The Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania, Australia has mounted a show called “On the Origin of Art,” a topic as titanic perhaps as pondering the origin of the world; except the museum seems certain about what got art history started. In a simple declarative sentence, exhibit notes affirm that “art has a basis in biology.” That unequivocal utterance aside, the museum’s website allows that if you don’t like the premise of this show, “at least you’ll get to see some pretty pictures.”

This art-talk is for the birds, hummingbirds, no less

Jonathan Jones, British art critic for the Guardian likes the “pretty pictures” he sees in this show, particularly one by photographer Mat Collishaw who created an illusion of fluttering hummingbirds to make the museum’s point that early humans developed art for the same reason that hummingbirds developed beautiful feathers: to attract the opposite sex.

Is that right? Is art nothing more than bait to entice? Jones made a valiant effort to go along with the museum’s point of view by conceding that many people use art galleries as dating sites. But then he come to his senses and says that if we go back to our beginning in the Ice Age, when we lived in caves and made art on our rock walls, it wasn’t sex that drove art. It was religion. And on that point, this column agrees, particularly if we’re talking about art made before the modern era.

This painting is a selfie if there ever was one

The beginning of the end of religion in art history may have started in the 19th century when Paul Gauguin painted “Self-Portrait with Yellow Christ.” What you see is a hulking, brooding likeness that not only dominates the painting, as if he’s the main event rather than the Crucifixion, but also pushes the point by replacing Christ’s face with the artist’s own.

Top Videos of the Day

Apparently Gauguin saw himself as the suffering one, perhaps because his wife left him for her native Denmark, taking their children with her. Still the irreverence of this painting, the chutzpa of picturing himself as the Messiah stuns. At most you end up with a portrait of self-pity.

Art untouched by human hands

But at least you can call Gauguin’s work man-made. When it comes to art made with the artist’s direct participation, more and more artist seem less and less engaged in the process of making their work. They come up with the idea for it, but they don’t physically produce it. The connection between making art and the artist is gone. It follows that neither soul nor heart can live by remote control. Edmund Burke Feldman, art professor at the University of Georgia, calls this revolting development “the end of art history.” And I say, so much for our biological heritage.