February 27, 2009


A shot across the bows of philistinism: What sets Denis Dutton’s lucid The Art Instinct apart from other books is not his attempt to use Charles Darwin to explain our cultural needs, but his insistence on both art’s universality and necessity. (Tim Black, Spiked Review of Books)

With a title invoking Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct, and a publication date to coincide with the two-hundredth anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, the reader could be forgiven for approaching Denis Dutton’s The Art Instinct with a degree of trepidation. I, for one, feared some sort of biological reductivism, an attempt, perhaps, to grasp aesthetic experience in terms of the material evolution of the brain, or to see the vast panoply of artistic achievement as little more than an evolutionary by-product of the survival of the fittest.

I needn’t have worried. For a start, The Art Instinct is beautifully written, gliding effortlessly from explaining the knotted abstraction of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgement to a brilliantly pithy description of the meaning of kitsch. But the easy elegance of the writing, its ability to shift from concise explications of aesthetic theory to a critique of the relativism of twentieth-century anthropology, before sidling into personal, poetic passages on the meaning of art, is no accident of charm. Rather it touches upon the animus of Dutton’s book. For Dutton, a professor of the philosophy of art, is moved, not by a crude evolutionary psychologist’s desire to explain art in terms of evolutionary theory, but by a passion for art itself or, to be more precise, a conviction that art is essential to our humanity. That, he says, is what The Art Instinct is trying to explain: ‘the universal appeal of the arts – from soap operas to symphonies – across cultures and through history’.

Of course, this is not to diminish the centrality of evolutionary science to Dutton’s thesis. [...]

The universal preference for a particular type of landscape painting taps into universal innate inclinations formed during the Pleistocene period, ‘the 1.6million years during which modern human beings evolved’. Featuring, amongst other things, water, open spaces of low grasses interspersed with thickets of trees, evidence of animal or bird life, and an opening up to an unimpeded view of the horizon, this predilection for a particular landscape testifies to a primordial memory of the African Savannas, the scene for a large portion of human evolution 80,000 generations in length. Each element of the enigmatically appealing landscape painting is tailored to suit the needs of these ancient nomads, from the canopy of trees for shelter, to the food and water necessary for human sustenance.

It’s a compelling thesis. Yet if it struggles to account for the beauty of the worked-up nature captured, say, in the rural England of painter John Constable’s work, then might it seem irrelevant before other forms of painting, say a thirteenth-century portrait of the Magi, let alone before sonnets or symphonies? So, manifest in our hitherto ineffable attraction to a certain natural vistas, the theory of natural selection – ‘random mutation and selective retention’ – may well have fitted the human brain ‘with an assortment of mental blades and implements for solving specific problems of survival in prehistory’. But as a theory it seems ill-suited to explain, as Dutton himself puts it, all that is ‘creative, exuberant, imaginative, romantic, wasteful, storytelling, witty, loquacious, poetic [and] ideology-inventing’ in mankind.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at February 27, 2009 5:52 PM
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