Mating Minds: David Byrne and Evolutionary Psychologist Geoffrey Miller Ask Why Humans Make Art
On October 10th, David Byrne of The Talking Heads and Geoffrey Miller, PhD, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico, took part in a conversation at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Boston titled, "Connections between biology and culture, sex and beauty, genes and creativity." Byrne invited Miller to join him after reading his book The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature (Anchor Books, 2000) during last December's Art Basel in Miami Beach. He felt that Miller's book provided some satisfying explanations for the art crowd's peculiar behavior, which Byrne described in an online journal entry from Miami: "There are museum curators and art groupies and God knows what else—all of them swarming and drawn to the light, or to the money, like moths."
In The Mating Mind, Miller endorses Darwin's lesser known, and previously ignored, theory of "sexual selection." Sexual selection asserts that humans evolved traits like creativity, intelligence, and generosity to attract and entertain sexual partners, and only partly for their survival value. Miller uses this theory to define things like going to an art fair as "leveraging one's social acceptance." In other words, being at Art Basel raises your social status by advertising to potential mates that: a) you know enough about the contemporary art world to know what Art Basel is; b) you can afford to go to Miami Beach for a week to look at art; and c) considering these two qualities, you might make an interesting and wealthy mate.
Byrne found this an attractive idea, perhaps because his own most recent book, Arboretum (McSweeney's, 2006) covers similar ground. In the same online entry, he provides a concise summary of Miller's research. "Miller believes that the ability of our minds to charm, seduce, captivate and enrapture—via artistic work, conversation, language, dance, sport—gives proof to potential mates that...we might have deeper levels of genetic fitness beneath the visible surface."
Byrne and Miller each delivered idiosyncratic PowerPoint presentations inside the ICA's glass-walled auditorium, located on a pier overlooking the black water and flickering lights of Boston Harbor. Miller—a robust, classically handsome, and soft-spoken man in his mid-forties—began by announcing that those of us in the audience (approximately 200 people) were "almost perfect." Meaning we were the product of three billion years of organic evolution, in which every one of our ancestors succeeded in surviving and transmitting their three billion base-pairs of DNA to us, allowing us to breathe, digest, walk, talk, think, and laugh with relative ease. "Only a thin veneer of genetic mutation prevents us from absolute biological perfection," Miller said. A simultaneous flattered blush seemed to spread through the crowd.
David Byrne, a bit frazzled and blinking eccentrically beneath his Beckett-like wave of white hair, took a more personal approach. He began by confessing how shy and socially crippled he was upon moving to New York City in the mid-seventies. This may have been due to borderline Asperger's, he said. Fortunately, he discovered that being in a band allowed people to approach him, so he wouldn't have to approach them. "I thought, 'Whoa. This is the way to meet people!'" Everybody laughed.
But the rest of the event only hinted at the endlessly fascinating ideas found in The Mating Mind and Arboretum. In his book, Geoffrey Miller claims that evolutionary psychology has not tried hard enough to explain our most impressive and distinctive abilities. He points out the innacuracy of Steven Pinker's assertion that art, music, humor, and religion are "biological side effects of other evolved
abilities," and makes the case for reproductive success as the driving force of human adaptation. He does so by applying sexual selection theory to such things as sculpting, rock and roll, Scheherazade, skiing, wit, morality, orgasms, strange animal behavior, and, indirectly, Williamsburg Brooklyn, a neighborhood that could easily serve as an experimental comminity in which to observe the process of
sexual selection in it most overt and contemporary incarnation. Arboretum tackles similar issues through pencil sketches of root-and-tree systems, bar charts, and Venn diagrams, starting from hypotheses like, "Would I have found love if I had not soiled my underwear as a child?" or "Not many would claim that rocks are alive. But why not?" The conclusions he reaches are strangely rational and enlightening.
In their books and at the ICA, Miller and Byrne's thoughts constantly converged with and diverged from one another. They might be best understood when applied to the lives of popular artists and musicians, who are, in most cases, the major benefactors of sexual selection. For example, David Byrne:
1. David Byrne's Borderline Asperger's
Reading Arboretum, part of me wanted to dismiss Byrne's relentlessly bizarre drawings and hypotheses as the result of a clinically obsessed brain—of "someone with Asperger's" who is robotically compelled to focus on a specific activity—rather than the result of a passionate yearning for knowledge. That is, part of me didn't want to grapple with the complexity of Byrne's ideas, and would rather write him off as "someone with Asperger's," the way calling someone an "asshole" excuses you from further analyzing his or her behavior.
According to Geoffrey Miller, the drive to create artistic ornaments, like songs, books, or paintings, evolved as a way for our male ancestors to prove their fitness as mates. This idea opposes Freud's theory of art as sublimated sexuality (though Picasso and Renoir both claimed they painted with their penises). It also opposes the German Romantic theory of art as a plane of higher consciousness and a rebellion against conformity. In Miller's view, David Byrne—like John Lennon and Bob Dylan and every other human songwriter—writes songs because his genes, inherited through thousands of generations of sexual selection, programmed him to do so.
This is a pretty unromantic idea. But it is not unlike believing Asperger's programmed David Byrne to write Arboretum. Therefore, if I were to write off Byrne's complex ideas a result of Asperger's, I would have to write off the world of art a result of sexual selection, as opposed to passion or inspiration or some other unnamable force. I would rather not think of art as a result of sexual selection. And so I'm persuaded to see Arboretum as a result of David Byrne's passionate yearning for knowledge.
2. David Byrne as Sexual Competitor
Another reason I wanted to dismiss Byrne's book was that it is really interesting. I had stuff to do and the interesting stuff that David Byrne had already done was preventing me from doing my stuff, which was frustrating. Dr. Miller might explain my frustration by saying Arboretum prevented me from making something of value in the sexual marketplace, an object or performance that might eventually result in
my procreating with a woman.
