On the Origin of Art

March 10, 2017
Who says your feelings have to make sense, 2016. Image courtesy of MONA.
Who says your feelings have to make sense, 2016. Image courtesy of MONA.

In 1997 scientist, Steven Pinker, described music as “auditory cheesecake”. His one-liner has been repeated many times since, with variations. It’s a simple extrapolation to say that all art is “cheesecake for the mind”, or as Pinker puts it: “a brew of megadoses of agreeable stimuli which we concocted for the express purpose of pressing our pleasure buttons.”

It’s appealing to see art as a device for pushing the pleasure buttons in our heads, but Pinker wouldn’t defend it as a scientific proposition. Aside from the fact that many of us don’t like cheesecake, there are forms of artistic expression not designed to induce pleasure, unless one gets a masochistic thrill from being disturbed or repulsed. This leads us off on another tangent, wondering if pleasure and disgust might be more closely aligned in the brain than is generally imagined.

Pinker is one of four well-known professors chosen as co-curators of the exhibition, On the Origin of Art at the Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart. Of all the projects MONA has initiated during its first six years this ambitious show is the one that has most vigorously pushed the pleasure buttons for founder, David Walsh. In his unorthodox catalogue statements Walsh usually finds a way of referring to Charles Darwin and evolutionary theory, but this time he has initiated a full-scale search for art’s biological roots.

It’s an opportunity to ask a fundamental question that underpins our experience of any exhibition: “What is art?” More specifically: Why do we make art? Why do we enjoy art? What role does art play in human society?

On the Origin of Art. Image courtesy of MONA.

On the Origin of Art. Image courtesy of MONA.

To attempt answers to these questions, Walsh has enlisted Geoffrey Miller, who argues that art is largely a matter of sexual selection; Brian Boyd, who sees art as a form of signalling based on pattern recognition; Mark Changizi, who proposes a concept called nature-harnessing, whereby cultural selection takes its primary cues from nature; and Pinker, who emphasises art’s pleasurable side but comes to no firm conclusions. His chapter in the monumental catalogue that accompanies this show is titled ‘Art Because We Can’.

Visitors may choose to enter one of four doorways, which lead to the respective selections of each guest curator. As usual there are no labels, only the ‘O device’ which provides as much information as one desires. In each section we hear the recorded voice of the curator, as he discusses a theory of art and analyses individual works.

With a whole day in front of me, I decided to listen to everything. After about two hours I realised this was a mistake, as the scientists proved to be tremendously long-winded. The sheer quantity of information becomes distracting and tends to spoil one’s enjoyment of the work. Happily, MONA gives guests the option of turning off the explanations.

Walking through the galleries a second time, without the commentary, it felt pretty much like many another MONA exhibition – a mixture of familiar and surprising pieces; some remarkable juxtapositions; an edginess that distinguishes this private museum from its public counterparts.

As a cabinet of curiosities it’s a fascinating trove. As a way of supporting an argument about the origins of art it’s an audacious failure.

The problem is that a thesis about the biological origins and significance of art doesn’t translate into an exhibition. There may be a specific rationale behind each choice, but the works themselves often have an arbitrary feeling. For instance, Pinker tells us that flowers are “a potent biological cue”, which provides an excuse to show a range of floral pieces, from Martin Johnson Heade’s Cattleya Orchid, two Hummingbirds and a Beetle (1875-90), to a psychedelic, wall-sized piece by Aspassio Haronitaki.

The realisation that flowers are a form of “supernormal stimuli” does nothing to alter our perception or appreciation of a painting. Neither do we gain any insights into John Glover’s The Bath of Diana, Van Diemen’s Land (1837), if we think of landscape painting in terms of “habitat selection”.

The ‘pleasure’ thesis also allows for a highly explicit slide show by Jean-Jacques Lebel, called Les Avatars de Venus (2007-11), which features a changing, multi-screen display of naked women, drawn from the realms of fine art and cheap porn. It’s the kind of piece one has grown accustomed to seeing at MONA – the potentially offensive work that only seems to amuse and titillate audiences.

Geoffrey Miller’s part of the display is focused more directly on sex, but with an emphasis on genetics. Listening to the commentary one begins to imagine artists as nothing more than peacocks, flaunting their talents to attract a desirable mate and perpetuate the species. This enables Miller to show Japanese erotic prints, primitive fertility idols, a floral concoction by Marc Quinn, and one of Jeff Koons’s unsubtle photo-portraits of himself and Cicciolina.

This part of the show also includes the large painting, The Island (2009), by American artist, Walton Ford. It’s a picture that was obviously destined to make its way to Tasmania, as it features a mass of thylacines clambering over one another in a hopeless struggle for survival.

Perhaps the most amusing piece is Maria Fernanda Cardoso’s video of a spider’s mating rituals. Watching the spider dance one can only be impressed by his determination to impress the girls. Miller includes artists’ self-portraits under the same umbrella, as advertisements of their own desirability. He could have picked any number of examples, but has chosen works by New Zealand painter, James Coe, and photos by Francesca Woodman, which have a large element of play-acting.

All the scientists have included amazing photos of animals and plants, presumably as a way of emphasising our underlying relationships with the natural world. We can see how artists mimic nature, which is a major component of Changizi’s theory. When it comes to art he has shown a penchant for Frankensteinish, silicone sculptures by Patricia Piccinini, along with horse and human carcasses by Berlinde De Bruyckere.

The largest and most diverse display has been put together by New Zealander, Brian Boyd, a professor of English with a sideline in evolutionary theory. Boyd believes that civilisation is a function of story-telling, which is another congenial idea. His view of art as a sophisticated form of pattern recognition allows him to pack in a wide variety of decorative artefacts, abstract paintings, and masks. There is also a section on comics, which are the curator’s special passion, particularly the work of Art Spiegelman.

As you can imagine it’s impossible to summarise the diversity of work in this show, and even more difficult to do justice to the arguments of the four curators. To the best of my knowledge there has never been another exhibition like this anywhere in the world. Only MONA would have invested its resources in such an experimental project. If the origins of art remain mysterious it’s because none of the four hypotheses are at all conclusive.

Whatever function art may have fulfilled at the dawn of civilisation it feels faintly ridiculous to reduce such a complex activity to a dominant biological tendency. Ultimately it’s no big revelation to say that art gives us pleasure, fulfils some deep-rooted need for sexual display, involves extensive pattern recognition, and owes a debt to the natural world. Yet none of these ideas can fully explain why it appeals to us so much, and why we feel driven to keep making the stuff.

Hard-core Darwinists may believe everything is susceptible to evolutionary theorising, but art is a problem that resists overarching speculations. A work of art can’t be tested in a laboratory and found wanting. Indeed, our responses are so subjective that the same work can be delightful or revolting to two different people. A masterpiece to one viewer is mere kitsch to another.

The faculty of taste is barely touched upon by any of the guest curators, even though they’ve had a lot of fun exploring their own tastes. Realistically there was never any chance of reaching conclusions about the origin of art, especially through the medium of an exhibition. We may at least be thankful that one museum was crazy enough to make the attempt.

 

On the Origin of Art, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, until 17 April
John McDonald flew to Hobart courtesy of MONA

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 11th March, 2017.