How does art help us survive?
This is a question that clearly fascinates MONA founder David Walsh. It is at the heart of the Hobart gallery’s new exhibition, On the Origin of Art.
Refuting a purely cultural basis for art making, the show extends on ideas explored as part MONA’s 2013 exhibition, The Red Queen. That show drew on scientific theories, particularly the work of evolutionary biologist Leigh Van Valen, to explore the adaptive and evolutionary advantages of art.
On the Origin of Art continues the conversation, but has taken a deliberately more scientifically rigorous curatorial and didactic approach.
Rather than a series of open ended artistic encounters dispersed through the gallery, as was the case with The Red Queen, the latest show consists of four clearly distinct exhibitions. In each of them, a guest curator – an expert within their scientific field – presents an argument regarding the evolutionary function of art.
You have Professor Steven Pinker (Psychology); Dr Mark Changizi (Theoretical Neurobiology); Associate Professor Geoffrey Miller (Evolutionary Biology) and Professor Brian Boyd (English, with a background in literature and archaeology). The premise of the exhibition is, of course, already highly publicised, but how effectively do they address the question underlying this show?
As with all new MONA events, there is an aura of excitement and anticipation in the building as I make my way to the exhibition. On arrival, I grab an “O” (a customised interactive didactic device) and am presented with four impressive entryways. Marked only by cryptic letters that resemble alien hieroglyphics, they seem to promise some form of revelation or insight beyond their dark thresholds.
I choose randomly and, as I enter, the O lights up to reveal which guest curator I have selected. It’s Geoffrey Miller. After identifying the curator, I am presented with the option of listening to a short introduction that outlines the overarching hypothesis underpinning his curatorial decisions.
In this instance, Miller argues that art making is fundamentally linked to the display of biological fitness and sexual selection.
Each artwork has been carefully selected to support his argument and links to a short voice recording on the O that expands his position. For example, Miller’s opening work, The Centrifugal Soul – a magnificent zoetrope and new commission by Mat Collishaw consisting of blooming flowers and mating displays of various bird species – introduces the concept of sexual selection. It is a cracker lead-in and cleverly seduces the viewer with the power of aesthetic display.
As I move through the exhibition, Miller furthers his proposition with reference to mate choice and signalling systems commenting on markers of virility/fertility, sexual ornamentation and genetic fitness.
The accompanying works range from the obvious fertility statues to more ambiguous works that reference the idea of art as an “extended phenotype”. This is a proposition that relates back to Richard Dawkins’ assertion that an organism’s observable genetic traits can manifest externally though particular social markers and behaviours (think clothing, courtship behaviours and the colourful structures of bowerbirds).
The subsequent mini-exhibitions follow a similar format. Each scientist-curator identifies his particular position and uses the selected works to support this hypothesis.
Steven Pinker takes the position that art is, in essence, a “pleasure technology” and by-product of adaptations that relate more directly to survival.
Mark Changizi, on the other hand, draws attention to cultural selection and the way art essentially “harnesses” elements from nature and reflects our obsession with ourselves.
Finally, Brian Boyd uses the concept of “art as play with pattern” to comment on the role of artistic patterning and play in place making, social cohesion, status and knowledge transmission.
Stepping back from the seduction
As I engage with the exhibition, it is hard not to be seduced by the slick presentation and impressive array of significant works brought together for it.
After all, it is not every day that you get to see works by Yayoi Kusama, Cindy Sherman, Marc Quinn, Pierre-August Renoir as well as a Katsushika Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa and archaeological treasures previously only encountered in art history books.
Indeed, I have to take a deep breath and step back, away from my felt response, which is one of wonder and awe, to examine more critically what is at play.
If you are like me, the immediate observation is the lack of a female scientist’s perspective. This omission, Jane Clark, senior research curator at MONA, assures me was not intended. Rather, it was a result of interest, timing and the hesitation of many of the female scientists the gallery approached to declare themselves expert enough to address the biological and evolutionary origins of art.
This statement signals the concerning issue that certain voices, through embedded social and cultural norms, are most comfortable assuming a position of authority and consequently tend to dominate discussions.
Indeed, to my mind the show presents an overwhelmingly male Western scientific perspective and draws attention to the under-representation of women and people of colour within the senior ranks of scientific and academic institutions.
The didactic narrative and conservative display of many cultural artefacts that echo the traditions of archaeological museums also reference the problematic colonising and othering practices of Western culture.
The curatorial team are, of course, no slouches and have anticipated this precise criticism. An article in the catalogue by MONA senior writer and research curator Elizabeth Pearce addresses some of the issues of difference and representation with reference to key thinkers including postcolonial theorist Edward Said and feminist theorist Judith Butler.
Despite the inclusion of Pearce’s response, I still find the lack of diversity unsettling. However, it is only deeply problematic if this exhibition operates as a full stop.
I certainly don’t think this is the case and see this exhibition rather as an ellipsis … an ongoing conversation and invitation to start to move beyond the prevailing cultural explanation for why humans are compelled to make art.
It could perhaps be seen as Volume 1: Dominant Western Scientific Perspectives On the Origin of Art. Viewed in this way the relatively conservative display mechanisms and logical structure of the exhibition complement the premise.
Indeed, each mini-exhibition operates very effectively as a visual essay taking the viewer through the scientist-curator’s argument, prompting consideration of how art making may indeed have an evolutionary and biological foundation.
Some arguments are, as you’d expect, flawed or partial. For example, Miller acknowledges that his theory of “art to attract mates” does not adequately explain some contemporary art practices.
In the catalogue essay and short O recordings accompanying his exhibition, Boyd takes this criticism further, pointing out that many professional artists are in fact reproductively less successful than their non-artist counterparts. He also argues that Miller fails to account for religious art and other creative and artistic rituals that do not obviously serve a sexual purpose.
This dialogue works well to encourage the viewer to consider the strengths, weaknesses, intersections and oversights within each argument and determine their own position.
But as you can start to imagine from my description, the volume of information the viewer is encouraged to take in is overwhelming, and really requires a few visits to fully absorb and mull over.
On the Origin of Art does not provide a definitive answer to the question of why humans make art. Rather, it quite successfully extends the existing dialogue to suggest a complex intertwining of evolution, biology and cultural practices.
The collection and diversity of works on display is exceptional and it is very difficult not to respond positively to the overall experience and bombardment of thought provoking ideas.
Yes, the MONA team has come through yet again and produced something pretty spectacular. I just hope Volume 2 – perhaps a combination of philosophy and science – will be a reality.
And let’s hope it draws together a more diverse array of voices in which theoretical ideas manifest in a range of contrasting experiential, experimental and less didactic ways.
Oh, and David and team, if you’re reading this, for Volume 2, in the spirit of opportunity can I put forward my request that you consider including a response by feminist theorist and Darwinian scholar Professor Elizabeth Grosz?