Commemorative head of an Oba (king), Benin City, Nigeria, Edo people, c. 1735–1816
Canterbury Museum, New Zealand

Brian Boyd

Art is cognitive play with pattern.

Commemorative head of an Oba (king), Benin City, Nigeria, Edo people, c. 1735–1816
Canterbury Museum, New Zealand

Boyd argues that to understand the origin of art, you need to look to the ‘signaling systems’ that all kinds of plants and animals use to convey information to each other. Think of the relationship between flowers and the birds and insects that pollinate them: flowers have adapted to reflect and amplify the preference of their ‘audience’. This interplay between audience preference and the artist’s desire to satisfy and expand those preferences creates a kind of a feedback loop that propels the trajectory of art history, and that can be seen in the diverse styles and techniques different groups use to express their identity.

 

Underpinning this diversity, however, is the status of art as a form of cognitive play. Play, widespread through the animal kingdom, is a mechanism that evolved to help us practice important life-saving skills in a safe circumstance. Because humans gain most of their advantages via intelligence, they are inclined towards cognitive play, and in particular, cognitive play with pattern. Humans are natural-born pattern-extractors: reading regularities in the environment is crucial to ensure our survival and prosperity. Art of all kinds uses pattern—on multiple levels, in intersecting, locally relevant ways—to engage the attention of its audience; the audience is rewarded with the opportunity to fine-tune cognitive skills needed to understand the world, and gain mastery over it.

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Brian Boyd is a Distinguished Professor in the Department of English at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and author of books such as On the Origin of Stories (2009) and Why Lyrics Last: Evolution, Cognition, and Shakespeare’s Sonnets (2012).