The Biology of Art
by Joyce McPherrin
What is art and what makes people create it? Art has been present since the creation of mankind, from cave drawings to the present. Man has been trying to define art and separate non-art perhaps from its origins. Over time, many great philosophers have had lots to say about art, including Freud, Kant, and Aristotle. Even the field of biology has something to say about art. What exactly did they have to say about art? Their opinions are diverse, as is the field of art. Exploring their differences and looking at specific examples of art can perhaps shed some light on the definition of the vast array of artifacts we call art.

Repressed instinct
Sigmund Freud’s theory of art focused around a central theme of motivation to create. His understanding of art was based on the artist psyche and reason for shaping his medium into its final form. According to Freud, his theory was to “…take inter-relations between the impressions of the artist’s life, his chance experiences and his works and from them construct his [mental] constitution and the instinctual impulses at work in it – that is to say that part of him he shared with all men” (Glover). In this way, art is deeply tied to the expression of emotions and even biological or evolutionary advantages, such as sex and aggression. A key element to art is the expression of unconscious desires and instincts common among all people (Freeland 158).

Freud’s art theory developed from his psychological theory of personality, containing the id, ego, and superego. The id is the basic, primitive, almost animal like desires of the personality that longs for pleasure gratification. The id is controlled by the practical ego, a decision making database of social norms, rules, laws, and learned behaviors. Connected to the ego is the superego, which is concerned with morality and the difference between right and wrong. The id completely dwells in the realm of the unconscious, below the surface of awareness. Partially submerged along with the id are the ego and superego. However, the ego is mainly in the conscious world of awareness (Weiten 498). The id constantly bombards the ego and superego with needs and desires. The ego and superego decide whether to indulge in the desired behavior or to repress it based upon morals and learned social norms. Repressed desires are in conflict with controlled behavior, creating a war between the conscious and subconscious. Without an outlet, repressed behaviors lead to physiological problems (Palmer). Art allows repressed behaviors to be expressed in a constructive and manageable way, giving a “narcotic” affect” to both the artist and the viewers (Glover).

Art (like Freud’s dream theory) is a wish fulfilled in a physical, tangible way (Weiten). Freud further explains “[The Artist] longs to attain honour, power, riches, fame, and the love of women; but he lacks the means of achieving these gratifications. So, like any other with an unsatisfied longing, he turns away from reality and transfers all his interest, and all his libido, on to the creation of his wishes in the life of phantasy, from which the way might readily lead to neurosis” (Freeland 157). Freud believed that art was to close to reality, making it an ineffective devise to satisfy the id. As an ineffective escape, the longings build up within artist leading to neurosis. An artist neurosis can be seen in their artwork, because it lies heavy on their minds. The physical representation of internal conflict is the beauty, but also the darkness of the soul (Palmer 446).

In art the true longing or meaning may be hidden and hard to interpret. Autorretarto con Collre de Espinasy Colibri (see page 9) is a self-portrait of the artist, Frieda Kahlo, depicting a white woman standing in the jungle. She is wearing a white shirt and butterflies hold up her black hair. Around her neck is wrapped a series of vines, holding a black bird pendant. In the background, a black wild cat creeps and a small black monkey ties the vines around her neck. Small dragonflies hover above her and green tropical leaves fill in the gaps. A small bit of light blue sky can be seen peeking through at the top of the painting. Freud’s theory of art would say that the true content relates directly to the artist mindset. Perhaps he might say that she is not happy and has a secret longing to escape back to nature. Because it is a self-portrait, she is placing herself into the scene. Perhaps Kahlo relates to the wild cat, longing to attack and be free from the restraints of society. The vines around her neck may represent a feeling of restraint, wrapped around her by a child-like ape. Freud would surely say that the painting displays the artist true emotions, an unfulfilled wish and perhaps a mental illness. A biography of the artist would be very interesting to Freud. Learning about the artist relates directly to the artwork’s meaning and why the art was created.

Evolutionary art
Like Freud’s theory, the biological origin’s theory, first presented by Coss, shows that art (and its appreciation) is instinctual and biological. Unlike Freud, however, this view of art is not based as much upon physcology as it is on evolution. According to the biological origin’s theory, certain images elicit reactions that are built into our DNA, instinctual. Features of nature, that may have been advantageous to humanity thousands of years ago, may be why we like a given piece of art over another. Examples of this principle are seen across species, in virtually throughout the animal kingdom. One of the most prolific examples of these biological tendencies can be found in choices of habitation. Many prey species, such as rabbits and mice, given the choice would rather live in a hidden area where their ancestors have thrived, such as a hole, than in an open grassy area, such as a savanna. According the biological origins theory, people demonstrate the same principle. We seek out spaces or rearrange our surroundings to mimic places were humanity thrived since its beginning, areas like the African savanna. Savanna-like images appear in art across cultures.

