Wilko Schmidt-Dannert: A Theory of Evolutionary Art

At the beginning of last year, I entered the last semester of my master’s at the HKU Music & Technology department. This meant that, despite my best efforts, I finally got to the point where I couldn’t put off starting my thesis any longer.

After some carefully worded encouragement from my supervisor, I started by listing every topic that seemed interesting to write about, and after a few weeks, ended up with a list of 25 topics, all roughly centered around creativity. Some of these were very technical, some philosophical, ranging from extremely specific to as broad as they come. All of them, however, reflected my preference for more analytical and concrete, rather than mystical or spiritual, approaches to creativity and art. I always felt a certain sense of frustration when people would start romanticizing art as ‘magical’ and ‘wondrous’, shying away from any statement or definition that could help to deepen our understanding of it and improve upon our ability to teach how it works.

The people most determined to change that, and coincidentally the most well equipped to do so, are writers. Because they live in a world of words and language, they seem to be the best communicators in regard to what art and creativity are and how they work. Even better, there are particular writers that have to write cooperatively and are therefore even better at communicating: screenwriters.

I chose to focus my efforts on explaining a creative model from the American writer Dan Harmon (Community, Rick and Morty) that he calls the story cycle. To him, the creative process is akin to being a cartographer in an undiscovered forest, with the task to experience, discover, and document. He makes the interesting proposition that the story cycle can be used as one would use a compass when lost in the creative process: Not as any indication of where you are, where to go, or what to do, but as a reliable reference, simply saying: “This is north”. This concept felt so intriguing because it gives you an additional, universal tool for assessing your situation. Then you have a better chance of getting “unlost” on your own. My goal was to take this story circle, this compass, and try to find a version of it that would not only help writers but all creatives, regardless of their discipline.

At that point, my supervisor, Eelco Grimm, recommended I read a book called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. It had been recommended to me before and I decided to read it. Now, I cannot understate how impactful this book and its ideas were and how perfectly it connected with what I was trying to find.

During his years as a teacher of rhetoric, Pirsig stumbled over the term Quality, a word that people intuitively use to describe things that are good, things that have value. Art, he argues, is pure Quality. This fit very well with the definition I had settled on for myself years ago, stating: “Art is the product of someone doing their absolute best”. This definition had no rational underpinning, it was just a summary of what I had observed up to that point. Now it felt like there was someone who came to the same conclusion but in a very different way. I was intrigued!

In an attempt to define Quality, Pirsig made an interesting thought experiment: To prove that Quality exists at all, he described a world without it. Obviously, a world that has no distinction between good and bad is absurd, meaning that Quality, though hard to define, definitely exists. He then mentioned that even amoebas, a simple single-celled organism, can sense and avoid hostile environments like a drop of acid in their petri dish, “choosing” the higher quality environment away from the drop.

At that point, something in my head clicked. Harmon had also talked about amoebas… I put the book aside, and with an it-can’t-be-that-hard-attitude wrote down my own definition of Quality: “The sense of Quality is the intuitive mental manifestation of evolutionary beneficial circumstances”.

Later this became “Quality is every condition beneficial for survival”.

With that, I had entered the territory of life and evolution. Here, the first thing I decided to do was to answer the question “What is life after all?” I looked for a while and the best definition I could find was the one used by NASA, which was apparently suggested by Carl Sagan. It reads: “Life is a self-sustaining chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution”.

So far, so clear, but how is Darwinian evolution defined then, how does it work? The answer is long and complicated and the longest chapter of my essay is dedicated to it. The shortest form brings it down to five steps:

1. An organism has and preserves genetic information,
2. it passes this on to the next generation with occasional small mutations,
3. it dies, making room for its offspring,
4. the mutated members of the new generation have slightly altered attributes,
5. natural selection determines which of these are advantageous to survival and these lead to a slightly higher chance of reproduction,
… rinse and repeat.

A system like this is naturally going to do one important thing: it adapts. Looking at these steps in detail then allows us to separate it into processes, characteristics, and forms.

The interesting idea to me as an artist, and someone who wants to write about the creative process was: If life strives for survival and therefore pursues Quality, which is the same thing that artists pursue, do they go about that in a similar fashion? Do the principles of evolution apply to both of them? The answer, as far as I am concerned, is yes, and the implications of that are fascinating!

According to this theory, art is supposed to aid the adaption of an evolved being toward a better Quality of life. It does so by setting in motion the same basic cyclic process that biological and social evolution use, but apart from improving on physical conditions, it can do the same in the mind.

After these initial realizations, I dove head first into researching, refining, organizing, and connecting all the new concepts and thoughts that came to me while writing it all down. My primary goal then was to make sure that the foundation of my theory was as solid as possible. After that, I only had a little bit of time left to look at some implications this new theory had, and then hand it in.