Could the slight hostility I felt for Byrne while reading his book have been provoked by reproductive competition, regardless of our distance in age? If David Byrne were dead, say, would I have had an easier time reading his book, knowing he was no longer capable of reproducing? Unlikely, but it's possible.
3. Kate Moss and Pete Doherty
To the amusement of the ICA crowd, David Byrne projected a slide of Kate Moss, Guinness in hand, beside sometime-boyfriend Pete Doherty, shirtless and crouched on top of a bar like a monkey ready to spring, his eyes drugged and insane. Why are these two together? Byrne asked. He believed that they fit the folk myth of the princess denying the self-interested prince chosen for her, in favor of the honest cobbler with a heart of gold. This didn't take into account Doherty's wealth and international fame, of course. And as a popular musician, like Byrne, Doherty is announcing his reproductive fitness in a valuable contemporary way. But his massive drug intake also implies a purely physical fitness, in that he's still alive. Moss is a known drug abuser herself, but nothing like Pete Doherty, whose physical
tolerance for drugs may be for Moss an appealing display of strength and virility, likely to produce durable offspring.
4. Dash Snow
Byrne is interested in the origins of what he calls the "crazy artist myth." At the ICA, he showed a slide of Damien Hirst contorting his face and wearing a pair of fake eyeballs. "This is the most successful artist in the world," he said, "and he looks like a crazy person from the street." Why might an artist want to act or appear crazy? Byrne wondered. He answered by saying that in the Renaissance, artists began to act eccentric to distance themselves from ordinary craftsmen, creating a personal mystique surrounding their art. He followed the Hirst slide with one of a fifties advertisement for a cut of beef that read: "Don't sell the steak, sell the sizzle!" He found this phrase applied to the contemporary art world.
There's a lot of sizzle around downtown artist Dash Snow at the moment. Snow is the grandchild of Christophe De Menil, the wealthiest and most recognized art collector and patroness in the US. He severed contact with his family, or at least his parents, at the age of 13 after being sent to juvenile detention, and became a graffiti writer and petty criminal. Since his late teens, according to a 2006 article in New York Magazine, Snow has acted as a kind of muse for his successful artist friends Dan Colen and Ryan McGinley, who encouraged him to start making art. Colen mentions that Snow met Robert Rauschenberg and other famous artists as a child, though his knowledge of art remained limited. "He didn't know who Matthew Barney was," says Colen. But within a few years, Snow was exhibiting Polaroids in the Whitney Biennial.
Considering his dangerous lifestyle and his role as a male muse, it may have seemed counterintuitive for Dash Snow not to make art himself. In the New York article, art agent Molly Logan says, "I think that for the last five years or so, there is a larger desire for the personal: something that has the hand of a person in it. It's not I'm going to do this so people will think I'm crazy. [It's] I am crazy! I think [Dash] is genuinely and completely self-destructive." The validity of Snow's craziness has made him one of New York's most successful young artists. This in turn makes him an intensely desirable mate from the perspective of evolutionary psychology.
5. Matthew Barney: Fittest Man Alive?
By Miller's sexually selective criteria, the artist Matthew Barney makes a convincing case for being the fittest man alive. His evolution from a high school football hero to a wildly successful surrealist filmmaker, sculptor, and photographer even mimics the arc of human evolution itself, from hunting and gathering to frivolous, ornamentally concerned city dwelling. In Cremaster 3, the last of his five-film Cremaster Cycle, Barney demonstrates both his physical and creative fitness by decorating himself with body paint, a giant pink headdress, a kilt, and an orange silk napkin stuffed into his mouth, and then climbing the Guggenheim Museum's rotunda from floor to floor, each of which presents a unique physical or psychological challenge. On the Guggenheim's top floor he finds Richard Serra, an apt reproductive competitor, having recently taken over several floors of MoMA with his own massive displays of creativity. In the Freudian view, Serra represents to Barney's character—known as the Entered Apprentice—the Oedipal father figure Barney must kill in order to enter a zone of free, non-derivative artistic expression. In Geoffrey Miller's view, Serra, despite his age, is a dangerously fit competitor for high-quality, highly discriminating females.
Matthew Barney is married to Bjork, the beautiful Icelandic singer-songwriter, composer, actress, and music producer. Bjork has been nominated for twelve Grammy Awards, an Academy Award, and two Golden Globes. In 2000, she won the Cannes Film Festival's Best Actress Award. She has sold over 16 million albums worldwide. Bjork herself represents an artistic competitor to Barney, though not for reproductive rights, being a woman. Rather, her oeuvre could be seen as a kind of insanely elaborate gauntlet thrown down at the feet of any creative male seeking to woo her; an intimidating indication of her highly sophisticated artistic taste.
In comparing human artists to animals, Geoffrey Miller and David Byrne both reference the bowerbird as the species that comes closest to creating human art. In mating season the male bowerbird decorates his "bower" or nest with orchids, berries, moss, and snail shells, even "painting it with regurgitated bluish residue," using a leaf held in the beak, to attract females. When a female arrives, she critiques the bower according to size, symmetry and decorative flair, and decides whether or not to copulate with the male inside it.
Were Bjork a bowerbird, you can imagine the anxiety a male would feel upon her entering his bower. Matthew Barney, however, seems to have met the challenge. From an evolutionary psychology standpoint, Barney's fantastic bower of creative output proved satisfactory to Bjork. This is evidenced by her decision to procreate with him and mingle their genetics in the form of a daughter, Isadóra Bjarkardóttir Barney.
JED LIPINSKI used to play tambourine in the band Hexa.