Art, sexual selection, and renewal

By Ingrid Fetell Lee

Feeling arty today, inspired by a semi-monthly art outing tradition I have with a couple of friends this afternoon. Most of the time this blog focuses on explaining joy, but today I just feel like sharing some. These paintings are by Berlin-based Barcelona artist Yago Hortal.

Ok, I changed my mind. I was going to just post some art, but as the title of this post suggests, I can’t help but noodle this a little more. Why do colorful swirls of paint make us feel so stimulated and uplifted? Why does art move us so? This question is especially significant in abstraction, where there’s no subject matter to react to, no inherent narrative, just pure sensation dancing about on our rods and cones. I’ve offered up a bunch of ideas on this blog about color, curves, and so on — why specific aesthetic elements may have evolved to make us feel joy. Recently I’ve come across a theory that puts our desire to make and view art in a more macro evolutionary context. In his book The Art Instinct, philosopher Denis Dutton contends that art arose as a (rather sophisticated) way of attracting a mate. He connects art with evolution through sexual selection, the aspect of evolutionary theory that deeply troubled Darwin before he was able to explain it, because it fostered the success of traits at cross-purposes with survival. (The peacock’s tail is the classic example here: Large and brightly colored tails may make a peacock more vulnerable to predators, but they’re selected for anyway because peahens prefer them. Research suggests this is because they indicate a peacock carries a lower parasite load than his dull-plumed buddies.)

Making art may once have said, “I’d make a good mate because I’m clever and creative,” selecting the desire to make and appreciate art, music, literature, and performance into the human genetic makeup. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the link between art and sex is persistent, that our current appreciation of art is akin to artist-lust, that a gift of a painting is foreplay. Evolutionary theory doesn’t offer explanations for our reasoned behavior in the present; it merely gives us origin stories, roots that help explain the common ancestry of our universal predilections. Rather, for me, it’s interesting to know that when we view art, somewhere deep in our brain may be the trace of a neural connection that links such apparently purposeless beauty with the desire that fuels our renewal. That our joy in art is not detached contemplation, but visceral, emotional, and vital.

Yago Hortal via but does it float

June 5th, 2010


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    Discussion (1 Comment)

  1. J. Lipsey on June 7, 2011

    Thanks for this. I’ve thought about ideas like this before but not quite from this angle. Love it.


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