On the Origin of Art

5 November 2016–17 April 2017

Art has a basis in biology. It is possibly adaptive—just as your opposable thumb is adaptive, something that helped you survive and to procreate, and to pass your genes into future generations. Yes, art is also cultural, profoundly so; we’re not saying the cultural is not important, simply that it has been made out to be the only way of looking at art, the only explanation for why artists do what they do, why we find it beautiful (or not), and why we care. Why we keep making and looking at this stuff, in all known human societies, now and in the past—even though (biologically speaking) it doesn’t actually advance our interests in any obvious way. Usually, human universals—such as pleasure in food and sex, or willingness to care for one’s children—are clearly linked to behaviour that is ‘good for us’, in terms of helping our genes cycle into future generations. What about art? How does it work for the maker and the viewer, in a deep, biological sense? This means looking beyond conscious motivations: ‘He made the painting because he had a creative urge’ or ‘I like looking at pretty pictures’. What is at the heart of that urge, and that pleasure?

This is where our guest curators come in: Steven Pinker, Geoffrey Miller, Brian Boyd, and Mark Changizi. Four bio-cultural scientist-philosophers working at the forefront, the cutting edge—or whatever other spatial metaphor you choose that implies they are asking the biggest and most exciting questions about the origin of art. These questions matter, because they go to the heart of what makes us human. We’re cultural beasts, of course we are. But we’re flesh and blood, too, and knowing this—really knowing it, not just filing it away somewhere in the back of your mind, along with our uncomfortably close kinship to other animals, and the equally uncomfortable notion that our bodies make decisions that our conscious minds can’t really understand—can change the way we live our lives. For the better, we believe.

Maybe that ambition is a little lofty; maybe it lacks modesty. Humour us. If nothing else, you’ll get to see some pretty pictures.

Meet our guest curators:

Artists include:

BILL HENSON, b. 1955, Australia

BRETT WHITELEY, 1939-1992, Australia



FIONA PARDINGTON, b. 1961, New Zealand

FRANÇOIS BOUCHER, 1703-1770, France

FRANÇOIS MORELLET, 1926-2016, France

HIROSHI SUGIMOTO, b. 1948, Japan

JEFF KOONS, b. 1955, USA

JOHN GLOVER, 1767-1849, Australia

KATHLEEN PETYARR, b. 1940, Australia

KATSUSHIKA HOKUSAI, 1760-1849, Japan

LOLA GREENO, b. 1946, Australia

PATRICIA PICCININI, b. 1965, Sierra Leone

PETER BOOTH, b. 1940, UK

PIERRE-AUGUSTE RENOIR, 1841-1919, France


TAKASHI MURAKAMI, b. 1962, Japan

VERNON AH KEE, b. 1967, Australia

YAYOI KUSAMA, b. 1929, Japan

5 November 2016—17 April 2017

On the Origin of Art was accompanied by a big, beautiful book full of original ideas, and some pillaged ones, too. Foreword by David Walsh, introduction by Elizabeth Pearce, and essays by the four guest curators.

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