Asking the Ultimate Question — On the Origin of Art

On the Origin of Art, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, 5 November 2016 – 17 April 2017

‘We want to drag the cultural question into the light even if we fail to dislodge it.’

Elizabeth Pearce(1)

In his foreword to the magnificent, 470-page catalogue for the exhibition On the Origin of Art, MONA director David Walsh states ‘I’ve wanted to know what art is for some time… I’m pretty sure it isn’t a cultural phenomenon, despite what postmodernist theoreticians might have me believe.’(2) He puts his question to thinkers outside the visual arts who he has invited to be guest curators—psychologist, cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker, evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller, professor of English Brian Boyd, whose book On the Origin of Stories evidently inspired the exhibition, and evolutionary neurobiologist and cognitive scientist Mark Changizi—each of whom has responded with an essay and has made a selection of exemplary artworks and artefacts to illustrate their respective arguments.

Collectively, these guest curators’ selections of artworks make for a vast, labyrinthine but quite wondrous exhibition, divided into four discrete sections. Viewers wear headsets through which they hear a discussion of each artwork indicating the guest curator’s analysis of its principal attributes and its relevance to his thesis. To appreciate the exhibition fully takes concentrated effort, as it encompasses art, craft and tool-making spanning hundreds of thousands of years. Full appreciation also requires close study of the four guest curators’ catalogue essays, without which it would be difficult to see how their choices of artworks demonstrate their respective theories on the origins of art.

MONA’s senior writer and research curator Elizabeth Pearce also provides an insightful introduction indicating that the intention with On the Origin of Art is to consider ‘the biocultural view: that which considers both local, conscious (“proximate”) reasons for creating and consuming art, as well as deeper, biological (“ultimate”) ones as well.’(3) Importantly, Pearce makes clear how raising the question of whether bio-evolutionary processes precipitate art-making  directly challenges the currently orthodox view that not only is art-making culturally determined but that gender identity and gender-based roles are culturally rather than biologically determined. 

What then of the theories of the four guest curators? Steven Pinker argues that the near-universal predisposition to make art is not a biological adaptation, that is, it is not an inheritable trait or a process of natural selection but is a by-product of other adaptations. He assembles a selection of artworks around the themes of the psychology of status and the psychology of beauty, emphasising the importance of aesthetics. As well as a range of objects from ancient Egyptian artefacts (for example Kneeling ancestor figure, Egypt, most probably 25th Dynasty, c770-657 BCE) to interactive videos (Beyond the Frame 2006, Lin Jiun-Ting), he includes in the exhibition a variety of depictions of the sexually desirable body, including a Renoir nude (Jeune femme se baignent, 1888) an image of the fertile female. The Renoir nude exemplifies an aesthetic that reflects the biological basis of sexual attraction, but it is also the kind of painting that within some discourses might be considered a culturally-determined, masculinist objectification, and its inclusion here jars us into rethinking our views on such art.

Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller suggests that Pinker’s theory doesn’t adequately explain why people make art. He argues that high-level artistic skill attracts potential mates and that this skill is transmitted through successful couplings by those possessing it. His selection of artworks includes a 500,000-year old stone hand axe, whose design exceeds the requirements of functionality and thus embodies an aesthetic (Hand Axe, France, Acheulean, 500,000 BP). In his essay, Brian Boyd also cites a similar tool for similar reasons. Miller cites the behaviour of other species such as bower birds, which build elaborate bowers to attract mates, though Pinker considers that bower bird behaviour does not prove anything about human artistic behaviour.

Controversially, Miller argues that traditional artistic skills were rejected by modernism and postmodernism, but are now making a comeback. He suggests that, ‘Art critics expound their conceptual responses to works and the artist’s alleged intentions and influences, rather than doing investigative journalism about the materials and skills that an artist actually used to produce their works, or the social/sexual/status reasons for doing so.’(4) Miller includes numerous artworks that depict sexual attraction or mate selection, for example Yanagawa Shigenobu’s Two Lovers (c 1800-1825) and even rape, for example Solomon J Solomon’s Ajax and Cassandra (1886), but he does not adequately explain how a viewer might establish the ‘social/sexual/status reasons’ for producing such works. He concludes his essay with the suggestion that the kind of art being produced now is returning to Pleistocene era art-making instincts and values. ‘Against the dead hand of modernist art criticism, mass affluence empowers the emerging global middle class to assert their desire to see art that combines virtuosity, creativity and good old-fashioned sexual charisma.’(5) How Miller’s assertion might be validated is not made clear, and one wonders whether his selection of artworks primarily reflects his own preferences.

