The Art Instinct  

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"In linguistics, Benjamin Lee Whorf persuaded many people that different languages imposed radically different mental worlds on their speakers. Thomas Kuhn's influential The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) convinced generations of college students that epochs in science were so intellectually sealed off [...] Under the shadow of writers such as Margaret Mead and Clifford Geertz, young ethnographers were expected to return from fieldwork arguing that the worldviews and values of their tribes were unique, special, and not comparable to those of Western culture." --p.10

"It was Ellen Dissanayake (1998) who first saw the connection between the Komar and Melamid paintings and prehistoric landscape tastes—yet another debt Darwinian aesthetics owes to her."

"Walter Benjamin echoed Malraux in believing aesthetics was a comparatively recent invention, a view proven wrong in the late 1970s, when Abraham Moles (Théorie de l'information et perception esthétique, 1973) and Frieder Nake (Ästhetik als Informationsverarbeitung, 1974) analyzed links between beauty, information processing, and information theory. Dennis Dutton in The Art Instinct also proposed that an aesthetic sense was a vital evolutionary factor." --Sholem Stein

“The evolution of Homo sapiens in the past million years is not just a history of how we came to have acute color vision, a taste for sweets, and an upright gait. It is also a story of how we became a species obsessed with creating artistic experiences with which to amuse, shock, titillate, and enrapture ourselves, from children’s games to the quartets of Beethoven, from firelit caves to the continuous worldwide glow of television screens” (2-­‐3).

"Too many disputes in art theory tiresomely rehash the artistic status of amusing modernist provocations, such Andy Warhol's signed soup cans or John Cage's sitting at a piano with a stopwatch. We need first to focus on what makes La Grande Jatte or Anna Karenina or the Chrysler Building art." --The Art Instinct p.4 [...] "Aesthetics today finds itself in a paradoxical, not to say bizarre, situation. On the one hand, scholars and theorists have access - in libraries, in museums, on the Internet, firsthand via travel - to a wider perspective on artistic creation across cultures and through history than ever before. . . Against this glorious availability, how odd that philosophical speculation about art has been inclined towards endless analysis of an infinitesimal class of cases, prominently featuring Duchamp's readymades or boundary-testing objects such as Sherrie Levine's appropriated photographs and John Cage's 4' 33". [...] "If you wish to understand the essential nature of murder, you do not begin with a discussion of something complicated or emotionally loaded, such as assisted suicide or abortion or capital punishment. Assisted suicide may or may not be murder, but determining whether such disputed cases are murder requires first that we are clear on the nature and logic of indisputable cases; we move from the uncontroversial center to the disputed remote territories. The same principle holds in aesthetic theory." --The Art Instinct p.50

Related e



Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution (2009) is a book by Denis Dutton.


The Art Instinct combines two of the most fascinating and contentious disciplines, art and evolutionary science, in a provocative new work that will revolutionize the way art itself is perceived. Aesthetic taste, argues Denis Dutton, is an evolutionary trait, and is shaped by natural selection. It's not, as almost all contemporary art criticism and academic theory would have it, "socially constructed." The human appreciation for art is innate, and certain artistic values are universal across cultures, such as a preference for landscapes that, like the ancient savannah, feature water and distant trees. If people from Africa to Alaska prefer images that would have appealed to our hominid ancestors, what does that mean for the entire discipline of art history? Dutton argues, with forceful logic and hard evidence, that art criticism needs to be premised on an understanding of evolution, not on abstract "theory." Sure to provoke discussion in scientific circles and an 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.




Landscape and longing

Art and human nature

"It is with good reason, says Sancho to the squire with the great nose, that I pretend to have a judgment in wine: This is a quality hereditary in our family. Two of my kinsmen were once called to give their opinion of a hogshead, which was supposed to be excellent, being old and of a good vintage. One of them tastes it; considers it; and, after mature reflection, pronounces the wine to be good, were it not for a small taste of leather, which he perceived in it. The other, after using the same precautions, gives also his verdict in favour of the wine; but with the reserve of a taste of iron, which he could easily distinguish. You cannot imagine how much they were both ridiculed for their judgment. But who laughed in the end? On emptying the hogshead, there was found at the bottom an old key with a leathern thong tied to it." --"Of the Standards of Taste", David Hume

What is art?

cluster theory of art

Summary via[1]

1. Direct pleasure . Art is "a source of immediate experiential pleasure in itself." (Such pleasure is also found in other areas of daily life, "such as . . . sport and play, . . . quaffing a cold drink on a hot day, or . . . watching larks soar or storm clouds thicken . . . [and] sex.")