Art aids survival by telling a story from which we can learn or reminding us of past struggles to stay alive. Objects and designs that originally were attached to potentially harmful or beneficial creatures or situations evoke instinctual reactions, such as fear, joy, and heightened awareness, to protect animals (including humans). According to the biological origin’s theory, art mimics objects and designs, such as eyes, leopard skin, or attractive members of the opposite sex, forcing an uncontrollable reaction. Mixed objects and designs, conveying different messages, intrigue audiences causing pleasure and contemplation. Great works of art elicit more reaction, emotion and thought than bad works of art. Other forms of art, such as novels and the theater, tell us a story, perhaps preparing us for what to do in compromising positions, making us better fit to survive in the world. Learning provides survival and art provides a medium to safely view situations before jumping in headfirst into the unknown (Conniff).

The biological origin’s theory art would also have an opinion about Frieda Kahlo’s painting. The black wild cat in the painting elicits a fear response, while the butterflies and dragonfly’s give a calming affect. The leaves in the background are reminiscent of the African jungle, the evolutionary origin of human kind. The woman in the painting has an almost animal like quality to her. The painting is both repulsive and calming in subject matter, stimulating the mind to thought. Evolutionary responses could explain Kahlo’s painting, however, the theory of biological origin’s fails to address why it was made, something that Freud covered almost exclusively.

Taste and beauty
Much like Freud, Kant believed that art had something to do with perceptions of the mind. However, Kant lived before the theories of modern psychology. Kant’s theory of art was not based upon why art is created, rather it focused on defining and classifying created art. Kant believed that humanity has a built in mechanism that makes sense of sensory images by labeling them. A perception of an image is created through the intellect and imagination and interpreted through judgement. Things that are visually pleasing or beautiful are classified as such, much as we classify a pencil as a pencil. Kant believed that everyone had the same perception of beauty, making art a “universal language,” understandable in every culture (Freeland). Kant’s theory of art intended to cope with the aspects of beauty and taste.

Things of beauty possess “Purposiveness without a purpose.” The idea of purposiveness applies to Kant’s beliefs of “free play” between the faculties of imagination and cognitive thought. To be purposive, an object must have a “rightness” or quality that comes form a given harmony between the observers’ faculties. Good form, whether it is beautiful or not, invokes a harmony of the imagination and cognitive thought, which Kant called the “harmony of the faculties.” Kant believed that to truly appreciate the beauty, or “rightness,” of an object it must not have a tactile purpose. Although an object or artifact may have another purpose separate from beauty, to think of something as beautiful requires the observers’ separation from the objects original function, a disinterest. A horse may be beautiful, but to truly appreciate it for its beauty the observer must not be thinking about riding the horse. The observer must not be interested in the horse’s purpose, but rather its purposiveness of beauty (Freeland).

Kant’s theory of art is similar to both Freud and the biological origin’s theory. Similar to the biological origin’s theory, the perception of a given image is the basis of art appreciation. Both theories explain that art is universal to all people through a built in system, one based upon evolution, the other based upon the biological aspect of perception. Freud, like both Kant’s theory and the biological origin’s theory, was based upon biology. However, Freud’s theory of art centered around the reason why art is created, an outlet or escape from the harsh reality of suppression in the modern world.

Autorretarto con Collre de Espinas y Colibri has aesthetically pleasing elements for which Kant would declare it art. The image has a sense of harmony and an indescribable beauty. The cat, monkey, and women inspire imagination and thought. It is possible to have a disinterested response to the picture as well. It is possible to not imagine yourself with the woman in the jungle. Kahlo’s painting gives a “harmony of the faculties” which causes us to label it as art. Therefore, Kant would consider the self-portrait art.

Imitated purgings
Like Freud, Aristotle believed that art purges the soul of dangerous thoughts. Art replaces real acts that could be dangerous to society, such as anger. The emotions Aristotle refers to are the basis of Freud’s theories as well, aggression and sexuality. “An emotion that strongly affects some souls is present in all to a varying degree, for example pity and fear, and also ecstasy….for all of them must experience a kind of purgation and pleasurable relief”(Palmer 450). Art gives a pleasurable relief to the strongest of emotions. In this way art is good and relieves feelings that could boil in society leading to chaos. However, Freud did not consider art as good. To Freud, art was too close to reality causing denial of the real world. Denial can lead to insanity and neurosis in its master, the artists. In this way Freud and Aristotle’s theories diverge (Palmer).

Aristotle believed that art was a means of pacifying the masses, bringing politics to art (Palmer 451). Art stood to educate the masses using the audience’s emotions to stimulate the mind and senses. According to Aristotle, art was for the “vulvar” people; to pacify their needs and occupy their thoughts while the educated men thought of more sophisticated things, such as philosophy and politics. Good artistic content pertained to a deep human goodness, with characters that made mistakes, but still remained generally good. Such subject matter was good to pacify the masses, keeping up their moral reasoning by showing good examples. Anything that taught bad morals and praised evil deeds could provoke the masses to rise in revolt, rather than pacifying their tendencies (Freeland 32). True good art was meant to pacify instead of incite, appealing to the audience’s passion and senses.

