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Autumn 2014
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Books and Culture

James Panero
Evolution for Art’s Sake
Denis Dutton’s Darwinian aesthetics
30 January 2009

The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution, by Denis Dutton (Bloomsbury, 288 pp., $25)

This year marks the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. An international Darwin Day is set for February 12, the biologist’s birthday. But the annus mirabilis is off to an early start with the publication of Denis Dutton’s The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution, a Darwinian attempt to explain humanity’s interest in art. Dutton may not be a household name, but his Web portal Arts & Letters Daily has become an international phenomenon, a virtual Galapagos of cultural interest, since he formed it out of an e-mail newsletter in 1998. A professor in the philosophy of art at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, Dutton has now written a book full of observations that again demonstrate his uncanny ability to collect complex arguments and present them as thought-provoking statements.

Dutton builds a bold cross-cultural argument: we all have a prehistoric “art instinct” programmed into our genes through natural and sexual selection. The Art Instinct begins with the results of a recent survey of international artistic taste, which concluded that “people in very different cultures around the world gravitate toward the same general type of pictorial representation: a landscape with trees and open areas, water, human figures, and animals”—images that we often find in the kitschy world of calendar art. How to explain such universal taste? “The calendar industry has not conspired to influence taste,” Dutton writes, “but rather caters to preexisting, precalendrical human preferences.”

Dutton’s belief in a universal urge for art finds common ground with older aesthetic theories, from the metaphysics of Immanuel Kant to the spiritualism of Emanuel Swedenborg to the Kunstwollen of Alois Riegl. But the idea of universality in the arts has been under attack ever since Continental critical theory took over the academy and went after connoisseurship as a social construction. “The whole idea that art worlds are monadically sealed off from one another is daft,” Dutton counters. “Do we need to be reminded that Chopin is loved in Korea, that Spaniards collect Japanese prints, or that Cervantes is read in Chicago and Shakespeare enjoyed in China? . . . Darwinian aesthetics can restore the vital place of beauty, skill, and pleasure as high artistic values.”

Dutton devotes quite a bit of space to setting up his premise, arguing exhaustively with theorists like Arthur C. Danto about the definition of art. Dutton’s philosophical ground-setting may be academically responsible, but Chapters Three and Four (“What is Art?” and “‘But They Don’t Have Our Concept of Art’”) are uphill work—directed, it seems, more at a university audience than at the general reader.

Once Dutton arrives at his central thesis, The Art Instinct becomes an altogether better read. The Pleistocene age lasted for 80,000 generations of humans and protohumans, Dutton writes, “against a mere five hundred generations since the first cities.” For the human race, the survival of the fittest—a term coined by the social Darwinist Herbert Spencer, not by Darwin himself—played out in these long years. The people of the Pleistocene most likely found time for leisure, Dutton argues, and in the arts they developed the adaptive traits that aided in socialization and sexual selection. “It is inconceivable that Pleistocene people did not have a vivid intellectual and creative life,” he writes. “This life would have found expression in song, dance, and imaginative speech—skills that matched in complexity and sophistication what we know of Pleistocene jewelry, painting, and carving.” Through the arts, early man learned to see the world. “This intense interest in art as emotional expression derives from wanting to see through art into another human personality: it springs from a desire for knowledge of another person. . . . Talking about art is an indirect way of talking about the inner lives of other people.”

Here Dutton cites Darwin’s most controversial book, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), and its portrayal of “the mind as a sexual ornament.” Think of the arts as something akin to the peacock’s tail, Dutton writes. The peacock’s wasteful piece of plumage is useless—in fact, a hindrance—when it comes to foraging for food or escaping from predators. Nevertheless, its tail is attractive to peahens precisely because it is an opulent display of extra resources, one that says this peacock is doing better than just scraping by in the world of peafowl. For early man, a social animal, survival likewise not only favored the strongest, but also “the cleverest, wittiest, and wisest.” Just as “the evolutionary function of language is not only to be a means of efficient communication but to be a signal of fitness and general intelligence,” Dutton writes, “sexual selection was building a more interesting human personality, one that we have come to know as convivial, imaginative, gossipy, and gregarious, with a taste for the dramatic.” The art instinct is closely connected with this sexual selection. Simply put, the arts have sex appeal, and it should come as little surprise, Dutton writes, that “love is poetry’s natural subject.”

There are, of course, plenty of counterarguments against Dutton’s “art instinct.” The most obvious is that artists in recorded history often seem to have little interest in procreation, whether because of homosexuality, social dysfunction, or simple lack of interest. Cyril Connolly was on to something when he tartly wrote that “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hallway.” Art-making often seems to be a distraction from, or even a stand-in for, sexual reproduction.

Another concern is that art history is already besotted with theory. About the only place one finds Marx or Freud read with any sense of relevance nowadays is in the study of the humanities, with art history being no exception. (By contrast, try finding Freud discussed in a psychology class with anything but historical interest.) Does Dutton expect us to add Darwinism to the dysfunctional set of Marxist and Freudian master keys? Fortunately, it appears not: “No philosophy of art can succeed if it ignores either art’s natural sources or its cultural character,” he writes, hoping to expand our range of inquiry rather than limit it.

Darwinism is, nevertheless, still a theory of its own, no more so than in the study of Dutton’s “art instinct.” Dutton builds his case on speculation. He constructs a story line that must be reverse-engineered back from the present day. He devotes little attention to what early artistic evidence we do have, such as the cave paintings of Lascaux. Likewise, Dutton could have compared the art of early recorded civilizations: they should exhibit similar artistic practices, according to Dutton’s thesis, even if they developed at opposite ends of the globe.

Still Dutton’s central premise is worth repeating. “What sexual selection in evolution does,” he writes, “is give us an explanation of why so much human energy has been exhausted on objects of the most extreme elegance and complexity—not just the massive symmetry of the Pyramids, but the poignancy of Shakespeare’s sonnets or the Schubert Quintet in C.” It’s a remarkable idea and one that deserves exploration through the historical evidence, both what we have on hand and what remains to be uncovered. The Art Instinct is an important first step in that process—a hyperlink to future conversations.

James Panero is the managing editor of The New Criterion.

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