On the Origin of Art

'I've wanted to know what art is for some time. I've made some progress…' -David Walsh

Art Benefit previously on at Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Tasmania, Australia.
From Saturday 05 November 2016 to Monday 17 April 2017

David Walsh image

Published by Museum of Old and New Art on Monday 04 July 2016.
Contact the publisher.

We’ve worked hard to open your mind at Mona – to get you to think about art for yourself. You don’t need art theory and the cultural elite to tell you what to think about a painting. Now we’re telling you what we think.

Four bio-cultural scientist-philosophers are asking questions – the biggest and most exciting questions – about the origin of art.

Each curator will create ‘an exhibition within an exhibition’ in separate spaces across the museum, selecting works to support his position. Ancient and contemporary artworks from multifarious cultural sources will include antiquities, paintings, works on paper, ceramics, textiles, audio visual and contemporary installations, selected from Mona’s collection and elsewhere. Loans are currently being sought from the national Australian and various state galleries as well as public and private collections in the UK and Europe, the USA and Japan; several important new commissions are also planned.

Art has a basis in biology. It is possibly adaptive—just as your opposable thumb is adaptive, something that helped you survive and to procreate, and to pass your genes into future generations. Yes, art is also cultural, profoundly so; we’re not saying the cultural is not important, simply that it has been made out to be the only way of looking at art, the only explanation for why artists do what they do, why we find it beautiful (or not), and why we care.

Why we keep making and looking at this stuff, in all known human societies, now and in the past—even though (biologically speaking) it doesn’t actually advance our interests in any obvious way. Usually, human universals—such as pleasure in food and sex, or willingness to care for one’s children—are clearly linked to behaviour that is ‘good for us’, in terms of helping our genes cycle into future generations. What about art? How does it work for the maker and the viewer, in a deep, biological sense? This means looking beyond conscious motivations: ‘He made the painting because he had a creative urge’ or ‘I like looking at pretty pictures’. What is at the heart of that urge, and that pleasure?

This is where our guest curators come in: Steven Pinker, Geoffrey Miller, Brian Boyd, and Mark Changizi. Four bio-cultural scientist-philosophers working at the forefront, the cutting edge—or whatever other spatial metaphor you choose that implies they are asking the biggest and most exciting questions about the origin of art. These questions matter, because they go to the heart of what makes us human. We’re cultural beasts, of course we are. But we’re flesh and blood, too, and knowing this—really knowing it, not just filing it away somewhere in the back of your mind, along with our uncomfortably close kinship to other animals, and the equally uncomfortable notion that our bodies make decisions that our conscious minds can’t really understand—can change the way we live our lives. For the better, we believe.

Maybe that ambition is a little lofty; maybe it lacks modesty. Humour us. If nothing else, you’ll get to see some pretty pictures.