“Art and Human Nature”

Venus of Willendorf, ~23,000 BC. No art had ever been created in the world before this sculpture.


One of the fun things about working at the library is emailing academic journal articles to myself for free through the university. It’s fun because they’re meant to be for students so I feel like I’m stealing knowledge. I found one article called “Art and Human Nature”  by Noel Carroll (The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 62, blah, blah.) I was interested in it because I always like finding ways to justify trying to make paintings for a living. I mean, it’s not like it really helps anyone. So this article talks about why art evolved.

The author starts by giving a definition for art and why we can say all human cultures have created it:

“There are certain very frequently recurring features in a great deal of what are called artworks across cultures, including their embodiment in a sensuous medium that calls for an imaginative response to their decorative, representational, emotive and symbolic properties. Also these things are typically the product of the application of skills, acquired from a tradition, and they address both feeling and cognition, often affording pleasure.”

“Art” as described above is universal, and something universal wouldn’t have evolved without having adapted advantages. Art for art’s sake is just a modern spin, the roots of art are a lot more primitive. These are some ways that the articles suggests art has been beneficial to human evolution:

Imagination Practice

Having an imagination and being able to think about how things could be, but aren’t, is a valuable adaptive asset that lets a person run cost-free trials of possible future events in their mind, and lets them arrange chains of events into meaningful wholes. Fictional stories, myths and narrative images are some of the oldest forms of art and are one of the most effective exercises of our ability to do that.

"Garden of Earthly Delights" by Bosch. It could happen!


Also, being able to empathize with and understand others through the imagination is an important part of sociability, which is an important part of human survival, which brings us to…

Mind Reading

Art is often a creative expression by a person or group that’s then experienced and understood by someone else. Some music is “happy” or an actor’s face is “angry” or a temple is “majestic,” etc. As social animals it’s vital to be sensitive to and able to interpret other people’s emotional states, something art allows us to refine. As the author says: “Art, in short, is one of the most important cultural sites we have for training our powers for detecting the emotions and intentions of others.”

"The Old Guitarist" by Picasso. I feel this is sad. Wikipedia says I'm right. Art interpreted.


Group Cohesion

Not only do individuals interpret art, people can respond similarly as an audience to an artwork. This is another important way art enhances sociability in humans by “quickening the social glue.” (Does alcohol count as art?) Groups of people laugh at the same parts in movies, bond over the same music or are affected similarly by religious objects, coordinating their emotions and creating group cohesion.

Obama's "Hope" poster by Shepard Fairey. Had me convinced.


Different cultures will create different art, just like they have different languages or religions, adapting them to their needs. Art encodes cultural information and embeds it in the mind where it’s accessible, creating shared understanding in a society.

What a douche.


Art Killed Neanderthals, is Badass

The author also mentions that evidence suggests the Cro-Magnon peoples possessed art and the Neanderthals didn’t. So there’s that.



Filed under Art History

3 responses to ““Art and Human Nature”

  1. t baby

    “Art Killed Neanderthals, is Badass”

    Quote of the day! That should be an Onion headline!

  2. “Does alcohol count as art?” Ahahahaha I’m making art right now then! I snorted out loud when I read that.

  3. I believe that making art is a significant contribution to society, and that you, Ali, do help others through art. We may never know when we uplift someone, cheer them, give them a reason to laugh or touch their emotions and help them feel more human. Art is helpful, it is here to stay and I hope you will continue to make your contribution. Thanks for the article!

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