Art is an intensely widespread and deep-rooted part of human cultures worldwide. It’s a part of everyday life (here, the focus is on the visual arts, as opposed to music and theatrical performance). It may be enjoyed as art ‘as its own entity’, or the careful design of all the consumer goods we own, from clothes to packaging to electronics, and everything in between. The question though is why? What are the benefits of art from an evolutionary perspective? Why put valuable time and energy into a seemingly leisurely activity?
Art has a wide variety of functions, but the primary one is communication. It serves as descriptive information just as written or spoken language does, and human society has always relied on advanced communication.Our ability to share ideas and technology largely drives the way we live.
(Have a peek at some amazing ancient cave art from the dawn of humankind.)
Examples of very descriptive art forms are maps and scientific illustration. These arts mimic the natural world to help enhance understanding more effectively than words could. The Renaissance period was a time of great connection between nature, math, and art. Today, it is hard to imagine science textbooks with no pictures, diagrams, and figures. Since the invention and wide expansion of photography, many people wonder why we still need illustrative artists to make pictures of things “we could just photograph instead”. The advantage to art is that it can selectively emphasize certain features and layers that a photo just can’t achieve. Not all things can be photographed as well, such as extinct organisms. The vision of those rely on the careful work of scientific artists to create lifelike representations based on fossils and data. This also works great in the case of things and processes that are too small to be seen with the naked eye, or even microscopes, such as atoms and chemical reactions at the molecular level.
Clothing design and jewelry are art forms that helps to communicate identity. Today, different styles of clothes and jewelry can be used to make associations to certain social groups, religions, specific tastes, and status. Silver, gold, gemstones, quality/rare pigments and textiles, and quality of garment construction have long been signals of wealth. Most cultures have their own distinctive traditional and modern garb that set them apart from others. This use of art enhances the invention of clothing itself, transforming it from a way to protect ourselves from the elements into a vivid display of culture.
Crafting and tool-making are sometimes considered art forms (it really depends on who you ask) because of the similar amount of practice and skill needed. Sometimes tools are created with only utilitarian design in mind, but often they are made with a dash of art and aesthetics. Traditional ceramics is a great example of an art-craft blend. The creation of vessels for cooking and carrying is greatly advantageous. The creation of a visually pleasing vessel, whether it be in form or color, or both, steps ceramics up to the next level.
By now you may be thinking, “Yes this is all fine and good, but how can you explain ‘normal art’, like that found in art galleries?”. Well, due to advancements in human technology, many people have time to spend on activities that aren’t directly related to survival. In humans, again, advanced communication is a large part of our evolution and societies. With all this free time we humans have granted ourselves, many of us chose to pursue art as a way to communicate their individual thoughts and ideas, and to make emotional connections with other people. This is done through advanced use of symbols, as well as manipulating color and composition, to create certain effects observable by other people. Some elements of art work at a very basic level. different angles can evoke different emotions as they are innately associated with different natural things (straight horizontal lines are interpreted as stable, like the still horizon, and angular lines are seen as more energetic and chaotic, like a mountain rising out of the skyline or a steep cliff face). Certain proportions (like the golden ratio/spiral) are considered aesthetically pleasing due to their occurrence in nature. Humans also have complex reactions and preferences to color based upon our evolutionary and cultural history. Deliberate use of color in art can evoke (often unconscious) responses from others (These sorts of responses and feelings are used heavily by advertising companies and marketing and appeal to people on often an unconscious level).
The creation of art “for the sake of art” this could satisfy the innate drive to communicate. Speaking from personal experience, it can also aid the mind in processing emotion, especially negative emotion. Some emotions are too abstract for some to describe in words. Art can be a form of emotional therapy for those suffering with conditions like anxiety and PTSD. It is also a great way to boost observational skills as the brain problem-solves in order to understand form, structure, light, color, and detail.
Art is a unique hallmark of the human species (perhaps it’s because we’re the only ones with opposable thumbs, who knows) that can be found in cultures across the world and across time. While it may seem useless at first glance, it is a widely beneficial construct of human behavior with some direct evolutionary purpose. Not only that, but it helps connect us on an emotional level.
French Cave Paintings & Rock Art Archive http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/france/
An ecological valence theory of human color preference http://www.pnas.org/content/107/19/8877.full