Monday, January 12, 2009

review of The Art Instinct

The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution by Denis Dutton

Every human culture, from prehistoric times until the present, has created art. From cave painting to the Sistine chapel to Andy Warhol’s soup cans; from the beat of drums around a fire to Mozart’s Magic Flute to rap music…the forms change but the essence remains the same. For some reason, humans have a deep seated love of beauty and a desire to create. But why? It appears to be a basic human instinct, but does it serve a purpose? Some people would suggest that it does not, that art and the creation of art is useless. I think that Mr. Dutton, a professor of art at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, would suggest quite the opposite. In fact, he argues, art is useful to human culture on several levels and it's continued place in our lives is, at least in part, the result of the connection of art and evolutionary science.

Take for example fiction, from storytelling to the modern novel or play. Fiction takes us beyond ourselves and our limited personal experience and at the same time unites us to the experience of the greater group.
“The ability to imagine scenarios and state of affairs not present to direct consciousness must have had adaptive power in human prehistory as it does in today’s world….This capacity for strategic, prudential, conditional thinking gave to such bands a vast adaptive advantage over groups that could not plan with imaginative details.”
It provides information, it passes on the beliefs and experiences of the culture, it prepares us for experiences we have not yet had ourselves, all things that were as beneficial for our ancestors as they are for us today. The reader of fiction is not escaping reality but escaping from a limited, impoverished reality into a much larger, richer world of human possibility. And among our ancestors, a group with a strong storytelling experience had an advantage of survival over any group that did not.

And what of the visual arts. Beautiful objects, often made of rare materials, taking a great deal of time and a great deal of skill…in what way are they somehow useful? Well, Mr. Dutton argues that this skill and ability very early on served a purpose similar to the huge and beautiful tail of the male peacock. To be able to create such art was a sign of intelligence and health, showed that the creator was successful and committed enough as a provider to have the excess material and time to make these objects and was therefore a good choice as a sexual partner. So his genes were more likely to be passed on.

The idea that these basic artistic expressions are inherent to human culture, somehow a basic human instinct is fascinating. Mr. Dutton’s discussion in Chapter 3 of a set of 12 ‘cluster criteria’ that he suggests define “What is Art?” is, I think, alone worth reading the book for. He lists and discusses these twelve characteristics; direct pleasure, skill and virtuosity, style, novelty and creativity, criticism, representation, special focus, expressive individuality, emotional saturation, intellectual challenge, art tradition and institutions, and perhaps, he thinks, most importantly imaginative experience.

“…objects of art essentially provide an imaginative experience for both producers and audiences. “
To see our connection to art as somehow a result of evolutionary natural selection might seem to risk the danger of reducing it to a sort of biological imperative, a matter of DNA and group memory. But Dutton recognizes that art by it’s very nature ultimately strives to take us beyond ourselves. At it's best, in what we recognize as masterpieces, we are taken to new levels we could not achieve on our own.
“…standing before a masterpiece you are in the presence of a power that exceeds anything you can imagine for yourself, something greater than you even can or will be. The rapture they offer is literally ecstatic -taking you out of yourself. Their sense of exceeding not only what we are but what we can imagine ourselves to be is why we properly call the great works sublime. Theists may wish to attribute all this to the power of God, Darwinian humanists to the near miraculous power of human genius. Both will approach such works as suppliants: we yield to their will, allowing then to take us on a journey they choose for us.”
And yet, we are also connected by art. Our artistic expressions may seem far different than those of those of our ancestors, yet they share a great deal. Like them, we admire the skill and virtuosity, the act of creation, the intellectual challenges, the personal expression.
“And over all this, we still share with our ancestors a feeling of recognition and communication with other human beings through the medium of art. Preoccupied as we are with the flashy media and buzzing gizmos of our daily experience, we forget how close we remain to the prehistoric women and men who first found beauty in the world. Their blood runs in our veins. Our art instinct is theirs.”

Well, perhaps. Interesting ideas; not ones that I am totally sure that I buy into, but interesting and thought provoking. It is a book dense with ideas, which is both good and bad, bad because I am not quite sure who Dutton sees as his reader.
Once, long, long ago in a distant galaxy, I was, in my university days, a philosophy major. The perfect preparation for a career in retail. But back to my point. I have read Plato and Aristotle and Kant and all these fine fellow whose ideas on the philosophy of aesthetics Dutton raises. Granted, not recently, but I have dug my way through them and this is a book that I think most readers, like myself, while interested in the ideas, may find rather hard to make their way through. Maybe I underestimate people, or maybe I am just not in the habit of thinking very deeply these days. I could be wrong....won't be the first time. But I will leave that up to the judgment of the reader.

If you are interested in art, or philosophy or the theory of evolution, there is much of interest here.

Available from Amazon


  1. That's quite a review. I got this book too, I don't know why except to learn something maybe. Let's hope I do.:)

  2. HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!!!!!!
    -love bandit and his mom ; )

  3. thank you bandit...and thank your mom too...
    so, did you get me a present?? lol

  4. I came over to wish you a happy birthday, too! Beaten to the punch by a cute little dog. Story of my life.

    Back to the book you reviewed: this is totally my dad's thing (he was a Philosophy professor before he retired)--he even wrote a book about Kant's Aesthetic Theory, back in the day. So I love the idea of a book for lay people that focuses on those concepts, but it sounds like this one might be a little too dense for the average Joe but probably not dense enough for an actual philosopher. Is there a readership in between? Seems like if there was, you'd be it, doesn't it? A shame it wasn't more accessible.

  5. Happy Birthday to you. I had high hopes for this book. After your review, it will probably linger on my shelves for a while.

  6. well, it not the quality of the book that I question...just if it is for a general audience. Or someone who has been out of college for several decades.

    as I am reminded of on this, my birthday. thank

  7. ali, you have it exactly right.

    now, there are only a few reviews on Amazon at this point and they all loved there is an audience. but I think it will be limited by the style it was written in, not quite aim at either a general or professional audience.

    Hey, if your dad would like my copy, I would be happy to send it to him. just let me know!

  8. This one should be next on my list but, well, now it sounds intimidating. The older I get, the less deep I want to read or so it seems. I guess I am just getting mentally lazy in my old age when it should be the opposite. You did a wonderful job with your review.

  9. yes, I understand the mentally lazy part.
    And I don't want to discourage people from reading it but I do wish the same ideas, which are very interesting, had been presented in a slightly more generally accessible way. Granted, that would have been another book...and who am I to tell an author what to one has given me a book contract that I noticed...

  10. Oh,thanks so much, Caite! I will ask him, but I have a feeling it'll be like offering a retired dentist a book on dental health, kwim? He'll probably pass. :-)

  11. well, if he does....

    I always love a good to find a good home and I don't think most of the folks that I lend/give books to are more interested in philosophy than I am.


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