Brian Boyd argues for the co-evolution of nature and culture and shows artworks as diverse as a Yayoi Kusama installation, Art Spiegelman’s cartoons, Surma tribal body art, Kathleen Petyarr’s Mountain Devil Lizard Dreaming (after hailstorm) (1997) and Hokusai’s prints. He concedes that there is not yet sufficient evidence to prove that art-making is an adaptation or that it is necessary for survival, but it is likely to have produced benefits to society. Boyd challenges Miller’s emphasis on genes and the importance of art in sexual selection, and instead emphasises the importance of cumulative culture generally in social bonding across generations and creating community cohesion.

Mark Changizi suggests that the predisposition to art–making relates to the human need to engage with other people. To the nature-nurture debate he adds what he calls a third option, nature harnessing, and suggests that our arts mimic nature at a sub-conscious level, so that, for example, letters of the alphabet mimic forms in nature (he cites, for example, Brigita Ozolins’ Graphos (concept drawing), 2016).

On the Origin of Art is a magnificently mounted exhibition of great art that demonstrates the range and importance of art-making throughout the history of homo sapiens, but you need to study the catalogue essays to see the coherence in the collections of objects assembled by the guest curators. Even then, contextualising the objects in this way adds to the range of possible interpretations of them rather than resolving differences in views. Many issues are unanswered, for example, the question of queer sexuality, and the curators’ selections of artworks and their interpretations of them appear overly subjective. The balance of influences (proximate and ultimate) in any given artist’s oeuvre would presumably be highly variable and context-dependent and thus impossible to untangle.

There is clearly no agreement amongst the curators and David Walsh’s ultimate question remains unresolved. But in demonstrating how a major exhibition can illuminate the debate on literary Darwinism and theories of co-evolution, On the Origin of Art is a worthwhile experiment, and it asks critics, historians and audiences to think about the art they see in terms not just of cultural theory but evolutionary psychology and biology. Personally, I would also love to see an exhibition of work selected by eminent neurophysiologist Baroness Susan Greenfield, who addresses the even more ultimate question of what consciousness is.

 

(1) On the Origin of Art, David Walsh, Elizabeth Pearce, Steven Pinker, Geoffrey Miller, Brian Boyd, Mark Changizi, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, 2016, p.18.

(2) Ibid, p. 8.

(3) Ibid, p. 18.

(4) Ibid, p. 213.

(5) Ibid.

 

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works-by-kathleen-petyarr-and-coffin-of-iret-heru-ru_30253880663_o.jpg

Works by Kathleen Petyarr, and Coffin of Iret-Heru-ru, Left to right: Petyarr, Mountain Devil Lizard Dreaming (after Hailstorm), 1997, Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, National Gallery of Victoria Collection, Melbourne. Coffin of Iret-Heru-ru, Egypt, late 26th Dynasty, c. 600-525 BCE, Wood, gesso, pigment, Mona Collection. Petyarr, My Country–Sandhills after a Hailstorm, 2002, Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, Art Gallery of South Australia Collection, Adelaide. Image courtesy of Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia.

Mona/Rémi Chauvin

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Various works by Katsushika Hokusai and various works curated by Steven Pinker; Tökaidö Hodogaya (Hodogaya on the Tökaidö), from the series ‘Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji’, c. 1830–32, Colour woodblock print, Dunedin Public Art Gallery Collection, New Zealand. Gaifu kaisei (Fuji in Fair Weather), from the series ‘Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji’, c. 1830–32, Colour woodblock print, Art Gallery of South Australia Collection, Adelaide. Image courtesy of Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia.

