This View of Life Anything and everything from an evolutionary perspective.
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The Riddle—and the Range—of Art: Brian Boyd on the Evolution of the Arts from the Pleistocene to the Present
IN THIS ARTICLE
Arts Biology
Image credit: Fiona Pardington, Kereru [New Zealand native wood pigeon], Waiheke, and Rob Kesseler, pollen from the area around Mona. Credit: Moorilla Gallery
David Sloan Wilson
David Sloan Wilson
is the SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University and Arne Næss Chair in Global Justice and the Environment at the University of Oslo
Brian Boyd
Brian Boyd
is University Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Auckland.

The activities and productions that we call art puzzle evolutionists because they appear to lack utility. It’s easy to understand why we make tools, walk and run, and talk about factual matters. It’s harder to explain why we decorate objects, dance, sing, and invent stories. Art resembles religion in its apparent lack of utility and religion can be described as a collection of art activities.

Evolutionists have a number of ways to explain the existence of traits that apparently lack utility. They could be a product of drift. They could have been adaptive in the past but not the present. They could be byproducts of traits that have utility, such as the spandrels that are created by the spaces between arches. Or, they can prove to be useful adaptations after all when understood in more detail.

Brian Boyd is a leader in the study of art from an evolutionary perspective and a highly respected literary scholar from any perspective. His evolution-oriented books include On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction and (with Joseph Carroll and Jonathan Gottschall) Evolution, Literature, and Film: A Reader. He recently had a unique opportunity to help organize an exhibit on the Origin of Art at the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia. In our interview, he gives us a behind-the-scenes tour of the exhibit and a sneak peak of some of his newest projects on art from an evolutionary perspective.

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David Sloan Wilson: What’s the origin of the On the Origin of Art exhibition?

Museum of Old and New Art, Derwent River, Hobart, Tasmania. Credit: Moorilla Gallery. Enlarge

Brian Boyd: David Walsh opened the Museum of Old and New Art in 2011 (see the New Yorker’s fascinating profile of this happily eccentric founder and funder of the museum). He has made hundreds of millions of dollars through an algorithm that allows his changing teams of gamblers to win against casinos. Unable to take his winnings in Rand out of South Africa in the 1990s, he bought a Nigerian door. That started an art collection, then a small museum, then the three-story (underground) Museum of Old and New Art. Many in the art world quickly hailed Mona as the most interesting new art museum to open in decades, or as simply the best art museum anywhere. It has longer average visitor times than any other art museum. The Louvre comes second.

David Walsh, Mona founder, in front of the sandstone into which Mona was cut. Credit: Moorilla Gallery. Enlarge

David has always been interested in science, and especially in evolution. At least as far back as 2009, before Mona was built, he foresaw staging a landmark exhibition on evolution and art. He read my On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction (2009). (He’s also a keen fan of Vladimir Nabokov, and knew my Nabokov work, but hadn’t immediately realized I was the same Brian Boyd.) In On the Origin of Stories I argue that we can explain fiction in evolutionary terms only after explaining art in general: it’s highly probable that the earliest visual, musical and dance arts preceded the emergence of the modern syntactic language that would have been necessary for elaborate fiction. David had his permanent curators read the book, and in 2012 contacted me to see if I would like to co-curate an exhibition on evolution and art. Since I’ve always been deeply fascinated by visual art—I once crisscrossed Europe just to see Vermeers—I said yes at once. He invited me over late that year when my friend Ellen Dissanayake, who has written more about art and evolution than anyone, was to speak at Mona. I was enchanted with Mona—I spent six and a half hours in the museum on my first day, far longer than I’ve ever lasted elsewhere—and impressed by David and all his team.

DSW: What was your brief?

The doors to each of the co-curator’s sections. Credit: Moorilla Gallery. Enlarge

BB: From the first David wanted there to be multiple guest curators, all scientists, not people from the art world (I became an honorary scientist in Mona’s eyes). Each curator was to offer his or her own evolutionary hypothesis for the origin of art, to select works to illustrate that hypothesis and, if possible, to challenge the alternative hypotheses proposed. Following the scientific model by setting competing hypotheses against one another was fundamental to David’s conception—and unprecedented in art exhibitions, so far as I know. In keeping with science’s emphasis that not authority or personality but argument and evidence should be what counts, each of the four corridors into the co-curators’ separate sections of the exhibition remains unidentified, except by a kind of genetic fragment of the show’s verbal DNA.

