The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution Paperback – Feb 2 2010
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“If you care about art writ large as a miraculous bounty for the world, or only for your own selfish sake, The Art Instinct should impress you as the most shrewd, precisely written and provocative study you'll find on its topic's place in human nature.” ―Philadelphia Inquirer
“An important book that raises questions often avoided in contemporary aesthetics and art criticism. [Dutton] has woven a powerful plea for the notion that art expresses a longing to see through the performance or object to another human personality.” ―Los Angeles Times
“Denis Dutton argues that humankind's universal interest in art is the result of human evolution. We enjoy sex, grasp facial expressions, understand logic and spontaneously acquire language―all of which make it easier for us to survive and produce children. In The Art Instinct, Dutton contends that an interest in art belongs on this list of evolutionary adaptations… read Dutton's book: his masterful knowledge of art and his compelling prose make it a thing of beauty.” ―James Q. Wilson, Newsweek
“Pugnacious, witty and entertaining first book by prolific essayist and critic Dutton... Picking up where evolutionary psychologists like Steven Pinker leave off in their investigations into the origins of human language and other mental phenomena... even those who disagree with these opinions will find his manifesto scintillatingly written and not to be missed--even the end notes are indispensable... Promises to instigate a lively conversation about the origins and meaning of art, not only among the author's peers in academia, but also in the culture at large.” ―Kirkus (starred review)
“The Art Instinct gives a comprehensive survey of the field, written with fluency, wit, and wide erudition.” ―John Derbyshire, New Criterion
“The Art Instinct offers fresh and liberating ideas while demonstrating Dutton's profound sense of curiosity and his willingness to take risks while dealing with puzzling and largely fragmentary pre-history.” ―Robert Fulford, National Post (Canada)
“As he observes in his provocative new book, The Art Instinct, people the world over are weirdly driven to create beautiful things…Dutton is an elegant writer, and his book should be admired for its attempt to close the gap between art and science.” ―Jonah Lerner, Washington Post BookWorld
“Mr. Dutton's book is anything but strident. He argues his thesis--that art-making evolved among humans as a means of demonstrating physical and cognitive fitness to potential mates, and that this fundamental reality provides the best answer we can give to the question "What is art?"--with almost old-fashioned politeness toward his adversaries. And that, perhaps, is the best way to read The Art Instinct: as a guided tour of the great landmarks of the philosophy of art--aesthetic theory explained, modified and refuted with patience and fluency by a writer whose mind was apparently formed well in advance of the meme-ocracy it helped to create.” ―New York Observer
“Why do we human beings make art?...That is the question raised and answered, more or less, in this intriguing book. Author Denis Dutton teaches philosophy, has done archaeological work in New Guinea and is founder of the popular Arts & Letters Daily Web site. Art's appeal, he argues, is lodged in our genes and in the genes of our Ice-Age ancestors, those shaggy forebears who first painted cave walls and told stories around the campfire.” ―Dallas Morning News
“[Dutton's] discussion of the arts and of our responses to them is uniformly insightful and penetrating……he touches on all the major issues of aesthetics in this fairly short book and invariably illuminates them…Dutton's eloquent account sheds light on the role art plays in our lives, whatever its ultimate origins” ―Anthony Gottlieb, New York Times Book Review
“Full of observations that again demonstrate [Dutton's] uncanny ability to collect complex arguments and present them as thought-provoking statements” ―James Panero, City Journal
“Vigorous and wonderfully provocative” ―Raleigh News & Observer
“A substantial contribution to the debate we ought to be having.” ―Martin Kemp, The New Scientist--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
About the Author
Denis Dutton founded Arts & Letters Daily and continues to edit the website, one of the Guardian's "best websites in the world," and one of the most heavily trafficked sites anywhere for news and opinion in science, the arts, and politics. He founded and still edits Philosophy and Literature, a highly successful scholarly journal published by Johns Hopkins University Press. He is a professor of the philosophy of art at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand.
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First, Dutton outlays his very pluralistic theory of what constitutes art. He makes very good arguments against the reigning culturally relativistic views (art is whatever we define it as). In its place, he offers twelve criteria that art must have in order to be art (none of which are necessary or sufficient on their own. They are:
(1) gives direct pleasure; (2) exhibits skill and virtuosity; (3) novelty and creativity; (4) style; (5) ability to evoke criticism; (6) representation; (7) special focus; (8) expressive individuality; (9) emotional saturation; (10) intellectually challenging; follows artistic traditions; (12) imaginitive experience.
