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Art Instinct Author, Denis Dutton, and the Darwinian Basis to Art

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The heady realms of aesthetic theory floated during a recent Friday afternoon when I attended a lecture at NYU's School of Philosophy. It was not so heady as it might have been given that lecturer, Denis Dutton, rebels against the jargon of much aesthetic criticism. He was promoting his new book, The Art Instinct, which argues for a Darwinian basis to art and aesthetic tastes in man.

Note that this Darwinism contradicts the common assumption of art as a cultural construct. It also implies that art has helped humans survive in some way. Yet nobody knew how, including Dutton, for certainly art seems to be a useless, weird, and inexplicable impulse.

Dutton, inspired by how “weird” our aesthetic tastes are, investigated the human reason for creating and valuing art. He believes that strong roots in Darwinism complement our understanding of why art is important and what, in fact, art is. It's a contentious argument for an ambitious book. Dutton starts by defining art.

For all the audacity, Dutton made some interesting points. For instance, why is it that humans have developed from their sense of hearing the tonal music of Beethoven that so delights us instead of using their sense of smell to create nose symphonies? Smell is just as useful as hearing. Yet very few people pick out the notes of a perfume the way they do out of a symphony, nor are perfumes created out of a structured set of notes.

Dutton also commented that humans, unlike other animals, constantly seek out imaginative representations of reality rather than true, real things. That is, they seek out lies rather than truth. Think of all the time that is spent watching TV shows, reading stories, or looking at pictures. How have lies proven a more useful trait, in an evolutionary sense? By extension, how has art?

A different question bothers me, and I wished I had asked Dutton for his opinion. His theory considers art a natural need and that we are uniquely configured as a species to appreciate it. A Darwinian basis for art suggests a set of universal aesthetics that people everywhere use to appreciate and judge art. If aesthetics are universal, are artworks that appeal to the most number of people better?

I don't know if Dutton would agree. In fact I doubt it, despite the fact that he ridiculed the academics who congratulate themselves on being sophisticates for understanding modern and contemporary art in comparison to a “bourgeois” majority.

One could argue that Darwinism provides a biological basis for elitism. In fact, Dutton's theories are more useful for enticing one to form arguments than they are at answering questions. Often enough I'm satisfied with discussions with no answers, yet this particular question fascinates me. While I'm no philosopher, my art instinct suggests that popular art equals better art.

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About Art Ravels

  • http://theartinstinct.com Denis Dutton

    Art asks, “If aesthetics are universal, are artworks that appeal to the most number of people better?”

    Good question, Art. Here’s the kind of answer the argument of my book suggests:

    Yes, appeal to the most people is the criterion, so long as the period of appeal is measured in centures and across cultures. Billy Joel may have outsold Beethoven last week, but in 400 years people will still be listenting to Beethoven across the globe while Billy Joel will be forgotten.

    In the long run, Beethoven will massively outsell Billy Joel, and will therefore pass what David Hume called The Test of Time. That is because Beethoven’s skills, emotional expression, complexity, and human depth far exceeds pop music that was made to impress this week’s aesthetic fashions. Sure, pop music is universal and pleasurable, but quality equates to lasting value in the arts.

    Popularity, yes, but popularity for the ages.

    Thanks so much for the comment. I’ve linked to this on the website where I’m collecting reviews and comment on the book and the tour.

    — Denis

  • Peter in Australia

    Gentlemen, I’m reminded of the words of Russian anarchist Bakunin (1814-1876), who once said, “Everything will pass and the world will perish, but the Ninth Symphony will remain”.

  • http://thewordygecko.wordpress.com Sue Bond

    ‘Dutton also commented that humans, unlike other animals, constantly seek out imaginative representations of reality rather than true, real things. That is, they seek out lies rather than truth.’

    I’m going to be a pedant here, and argue with this statement, and the conflation of fiction with telling lies. I know that some writers refer to their storytelling as ‘telling lies’, in a humorous sense, but what writers of fiction are really doing is making up stories in order to reveal greater truths. And readers are not seeking out lies, but actually looking for those truths that are often too difficult to reveal in fact, or simply can be explored more freely with fiction. Thanks for the piece, it’s a good discussion starter!

  • http://artandarthandling.blogspot.com/ Ben

    the art talk is much about the difference between the illusion and image, artists quality describes where they are in it, we see the image/mirage as we can, if it’s real it survives all the words pointing where it may be…