Mona did search hard for women co-curators, but for various reasons those proposed–including Ellen Dissanayake, Sarah Hrdy, Joan Roughgarden, and Margaret Atwood–were not available or not chosen. Those who made the final cut were Steven Pinker, the most celebrated of those who have written on art from a modern evolutionary perspective, even if it has been a small part of his work, Geoffrey Miller, the foremost proponent of sexual selection as the explanation for art (and for much else), neuroscientist Mark Changizi, and myself.

The stylized, “evolving” letters of the show’s title. Credit: Moorilla Gallery. Enlarge

Each of us was asked, first, to choose artworks in support of our hypothesis and to challenge the others’. We were invited especially not to limit ourselves to visual art but to include any mode we considered relevant, including music, dance, theater and more. We were never given a budget or a limit. The only limit turned out to be our own time and energy and the readiness of museums to lend or of artists to accept commissions. We were each to write a catalog essay setting out our hypothesis. We were also asked to prepare an audio commentary. Mona has a marvelous device, the “O,” offering audio and visual commentary and completely replacing labels, which the museum always avoids: visitors are not to be constrained by artists’ or schools’ or periods’ reputations—Mona avoids laying out its art in a way that presupposes any art-historical knowledge—so that they can respond to the surprise of individual works, but can drill down for as much additional information as they choose. (My own audio, for masochists who listened right through for all 130 exhibits, would have lasted three hours or more.) We were also asked to give a lecture or participate in a debate in which the hypotheses could confront one another. Unfortunately, this last feature was canceled when Steven Pinker could not make it to the opening weekend: David did not want Steve’s arguments to be represented only at second-hand by people contesting his hypothesis.

DSW: How would you describe each of the hypotheses?

BBSteven Pinker proposes, as he has since How the Mind Works (1997), that art is not an adaptation, but a byproduct: a byproduct, specifically, of our sensory and cognitive pleasures and our technical capacity to create works that will appeal to those pleasures. He once called art “cheesecake for the mind,” an intense dose of sensory pleasure made according to human recipes. Now he puts it less provokingly, but no less firmly: we make art simply because we can, because we know our pleasures and can find ways to satisfy them.

Geoffrey Miller proposes, as he has since his dissertation (1993) and The Mating Mind (2000), that art is not an adaptation but a product of sexual selection. In its original version, he argued for male display and female choice, but he soon revised this to mutual mate choice. Artistic signals display genetic quality. Miller invokes Amos Zahavi’s handicap principle: art consists of “costly, hard-to-fake signals of the artist’s skill.”

Mark Changizi has never really advanced a hypothesis about art as a whole, as he freely admits. Instead, he has aimed, especially in Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man (2011), to show how human artifacts harness unexpected aspects of human nature. Music’s features reflect in precise and unexpected ways the sounds made by human movement, and writing reflects the attunement of our visual system to edge detection, especially at the conjunctions of objects. Visual art similarly focuses on features of human skin color and texture and anatomical articulation.

I see art as cognitive play with pattern. Play has been found in all mammals where it has been looked for, in birds, reptiles, and invertebrates. It trains animals in core behaviors in their particular niche—behaviours like chase, fight, flight—which they practice exuberantly in non-urgent situations so they can perform better in urgent ones. This kind of practice has been so advantageous that it has evolved to become compulsive, fun, irresistible.

We humans are not particularly swift or strong for our size; we don’t have real physical advantages, except perhaps in our manual dexterity and vocal articulation. But we do have mental advantages, both individually and perhaps especially collectively, through all we learn from others. And minds work through pattern recognition. Human minds have a singular appetite for patterns, and we play with it both individually and by engaging with the patterns others around us have developed, in images, sounds, stories and more. We find this play compulsive from infant pretend play and nursery rhymes to sing-alongs and dances in old folks’ homes.

DSW: What criticisms do you have of the hypotheses, including perhaps your own?

BB: I have no challenge to Pinker’s formulation that we make art because we can. But why is the motivation so intense? Why do children engage in pretend play so compulsively? Why do adults incur such costs in time, materials search and energy in adorning objects and architectural spaces? Richard Dawkins notes that if beavers did not benefit from building dams, beavers with less inclination to build them would spare the energy costs of building and would outbreed those with more inclination. In the same way, the motivation to engage in art, which can have enormous costs (think cathedrals, Wagnerian opera cycles, Peter Jackson epics, or even the hundreds of hours needed to carve a Paleolithic masterpiece), would have been bred out of us if its benefits did not exceed costs. The Maori, living in a Stone Age culture, had enormously elaborate weaving and carving in their war canoes, their meeting houses and even their storehouses. And there seem to be clear cases when arts have unmistakeable survival value. Aboriginals could not have expanded from Australia’s coasts to its desert interiors without origin stories that provided a memorable narrative map of local topographic features, and ritual (song, dance, body painting and sand drawing) that served as mnemonic enforcers of ecologically imperative knowledge and cooperative norms.