Dutton writes that while none of these critiria are necessary or sufficient, anything that is to be classified as art must exhibit a greater or lesser degree of at least several of these traits. He certainly shows that even the most different cultural definitions of art all have at least these criteria in common, and more importantly, that, regardless of culture, we all have a human drive to admire things with these characteristics.
From here, Dutton's argument focuses on how to see art in evolutionary terms. While Dutton discount's Stephen Gould's assertion that art (and human culture) is best seen as an evolutionary byproduct (while language may be an evolutionary adaptation, love of poetry is a byproduct and has no adaptive value on its own). Dutton does little to argue out of this, only suggesting that by-products of adaptive traits should themselves be seen as adaptive. (?!)
He then goes on to borrow heavily from Steven Pinker in his explanation for how representative art could have served an evolutionary purpose. (Stories helped early humans learn information and acquire knoweldge of others' experiences. Admiration for landscape art stems from early humans' abillty to recognize and judge landscapes.) Dutton also borrows liberally from Geoffrey Miller's idea that art acquisition may have an advantage via sexual selection: like the peacock's tail, art may be a way of conveying to mates one's sophistication, affluence, and civility.
My biggest problem with these explanations is that they focus on the easy cases of representative art. Dutton dismisses 'dadaism' and abstract art as not really art, suggests that scents never developed into an art because they are not reperesentative in nature, and is at a complete loss to explain music as an art (other than to rehash Darwin's suggestion that love for music may stem from our affinity for language and bird songs.) And his discussion very unkowingly dismisses that fact that, attached to our love for art is a love for decoration and style in the sense of having nice looking things (bedsheets for instance). Very few of these fall within the purview of representative art, which leaves all of this outside the purview of Dutton's narrow theory.
Quite honestly, I was very unconvinced by this book. I am VERY symapathetic to Dutton's desire to find an evolutionary explanation for art, but do not dismiss as quickly as Dutton the 'byproduct' theory of Stephen Jay Gould and Jerry Fodor. The theories that Dutton does expound are all borrowed, namely from Steven Pinker (The Language Instinct) and Geoffrey Miller (The Mating Mind). Also, the application of his ideas is too narrow in its almost exclusive focus on representative art (leaving music, abstract visual art, and the human prediliction for "nice looking" non-represenative things untouched.
To this end Dutton even goes after Immanuel Kant, arguably the greatest idealist philosopher since Plato. He directs his argument against Kant to what is one of the weakest points in Kant's philosophical system, his understanding of aesthetic values. Dutton points out among other things that Kant may have had a literal blind spot for art.
A number of Dutton's arguments supporting his premise are not particularly strong, but all are interesting. He provides a fascinating perspective on aesthetic analysis and the question of what indeed constitutes art. To this reader's great relief he does so using straight forward, clear prose. He avoids the often obscure jargon and syntactical mazes so often found in modern philosophical writing. This quality along makes the book worth buying.
If evolution explains art-making through all cultures, you'd expect some general agreement on, say, what paintings are beautiful. Statistics have been done, and it does seem that there is a consensus between cultures on what is the prettiest landscape. In the Pleistocene era, our ancestors were nomads. They would have liked the blue of water or of distant vegetation; it would have meant sustenance from good hunting grounds. Music is perhaps harder to explain. We need hearing as a way of understanding our surroundings, but the rhythmic, pitched sounds of music would seem to contribute nothing to survival ability. It may be that musical sounds helped the birth of language, and music with its associated dances may have helped with tribal cooperation and bonding. Stories, though, can have real and obvious survival advantages. Stories can convey facts; a fanciful folktale from the Yanomamo about jaguars, for instance, gives plenty of information and advice about how to live in an environment where jaguars are a threat. Fiction enables us to understand the mental experiences of others, not just of imagined characters, but of authors. Reading minds in this way is easily understood as having survival advantages for a social species like ourselves. Dutton believes that making art had origins as a display of skill that would lure prospective mates and intimidate potential rivals. Making art is an "extra", something that only a smart, vigorous individual could do, an individual that did not have to expend full resources on life's basics. Art is a fitness display.
The scope of these ideas allows Dutton to bring in many thought-provoking examples, and some of them are a real surprise. Marcel Duchamp's placing a urinal on a pedestal and calling it art almost a hundred years ago has been a subject of controversy ever since; yes, says, Dutton, it qualifies pretty well in the checklist he provides of the characteristics of artistic expression. Forgeries are a fascinating case; if they are so well done that they fool even the experts, they must have artistic merit, but why is it that we are offended by them? Dutton explains that evolution has destined us to expect and insist upon authenticity in art. He explains also why, when referring to a different culture, "They have a different concept of art from ours" is a vacuous conceit. He introduces us to various theorists within his own discipline, and openly takes many of them to task. This is a work written in a popular style, and those who enjoy the ideas of such popularizers as Stephen J. Gould or Steven Pinker will find some of those ideas nicely argued against. It might make some readers uncomfortable to consider that making art and appreciating art, characteristics that are among those that make humans unique, could be best explained by spirals of chromosomes. The artistic impulse will always remain mysterious; Dutton's examining it as instinct has brought forth a volume of intriguing thought experiments, philosophical puzzles, and ingenious speculation.
