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Good Art Is Like Good Sex April 5, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Art and Music, Culture, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Science.

Brian Boyd’s essay in the American Scholar on the evolutionary origin of art and narrative is speculative but nevertheless interesting on a variety of levels. He argues that art and storytelling are adaptations.



 “Art is a form of cognitive play with pattern…Our adult compulsion for the cognitive play of art—from tribal work songs to tradesmen’s transistors to urbanites’ iPods—allows us to extend and refine the neural pathways that produce and process pattern in sonic, visual, and kinetic modes, and especially in sociality.”


Art makes us smarter, as a species, because it enhances our capacity for complex pattern recognition. The cognitive play of art—both its production and consumption—influences differential survival rates thus conferring a reproductive advantage on those who participate.


And why do we engage in this cognitive play? In a word, pleasure.


It’s the pursuit of pleasure, at least of the kind that is produced by pattern recognition, that explains the emergence of human intelligence—so much for Plato’s campaign against artists and religion’s campaign against pleasure.


Perhaps this is what Mill had in mind when he argued that the higher pleasures are to be valued more highly than the lower pleasures.


I guess good sex guided by the Kama Sutra must be better than unaided good sex.




1. Paul Moloney - April 13, 2008

It seems that people that campaign against pleasure do so for the sake of pleasure, which means they have not argument against pleasure.

2. Huan - April 13, 2008

I suppose their argument really is attempting to overcome the shortcomings of pleasure seeking, and not denying pleasure seeking. Maybe they’re just not aware of it.

3. Steven prsha - May 14, 2008

Mill believed the simple pleasures or “lower pleasures” tend to be preferred by people who have no experience with high pleasures such as art. Mill would agree with what you have to say. “the higher pleasures are to be valued more highly than the lower pleasures.” but I feel this is only because his friendship/relationship with Harriet Taylor was never sexual. Mill was married for 7 years to Taylor before she died and there is still no evidence that they ever had sex because their marriage was more of a friendship. So Mill would have no ground to talk about the pleasure of sex because he doesn’t have any experience on the matter. He was so hooked on the teachings from Bentham, and he got his pleasure by reading books. He was never able to enjoy the lower levels of pleasure you get from good friends and fun activities(except for Harriet). Reading a couple books is interesting, but riding a rollercoaster is much more fun and pleasureable.

4. Jack H - May 15, 2008

Both art and sex stimulate people in non-physical ways, but I think each has its own non-comparable qualities. Cognitive play is necessary because our brains are muscles. As we work out physically we must also work our brains consistently. To me its amazing that one would compare art and sex, sex is something you can directly compare to your lifestyle/choices (involves you), art can be anything refer to blotches and random strokes to amazing combinations of metal/glass/ materials, in which case is is mind boggling to figure out how each one was created, stimulating curiosity and enlarging your realm of creativity…. doing this stuff often is bound to evolve our race over time

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