Geoffrey Miller ’s offering sexual selection as an explanation for everything interesting about humans suggests that it can’t actually explain specifics, including art. As Ellen Dissanayake comments, sexual selection explains pissing contests more easily than it clarifies art. Like Pinker’s hypothesis, Miller’s does not account for our engagement with art from infancy to old age. It’s at odds with large-scale studies showing that artists don’t have more offspring than others. The good-genes aspect of his argument conflicts with artists’ higher rates than average of psychological malaise: depression, anxiety, substance abuse.

Sexual selection doesn’t explain communal artistic efforts, or individuals helping others of the same sex in arts from body-painting to comics-making, and even mentoring and promoting others. (No sexually selected behavior in non-humans involves aid or guidance to rivals.) Both Pinker and Miller tend to ignore human sociality when it comes to art, except to use Thorstein Veblen’s notion of conspicuous consumption to explain the modern art market. But art has been used to reinforce group identity, in scarification, body adornment, costume, war chants, hymns, anthems and work songs, and in origin, ancestor and hero stories.

I have always said that sexual selection adds another gear for art, but it is not the engine. Of course individual artistic efforts can appeal to the opposite sex, but they can also appeal to the same sex, and in the patriarchal societies that have dominated human history it was men who had the freedom to become professional artists and men—rulers, nobles, high priests, landowners and merchants—whom professional artists had to appeal to as commissioners, patrons, and purchasers.

In response to Mark Changizi’s argument, what else could art do but harness nature? Zigzags engraved on shells four hundred thousand years ago harness hominid manual control and aspects of hominid visual systems. But some of the specific ways in which Mark argues that particular works of art harness features of human anatomy, say, seem to me very fuzzy, and the evidence of cave painting suggests our ancestors were at least as fascinated by non-human as by human anatomy.

My own hypothesis is so far only a plausibility argument. Measures of the current individual benefits of music (we can disregard the hollow commercial hype of the “Mozart effect”) and the effects of storytelling on social cognition and empathy have begun to appear but are still contested.

I would no longer insist on art’s being always adaptive. Richard Prum argues that what he calls biotic art, things like the shaping of flowers by the visual, olfactory and gustatory tastes of insect and bird pollinators, needs only the coevolution of signals and preferences, not an adaptive story, and, he claims, the same applies to human art. The relative benefits and costs of art may well have fluctuated in different ecologies and with different arts and different social roles for them.

The proliferation of arts in larger scale societies may reflect only that the costs of art-making can be more readily borne where larger surpluses can be produced. But it seems more likely to me that art has encouraged people to think beyond the here and now and the given, to realize they can shape aspects of the world on their own terms, to appreciate more the value of living together. And the arts seem likely to have provided concrete motivation for trade and technology from weaving and potting to the recording, film, computing and animation industries.

But the archeological record for early art remains spotty. The tendency to extrapolate from current Western notions of art and conditions for art may distort too much. And experimental tests in the present can only be carried out on those who have been saturated in art and may have reached ceiling levels of general benefits from art. There’s much still to ponder and discover.

DSW: How did you go about choosing the works in your part of the show? How did you determine the range?

BB: My first visit to Mona coincided with a temporary exhibition curated by Jean-Hubert Martin, the ex-director of Paris’s Pompidou Center. I spent three and a half hours in his Theatre of the World show. It featured and echoed the rampant eclecticism of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Wunderkammers, the chambers of curiosities, that preceded the systematization of nature from John Ray to Carl Linnaeus. Martin’s example, and David Walsh’s invitation to encompass the full range of the arts, gave me my impetus—especially because my sense of art as cognitive play with pattern emerged from trying to understand what was common to all art, however diverse in form.

I, therefore, wanted works from at least the Paleolithic to the present, from small-scale and large-scale societies, from all continents and many islands, from individual and communal arts, from traditional and experimental lines and from modern revisers of old traditions, from arts mostly engaged in by women (lullabies, weaving) as well as the professional arts that for a long time were dominated by men.

