Does Evolution Come From Art?

Lisa B.'s picture
“As the evolution of knowledge proceeds by truer and more necessary knowledge dislodging and replacing what is mistaken and unnecessary, so the evolution of feeling proceeds through art, -feelings less kind and less needful for the well-being of mankind are replaced by others kinder and more needful for that end. That is the purpose of art.”
-Leo Tolstoy, What is art?, p. 136
What is “art” for? Do changes in the perception of art reflect a true evolution of feeling, as Tolstoy suggests, or do tastes in art change for change’s sake alone? The role of culture, including art, in human natural selection has been questioned since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859. Daniel Dennett, a professor of philosophy at Tufts University and author of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, believes that art can function in natural selection as an extra genetic way of transferring the structure of the human brain, done through “memes,” which are units of cultural transmission analogous to genes.  Memes are carried by “meme vehicles,” such as art, aphorisms, tools, and buildings.  Consequently, there may be evolutionary value in art, that there is something more profound than the view of advanced cultures regarding “art” purely as an esthetic contemplation, art for art’s sake” (Payne, 8-9). Evelyn Payne Hatcher, a professor Emeritus of Anthropology at St. Cloud State University, reported “if for whatever reason people accept different configurations more readily in art than in other aspects of life, then art is not only important for exploring potential change, but becomes important in the expansion of perception of the viewpoints of other persons and other people” (Payne, 207). Art as memes may have an important role in helping the populations of cultures adapt to change, representing a psychological solution to a cultural problem.  The need for a subconscious solution to cultural change could account for the supplanting of new schools of art with those preceding them.  As such, this does not represent evolution of art per se, since there is no perfection of esthetics, but simply a redirection of art to address different stresses (Payne, 203).

Dennett considers “memes” as packets of cultural information as analogues of the genes of natural selection. While presenting at the Mandel Lecture to the American Society for Aesthetics, he noted the similarities between cultural evolution and natural selection (Dennett, 343):
(1)    variation: there is a continuing abundance of different elements
(2)    heredity or replication: the elements have the capacity to create copies or replicas of themselves
(3)    differential “fitness”: the number of copies of an element that are created in a given time varies, depending on interactions between the features of that element and features of the environment in which it persists

As civilization has become more complex, art has assumed a more important role as a tool of cultural explanation.  One notable example of this was the change from the symbolic art of the Middle Ages to the allegorical or forthrightly representational art of early renaissance Italy.  Most Italians in the Fourteenth Century had a general pessimism brought about by the severity of the Black Death and the resultant economic, social, political, and cultural upheavals which it brought about.  This mood change was contrary to the religious faith of humanism of the previous century: “People were horrified by an evil force they could not understand and by the subsequent breakdown of all normal human relations” (Spielvogel , 216). The “evil force” caused economic, social, political, and cultural upheaval.

The great famine of 1315-1317 was the first of many epidemics that dominated the work of artists. Widespread chronic malnutrition, resulting from heavy storms and constant rain, may have caused the Black Death (Spielvogel, 216). There were “a large number of both sexes…barefooted…their bones bulging out” (Spielvogel, 216) Ultimately, the death rate was 50 to 60 percent of all individuals whom contracted the Bubonic plague (Spielvogel, 216). In Florence and Siena, between 50 and 70 percent of the residents died (Adams, 235). Symptoms of bubonic plague were frankly represented in Renaissance artwork, including the effects of high fever, aching joints, swelling of the lymph nodes, and the dark blotches caused by bleeding beneath the skin.

The destruction of the social order caused by depopulation also had another major influence on the style of art at this time.  Art began to be created for ordinary people, not just the clergy or nobility. The broadening in the society’s audience for art may have influenced its content, emphasizing common experiences in life. John Dewey, a twentieth century Western philosopher, wrote, “the conditions that create the gulf which exists generally between producer and consumer in modern society operate to create also a chasm between ordinary and esthetic experience” (Dewey, 8).

Andrea di Cione’s (Orcagna) (active c. 1343-68) fresco, the Triumph of Death, completed in the 1360s, was one of these new works. This fresco, painted in the church of Santa Croce in Florence, combined images of the plague with themes of hell and the Last Judgment to convey approaching doom. The two lame men and two blind men represent Death, in reference to the inscription on the painting, “since prosperity has departed, Death, the medicine of all pain, come and give us our last supper” (Adams, 236) Feelings of terror are invoked with the nervous motions of the blind men and the angry stares of the cripples. Only fragments of the fresco remain, but the panic caused from the Black Death remains palpable through the fresco, as well as a need for an explanation of why their world had changed.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s (active 1319-47) Allegories of a Good and Bad Government idealized Sienese society, and was an attempt to celebrate the value of cooperative town life.  This detailed picture was displayed in the Palazzo Pubblico (Town Hall) in celebration of Siena’s transition to a Republican government. Inside the city were fashionable women dancing and singing, horseback riders, and workers carrying bricks. The bricklayer symbolized the infrastructural improvements completed by an uncorrupt government. Images of peasants and gallows haunt the town outside its walls. The gallows remind viewers the consequences of violating the laws of government. Although the image of a swinging rope from an executed criminal is not itself enjoyable, the surrounding countryside is paradoxically pleasant.