Imagine then the pleasure of reading a book which not only has these characteristics, but provides a convincing explanation of why you feel that way. And not just of why you enjoy that kind of experience, but why (for example) you would feel disappointed if you learned that the author had plagiarized the material. (Why should you? It's the same text, isn't it? There's something else going on here.)
This is a wonderful book. It's not just about art, in the same way that Pinker's work (cited in the blurb) isn't just about language. It's about being human, and how the last few hundreds of thousands of years of evolution made us that way. It's about the complex interplay between natural selection and sexual selection in this process, an interplay which Darwin captured so well in The Descent of Man. It's about philosophy, too: about ontology and category.
The book draws on art as a rich source of facts and paradoxes about human nature. Does intent matter? Why do artists sign their work while plumbers don't? What is the relationship between artistic value and monetary price? And (notoriously) can a urinal on a plinth be thought of as art - and why do people get so worked up about it?
I hesitated to choose this book, because I feared that it was going to be just another book on art theory. (And why would that make me reluctant? Hmmm....) I'm really glad that I overcame my hesitation. In fact I'd rank this as the best non-fiction book that I've read over the last year - and it's been a good year. (Best fiction is, obviously Fulghum's Third Wish, a book that I want to re-read in the light of some of the insights I've gained from Dutton.)
This may not seem too bold to those unfamiliar with the academic climate of modern social sciences and humanities. In academia, particularly in social sciences and humanities, it is virtually heretical to claim any significant role at all for "nature" in human behavior. Although biologists in general agree that human nature is the result of an interaction of the expression of genes and their environment, the philosophy underlying the arts and social sciences heavily emphasizes the role of learning and enculturation in shaping us.
Still, even among biologists, Dutton's version of the claim is somewhat controversial. Dutton doesn't just say that human beings are the result of an evolutionary history. He doesn't just say that our brain and other organs are shaped by that history. Those claims are uncontroversial in biology. Dutton's particular boldness is that he claims that our nervous system specifically was shaped during the Pleistocene period of our history to favor certain qualities in potential mates, and that this shaping is the reason we have art.
The reason this claim is controversial even within biology has to do with two kinds of problem. The claim is rooted in a relatively recent subfield of biology known as evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary biologists are split about the potential of evolutionary psychology to explain human behavior. Some, proponents of evolutionary psychology, believe that the only way we can fully trace the workings of the human mind is to find what specific sorts of problems it evolved to solve.
Others are skeptical on principle. Some just think the whole endeavor is wrongheaded. The late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould argued that the human mind was more like a collection of byproducts of adaptations than adaptations. The philosopher Jerry Fodor argues that while modularity of the sort assumed by Dutton's chosen form of evolutionary psychology is clearly the rule in lower level neural processes like perception, it is unlikely in principle to play a role in higher mental processes.
Still others agree with the principles behind evolutionary psychology but don't think we can do it practically because the evidence we would need is too elusive and too easily obscured . They often cite the unfortunate tendency to explain everything glibly in terms of hypothetical Pleistocene adaptations. This tendency has been noted about evolutionary biology in general, but in other areas of evolutionary biology the methodological issues are more readily addressed. When we try to explain the roots of human behaviors, the issues become more complex. Teasing out the evolutionary history of adaptations can be surprisingly tricky even for things with seemingly straightforward functions like feathers and eyes. When we look at mind and complex behaviors, the issues get extremely thorny.
Perhaps the best review of the empirical issues around evolutionary psychology are found in David Buller's book "Adapting Minds." Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature (Bradford Books) Buller summarizes the core arguments: (1) EP requires a specific stable environment that we adapted to over time, and the evidence for this is based entirely on time span, rather than having found such an environment, (2) a primary tool of adaptation analysis, the comparison of species which share a common ancestor, is rendered problematic by our lack of knowledge other hominid species any closer than chimps, (3) rapid evolutionary change since the Pleistocene is potentially relevant, and points out the difficulties distinguishing adaptations of the Pleistocene from those far more ancient, and (4) most of the EP experimental programs are open to interpretation regarding how their data relates back to evidence for adaptations.
