Empathizing and understanding other points of view is crucial in today’s multicultural and politically polarized world. There are diverse cultural histories to play with when considering approaches to artmaking, but there is also a rich natural history connecting us. How can human evolutionary biology, and our relatedness to one another, inform my approach?
In the 1990’s, Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid conducted extensive surveys on preferences in art in eleven countries as part of their Most and Least Wanted Painting series. One thing that we learned from these surveys is that blue is by far the most popular color. In the U.S.A., for example, 44% of respondents identified blue as their favorite. Yet biologically, a yellow-green is the color that human eyes are most sensitive to, color with a wavelength of around 555 nanometers, according to several studies.
44% blue and 555 nanometers. I find these two values fascinating, because they point towards a connection in our humanity that has been largely overlooked or even intentionally ignored by critical theory and popular approaches to artmaking over the past century. In the sciences, this played out in the “nature vs. nurture” debate (nature being our genetic information and nurture being cultural knowledge). The conclusion that biologists came to: it is impossible to separate the two, nature AND nurture are critical.
Komar and Melamid found approached this in their suite of tongue-and-cheek “most wanted” paintings. Through those surveys, they discovered an interest in a “mostly blue landscape with trees, water, mountains, and humans and animals.” They made paintings that were both primordial and incredible kitschy. This provocation has led to diverse discourse, with a range of theories attempting to explain why such a similar landscape is persistently popular across cultures. Arthur Danto and Denis Dutton, two art theorists who wrote about these paintings, came up with very different a priori reasons to justify this nearly universal trend.
Arthur Danto, famous for coining the term “The Artworld,” reasoned that the popularity of this landscape was due to, essentially, nurture. Danto wrote that the first art seen by so many people in countries across the planet are calendars, desktop images, kitschy grandmother paintings, and postcards of pleasant sunsets and beautiful landscapes. Thus, his argument goes, these are the images most people first associate with art.
Dennis Dutton, on the other hand, argued that the reason has more to do with our evolutionary biology: these landscapes are like the ones that allowed our ancestors to survive. Their fecundity is what attracts us, and why artists in many cultures have made images of this type of a landscape, often independent of one another. The global popularity of these landscapes on calendars and postcards is a result of this evolutionary history, not the cause.
Separating the chicken from the egg in this way is very tricky business. In my photographs, I attempt to reconcile nature and nurture, rather than try to separate the art historical context from our biological connection. So even as our technological tools develop and our Artworld embraces the difficult to access avant garde, we are and always will be deeply connected by our biological roots. Understanding these roots is as critical to my approach to artmaking, because if we are to find anything that will connect us, I believe it will be in the depths of our shared natural history.