March 8, 2009

VERMEER AND VAN MEEGEREN HAD DIFFERENT INTENTIONS:

REVIEW: of The Art Instinct by DENIS DUTTON (Michael O'Donnell, B&N Review)

Denis Dutton's The Art Instinct, an elegant, slim, forcefully argued piece of scholarship, is in many ways the natural next step in a contrarian career. Dutton is an American expatriate living in New Zealand, where he teaches aesthetics and philosophy. He is infamous in many ports, not least for his hilarious Bad Writing Contest, which shamed humanities departments by spotlighting the most impenetrable, jargon-laden sentences in academic journals. But he is best known for founding the indispensable web site Arts & Letters Daily, which assembles news and magazine articles that meet a single criterion: making a good case. The pieces range widely, from analyzing George Bush's nostrils to puzzling over the dearth of Protestants living in Wittenberg, the birthplace of the Reformation. Hours surrender to the site like tokens to a gumball machine. Dutton has excellent taste. [...]

Natural selection is one thing, but the stronger, and more entertaining, basis for Dutton's case for an evolutionary aesthetics is sexual selection, which Darwin explored in The Descent of Man. A clear tenor voice wouldn't help Pleistocene man outrun a jaguar, but it might ingratiate him with the ladies -- remember the guitarist on the stairs in Animal House? -- allowing him to spread his genes widely and spot the savanna with little Pavarottis. Dutton describes the possession of artistic talent as "an ornamental capacity analogous to the peacock's tail" -- or to a florid vocabulary. These traits signal a certain robustness or intelligence, which are attractive qualities in a potential mate.

If the theories themselves are provocative, it is their implications that will rile many readers, even though here Dutton is at his best, arching an eyebrow and knocking over all sorts of treasures. A Darwinian aesthetics teaches that an author's intentions do matter (an unfashionable view) because our appreciation of art invariably builds upon our admiration for its author's creative or technical abilities; hence our feeling of betrayal in cases of forgery.


Huh? The popularity of forgeries--which are notoriously difficult for even experts to spot--is a dispositive counterargument to the notion that the artist's intent matters.


Posted by Orrin Judd at March 8, 2009 11:21 AM
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