Art and the Evolution of Man

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Herbert Read
Professor Sir Herbert Read (1893 – 1968)
Conway Memorial Lecture
Conway Memorial Lecture
Moncure Conway photo by Edward Steichen, 1907. Courtesy of Dickinson College.
Moncure Conway photo by Edward Steichen, 1907. Courtesy of Dickinson College.
Delivered at Conway Hall 10 April 1951. Foreword by Lancelot Law Whyte and presented by Professor Sir Herbert Read.

Aesthetic experience is an essential factor in human evolution, an experience on which mankind has depended for the development of his highest cognitive faculties. However, to say this is not to say that art itself evolves: the aesthetic quality found in the earliest known art of 40,000 years ago has not since been surpassed.

In exploring artistic activity, the play-instinct theory is inadequate, since it neglects the intense focus and precision which art displays. A stronger theory is that art is a functional tendency, activated when challenged. We must assume that an ability to express memory-images arose like every other human skill, but not that this ability was engendered by emotional need. The earliest art, far from being a playful pastime, was a strenuous achievement: it was part of the process of early man’s making sense of his experience and of the environment in which he found himself. In this way, art became the mainspring for all later cultural activities.

The work of art reflects the basic creative process of mental evolution, and not just the pattern of that evolution. The artistic striving for balance and symmetry in outlook is part of man’s continuous mental project of finding his place in the world, pursuing an ontological purpose, describing the way the world presents itself to him.

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