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The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and…
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The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution (2009)

by Denis Dutton

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Originally written in June of 2009:

I struggled to read this book. Literally. I started it a few days before the spring 2009 quarter, and it is now finals week and I'm barely halfway through. Intellectually, I was in the best place I could be for this topic. I'm an art history major, and I had just taken an anthropology class so early human ancestors and evolution was fresh in mind. It helped me keep up, almost, but it didn't help me enjoy Dutton's book.

The book is a little too technical and dry for the layperson, but I'm not sure Dutton's book - which seems a compilation of the ideas of others (LOTS of references to Kant), with little original research/experimentation- but I Think it will appeal to those specifically interested in art AND evolution and how they're intertwined. Of course, I was interested in this yet I found the book difficult. *shrug* I really tried to get into this book, and just couldn't. ( )
1 vote makaiju | Jan 30, 2010 |
Only this evening, when finally shelving Dennis Dutton's new book, did the title click: "The Art Instinct" - it's like "The Language Instinct", only for art! Brilliant!

As a summary, that's as clear as you're likely to get: a fanboy attempt to do for the notoriously nebulous concept of "art", what the author's intellectual hero, Steven Pinker, once tried to do for the (less nebulous) concept of language: courtesy of the good offices of Charles Darwin, to sanctify, objectify and de-relativise it, to put it beyond the critical reach of those ghastly post-modernists. Given that Pinker failed miserably with an easier job, I didn't hold out much hope for Dutton.

And so it transpired: just as Pinker's book did, Dutton's will entertain the party faithful; others will be left unmoved. They might well wonder whether we can expect to see like-minded treatises on "The Cricket Instinct", "The Cycling Instinct" or "The Embroidery Instinct", those concepts being not obviously less worthy of academic investigation. Should the fetishisation of "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" continue at its present clip, that's the logical end point.

So, herein, Dennis Dutton has a go at applying evolutionary principles to the categorisation and interpretation of art. What, you might reasonably ask, would that hope to achieve? In this book I found no answer: instead Professor Dutton addresses questions only art theory professors uncomfortable with the post-modernist direction their discipline has taken feel need answering. For he believes, I think, that art may be transcendentally evaluated; that far from our categorisations being matters of historical and cultural contingency they somehow carve nature at its joints; that what an artist or writer might have meant by his creation has some priority in understanding it, and that our Pleistocene inheritance has something to do with it.

Dennis Dutton thus spends much time trying to convince there is a problem in need of explanation, and that his evolutionary psychology-derived view is that explanation. In doing so he is obliged to spend much time away from his home soil of aesthetics, drearily analogising into art theory from psychology and biology, and is further waylaid by a need to explain what he even means by "art" itself - in order for there to be a meaningful "art instinct", we must first agree on what we mean by it, after all. As any aesthetics student will know this is a boring and derivative debate at the best of times, but one Dutton must engage in for his book to have any coherence at all. And he spends pages and pages agonising over it, which in itself is cause enough to drop Dutton's theory through the trap door.

"Art" is a semi-permeable concept which refers generically (and conveniently) to a category of things we will broadly recognise, and whether or not at the limit I draw precisely the same boundaries round the category that you do - or a Kalahari bushman does - isn't of enormous importance. Dutton is persuasive enough that, in terms of content, things in the category's sweet spot (the Mona Lisa) will almost certainly be conveyed (and are most likely the sorts of things one has in mind when using the word "art" with no greater particularisation anyway - when speaking of more specific and contestable art forms we will tend to be more precise in our formulations). Yet Dutton seems oddly transfixed with this question of what we all, cross culturally, think of as art, as if it might reveal some deep insight about "the nature of art". Especially given the patent looseness around the concept, you just have to wonder whether it really is a valuable question to ask.

It certainly makes the idea of sheeting back "our concept of art" to biology an implausible one. It seems mightily arbitrary to me, but maybe I've read too many of those ghastly postmodernists: I have trouble finding the ontological boundary even between art and science: at one level they're both metaphorical/figurative enterprises, only with (somewhat) different emphases, but their similarities are more obvious than their differences.

Dutton has no such qualms, and draws a distinction between the "play world" - shorthand for the imaginative alternative universe of art - and the "real world of mundane experience", inhabited by things like science and truth and internal combustion engines. It's not a distinction that bears close scrutiny, yet he says "the overt resemblance of some art forms to the real world should not obscure the fact that most adult art forms are no more real than a tea party with teddy bears."

Now this struck me as a curious view for an aesthete to take, relegating the arts as it does to a curious by-product of our biological development; something baffling and even embarrassing - not unlike Steven Pinker's characterisation - with which Dutton takes issue - as "cheesecake for the mind". It also, and just as curiously, sets up a dualist view of the world: there's the real - albeit mundane - world of real tangible, proper stuff, and then there's this ether of figurative discourse which, seeing as it isn't made of proper mundane everyday stuff, must floats free of truth and falsehood and like some sort of anomaly, begs for explanation - like a peacock's tail, it's something that simply shouldn't be there. Dutton's optimistic attempt to explain art via the Darwinian double cocktail of natural selection (survival of the fittest for an environment) and sexual selection (the enhanced chances of reproduction of the most appealing in the group) unwittingly outlines a significant explanatory drawback of that combination: it can be used, retrospectively, to explain just about anything: if an adaptation *is* adaptively useful and increases fitness, it is natural selection. If it's *not* adaptively useful and would hinder fitness, like a peacock's tail, then it is sexual selection! In this way evolution can be made in principle to explain anything, and therefore by itself, nothing.

