The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, & Human Evolution

“What’s art good for?”


We talk about the maternal instinct and the mating instinct, why not, asks Dutton, the art instinct? We are a species “obsessed with creating artistic experiences,” so surely there’s a coded-in-our-genes reason for that. Darwinian concepts have been applied with illuminating effect to psychology, history, and politics, why not art? And who better to attempt this mind-expanding analysis than Dutton, a professor of aesthetics and the philosophy of art, and founder and editor of Arts & Letters Daily, named the “best Web site in the world” by the Guardian. Creative, nimble, and entertaining, Dutton discusses landscape art, pottery, Aristotle, forgeries, and ready-mades. Rigorous in his definition of the “signal characteristics” of art and application of evolutionary science, Dutton identifies cross-cultural commonalities in art, explicates our innate feel for images and stories (devoting an entire chapter to the “uses of fiction”), and explores art’s role in individual expression and community cohesiveness. Marshaling intriguing examples and analogies in a cogent, animated argument destined to provoke debate, Dutton formulates the best answer yet to the question, “What’s art good for?”

Every culture we know of, every tribe, current or historic, tells stories. They all make music. They might not all do watercolors, but they all do some sort of representational art. Why is this? After all, storytelling, music, and painting are far less effective in putting food on the table than, say, hunting or planting. In examining a cultural universal, like making art, it makes sense to seek an answer from evolution. No one scientifically doubts that we have our bodies and physiology due to evolution (although religious doubters continue to pipe up). Over the past three decades, we have seen evolutionary explanations for human sexuality, language, even religion. Can Darwin’s principles be applied to our diligence in making art, and our of love of art? Denis Dutton thinks so, and in _The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution_ (Bloomsbury Press), he has put forward a cogent and entertaining evolutionary explanation of our artistic impulses. Dutton, who teaches the philosophy of art, and also founded and edits the popular and useful website _Arts & Letters Daily_, has good grasps on art and evolution, and his explanations for artistic behavior and appreciation help us understand both disciplines.

If evolution explains art-making through all cultures, you’d expect some general agreement on, say, what paintings are beautiful.

Statistics have been done, and it does seem that there is a consensus between cultures on what is the prettiest landscape. In the Pleistocene era, our ancestors were nomads. They would have liked the blue of water or of distant vegetation; it would have meant sustenance from good hunting grounds. Music is perhaps harder to explain. We need hearing as a way of understanding our surroundings, but the rhythmic, pitched sounds of music would seem to contribute nothing to survival ability. It may be that musical sounds helped the birth of language, and music with its associated dances may have helped with tribal cooperation and bonding. Stories, though, can have real and obvious survival advantages. Stories can convey facts; a fanciful folktale from the Yanomamo about jaguars, for instance, gives plenty of information and advice about how to live in an environment where jaguars are a threat. Fiction enables us to understand the mental experiences of others, not just of imagined characters, but of authors. Reading minds in this way is easily understood as having survival advantages for a social species like ourselves. Dutton believes that making art had origins as a display of skill that would lure prospective mates and intimidate potential rivals. Making art is an “extra”, something that only a smart, vigorous individual could do, an individual that did not have to expend full resources on life’s basics. Art is a fitness display.

The scope of these ideas allows Dutton to bring in many thought-provoking examples, and some of them are a real surprise. Marcel Duchamp’s placing a urinal on a pedestal and calling it art almost a hundred years ago has been a subject of controversy ever since; yes, says, Dutton, it qualifies pretty well in the checklist he provides of the characteristics of artistic expression. Forgeries are a fascinating case; if they are so well done that they fool even the experts, they must have artistic merit, but why is it that we are offended by them? Dutton explains that evolution has destined us to expect and insist upon authenticity in art. He explains also why, when referring to a different culture, “They have a different concept of art from ours” is a vacuous conceit. He introduces us to various theorists within his own discipline, and openly takes many of them to task. This is a work written in a popular style, and those who enjoy the ideas of such popularizers as Stephen J. Gould or Steven Pinker will find some of those ideas nicely argued against. It might make some readers uncomfortable to consider that making art and appreciating art, characteristics that are among those that make humans unique, could be best explained by spirals of chromosomes. The artistic impulse will always remain mysterious; Dutton’s examining it as instinct has brought forth a volume of intriguing thought experiments, philosophical puzzles, and ingenious speculation.

A Darwinian theory of beauty

This lovely video is a collaboration between TEDTalks and animator Andrew Park, who illustrates Denis Dutton’s provocative argument about beauty — that art, music and other beautiful things, far from being simply “in the eye of the beholder,” are a core part of human nature with deep evolutionary origins.

Philosopher Denis Dutton is the author of the book, The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, & Human Evolution [Amazon UKAmazon US]. He teaches philosophy at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, and is the editor of Arts & Letters Daily, a three-column compendium of culture news from all over the web. He also writes a website that is crammed with tidbits from his wide-ranging explorations in philosophy and culture. He’s on the advisory board of Cybereditions, a publisher specializing in ebooks and print-on-demand editions of nonfiction works.

Dutton dismisses the notion that beauty is in the eye of the beholder or is somehow connected to ideal form. Instead he takes a Darwinian approach, arguing that our response to beauty is wired into our human existence and our need to find mates.

He describes the ideal pictorial landscape as containing an open vista, with an element of water, a forked tree, and a sampling of wildlife, and a path or a road leading into the distance.
Above: Asher Durand.

