A shot across the bows of philistinism

What sets Denis Dutton’s lucid The Art Instinct apart from other books is not his attempt to use Charles Darwin to explain our cultural needs, but his insistence on both art’s universality and necessity.

Tim Black

Tim Black

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With a title invoking Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct, and a publication date to coincide with the two-hundredth anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, the reader could be forgiven for approaching Denis Dutton’s The Art Instinct with a degree of trepidation. I, for one, feared some sort of biological reductivism, an attempt, perhaps, to grasp aesthetic experience in terms of the material evolution of the brain, or to see the vast panoply of artistic achievement as little more than an evolutionary by-product of the survival of the fittest.

Cover illustration by
Jan Bowman

I needn’t have worried. For a start, The Art Instinct is beautifully written, gliding effortlessly from explaining the knotted abstraction of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgement to a brilliantly pithy description of the meaning of kitsch. But the easy elegance of the writing, its ability to shift from concise explications of aesthetic theory to a critique of the relativism of twentieth-century anthropology, before sidling into personal, poetic passages on the meaning of art, is no accident of charm. Rather it touches upon the animating spirit of Dutton’s book. For Dutton, a professor of the philosophy of art, is moved, not by a crude evolutionary psychologist’s desire to explain art in terms of evolutionary theory, but by a passion for art itself or, to be more precise, a conviction that art is essential to our humanity. That, he says, is what The Art Instinct is trying to explain: ‘the universal appeal of the arts – from soap operas to symphonies – across cultures and through history’.

Of course, this is not to diminish the centrality of evolutionary science to Dutton’s thesis. Take the first chapter ‘Landscape and longing’. Here he uses the research that informed the Russian artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid’s 1994 painting America’s Most Wanted. This involved questioning a cross-section of people in 10 different countries as to their artistic preferences: Did they like landscapes or interiors? What are their favourite colours? And so on. Having collated the answers, Komar and Melamid produced their painting, a witty pastiche in which each nation’s preferences were all incorporated. So, reflecting the American penchant for historical figures, George Washington is foregrounded against a background of lake, cloudy blue sky and just enough foliage to make it interesting. But add to this a contemporary-looking family trio walking by the lakeside, and, more absurdly still, a hippo wallowing in the water, and the Russians’ joke becomes clear: public consultation does not make for good art.

America’s Most Wanted (1994) by Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid.

But what interests Dutton is that the Russians’ research indicated a uniform preference around the globe for a landscape with people, water and animals. This, he contends, cannot just be coincidence, and nor can it be dismissed as the product of the cultural tyranny of clichéd calendar illustrations, as the art critic Arthur Danto argues. To illustrate his point he uses a pigeon anecdote. For years pigeons would land on his office window ledge at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. And for years they would soil it. That was until he left a plastic snake on the ledge, which effectively frightened them off. A simple case of a ‘pigeon scarecrow’, you might think, except for one problem: these originally European pigeons have, for over 200 bird generations, been living in New Zealand, a country with no snakes. This, concludes Dutton, is a clear case of ‘natural atavism’, a memory of the threat that snakes pose, hardwired into the pigeon brain.

Just as it is for pigeons, so it is for mankind, Dutton believes. The universal preference for a particular type of landscape painting taps into universal innate inclinations formed during the Pleistocene period, ‘the 1.6million years during which modern human beings evolved’. Featuring, amongst other things, water, open spaces of low grasses interspersed with thickets of trees, evidence of animal or bird life, and an opening up to an unimpeded view of the horizon, this predilection for a particular landscape testifies to a primordial memory of the African Savannas, the scene for a large portion of human evolution 80,000 generations in length. Each element of the enigmatically appealing landscape painting is tailored to suit the needs of these ancient nomads, from the canopy of trees for shelter, to the food and water necessary for human sustenance.

