Human Mysteries: Why Do We Make and Enjoy Art?

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: UNDERSTANDING THE MYSTERIES OF HUMAN BEHAVIOR

By Mark Leary, Ph.D., Duke University

Art is all around us, and has been there since prehistoric times. People paint, draw, sculpt, dance, write, and perform music and plays. People enjoy doing artistic things. And, they also enjoy looking at, watching, and experiencing art, but nobody really knows why.

A prehistoric cave painting depicting a deer with giant antlers.
Art has been around since prehistoric times, but why it exists and why it is is enjoyable are still mysteries. (Image: Lascaux/Public domain)

Art for Art’s Sake

Pablo Picasso, who certainly knew a lot about art, said that, “The purpose of art is to wash the dust of daily life off our souls.” Now, that’s a lovely poetic explanation, but it does not really serve as a useful basis for a scientific theory of art.

If behavioral science has taught us anything in the past hundred years, it’s that when just about everybody in every culture on the Earth does something, the behavior must either serve some important function today, or it promoted survival and reproduction in the evolutionary past—or sometimes both.

But, if we’re dispassionate about it, art seems to be an unusual use of people’s time. It doesn’t seem to be serving any basic survival needs, and it’s not obvious what people gain from art that justifies the time, effort, and money that they sometimes put into it.

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The Enjoyment from Art

The answer—“Oh, people obtain great enjoyment from art”—begs the question. What is it about art that makes it enjoyable? Typically, we enjoy those things that provide us with some important outcome.

One explanation that has been discussed in scientific literature is that art serves important social functions. Although there are exceptions, most forms of art either occur in groups—such as in singing or dancing—or is done for other people, such as when visual artists display their work or performers sing, dance, or play music for an audience.

So, from the standpoint of the painter, musician, dancer, or playwright, art potentially provides social connections to other people: either connections to other painters, musicians, dancers, or playwrights, or connections to people who come to view the art. There are a few people who engage in some artistic activity by themselves and never let anybody else know about it, but that’s pretty rare.

A group of young people looking at art in a gallery.
Art is often enjoyed socially, not just alone. (Image: Africa Studio/Shutterstock)

Not only that, but the enjoyment of art usually occurs in groups. People often go to museums, showings, concerts, and other performances with other people, and art becomes a topic for conversation and social identification. So, any adequate theory of art may need to consider its social functions.

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Expressive Aspect of Art

But, there is also an important expressive aspect to art. Artists often talk about using their art to express themselves. But that’s also hard to explain. Why do people have an urge to express themselves? Why don’t people just keep whatever they are thinking or feeling inside?

Of course, that’s not human. People want to express themselves—to let other people know who they are, what they think, what they are feeling, but it’s not clear why. What does self-expression really gain us that makes it such an important part of being human?

And why do people sometimes prefer to express themselves artistically rather than just telling other people what they are feeling and thinking in a more straightforward and less symbolic way? If we can figure out the answer to that question, perhaps we’ll better understand the mystery of art.

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Just Flowing with It

It’s also possible that people often engage in artistic activities more to experience the process than to produce a particular outcome or product. The creation of art often involves a flow experience, a psychological state that sometimes occurs when people are fully immersed in an activity.

The painting 'Le Premier Disque' by Robert Delaunay, showing a circle with multicolored concentric rings.
Creating or enjoying a work of art can often create a state of flow for the artist or the viewer. (Image: Robert Delaunay/Public domain)

When people are in flow, they are so absorbed in what they are doing that they more or less lose consciousness of themselves, they lose track of the passing time, and they may not even be consciously thinking about what they are doing at the time.

Artists often report getting lost in their work, writing or painting or composing or dancing for long periods of time. Flow is an exceptionally pleasurable experience, so some people may do art because it allows them to enter a state of flow. And likewise, some people may experience the pleasure of flow while experiencing art—getting lost in a moving musical performance, or while gazing at a beautiful painting, or while reading poetry.

The Spontaneity of Art

You might wonder why it’s so difficult to answer what seems like a rather simple question such as “Why do people create art?”

Part of the problem is that it is very difficult to study spontaneous artistic activity under the kinds of controlled laboratory conditions that would allow us to dissect the experience and identify what causes it.

Once people know that they are in a research study, the normal psychological processes that underlie their artistic behaviors usually vanish. They’re no longer motivated to engage in artistic behaviors for the same reasons that they do art in everyday life.

Many of the mysteries that we have discussed remain mysteries for precisely this reason. Certain aspects of people’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are difficult to produce on demand so that we can do controlled experiments on them.

Common Questions about the Creation and Enjoyment of Art

Q. What is the social explanation for art?

The social explanation for art posits that it potentially provides social connections for artists to other people: to other artists or to people who come to view the art. The enjoyment of art, too, usually occurs in groups.

Q. How is art related to expression?

People want to express themselves, to let other people know who they are, what they think, what they are feeling. People sometimes prefer to express themselves artistically rather than just telling other people what they are feeling and thinking in a more straightforward and less symbolic way.

Q. Why is it difficult to research spontaneous artistic activity in a lab?

It is very difficult to study spontaneous artistic activity under controlled laboratory conditions. Once people know that they are in a research study, the normal psychological processes that underlie artistic behaviors usually vanish. They’re no longer motivated to engage in artistic behaviors for the same reasons that they do art in everyday life.

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