It also overlooks another way of viewing art as a subset (without the need for hard edges) of those sorts of discourse by which we model our world - a collection of discourses which include the sciences (note plural) and - shock, horror - religions. On this view the dualism Dutton see dissolves, as indeed does the need to explain art as an apparently anomalous phenomenon. We create art because we model the world. Perhaps our capacity to model the world is an evolved one; perhaps it's a more recently arranged configuration of our plastic brains. But just what we expect achieve by dwelling on this point is never made clear.

(originally reviewed at http://www.amazon.com/review/RDNB0NLP0LRRL/) ( )
1 vote ElectricRay | Jul 4, 2009 |
While this book has an interesting premise (we value art not because of cultural institutions but because it addresses evolutionary desires), I had a hard time getting into it. Much of the book seemed like background information building up to an argument, so I really didn't enjoy the text a lot until about the last quarter of the book. While this targeted as a book for the general public (or so it seems), it is written very much in an academic vein. I found I didn't learn nearly as much as I would have liked to, given the amount of effort I put into reading the book. ( )
2 vote sweetiegherkin | Jun 29, 2009 |
Culture ( )
  BraveKelso | Feb 15, 2009 |
In The Art Instinct, Denis Dutton, a professor of philosophy and founder and editor of Arts & Letters Daily, sets out to write an evolutionary account for why humans create and appreciate art. He argues that art-making is an evolutionary adaptation that came about through sexual selection, indicating intelligence and desirability in a potential mate.

One of the best things about this book is how clear and comprehensive its discussion of evolutionary adaptation is, making it appropriate for someone unfamiliar with the literature on the subject, while at the same time being interesting and in-depth enough to remain engaging for a reader better-versed in evolution, evolutionary psychology, and sexual selection. (And how much I agreed with the author: group selection does seem so attractive, and yet inadequate!) The same goes for the portions of the book more focused on art itself. Dutton follows a clear path from early humans on the savanna, partial to landscapes with greenery, water, and high ground, through the artistic practices of early and contemporary hunter-gatherer societies and more familiar Western society, right through to Marcel Duchamp’s provocative Fountain.

The danger of all evolutionary psychology accounts is that of falling into the just-so story. But Dutton’s explanation for art stays safely away from that territory. As a component of sexual selection that broadly indicates intelligence and general fitness, and would be very useful for assortative mating, the art-making function doesn’t need that kind of story any more than does a peacock’s tail. And Dutton confronts many of his potential critics head-on, whether they are evolutionary biologists who reject adaptation as any explanation for human psychology or art theorists who insist that “art” cannot be considered a cross-cultural category at all. (His response to Lynn M. Hart’s claims about jyonti painting seems pretty devastating, and his twelve points on categorizing art are thought-provoking.)

And of course, the danger of describing art and aesthetics in terms of evolutionary adaptation is that of denuding art of enjoyment and meaning. This is something I worried about when I picked the book up, but Dutton’s deep love of art and sophisticated appreciation of aesthetics comes through on almost every page. Too many people think love and other emotions lose meaning when explained in terms of our evolved brain chemistry, and of course we don’t have to see it that way. Dutton doesn’t see art that way at all, and he’s just as impressed and elevated by Beethoven, Mahler, Proust and Vermeer as—or probably more than—someone less concerned with explaining the reasons for art-making in the first place. Evolutionary explanations for our feelings about artistic intention, forgery, and Dada don’t take away from our understanding of those problems, but contribute to it. And, another thing I was curious about, an evolutionary explanation doesn’t do anything to preclude the contingency of aesthetics, a point argued successfully.

Dutton’s final chapter, on great art and kitsch, was very interesting but, as he admits, these qualities are not (yet) tightly tied to evolutionary adaptation. That is entirely fitting, though. An ev psych explanation for why people create artworks does not mean there is a formula for making them, or that we can look at Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and give a direct, logically entailed connection between early human bands roaming Africa and the aesthetic vision of Picasso. But that in turn does not mean that the basic reason behind artistic enterprise wasn’t a product of natural selection—like almost everything else our evolved brains make us do.
(originally posted at http://www.bibliographing.com/2008/12/29/the-art-instinct-by-denis-dutton_review...) ( )
  nperrin | Dec 29, 2008 |
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These pages offer a way of looking at the arts that flies in the face of most writing and criticism today—a way that I believe has more validity, more power, and more possibilities than the hermetic discourse that deadens so much of the humanities.
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The Art Instinct unites two of the most fascinating and contentious disciplines, art and evolutionary science, in a provocative new work that will change the way we think about the arts, from music to literature to pottery.

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