Impressionism arose at a time of great change in French society: industrialization, the loss in the Franco-Prussian War, and the government of Napoleon III.  Infrastructure from the Middle Ages, such as narrow streets, were replaced by wide streets, drainage and sewer systems, clean water supplies, bridges, lamplighting along the street, outdoor fountains, and public parks. Although the Impressionists preferred natural images, many of their paintings were urban landscapes or scenes, but rendered in a wholly different way than the romantic style it preceded.  Impressionist images of barges, factories, and railway stations conflicted with the Académie des Beaux-Arts, which controlled the Paris art scene, which only recognized the value of portraits, historical, and religious subjects.  Many Impressionist paintings soften the effect of the machines they portray, such as Claude Monet’s 1872 painting, Impressionism: Sunrise, which gave the impressionist movement its name (Adams, 440). After viewing Monet’s painting, the art critic, Louis Leroy, referred to his short, thick paint strokes as “Impressionisms.” Monet studied the light and color of nature and used a painting technique, called “broken color,” to illustrate nature on canvas as it was in reality. For example, the reflection of the orange sun is painted in “broken” brushstrokes, as well as the black reflection of the boat. Both the sun and boat are painted within the horizontal daubs of paint that we see as calm water. Bright colors emphasized natural landscapes and were an appreciated change from the dark colored paintings of nineteenth-century Realism. In the background are factories that were a product of the growing French industrialization. Impressionist painters continued to exhibit images of nature and influenced society by promoting natural beauty, whether portraits, or scenes of urban or country life. 

Impressionism painting continues to be popular today because the society it represented is still with us. Long after Monet’s death, parents can introduce Impressionist art to their children in the book Linnea in Monet’s Garden, which features Monet’s bold “waterscape” paintings.

Renoir was another key Impressionist painter (1841-1919) who, unlike Monet, was classically trained. In Pont-Neuf of 1872, Renoir illustrated the human activity of post-war Paris. This painting mimicked photography (Adams, 442), a technology that was becoming established at this time. Different social classes stroll the Left Bank in the scene, mothers with children, venders pushing carts, dog walkers, carriage riders, policemen, and soldiers. A shadow below each person’s feet emphasizes the sunny day. The far side of the bridge shows the modern buildings that began to appear during the Second Empire.

Art can be an indirect means to understand the ambiance and character of historical cultures, since the images that artists produced were a response, directly or indirectly, to social needs and stresses of the time. Art museums serve as an important repository for historical and current art, providing important access for scholars as well as enlightenment for the general public.  It might be constructive to determine if certain artistic content or themes correlate with specific cultural stressors through history.  If this were true, then changes in art would more likely be reactionary rather than evolutionary.  “We need to look at the theories of our predecessors, and attempt to make connections, not giving way to the Modernist habit, in art at least, of pretending our efforts are completely new, or to be valued for the sake of newness” (Hatcher, xix).

The progression of art movements throughout civilization can be seen as an aesthetic reaction to significant social change, a reaction that occurs, then temporarily stabilizes, because it addresses a new psychological stress.  It is not necessary to assume that art evolves toward greater aesthetic refinement to argue that changes in artistic style have value as a tool for cultural explanation. 

Works Cited
"About Barnes." The Barnes Foundation. 13 May 2009 <>.

Adams, Laurie Schneider. A History of Western Art. Fourth Edition. McGraw-Hill: New York, 2005.

Bressler, Sandy. "Sensible Solutions for the Barnes Foundation." Friends of the Barnes Foundation. 13 May 2009 <>.

Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Dewey, John. Art as Experience. New York: Penguin, 2005.

Hatcher, Evelyn Payne. Art as Culture: An Introduction to the Anthropology of Art. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1999.

Spielvogel, Jackson Western Civilization: A Brief History Second Edition. Stamford: Thomson Learning, 2002.

Tolstoy, Leo. What is art? New York: Crowell, 1899.


Paul Grobstein's picture

change (evolution?) in art

  • "toward greater aesthetic refinement"
  • "react to signficant social change"
  • "change for change's sake alone" 
I wonder if there's a story that makes simultaneous use of all these elements?


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