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BOOK REVIEW

'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.

February 08, 2009|Michael S. Roth | Roth is the president of Wesleyan University and the author of several books, including "The Ironist's Cage."

The Art Instinct

Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution

Denis Dutton

Bloomsbury Press: 280 pp., $25

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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.

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