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

Michael LaTorra mlatorra at gmail.com
Wed Feb 11 22:25:53 UTC 2009

Making similar or overlapping points to Dutton's are "Human Universals" by
Donald Brown, which is a comprehensive survey of the anthropological study
of human universals, human nature, culture vs. biology, and "The Mating
Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature" by Geoffrey
Miller where the subtitle says it all.

Mike LaTorra

On Wed, Feb 11, 2009 at 12:03 PM, PJ Manney <pjmanney at gmail.com> wrote:

> >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.
> PJ
> http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/217078/january-28-2009/denis-dutton
> http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/la-ca-denis-dutton8-2009feb08,0,4082973.story
> >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
> circular.
> 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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