It’s a compelling thesis. Yet if it struggles to account for the beauty of the worked-up nature captured, say, in the rural England of painter John Constable’s work, then might it seem irrelevant before other forms of painting, say a thirteenth-century portrait of the Magi, let alone before sonnets or symphonies? So, manifest in our hitherto ineffable attraction to a certain natural vistas, the theory of natural selection – ‘random mutation and selective retention’ – may well have fitted the human brain ‘with an assortment of mental blades and implements for solving specific problems of survival in prehistory’. But as a theory it seems ill-suited to explain, as Dutton himself puts it, all that is ‘creative, exuberant, imaginative, romantic, wasteful, storytelling, witty, loquacious, poetic [and] ideology-inventing’ in mankind.

To deal with the extravagant excess of art, its essentially wasteful uselessness when viewed in terms of the harsh economy of survival, Dutton seeks succour not from The Origin of the Species but from Darwin’s later The Descent of Man and the notion of sexual selection. Here, the peacock’s tail, that grand, seemingly superfluous plumage, serves as the point of departure. Much as the state of the peacock’s grand feathering indicates health and, effectively, good genes, improving chances of further reproduction, so art as performance, as show, from the lover’s melodious serenade to the pyrotechnics of the lyrical poet, indicates a certain social health, the kind of thing one person values in another. The seeming excess of art has its evolutionary meaning, then, in the advancement and reproduction of the social group, especially in courtship contexts. Dutton writes:

‘[W]hile natural selection was refining the human species against a background of “nature red in tooth and claw”, improving the function of the heart valves or instilling physical pleasures and phobias, 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.’

Despite the ingenuity of Dutton’s approach, drawing upon impressive reserves of cross-disciplinary erudition, there still always seems to be something about art, indeed about humanity, that exceeds the Darwinian framework. This is evident within The Art Instinct itself, especially at the points where Dutton waxes lyrical over creativity, imagination and the sheer self-created wonders of human achievement, be it a Beethoven symphony or the ironising wisdom of Chekhov. At one point he even seems to admit the limits of the evolutionary thesis: ‘Darwinian theory, particularly when it involves sexual selection, does not propose that we can adduce from evolutionary theory itself exactly how or why the arts have come down to us in the ways we now experience them. Evolution remains a kind of natural history – in truth, an unrecoverable prehistory – with twists, turns, and genetic bottlenecks we shall never know about.’ He is not simply saying that we do not know how and why different art forms have developed in the way that they have; he is saying something more definitive: we cannot know. Dutton’s own knowledge, his deep sensitivity to matters aesthetic, prevents any neat subordination of art to evolutionary schemata.

The reason, I suspect, for this internal tension between the evolutionary theories, replete in naturalistic terminology such as ‘by-product’ or ‘adaptation’, and Dutton’s profound appreciation of art, forged in its own sensitive, supple vocabulary, is that his aesthetic passion preceded the need to justify it. In other words, The Art Instinct is best grasped as a defence of art’s universality, of the universally human aesthetic need. Evolutionary theory simply provides the means for this defence.

Strangely, it was less Darwin that came into my mind as I was reading The Art Instinct, than the writings of one of Darwin’s biggest fans, Karl Marx – especially his 1844 ‘Paris’ manuscripts. In those, the young German articulated a vision of man – better still: a dynamic ontology of social being – that at no point sought to do away with his material existence, his human nature. As opposed to an Idealist conception of man as an ‘unobjective being’, ‘a nullity’ (1), as Marx put it, Marx conceived of ‘corporeal man, man with his feet firmly on the ground… exhaling and inhaling all the forces of nature’ (2), ‘for man is a part of nature’ (3). And, in a passage that echoes Dutton’s connection of the spiritual needs of man with his material existence, a Feuerbach-inspired Marx writes: ‘Man [is] an objective, sensuous being, [and] therefore a suffering being – and because he feels what he suffers, a passionate being. Passion is the essential force of man energetically bent on its object.’ (4)