This landscape, Dutton argues, is universally appealing across cultures because it appealed to our Pleistocene hunter-gatherer ancestors, presumably scanning for game to feed their mates.

Although I was impressed with Park’s animation, I didn’t find Dutton’s aesthetic theory particularly convincing, nor useful from an artist’s perspective. Part of the problem is semantic. As he says, we are impressed by skilled action, and we call it beautiful. It attracts the girls. Or vice versa.

But what skilled actions are we talking about? Do we include backing a trailer or skateboarding or card-shuffling? What about soccer? These things might be described as “beautiful” only in the loosest sense of the term. Most people wouldn’t include all of them in a definition of art.

And art does not include only skilled action. Many people regard as art certain objects that consciously exhibit a lack of skill: fauve, neo-primitive, and such.

Dutton doesn’t dig very deeply into the nature and the range of the core aesthetic responses, and why those responses might be evolutionarily adaptive. He makes rather unsupportable claims about how he thinks Homo Erectus responded to hand axes. How does he know the axes were art objects? Maybe they were used as money, not art. And how does he know Homo Erectus didn’t have language?

Dutton’s theory also proposes that natural selection provides for a repulsion reaction to such dangerous things as standing at the edge a cliff. How, then, would Dutton’s theory account for the experience of the sublime, as formulated by aesthetic philosophers such as Edmund Burke? According to Burke, we’re attracted, rather than repulsed, by unsettling and disquieting experiences. (Example above: Wanderer by Caspar David Friedrich.)

Far more convincing—and useful— is Tolstoy’s notion that art is the deliberate transmission of emotion. It applies to dance, theater, painting, music, and all other forms. And it is immensely practical to the working artist, because it provides a clear test for the aesthetic value of a particular work. Tolstoy’s theory is a rich topic, perhaps fodder for a future post.

Why the cultural conditioning of your eye has nothing on the evolutionary biology of it.

What, exactly, is beauty? This question has been occupying the minds of philosophers, anthropologists, neuroscientists, art critics and ordinary people alike for centuries of human history. And while many may subscribe to the “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” theory, this, it turns out, may not be the case. Earlier this year, we had the fortune of seeing Arts & Letters Daily editor and philosopher Denis Dutton give one of the most fascinating TED talks we’ve ever seen, presenting a provocative Darwinian theory of beauty. This week, Duttons’ talkwas released online and animated by one of our favorite illustrators, Andrew Park of The RSA — it’s the smartest thing you’ll watch this week, likely this month, and possibly this year.

I have no doubt whatsoever that the experience of beauty, with its emotional intensity and pleasure, belongs to our evolved human psychology. The experience of beauty is one component in a whole series of Darwinian adaptations. Beauty is an adaptive effect, which we extend and intensify in the creation and enjoyment of works of art and entertainment.” ~ Denis Dutton

Dutton debunks the commonly accepted academic explanation of beauty as something in the “culturally conditioned” eye of the beholder by demonstrating that beauty, or aesthetic appreciation, in fact travels across cultures rather easily, hinting at some deeper, universal underpinning of what we find beautiful. To explain this, Dutton reverse-engineers our present aesthetic taste by constructing a fascinating Darwinian evolutionary history of our artistic expression and aesthetic taste

For us moderns, virtuoso technique is used to create imaginary worlds in fiction and in movies, to express intense emotions with music, painting and dance. But still, one fundamental trait of the ancestral personality persists in our aesthetic cravings: The beauty we find in skilled performances. From Lascaux to the Louvre to Carnegie Hall, human beings have a permanent innate taste for virtuoso displays in the arts. We find beauty in something done well.” ~ Denis Dutton

In a groundbreaking new book that does for art what Stephen Pinker’s The Language Instinct did for linguistics, Denis Dutton overturns a century of art theory and criticism and revolutionizes our understanding of the arts.

The Art Instinct combines two fascinating and contentious disciplines—art and evolutionary science—in a provocative new work that will change forever the way we think about the arts, from painting to literature to movies to pottery. Human tastes in the arts, Dutton argues, are evolutionary traits, shaped by Darwinian selection. They are not, as the past century of art criticism and academic theory would have it, just “socially constructed.”
Our love of beauty is inborn, and many aesthetic tastes are shared across remote cultures—just one example is the widespread preference for landscapes with water and distant trees, like the savannas where we evolved. Using forceful logic and hard evidence, Dutton shows that we must premise art criticism on an understanding of evolution, not on abstract “theory.” He restores the place of beauty, pleasure, and skill as artistic values.
Sure to provoke discussion in scientific circles and uproar in the art world, The Art Instinct offers radical new insights into both the nature of art and the workings of the human mind.

TEDTalks is a daily video podcast of the best talks and performances from the TED Conference, where the world’s leading thinkers and doers give the talk of their lives in 18 minutes. Featured speakers have included Al Gore on climate change, Philippe Starck on design, Jill Bolte Taylor on observing her own stroke, Nicholas Negroponte on One Laptop per Child, Jane Goodall on chimpanzees, Bill Gates on malaria and mosquitoes, Pattie Maes on the “Sixth Sense” wearable tech, and “Lost” producer JJ Abrams on the allure of mystery. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design, and TEDTalks cover these topics as well as science, business, development and the arts. Closed captions and translated subtitles in a variety of languages are now available on TED. Watch a highlight reel of the Top 10 TEDTalks.

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