Then, after finishing the essay, when I was approached to teach a new student, I wanted to put my findings to good use and make a list of what is needed in order to make art, to be creative.

This is the list that I came up with:

1. Motivation/Energy/Drive
2. A sense of Quality, of what is good and bad, better and worse.
3. The physical means necessary to pursue said Quality.
4. The knowledge of how to get from a current to a better state.
5. Inspiration, a mind saturated with atomic and molecular bits and pieces of Quality.

A good teacher should be able to help a student with all of those things. He or she can help students tap into their intrinsic motivation, help them to refine their sense of how they want things to be, assist them in the selection of tools and materials, share knowledge on techniques and tricks as well as provide them with inspirational material when needed.

I would argue that the primary goal of any art educator should be to enable students to pursue their own sense of Quality, of what is good, and aid them in that personal pursuit as well as possible.

The success of such an educator would be defined by how much he or she can improve the student’s ability to sense Quality and to refine it in their art.

Of course, the evolutionary theory of art has a lot more to say about the details and pitfalls of artistic exploration and education. I’d like to go into a bit more detail here to avoid the most common misconceptions.

One of those misconceptions is about the nature of creativity and the creative process. To many people, the word creativity implies that “something is made from nothing” and that “creativity is endless”. I would argue that both of these statements are factually wrong.

This might seem like a downer at first, after all, unlimited actual creation is a beautiful thought. As beautiful as it is though, that understanding is misrepresenting the nature of the creative process.

In doing so, it sets the expectations for what an artist is supposed to do incredibly high, essentially equating it with divine powers or actual magic. In a universe in which nothing spontaneously comes into existence, and that contains no known infinities, we expect artists to make something from nothing, in an unlimited variety.

To me, this is neither a good nor helpful depiction of the reality of making art. Instead, when looking at evolution, we can see that it takes only four processes to generate incredible (but not infinite) diversity:

A: preserving information/structural patterns
B: imperfect reproduction/an element of chance
C: (natural) selection
D: (re)combination of information/structural patterns

I have no doubt that with just these four processes all life, and all of life’s products such as art, can be brought into existence. All an artist has to do (and all he/she can do) is to preserve what already exists, make mistakes, select and combine, no magic required.

From the standpoint of an educator, that allows us to take a lot of pressure off our students. All they have to do is to refine Quality using those four operations. Even better, this provides a strong case for the importance of making mistakes, be it lucky or unlucky ones. After all, that is a quarter of all of the options they have!

I’d also like to add that, according to this theory, art is a spectrum, not a binary distinction. Artists aim for Quality, but so can carpenters, lawyers, athletes, programmers, house cleaners, fishers, parents, and everyone else that does his or her best.

If art is the refinement of Quality by an evolved being, then one could argue that the portion of anything that is made better by such a being is art.
A striking painting, created in a bold rush of inspiration and excitement, then meticulously refined to perceived perfection: art.
A hammer, made on a budget but well crafted and infinitely more useful than the pile of iron ore and that piece of a tree that it was made out of: mostly art.
A mediocre pizza from a place that could do way better if only someone tried: still a little art.
A speech that was written so lackluster that anyone involved is completely indifferent about it: no art.
A cheap plastic gadget that failed to do its job and broke irreparably at first use, wasting resources, money, time, and energy while polluting the environment: negative art!!
The evaluation of what is art, again, comes down to each individual. That being said, it also never is completely personal, usually a consensus of some sort can be reached.

OK, so far for the speedrun of my essay.

Now, circling back to the start, if my goal was to find a Harmon-style compass for all the arts, did I find it? It definitely is wise to be careful with bold claims like that but at least at this moment, I think that I have. It isn’t as slick and easy to use (it contains 4 double-sided needles in addition to Harmon’s one) but it appears to be able to cover all bases.

I would like to encourage you to read the essay that is the basis for this article, it is called “On the Origin of Art” and can be found in the Read-section of this website. Apart from what was briefly discussed here it goes into far more detail on the theory of evolution, all the needles of the compass, the adaptation helix, how art works as a means of communication, intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivations for making art, as well as a more detailed description of the creative process when analyzed in the light of this theory.

To conclude, I hope that this article, as well as my essay, helps to illuminate what I see as a viable and useful theory of creative exploration and its product art. Ideally, it initiated a certain cyclic process in your mind, leaving a bit of Quality behind.


Wilko Schmidt-Dannert’s thesis, ‘On the Origin of Art: A Synthesis of Darwin, Harmon and Pirsig’, can be found on page 2 of the READ section of this website.