I knew much of what I wanted almost immediately: paintings, prints, posters, photographs, basketry, carpet, film, comics. Between 2012 and 2016 I travelled to museums and galleries in Sydney and Melbourne, and for my research on Karl Popper (I’m writing his biography) to London (the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Tate Modern) and to New York for a retrospective of comics artist Art Spiegelman (I’ve written about him often), which allowed me to re-peruse the Metropolitan Museum of Art with the Mona show in mind. Some things I wanted immediately proved unavailable, like works that turned out to belong to the Imperial Palace Collection in Tokyo, for instance, and were designated Japanese National Treasures. I very much wanted Kiss the Fish, a new drama involving Balinese masks and music, from Indian and Balinese to Freddie Mercury, by the internationally acclaimed New Zealand troupe Indian Ink, but their schedule and the logistics proved impossible. Nevertheless, I was delighted with all that we could get.

DSW: How did the works you chose illustrate your hypotheses and challenge others’?

Yayoi Kusama, Dots Obsession Tasmania, 2016. Credit: Moorilla Gallery. Enlarge

BB: I start with a room newly commissioned from Yayoi Kusama, who plays with the simplest patterns, black dots on yellow backgrounds and soft swelling shapes. Although no one before her had anticipated her Dots Obsession rooms, everyone entering them feels instantly engulfed in a spirit of pure play. She created this at 87; she has lived in a psychiatric hospital for four decades now: one more challenge to Miller’s claim that art advertises our fitness as partners to the opposite sex.

I constructed the eleven rooms in my part of the show as an argument and a narrative. After the “thesis statement” of the Kusama room, I introduced the delight we have in natural pattern, in butterflies, orchids, birds, birdsong, even in things we don’t recognize (like pollen, vastly magnified) or would normally recoil from (like snakes). I showcase how artists have incorporated natural pattern, from a spearthrower handle carved into the form of a deer giving birth, from over 15,000 years ago, to Japanese representational art (Korin, Jakuchu, Hokusai) that builds play with internal patterning into fine observation of external pattern in birds, insects, and plants.

Benin bronze heads, probably 18th and 19th centuries. Credit: Moorilla Gallery. Enlarge

Not all patterns are equal. For humans the face is the most salient of patterns, the one visual pattern infants are most likely to respond to even in the first days after birth. Through their variety and immediacy Aztec stone masks, Benin bronzes, a Papua New Guinean carving, Maori facial tattoos and an ironic Aboriginal anti-portrait emphasize the cross-cultural force of faces.

But some cultures and some individuals eschew natural representation, and develop traditions of abstraction, from Islamic calligraphy, tiling and inlays, through Asanazi pots to Filipe Tohi’s endless variations on the simple crossed diagonals of lalava, Tongan lashings.

Four works by Filipe Tohi, in wool, cardboard, wood, nails, perspex and aluminum. Credit: Moorilla Gallery. Enlarge

Another room focuses on play, from The Cat in the Hat to Keith Haring posters to Surma girls laughingly adorning one another’s bodies to Len Lye’s films playing wildly and invitingly with raw color and movement.

Play has its exuberant side, but it also becomes a means of establishing control (as it is for other animals) amidst the uncertainty of life. For us, it can become a way of affirming control through traditions we share with others. Japanese, Aboriginal, Western, Ndebele and Maori works, pots, carvings, basketry, clothing, paintings and enacted creation stories reflect, relay and reinforce traditional markers of allegiance.

Aboriginal bicornual basket, 19th century, Queensland. Credit: Moorilla Gallery. Enlarge

Patterns may remain within one mode, but they may also cross modes or operate within or across other patterns: from the patterns of narrative (identity, action, intention and so on) to the mixed patterns of music, movement and color in music videos, to the patterns within patterns that Shakespeare hides for readers to discover in his sonnets. I devised a “verbeogame” consisting of four consecutive Shakespeare sonnets that invite visitors to discover pattern upon or within pattern under my guidance and challenge.

Patterns often accumulate through tradition and expand or fracture through innovation. I feature two contemporary Islamic artists: Faig Ahmed and his avant-garde carpet, Mounir Fatmi and his installation in which Islamic and Arabic motifs become cogs in a vast machine reminiscent of Chaplin’s Modern Times.

In a show called On the Origin of Art, I feature the very precisely datable origins of one art, comics (New York, mid-1890s) and its astonishingly swift expansion. I illustrate the array of possibilities explored by the most inventive of all comics artists, Art Spiegelman. Comics allow me to feature the patterns of narrative (my specialty), along with visual and verbal patterns working in ways that, unlike most narrative, can be seen almost in a flash.

