[ExI] Colbert and LA Times Book Review on The Art Instinct by Denis Dutton

PJ Manney pjmanney at gmail.com
Wed Feb 11 19:03:00 UTC 2009

>From what I can see, the core of what he says is not exactly heresy --
in fact, it should seem pretty obvious -- but academic approaches to
art suffer from extreme cultural correctness, cults of personality or
doctrine and over-intellectualization and therefore, inaccuracy (or
just plain ridiculousness), and he's swimming against this school of
self-satisfied fish.  Bless his little cotton socks for doing so.

Once again, it comes back to generating empathy for biological
fitness.  Funny, that.




>From the Los Angeles Times
'The Art Instinct' by Denis Dutton
Where do humanity's expressions of art come from? The author contends
that they are biological--not only cultural.
By Michael S. Roth

February 8, 2009

The Art Instinct

Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution

Denis Dutton

Bloomsbury Press: 280 pp., $25

Denis Dutton seems to have great ambitions in "The Art Instinct" as
well as a willingness to court controversy. He wants to explain how
art arises out of biological impulses that are universal. He also
wants to develop a theory of art that shows that our practice of and
judgments about the arts ought to be informed by an understanding of
their innate, instinctual base.

This seems so ambitious because many of us tend to think of art as a
matter of personal or cultural preference. To discover the universal
human biological underpinnings for this preference appears to be a
staggering task. Dutton, a philosopher who curates the popular, useful
website Arts & Letters Daily, tackles his assignment with wit, clarity
and a basic reasonableness. He winds up overstating his case, but in
doing so he raises important issues concerning biology and culture.

Dutton describes how efforts to ensure that we are not imposing our
own aesthetic categories on non-Western peoples have resulted in
blindness to human commonality. There is an enormous intellectual and
economic investment in the differences of art practices. In academic
discussions of art, scholars have often been so enamored of difference
that they have missed anything that might be shared or universal.

What does Dutton mean by saying that art is grounded in universal
biological impulses? It turns out that he's not saying anything very
controversial because, viewed from a great distance, all human
practices are ultimately grounded in biology. (Where else would they
be grounded?) You like Britney Spears, and Dutton loves Beethoven. It
turns out that both musical choices stem from the preferences that
evolved in the Pleistocene environment. Dutton would say the same
thing if you preferred Lil Wayne, Wagner, Javanese gamelan or Scottish
bagpipe music. Biology really makes no difference to our judgments
about music, except in the sense that we can always appeal to it as
the ultimate ground of our pleasures and dislikes.

Dutton knows this, of course, and he admits that cheesecake and Wagner
speak to the same innate pleasures. So what's the point of appealing
to the innate? The point is to underscore that art is universal and
that all cultures have developed artistic practices. This is a
controversial point, and Dutton argues for it convincingly. He shows
that the aesthetic, like the erotic, arises spontaneously across the
globe. It is not simply a biological adaptation but has developed
because of the capacities that have played an adaptive function for
our species.

Biological adaptation is only half of the Darwinian toolbox from which
Dutton draws. The other half is the concept of "sexual selection,"
which, he says, gives hope for a "complete theory of the origin of the
arts." Darwin developed the idea of sexual selection to explain the
apparently gratuitous or nonfunctional design of some animals. The
classic example is the peacock's tail, which Darwin understood to be a
sign of fitness that would attract mates. Dutton takes this idea and
runs with it, and so he categorizes every display of skill -- from
ornate language to technical drawing ability -- as a display of
fitness. Anything that this philosopher thinks is important in the
arts -- from readymades to storytelling -- he weaves into a story of
fitness and sexual selection. Anything he doesn't think important
(atonal music, for instance, or a desire to shock) is excluded from
his narrative of attraction. Once Dutton asserts that "fitness
displays" are no longer about sex but about human achievement, he
feels free to ground his own preferences in a just-so story with
biological metaphors. Claiming natural underpinnings for one's own
tastes is an old-fashioned move to display the "fitness" of one's
preferences, but calling this story Darwinian doesn't make it less

Despite these shortcomings, "The Art Instinct" is an important book
that raises questions often avoided in contemporary aesthetics and art
criticism. Dutton's familiarity with art practices and objects from
New Guinea complement his enthusiastic embrace of a variety of
canonical European art forms and artists. His arguments against major
figures in the philosophy and anthropology of the arts are often
devastating -- and amusing. Although I don't think he has quite made
the case for the important biological grounds of our attraction to
authenticity, he has woven a powerful plea for the notion that art
expresses a longing to see through the performance or object to
another human personality.

Dutton thinks much recent art has "gone down the wrong track," and he
has turned to biology to tell us why. Although he admits that innate
preferences "need not control our tastes in landscape painting or even
our choice of a calendar," he hopes that "Darwinian aesthetics can set
us straight." This is called having your cake and eating it too -- no
doubt a human desire that was formed in the Pleistocene period.

Roth is the president of Wesleyan University and the author of several
books, including "The Ironist's Cage."

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