Dutton's argument is well made but not compelling because it is by nature very speculative. However he does do a good job addressing the major objections in a way that lets you see the potential for his theory. The argument is particularly difficult, and Dutton's efforts particularly admirable, because he not only has to address the scientific issues regarding evolutionary psychology, but also the climate of opinion in the arts and social sciences that opposes the whole notion of explaining human preferences and experience in biological rather than cultural terms. Against this background of broad skepticism, Denis Dutton is particularly well suited to make the case for the bold use of evolutionary psychology because he is more familiar than most people with humanities as well as having a good understanding of biology.
Dutton has to jump through several rather big hoops. Since he is arguing specifically about our universal appreciation of art as something to be explained, he has to first establish that art is indeed a distinct universal domain that can be studied. This is a challenge already because the modernist philosophy underlying art does not view it as a single domain that is universal to human beings. Dutton addresses this in two parts: first arguing that art can be defined usefully in terms of a dozen or so related cluster criteria, and then arguing that these are more likely the result of natural selection than they are byproducts. Next he has to establish that art is not only universal to humankind but also that something universal to our species actually requires an evolutionary explanation.
In the most generally interesting parts of the book, Dutton raises common controversies about art in order to show how he would address them. In the most technically interesting parts of the book, Dutton compares and contrasts the competing theories: (1) it is purely cultural with no relation to natural selection, (2) it helps bind people into groups for collective action, (3) it is the result of byproducts of evolutionary adaptation, (4) it is the result of sexual selection.
Ultimately Dutton settles on a sexual selection explanation, similar to Geoffrey Miller's treatment in "The Mating Mind," The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature but more focused on art in particular. In this theory, we came to appreciate certain abilities in each other as a way to find better mates, and these various abilities cluster around certain common themes like skill, novelty, specific focus, expressive individuality, intellectual challenge, emotional saturation, and imaginative experience.
If you appreciate Dutton's intriguing cluster criteria for art and you accept at least in principle the concept that we may have evolved preferences shaped through sexual selection, it is easy to find Dutton's argument exciting in spite of its speculative status. This is very good popular science writing: a bold theory, a well made argument, and a lot of interesting examples.
There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of such a bold theory, but at least one good reason to consider it: it is wonderfully elegant.
"The arts in all their glory are no more removed from evolved features of the human mind and personality than an oak is remote from the soil and subterranean waters that nourish it.... a story of how we became a species obsessed with creating artistic experiences with which to amuse, shock, titillate, and enrapture ourselves, from children's games to the quartets of Beethoven, from firelit caves to the continuous worldwide glow of television screens." (from the introduction)
" ... experimental psychology ... explains too much", "... prehistory ... extraploate(s) too much ..."
So Dutton's approach:
Starts with the familiar: calendars and their landscape illustrations cater to very ancient tastes
Uses ethnographies of preliterate people to construct a picture of human tastes, interests, and inclinations
Derives from this a cross-cultural definition of art as a cluster of features including skill display, pleasure, imagination, and emotion, allowing us to identify art across time and place
Addresses the perception that different cultures have different concepts of art, accusing anthropologists of "exoticizing" foreign cultures and denying the universality of art
Examines the enjoyment of creative storytelling as a possible adaptation (young children have a sophisticated capacity to distinguish these fictions)
Presents the sexual selection explanation for showing off artistically,
Describes us having literally domesticated ourselves as we did with various animals
Addresses three classic issues in art theory in evolutionary terms: (a) whether artists' intentions are decisive in interpreting art, (b) our puzzling insistence that a perfect fake is still a fake, (c) the artistic status of "shocking" art
Explores how evolved capacities have influenced the limits of art (smell is a source of pleasure and an important survival sense, yet rarely is considered art, while rhythms of pitched sounds are fundamental to several forms of art despite having little obvious survival relevance)
Turns to what we consider exalted artistic performances to explain their timeless appeal to our senses in spite of not neccessarily being the most popular art in any given period.
Finally distinguishes art as a unique hominid adaptation by making a central distinction between human art and chimpanzee art-play because of an apparent lack of calculation of the effects on the viewer that Dutton considers central to the human definition of art, and an apparent lack of an intention to look back and appreciate the work when it is done. Interrupted from their play, chimps don't go back to finish their messterpieces.
Is more sympathetic to comparisons of human art with bower birds than with chimp play, and appreciates the expression in termite mounds, but still distinguishes human art for its evolutionary role in our species.
And it's a fun read. Dutton is careful to avoid making art a spandrel, a purely cultural construction, or a purely EEA picture of aesthetic preferences, so his narration doesn't annoy me the way a lot of EP authors do with their overreliance on narrow explanations from the Pleistocene.