Brian Boyd “verbeogame” for four Shakespeare sonnets, 2016. Credit: Moorilla Gallery. Enlarge

In one last room stands the most famous painting of non-Western art, Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa. From Kusama to Hokusai, Japanese art bookends the show, and Hokusai, as a one-time manga artist, flows naturally on from comics. The Great Wave’s bold patterns and patterns withinpatterns illustrate individual play with pattern, within many Japanese traditions, in ways that affirm the control of art in the face of what may be impending chaos. No wonder it rivets attention.

Hokusai, Great Wave off Kanagawa, 1830. Credit: Moorilla Gallery

I wanted throughout to demonstrate that viewing art as play with pattern actually offers a purchase on the details of the most intricate art, as well as of art in foraging or other small-scale societies.

DSW: Was there any convergence of explanation or illustration?

BB: In some ways, the four co-curators were like the proverbial blind men describing different parts of the elephant. With Mark Changizi, I agree we harness nature, yet not only human nature but other patterns in the natural or the neural world. Steven Pinker’s emphasis on the appeal to pleasure was close to my emphasis on our appetite specifically for the pleasures of pattern, and the astonishing Aboriginal shell necklaces he displayed would have fitted splendidly in my part of the show. Steve also had a series of female faces and figures, clad or not, morphing into one another on eight screens that would have been ideal for Geoffrey Miller. Geoffrey featured a poupou, a carved wooden panel, from the very same wharenui (Maori meeting house) from which I had selected two panels. He was emphasizing individual display, I the communal nature of Maori art, and its incorporation of stories of tribal ancestors. The male commissioner of the wharenui is known—an example of conspicuous consumption as well as tribal display—but not the names of the individual carvers, although two known master carvers and their apprentices seem likely to have worked together in these panels. One of the great thrills of selecting for the show was choosing a handaxe for Geoffrey—which I could also have featured since its symmetrical patterns fit my argument as well as his—behind the scenes in the British Museum. I remember pulling out trays of handaxes all labeled “Olduvai” and “Leakey.”

DSW: What questions remain most open after the exhibition?

BB: How can we describe and explain the whole elephant of art? How can we assess the individual and social benefits of art, in different arts and different societies at different times? How can we test hypotheses in the present when our knowledge of the past conditions where art originated is so gappy?

There’s a huge amount still to discover, in terms of evidence and argument, but at least an evolutionary perspective invites us to test the costs and benefits of arts, individually and socially, in cross-cultural and even cross-species ways. An evolutionary perspective does not accept art just as a given, but seeks an explanation, just as evolution seeks to explain culture in general rather than to assume it, wrongly, as simply the air humans, and only humans, breathe.

DSW: Tell us about your new book series, Evolution, Cognition, and the Arts.

BB: David Michelson, from your university, SUNY Binghamton, completed a Ph.D. a few years ago on the universal (evolutionary) and individual (personality) aspects of the response to fiction. After becoming acquisitions editor at Academic Studies Press in Boston, he wanted to set up a journal and a book series linking evolution and the arts. Joseph Carroll took over the journal project, calling it Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture, and mustered a spectacular array of prominent researchers for the first issue, which will appear in the spring. I agreed to lead the book series, which I’ve called Evolution, Cognition, and the Arts. Books take longer to write and produce than papers, but we have contracted the first books and have others in the pipeline, ranging from evolutionary perspectives on masterworks across the American literary canon—about which little evolutionary criticism has been published—to theoretical perspectives linking literature, philosophy, and biology or the arts and neuroscience. Most mainstream publishers in literature and the arts have remained wary of evolution, and it’s thrilling now to have a quality outlet scholars interested in the conjunction of art and evolution can naturally turn to. And work by Anglophone scholars on evolution and the arts has too often paid insufficient attention to results coming from elsewhere. The first three books lined up for the series are by an American, a German, and an Italian. Long may the cross-border and cross-disciplinary dialogue continue!

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  1. Robert M. Fagen says:

    This is a wonderful project. I wonder what Darwin and Nabokov would have thought. Darwin was deeply interested in “hidden preferences of unknown origin”, the evolutionary aesthetics of perceptual and cognitive biases whose origins, like the magical sounds of nature reported by Grigory Efimovich Grum-Grzhimailo and celebrated by Fyodor and his author in Nabokov’s Dar, “would be difficult to determine”.
    Peter Klopfer, Bernd Heinrich and I have all written about these questions, and it is good to see the energy and brainpower that are now being invested in problems of evolutionary aesthetics — especially by a Nabokovian.