It’s the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, and numerous authors are publishing books that review and extend his work, including philosopher Denis Dutton, who has written The Art Instinct. In Bookforum historian Rochelle Gurstein writes:
Denis Dutton is a man with a mission: Against cultural anthropologists, art historians, critics, and aestheticians who have advanced the idea that taste is relative and socially constructed, he wants to demonstrate that there is an “instinct” for beauty, skill, and pleasure. As proof of the universality of this instinct, he offers descriptions of its “spontaneous” emergence in children, along with ethnographic reports of its existence in “preliterate hunter-gatherer tribes that survived into the twentieth century, since their ways of life reflect those of our ancient ancestors.” The second part of that sentence—“since their ways of life reflect those of our ancient ancestors”—signals both the novelty and the burden of Dutton’s book, The Art Instinct, for its central claim is that the art instinct can be found in the “prehistory” of “our nomadic human and proto-human ancestors in the Pleistocene.”
Dutton grounds his argument in the neo-Darwinian field of evolutionary psychology, but much of his case is necessarily the product of speculation … All too often, I felt that Dutton was drawing me into the resolutely unscientific realm of faith or . . . academic burlesque. And all too often, I found myself thinking that even if one could prove the existence of an art instinct or, simply for the sake of argument, one were to grant all of Dutton’s premises, what difference would it make? For Dutton, “what sexual selection in evolution does is give us an explanation of why so much human energy has been exhausted on objects of the most extreme elegance and complexity.” This is all well and good if you care about such Darwinian conundrums—but the expenditure of energy has never been a pressing question for people who care about the arts. They have instead been preoccupied with questions about beauty, sublimity, taste, genius, invention, originality, aesthetic autonomy, form, and composition … lazy theorizing (“if along the way”; “then so much the better”) and glib inventory taking serve to remind us that Dutton is far more preoccupied with the Darwinian thrust of his argument than with its implications for the understanding of art … when Dutton tries to come up with a definition of the arts from a Darwinian standpoint, things grow more banal still, as he offers the familiar romantic view that the arts produce a communion of souls, that they serve as “windows into the mind of another human being” … Only someone who has not taken the time to immerse himself in the enormous—indeed, overwhelming—historical record would be so presumptuous as to offer the following definition of “greatness in the arts”: the effort “to create works of aesthetic pleasure that are saturated with emotion, specifically expressing distinct emotions that are perceived as yours” … Dutton’s book is particularly baffling because he clearly esteems the arts … In this enterprise, Dutton has not made a convincing case that our hunter-gatherer ancestors, trapped as they were in the struggle for sheer survival, have anything to offer.
On his personal webpage, Dutton responds:
Darwin deniers! Creationists don’t like Darwin, me, or my book ’cause they think God created us and our aesthetic tastes. Social constructionsists, such as Rochelle Gurstein, don’t like my book because they hold that history and culture determine tastes. I argue that art is produced by culture, individuals, and their evolution in a complex interaction. Still, Ms. Gurstein, who writes in Bookforum, does not seem to think I’ve written a stupid book, even if she appears to disagree with every word in it (including “and” and “the.”). I don’t regard her review as stupid, either.
Art historian Martin Kemp writes in his New Scientist review:
In his new book, he has bravely proposed a coherent notion of the “art instinct” as a product of evolution in the strictly biological sense. It is a substantial contribution to the debate we ought to be having.
Historian Michael S. Roth writes in his review in the L.A. Times:
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 … 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 … 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.
In the Philadelphia Inquirer, philosopher Carlin Romano writes:
In short, he combines a magisterial command of the history of aesthetics back to Plato and Aristotle, a total commitment to clarity and verve in writing, and an up-to-the-minute grasp of almost every trend on the contemporary cultural scene. Result? A philosophy of art for the ages. Dutton argues that evolutionary psychology – the school of thought with which cognitive scientists such as Steven Pinker have helped us understand the Darwinian dimensions of much social life – also explains the ubiquity of artistic activity across cultures and eons. If you care about art writ large as a miraculous bounty for the world, or only for your own selfish sake, The Art Instinct should impress you as the most shrewd, precisely written and provocative study you’ll find on its topic’s place in human nature.
In the IHT, philosopher Anthony Gottlieb writes:
Although he endorses the popular form of evolutionary psychology in principle, his practice is more nuanced. His discussion of the arts and of our responses to them is insightful and penetrating, and I doubt whether much of it really depends on the ideas of evolutionary psychology … Dutton’s eloquent account sheds light on the role art plays in our lives, whatever its ultimate origins.
The Australian profiles Dutton:
Born in 1944, Dutton was raised in the liberal atmosphere of North Hollywood, California, by parents who met at Paramount film studios. They later established a large independent bookshop, and books became the default family profession. He studied philosophy at the University of Santa Barbara, eventually combining it with a love of art to specialise in aesthetics.
“I have a longstanding interest in cross-cultural universals and variations,” he says. “The question is whether radically different cultures can understand each other. I have grown up through an epoch in which it was fashionable to imagine that cultures can’t significantly speak to each other. My own experience militates against that idea.”
As a young man, he worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in India. He later took a leave of absence from academe to live for a while in New Guinea, studying Sepik culture in order to make informed cross-cultural connections.
He came to the politically incorrect conclusion that the Other is indeed knowable and that connoisseurs from very different cultures — a curator of Sepik art in a Western museum, for example, and a carver who has never left his highland village — will choose the same exemplars of local art form.