Yet whereas some of today’s discussion of the evolutionary ‘need for art’, to use the words of ‘institutional’ art theorist George Dickie, seems to be rendered almost static by the Darwinian framework, discussed in terms of ancestral longing or procreative necessity, Marx’s conception of man as a product not just of nature, but of social, human labour – of nature mediated by and through man’s social activity – allows for a more flexible conception of the evolution of aesthetic needs and of changing taste and artistic sensibility. For as human history has shown, said Marx, ‘not only the five senses but also the so-called mental senses – the practical senses (will, love, etc; in a word, human sense; the human nature of the senses) – comes to be by virtue of humanised nature. The forming of the five senses is a labour of the entire history of the world down to the present.’ (5)

While Dutton, then, is keen to ground socially constructionist notions of art in a universal natural history, to say in short that appreciation of art is a natural instinct not a socially constructed desire, Marx’s notion of ‘humanised nature’ can be seen as providing a corrective to both positions. The musical sense and a taste for harmony, for example, could not exist without its objective affirmation, without the existence of musical objects, made by and for the species. And these objects themselves arise through the subjective, formal transformation of natural – in this case aural – content. So, for as much as man’s sensuous activity in the world involves his biologically adapted senses – his sight, his hearing, his touch, his smell – the aesthetic objects we create for them testify to the senses’ ‘education’. The sensuous need for art, like the need for food, might well be rooted in human nature, but its cultivation is the work of human history.

A dynamic conception of human history, indeed of human nature, in which man is less the product, than the conscious overcoming, of necessity, would better be able to resist the pitfalls of a purely Darwinian art theory. Dutton recognises this. ‘Evolution is the transcendence of animality’, he writes. Would it really alter the phrase’s meaning, or Dutton’s approach more broadly, to change ‘evolution’ to ‘human history’? This is not to abandon man’s nature, but to recognise what makes him distinct as ‘the self-mediating being of nature’.

Dutton is at his best when dealing less with the scientific speculations, interesting though they are, than with the threat to art posed by its relativist grave-diggers. Chief among these are the educated barbarians, the critics who view culture, and the attendant concepts of beauty and value, as essentially socially constructed. Dutton’s opposing perspective – that in fact they are grounded in a universal human nature – gives his critique a sharpness and consistency. So, to those anthropologists who insist on the incommensurability of different cultures, Dutton appeals to the simple fact that Koreans can love Chopin just as Americans can appreciate Cervantes: ‘The whole idea that art worlds are monadically sealed off from one another is daft.’

Better still, when it comes to claims such as the anthropologist Lynn M Hart’s contention that Jynoti paintings by Hindu women are not ‘art’ because of their non-Western context of production and use (not for exhibition), Dutton simply outflanks them with a little knowledge. Hart’s problem is that she is comparing the Jyonti paintings with the fine arts as practised in the West. If she turned to look at the domestic and dowry arts of cultures worldwide, she’d find that what she thought was unique was actually as universally intelligible as human languages.

Dutton is dismissive of those who see art’s value as a social construction, perhaps as a purely monetary value or as a snobbish status marker à la Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction. ‘It is mainly the rare beauty of a Rembrandt portrait’, he writes, ‘that causes it to be worth a lot of money, rather than its market price causing it to be beautiful’.

Dutton is right to be assertive. Despite political patronage and claims made for their social utility, the arts are embattled. Too often, art is made into an instrument for social improvement or dismissed as a socially constructed thing, its objects given meaning only by their institutional context. Our aesthetic experience – that is, the imaginative reconstruction of the aesthetic object, a key Kantian motif that runs throughout The Art Instinct – is as devalued today as art-for-art’s-sake is considered irrelevant. Although it is much more besides, at its most powerful The Art Instinct is a shot across the bows of philistinism.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution, by Denis Dutton is published by OUP Oxford. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) p182, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, Karl Marx, (tr) Martin Milligan, Lawrence & Wishart, 1970

(2) p180, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, Karl Marx, (tr) Martin Milligan, Lawrence & Wishart, 1970

(3) p112, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, Karl Marx, (tr) Martin Milligan, Lawrence & Wishart, 1970

(4) p182, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, Karl Marx, (tr) Martin Milligan, Lawrence & Wishart, 1970

(5) p141, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, Karl Marx, (tr) Martin Milligan, Lawrence & Wishart, 1970

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