Aristotle’s art theory also contained an aspect that art is a form of mimicry, which was also present in the biological origin’s theory and in Freud’s theory. Art is a representation of the real world around it, according to Aristotle, depicting nature and human tendencies. Since art is only a representation of true forms, it is mimicking reality. In the biological origin’s theory, the natural aspects of art where what appeals people to a given work. Instinctually, certain images, from nature, elicit reactions. Freud also included mimicry into his theory in his psychoanalysis of art. Art is a way to sublimate repressed feelings into a physical form. The physical form is a representation or mimic of the true emotion or repressed dream. Mimicry is common thread in many theories of art.

Aristotle would recognize the mimicry of nature present in Kahlo’s artwork. Kahlo’s painting has obvious elements taken from nature, such as the light blue butterflies, dragonflies, jungle leaves, woman, cat, bird, and monkey. Even the light blue sky mimics the natural sky above us all. Viewing the painting could be an escape for many from the harsh reality of life. It is easy to imagine yourself in the jungle along side the woman (which Kant discourages). Aristotle would consider Kahlo’s painting art because it has a way of pacifying the masses while capturing nature.

The Path
Claude Monet’s Path Through the Corn at Pourville 1882 (Summer) is a picturesque painting of the coastline which could easily fit into many of the theories of art discussed. Monet’s Path is a beautiful view from a path on the top hill overlooking the ocean and the shoreline. In the distance a rocky cliff projects into the sea and green trees mark the bottom of the hill. Fluffy white clouds cover the light blue sky. The path is dirt with sporatic green patches of grass popping up throughout it. The beach becomes the path after the hill ends. Bright contrasting colors from the blue water, orange summer grass, sandy path, and cloudy sky add to its pleasing beauty. Unlike Kahlo’s painting, the image is not sharp. The edges seem fuzzier and the contrast between colors is not as harsh. Monet’s style is obviously different from Kahlo’s. His subject matter too is obviously different as well, depicting landscape rather than animal forms, yet both paintings show artistic talents of different types that can be explained using the same theories.

Despite the differences between Kahlo’s painting and Monet’s, Freud, the biological origin’s theory, Kant, and Aristotle would probably agree that Monet’s Path is art as well. Freud might comment that the path through the corn is a place that the artist might want to go, but is incapable of travelling to. The path is a wish that must go unfulfilled. Unlike Freud, the biological origin’s theory would say that the path is comforting, leading to water. Everything is visible and safe. It would be evolutionarily advantageous to be in a place like the path. Kant would like Monet’s painting for its aesthetic value. The image is undoubtedly beautiful, creating harmony in its perception. Aristotle would probably also view this as art. It mimics reality and is a productive manner of escaping reality. Although, for Monet’s painting, none of theories agree, they are all right in their assessments of the piece. By combining them, we can better understand the piece’s value.

The nature of art
Through analyzing several theories of art, we can better understand the concept of art. Freud believed that the creation of art was deeply related to the mind of the artist. Art is an escape for the artist from the harsh realm of reality. The biological origin’s theory focused upon the evolutionary aspects of art, explaining how we instinctually react to art. Kant, like Freud, believed that art had something to do with the mind. His theory focused upon the faculties and how we classify something as beautiful. Finally, we explored Aristotle, who believed, like Freud, that art was a purging of the soul. Combining art with politics, Aristotle also brought society into the world of art.

Throughout the four theories discussed, certain ideas seem to resonate. Art is biological. Perception, internal conflict, and instinct combine to give art meaning, connecting it to all people universally. Art mimics reality. Nature and humanity in the world around us combines in art to form images that are easily recognizable. Art also has a role in society. According to Aristotle, it subdued the masses, but to Freud it shaped the mind, molding the ego and superego. Using examples, we can see that these concepts and theories work in combination to explain the phenomenon of art. Perhaps no one theory can explain every work of art, but in combination, we can better understand art. Since art is a reflection of our psyche, instinct, and society we can better understand others and ourselves.


Works Cited

Conniff, Richard. “The Natural Art.” Discover. November 1999.

Freeland, Cynthia. But is it Art? Oxford: Oxford Press, 2001.

Glover, Nicola. “Phycoanalytic Aesthetics: The British School.” The Human Review. 23 September 1998. Chp.1. 7 March 2003.

Palmer, Donald. Does the Center Hold? Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publishing House, 1991. 436-452.

Weiten, Wayne. Psychology Themes & Variations. 5th ed. Stamford: Wadsworth, 2001. 488-492.

Path Through the Corn at Pourville 1882 (Summer)
By Claude Monet


Autorretarto con Collre de Espinas y Colibri, 1940
By Fido Kahlo

(all pictures from

Major: Animal Science (Pre-vet)
Expected Graduation Date: May 2005
Hometown: Live Oak, CA

When I was thinking about a topic to write about for this assignment, I was trying to find theories that fit together. As a science major, things that are based in biology seem to make more sense to me. I had studied Freud previously and decided that his theories would be a good place to start. Then I decided to use the biological origins theory. The artwork I chose from suggestions at I would say my greatest inspiration was my science background and some free time. This was one of the only essays I have not procrastinated on and it turned out the best.

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