We need art. But for what?

27 October 2016
Brian Boyd

Why do humans create and appreciate art? Has art played a role in the biological survival of our species?

These weighty questions underpin a major international exhibition, On the Origin of Art, which is about to open at the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart, Tasmania.

Distinguished Professor Brian Boyd joins psychologist and celebrity author Stephen Pinker, evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller and neurobiologist Mark Changizi as one of four guest curators of the exhibition.

Brian and his fellow academics were invited by museum owner David Walsh to propose their own theories on these questions and given carte blanche to choose art works from public and private collections all over the world to support their own hypotheses — and challenge the other co-curators.

Brian argues that since brains are pattern detectors, humans get their advantages from their better brains and nimbler hands. As play helps all animals develop their key skills, art has evolved in humans as play with pattern — as a way to stimulate and develop brains and hands long before there were schools. 

In keeping with his hypothesis, Brian chose 130 pieces ranging from basketry and painting to photography and ceramics for his segment of the exhibition.

He included art from Māori and Aboriginal artists as well as works from African, Pacific, Asian, Islamic, North and South American and European traditions.

Among his choices are a work by New Zealand photographer Fiona Pardington and Pasifika artist Filipe Tohi, whose lalava (lashing) work can be seen inside the University’s Fale Pasifika.

His selections will occupy 11 rooms of the impressive museum, which is chiselled into an escarpment on the banks of the Derwent River in the north suburbs of Hobart.

Brian was first approached about taking part in this unique event by David Walsh in 2012.

“David had read my 2009 work On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition and Fiction [which proposes that art and storytelling are adaptations and derive from play] and contacted me to see if I might be interested in participating. And of course, I was very interested. MONA is an amazing space; it’s been called the best art museum in the world.”

So the selection process began and every time Brian travelled overseas, he looked out for works that might fit with his theme.

In most cases, he was able to arrange for the chosen works to be loaned to MONA for the six-month duration of the exhibition, which opens on 5 November 2016 and will be the biggest and most elaborate show the museum has ever staged.

Find out more about On the Origin of Art