crammed into a labyrinth.
“Although we've got an enormous amount of interpretative material - a good book, the O, lots of people willing to talk to you and attempt to explain what's going on - I suspect that for most people it will just be a reason to arrange a bunch of art.
“That's fine with me,” Walsh emphasises. “But we have this artefact, the book that will persevere beyond the exhibition, and perhaps become an entity that people consult when they're thinking about these sorts of ideas.”
The exhibition On the Origin of Art is on until 17 April 2017. SBS visited Hobart courtesy of the Museum of Old and New Art.