Mona/Rémi Chauvin

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Various artworks curated by Geoffrey Miller; Katsushika Hokusai, Female Diver pleasured by Octopi, from the illustrated book, Kinoe no komatsu (Pine Seedlings on the First Rat Day (or Old True Sophisticates of the Club of Delightful Skills)), c. 1814, Colour woodblock print, The Britsh Museum Collection, London. Yanagawa Shigenobu, Two Lovers, c. 1800–25, Colour woodblock print, Art Gallery of South Australia Collection, Adelaide. Brett Whiteley, Blue Lovers, 1984–5, Blue ink and wash on paper, Mona Collection, Hobart. Image courtesy of Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Mona/Rémi Chauvin

female-diver-pleasured-by-octopi-c-1814--two-lovers-c-180025_25374480919_o.jpg

Katsushika Hokusai, Female Diver pleasured by Octopi, from the illustrated book, Kinoe no komatsu (Pine Seedlings on the First Rat Day (or Old True Sophisticates of the Club of Delightful Skills)), c. 1814, Colour woodblock print, The British Museum Collection, London. Yanagawa Shigenobu, Two Lovers, c. 1800–25, Colour woodblock print, Art Gallery of South Australia Collection, Adelaide. Image courtesy of Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia.

Mona/Rémi Chauvin

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Various artworks curated by Brian Boyd, Left to right: Keith Haring, Montreux Jazz Festival poster, 1983, Colour screenprint on paper, Brian Boyd Collection. Dr Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel), Judge (magazine cover), Original design 1932, published 1933, Reproduction of original cover, Courtesy of The Dr Seuss Collection, University of California at San Diego. Dr Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel), The Cat in the Hat, 1957, This edition published by Random House, New York, 1957, Mona Library. Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher, Surma children with body paint, Type-C photograph: Chromira digital archive print on Fuji Crystal Archive paper, Courtesy of the artists and African Ceremonies Foundation. Image courtesy of Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Mona/Rémi Chauvin

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Left to right: Spear-thrower (atlatl), Original: Le Mas-d'Azil, France, c. 13,000 BCE, Cast of the original carved reindeer antler now in the Musée de Préhistoire du Mas d’Azil, Prepared with assistance from the Musée National de Préhistoire, Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireul. Katsushika Hokusai, Kingfisher, Irises and Wild Pinks, 1834, Colour woodblock print, Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Katsushika Hokusai, Peonies and Butterfly, c. 1830s, Colour woodblock print, The British Museum, London. Image courtesy of Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

 

Mona/Rémi Chauvin

kneeling-ancestor-figure-c-770657-bce_30067317804_o.jpg

Kneeling ancestor figure, Egypt, most probably 25th Dynasty, c. 770–657 BCE, Hollow cast bronze, Mona collection. Image courtesy of Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Mona/Rémi Chauvin

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Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Jeune femme se baignant (Young woman bathing), 1888, Oil on canvas, Image courtesy of Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia.

Mona/Rémi Chauvin

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Hand axe, France, Acheulean, 500,000 BP, Flint, 16.3 x 10.2 x 4.2 cm, The Nicholson Museum, University of Sydney Collection. Image courtesy of Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia. 

Mona/Rémi Chauvin

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Katsushika Hokusai, Great Wave off Kanagawa, from the series ‘Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji’, c.1830–32, Colour woodblock print, 25.2 x 36.3 cm, The R.S. Munro Collection, Collection of the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, New Zealand. Image courtest of Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia. 

Dunedin Public Art Gallery

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Yayoi Kusama, Dots Obsession—Tasmania, 2016, Mixed media installation, Commissioned by Mona for On the Origin of Art, ©Yayoi Kusama. Courtesy YAYOI KUSAMA Inc., Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/ Singapore and Victoria Miro Gallery, London, Image courtesy of Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia.

Mona/Rémi Chauvin

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Brian Boyd's comic room, Retrospective of Art Spiegelman's comics, Image courtesy of Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia.

Mona/Rémi Chauvin

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Lin Juin-Ting, Beyond the Frame, 2006, Interactive multimedia installation, Mona collection, Image courtesy of Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia.

Mona/Rémi Chauvin

Chris Reid has been a freelance writer on contemporary art and music for over 20 years, in parallel with a career in educational administration. He has a master’s degree in art history and briefly taught that subject. He is currently Chair of the Academic Board at Adelaide Central School of Art and is program manager for the Flinders University lunch hour concert series.

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