Art, Myth and Psyche: How Art Made The World

If you’re interested in the intersection of art, mythology and psychology, a beautiful resource can be found in How Art Made the World, a five-part BBC One documentary and companion book hosted/written by Dr. Nigel Spivey.

While one can take issue with Dr. Spivey’s premise, namely that humans are unique in being artistic, he still makes a coherent case for the relationship between art and being human.

To quote Dr. Spivey:

The essential premise of the show, is that of all the defining characteristics of humanity as a species, none is more basic than the inclination to make art. Great apes will smear paint on canvas if they are given brushes and shown how, but they do not instinctively produce art any more than parrots produce conversation. We humans are alone in developing the capacity for symbolic imagery.

Now, Bonobo apes may be an exception, both musically and visually; likewise, many chimpanzees are gleeful about painting, albeit in a modernist/abstract art style:

Click this article for a detailed explanation: Matsuzawa (2017) “The 40th anniversary of the Ai Project: the commemorative gift is a silk scarf painted by Ai the chimpanzee” Primates, 58, 261-265.

Still, humans seem almost maniacally driven to make art, regardless of time or space, which leads to the subtitle of the series/book, “how humans made art, and art made us human“.

Images dominate our lives. They tell us how to behave, even how to feel. They mold and define us. But why do these images, the pictures, symbols and the art we see around us every day, have such a powerful hold on us? The answer lies not here in our time but thousands of years ago. Because when our ancient ancestors first created the images that made sense of their world, they produced a visual legacy which has helped to shape our own.


Through the course of the episodes, Dr. Spivey takes us from the origins of human art, including a discussion of the Venus of Willendorf, estimated to have been crafted around 30,000 BCE,


to a very different Venus, this one assumed to have been created in the 1480s:

The Birth of Venus by the Italian artist Sandro Botticelli, probably made in the mid 1480s
And there are many steps in between, and beyond…

To close, here’s Dr. Nigel Spivey again:

In this series we’ll be traveling around the globe, discovering the world’s most stunning treasures. We’ll see how the struggles of early artists led to the triumphs of the world’s great civilizations. Our journey will take us through a hundred thousand years of history. We’ll be witnessing some of the extraordinary ceremonies of the world’s oldest artistic cultures. And we’ll reveal how they unlock the deepest secrets of ancient art, We’ll be hearing from the people who made these discoveries. And we’ll be using science to uncover how thousands of years ago the human mind drove us to create astonishing images, You’ll never look at our world the same way again, for this is the epic story of how we humans made art and how art made us human.

nigel spivey art

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