Book Reviews

The Art Instinct

The Art Instinct

Denis Dutton
Bloomsbury Press

Reviewed by Steve Holladay

It has been a year since Denis Dutton published The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution, and since that time the book has continued to receive attention, both by art specialists and the public at large. In Art Instinct Dutton, a professor of the philosophy of art at the University of Canterbury, in New Zealand, and founder and editor of the website, Arts & Letters Daily, attempts to explore art, its history and meaning, through the lens of evolutionary science. Dutton’s basic thesis is that our natural artistic preferences are rooted in evolutionary developments of the Pleistocene age. Our preference for landscape comes from our survival instinct. Our delight in storytelling is a Darwinian adaptation. Our respect for language, a result of sexual selection.

Dutton’s book is a well-considered and orderly development of his ideas. His knowledge of both evolutionary science and the history of aesthetics is evident and presented in a manner free of jargon, so that the lay reader will find herself able to follow his arguments with ease. Specialists in the arts, however, may find some of his arguments objectionable or underdeveloped. Dutton’s account for the type of landscapes preferred by 8 year olds around the world seems reasonable enough, but his theories do little to take into account the vast majority of our visual art, which is not related to the landscape. Dutton sees his theory as placing an artist like Marcel Duchamp on the fringe of artistic experience, rather than at the center, where much of contemporary theory has him. As a piece of “art-theoretical gesture” Dutton calls Duchamp’s Fountain “incandescent genius,” but he does not consider it art. That is because it fails to fulfill many of the points in a list of criteria Dutton establishes for something to be art.

While you may not agree with Dutton’s criteria, the fact that he provides them will be a relief. In far too many discussions of art, the word itself is never defined. It is always considered a given, an unspoken one that is then used to dismiss much “non-art.” Art Instinct’s thesis does much to dismantle a good portion of theory that developed in the twentieth-century. Arguing against cultural relativism, Dutton says that evolution teaches us that there are universals in regards to art. Understanding them will help us indentify what is praiseworthy and worthy of retention, and recognize what belongs on the fringe of our concept of art.

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1 reply »

  1. While Holladay is right that a presumed-yet-unspoken definition of art is often used to dismiss art out of hand, without evaluation of its merits, it’s also true that art theory and commercial success are used to expand the implied definition to include works that are clearly something else, not art at all, or if art, then really poor art. The Duchamp-fueled expansion of accepted art media — one of the justifications for his reputation, which Holladay cites — has included many, many works that were hailed in their day, but quickly forgotten. Seen any good readymades recently? Ever? The urinal was an event, but the object at its center barely registers.
    A few months ago, I travelled thousands of miles by plane, train, and foot to see Mathis der Maler’s Isenheim Altarpiece. Even though I don’t share the artist’s beliefs, his 600-year old images shook me to my soles. We don’t have art like that any more. Maybe we can’t, right now. But fabulating theories to try and make what fills our modern exhibitions the equivalent of that is just deluding ourselves. Like Dutton, I’d rather try to understand what is than make up what will never be.

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