Fifteen thousand years ago in France, a sculptor swam and slithered almost a kilometer down into a mountain cave. Using clay, the artist shaped a big bull rearing to mount a cow, and then left his creation in the bowels of the earth. The two bison of the Tuc D'Audoubert caves sat undisturbed for many thousands of years until they were rediscovered by spelunking boys in 1912. The discovery of the clay bison was one of many shocking 20th century discoveries of sophisticated cave art stretching back tens of thousands of years. The discoveries overturned our sense of what our caveman ancestors were like. They were not furry, grunting troglodytes. They had artistic souls. They showed us that humans are—by nature, not just by culture—art-making, art-consuming, art-addicted apes.
But why? Why did the sculptor burrow into the earth, make art, and leave it there in the dark? And why does art exist in the first place? Scholars have spun a lot of stories in answer to such questions, but the truth is that we really don't know. And here's one reason why: science is lying down on the job.
A long time ago someone proclaimed that art could not be studied scientifically, and for some reason almost everyone believed it. The humanities and sciences constituted, as Stephen Jay Gould might have proclaimed, separate, non-overlapping magisteria--the tools of the one are radically unsuited to the other.
Science has mostly bought into this. How else can we explain its neglect of the arts? People live in art. We read stories, and watch them on TV, and listen to them in song. We make paintings and gaze at them on walls. We beautify our homes like bowerbirds adorning nests. We demand beauty in the products we buy, which explains the gleam of our automobiles and the sleek modernist aesthetic of our iPhones. We make art out of our own bodies: sculpting them through diet and exercise; festooning them with jewelry and colorful garments; using our skins as living canvas for the display of tattoos. And so it is the world over. As the late Denis Dutton argued in The Art Instinct, underneath the cultural variations, "all human beings have essentially the same art."
Our curious love affair with art sets our species apart as much as our sapience or our language or our use of tools. And yet we understand so little about art. We don't know why art exists in the first place. We don't know why we crave beauty. We don't know how art produces its effects in our brains—why one arrangement of sound or color pleases while another cloys. We don't know very much about the precursors of art in other species, and we don't know when humans became creatures of art. (According to one influential theory, art arrived fifty thousand years ago with a kind of creative big bang. If that's true, how did that happen?). We don't even have a good definition, in truth, for what art is. In short, there is nothing so central to human life that is so incompletely understood.
Recent years have seen more use of scientific tools and methods in humanities subjects. Neuroscientists can show us what's happening in the brain when we enjoy a song or study a painting. Psychologists are studying the ways novels and TV shows shape our politics and our morality. Evolutionary psychologists and literary scholars are teaming up to explore narrative's Darwinian origins. And other literary scholars are developing a "digital humanities," using algorithms to extract big data from digitized literature. But scientific work in the humanities has mainly been scattered, preliminary, and desultory. It does not constitute a research program.
If we want better answers to fundamental questions about art, science must jump in the game with both feet. Going it alone, humanities scholars can tell intriguing stories about the origins and significance of art, but they don't have the tools to patiently winnow the field of competing ideas. That's what the scientific method is for: separating the stories that are more accurate, from the stories that are less accurate. But make no mistake, a strong science of art will require both the thick, granular expertise of humanities scholars and the clever hypothesis testing of scientists. I'm not calling for a scientific takeover of the arts. I'm calling for a partnership.
This partnership faces great obstacles. There's the unexamined assumption that something in art makes it science-proof. There's a widespread, if usually unspoken, belief that art is just a frill in human life—relatively unimportant compared to the weighty stuff of science. And there's the weird idea that science necessarily destroys the beauty it seeks to explain (as though a learned astronomer really could dull the star shine). But the Delphic admonition "know thyself" still rings out as the great prime directive of intellectual inquiry, and there will always be a gaping hole in human self-knowledge until we develop a science of art.