2. Skill and virtuosity . The making of art requires and demonstrates "specialized" skill (which is also "a source of pleasure and admiration in every area of human activity beyond art, perhaps most notably today in sports").

3. Style . "Objects and performances in all art forms are made in recognizable styles, according to rules of form, composition, or expression. . . . Styles . . . allow for the exercise of artistic freedom, liberating as much as they constrain. Styles can oppress artists; more often styles set them free. (Virtually all meaningful human activity . . . is carried out within [a] stylistic framework: [for example,] gestures . . . [and] social courtesies such as norms of laughter. . . .)"

4. Novelty and creativity . These qualities, as well as "the capacity to surprise," are integral to art in Dutton's view. ("Creativity is [also] called for and admired in countless other areas of life. We admire creative solutions . . . in dentistry and plumbing as well as [in] the arts. . . .")

5. Criticism . "Wherever artistic forms are found, they exist alongside some kind of critical judgment and appreciation, simple or, more likely, elaborate." [Even in prehistory?]

6. Representation . "Art objects . . . represent or imitate real and imagined experiences of the world." ("Blueprints, . . . passport photographs, and road maps are equally imitations or representations. The importance of representation extends to every area of life.")

7. Special focus . All art is "bracketed off from ordinary life, made a separate and dramatic focus of experience" (as are other areas of life, from "religious rites . . . [and] political rallies" to "advertising [and] sporting events," in which special focus and "a sense of occasion" are found).

8. Expressive individuality . A work of art possesses this trait (but so does "[a]ny ordinary activity with a creative component--everyday speech, lecturing, home hospitality" and so on).

9. Emotional saturation . Art is "shot through with emotion" (as are "many ordinary, non-art life experiences--falling in love, watching a child take its first steps, . . . seeing an athlete break a world record, [and] having a heated row with a close friend. . . .")

10. Intellectual challenge . Art "tends to be designed to utilize the combined variety of human perceptual and intellectual capacities to the full extent." Aspects of art that are not so easily grasped include complex plot in fiction and recapitulation in music. (But life presents intellectual challenges as well: "Games such as chess or Trivial Pursuit, cooking from complicated recipes, home handyman tasks, . . . or even working out tax returns can offer challenges of exercise and mastery that result in achieved pleasure."

11. Art traditions and institutions . Works of art "gain their identity by the ways they are found in historical traditions, in lines of historical precedents." [Dutton is here referring, albeit opaquely, to the "institutional theory" of art that has governed the artworld in one form or another in recent decades--more on which below.]

12. Imaginative experience . The chief defining characteristic of art may be that its objects "provide an imaginative experience for both producers and audiences." (While imagination is "virtually coextensive with normal human conscious life"--in activities ranging from problem-solving to daydreaming--the experience of art is different. It is "marked by the manner in which it decouples imagination from practical concern, freeing it, as Kant instructed, from the constraints of logic and rational understanding.")

"But they don't have our concept of art"

Art and natural selection

The uses of fiction

"The German poet Friedrich Schiller and the Romantics were interested in the idea that there might be a manageably finite number of plots for fictions, and the nineteenth century French writer Georges Polti, inspired by a remark made by Goethe, listed plot types to describe “the Thirty-six Dramatic Situations.”"
"The experience of reading — or the auditory equivalent in the oral antecedents to literature — has some parallel with the experience of dreaming and also with the experience of «virtual reality» simulators. It is an experience of subjective absorption within an imaginary world, a world in which motives, situations,persons, and events operate dramatically, in narrative sequence. Unlike dreams, most literary works have a strong component of conscious conceptual order - a «thematic» order. But like dreams, and unlike other forms of conscious conceptual order - science, philosophy, scholarship - literature taps directly into the elemental response systems activated by emotion. Works of literature thus form a point of intersection between the most emotional, subjective parts of the mind and the most abstract and cerebral. This feature of literature is not incidental to its adaptive function." --Joseph Carroll

Art and human self-domestication

Intention, forgery, Dada : three aesthetic problems

The contingency of aesthetic values

Greatness in the arts

"let no one imagine, because he has made merry in the warm tilth and quaint nooks of romance, that he can even guess at the austere and thrilling raptures of those who have climbed the cold, white peaks of art." --Art (1914)

See also

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