The Art Instinct
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.
Categories: Book Reviews