Scientific attempts to define the purpose of our artistic impulse search for meaning where there is none to be found
I was travelling once across the Tassili n’Ajjer plateau in the southeastern corner of Algeria, near the frontier with Libya. Uninhabited and now one of the most appallingly desolate regions of the Sahara, this cruel, baking, stony land the size of Scotland is a moonscape of bare rock and dry earth. But once it was a teeming African savannah. The bush people who lived here decorated the walls and ceilings of the innumerable caves and rock overhangs with beautiful drawings, painted mostly in red pigment: stylised pictures of themselves and the animals they hunted. Some of this elegant artwork is 12,000 years old. Much surely remains undiscovered.
We wandered a few hundred yards from our track and discovered such art ourselves. Beneath a huge overhang were paintings of men and women, crocodiles, gazelles and giraffes. But there was one that we thought at first to be abstract art: a series of polka dots with a vague symmetry about them, grouped in constellations of five, across the ceiling and considerably above
Art diverts time and energy from survival and procreation
Looking more closely at the symmetries and pattern, we tumbled to the explanation. People had dipped the fingers and thumbs of both hands in the red paint and staged a kind of competition to jump as high as possible, imprint the marks on the ceiling, and help decorate their cave. All at once these distant beings were humanised for us. They had been playing. It involved a kind of jumping-up dance. And they had been decorating at the same time. Gymnastics, play, sport, beauty, decoration: I hope it is not pretentious to say that in that moment I felt I had come a little closer to the meaning, and the meaninglessness, of the word “art”.
If you set out this evening you just have time to reach Mona, the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Tasmania, before its present exhibition closes on April 17. I was there recently.
Mona is a series of vast subterranean galleries, cut down into the limestone on three descending levels. Being privately owned by an enfant terrible philanthropist proprietor, David Walsh, it can afford to be careless of the artistic proprieties. Exquisite antiquities, jade heads and ancient carved daggers may be found within a few paces of a giant working machine in glass and stainless steel that replicates the human digestive system: fed in the
morning, the machine defecates around teatime.
The present exhibition, On the Origin of Art, has been a gigantic project. It thrilled me. I could have spent four days there. Four doors lead to four galleries. In each, an authority from the world of science — not art — illustrates his own theory of the origins of the artistic impulse. All four protagonists believe in the Darwinian theory of natural selection. Each was trying to explain how there could be a Darwinian explanation for the impulse for art. Art is a distraction; it diverts time and energy from survival and procreation. So why has every human being through the ages entertained an idea of beauty and found satisfaction in creating or appreciating it?
Many beautiful, strange or shocking things were on display. At first, I have to admit I was drawn to Geoffrey Miller’s theory. He believes art is part of the urge to procreate. Some of the evolutionary psychologist’s exhibits were frankly pornographic. Display is key to finding the right mate — and art, he thinks, is just another form of display. In this gallery I think I saw enough vaginas to last me a lifetime. But there was a beautiful painting of Eros and his mate, and some curious Japanese pornography. Yes, I thought, much of this is art — but much of art is not this.
Our arguments about when life begins are really about semantics
So I moved to the Steven Pinker exhibition. Oh dear, an enlarged — hugely enlarged — photograph of a bullet hole in human flesh. Then some fascinating illustrations of what by research has been found to constitute the perfect male and female faces. And wonderful carved figures from the Congo, and a medieval Virgin and Child. Pinker submits that art does not have an evolutionary purpose, but that “in evolution, if certain traits are selected for, others will come along for the ride”. Could our craving for beauty arise from its association with envied fellow humans who have time and money to waste on strictly pointless activities or objects?
Again I left feeling that Pinker is half right: much of this is art — but not all art is like this. Next I went into a gallery where the first exhibit was a whole room full of enormous inflated yellow polka-dotted shapes floating around like giant benevolent amoebae: from an artist, Yayoi Kusama, who lives in a psychiatric hospital. Brian Boyd’s thesis appealed to me as it might have appealed to those bush people 12,000 years ago. The academic and writer on cognitive theory submits that art is play — and the kind of play bound up with recognising form and pattern, a vital weapon in the survival stakes.
Then again, is all art like this? Is everything pleasing associated with pattern? So I tried the fourth hypothesis, and the fourth gallery, from the neurobiologist Mark Changizi, who thinks art is all derived from being human, and all about being human, and seeing human templates in everything. I loved the two enormous motorscooters making love, and the Henry Moore. My bush people friends would have been gripped by the dead horse.
But could this have been the whole of it? Is there a “whole of it” at all — from Constable’s haywain to Tracey Emin’s bed? Why should there be? We may think we know what we mean by the use of the word “life” but are stumped to name a single characteristic that everything living possesses, and everything dead lacks. All our furious moral arguments about when human life begins are really just about semantics. Perhaps “art” is like
that: just a word but, for reasons more of linguistic history than logic, one we use to describe something that has a few but not all of a generous and fairly random basket
I submit that the answer to the question “what is art?” is that art is a word, and sometimes an unhelpful one. But this I know: if those bush people from that cave in the
Sahara could have walked with me round the Mona exhibition they would have been entranced. They would have understood instinctively that the point of all these marvels, like the point of their own cave-wall masterpieces, was their pointlessness. Art is a kind of dancing.