The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution
Bloomsbury Press, 2010
288 pp., $18.00
Daniel A. Siedell
Darwin, Landscape Painting, and Jesus
As a regular visitor to Arts & Letters Daily, the broadsheet-style web portal of ideas founded by New Zealand philosopher Denis Dutton and now operated by the Chronicle of Higher Education, I was confronted daily with an advertisement for Dutton's book The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution. Yet I avoided it. I had grown weary of the creation-evolution and deism-atheism debates that pockmark the media and dominate First Things, Books & Culture, and Christianity Today. As a Christian in the arts, a role that comes with many professional disadvantages, I can at least be thankful that my work does not put me in the crosshairs of the science wars. Moreover, from what I'd heard and read from biologist Stephen Jay Gould and psychologist Steven Pinker, evolution does not appear to take art too seriously. Gould says that art is a "spandral," that is, an open space created by necessary architectural structures in the brain, which is "filled in" by art and other kinds of less necessary activities. Pinker argues that art amounts to "Sunday afternoon projects" and "cheesecake" for the mind. I've heard more or less similar views voiced outside the evolutionary framework by university administrators and college deans, art collectors and curators, "creativity artsy types," and many evangelicals. The Art Instinct seemed yet another argument for undermining the seriousness of art—and hence undermining my project as a critic, curator, and educator.
However, while scouring the stacks in my university's library this summer, I came across a copy of The Art Instinct and decided to read it. To my surprise, some of Dutton's ideas have helped me develop and refine some of my views on art that I have pursued since the publication of my book God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art. It is these areas of Dutton's book that have helped me think about my work as a critic and curator on which I focus in this review. I leave engagement with the full scope of Dutton's book, including its weaknesses and blind spots, to others.
Dutton unloads on his fellow secular aestheticians and evolutionary scientists for misconstruing the nature of art and devaluing its importance, arguing that they have made too much of cultural differences. Drawing on his own anthropological fieldwork in New Guinea, Dutton argues that artistic practice is cross-cultural and is the product of an evolutionary imprint developed during the nearly two million years of the Pleistocene Era, in which homo sapiens emerged with its modern-day attributes. Dutton enlists evolutionary biology to demonstrate the universal characteristics of humanity, which art reveals. Even though art is a profoundly historical and contextual practice, it is not so "all the way down": arts works and reworks the stuff that has become our genetic imprint. Therefore, it is intellectually lazy for academics to assume that "art" is only a Western concept. Dutton is critical of those theorists, like Arthur Danto and George Dickie, who take marginal and boundary-pushing works of art, like Marcel Duchamp's infamous readymade, Fountain (1917) and make them the centerpiece of a theory of art. Rather, Dutton argues, let those marginal works remain at the margins, where they were meant to be, and address the cluster of attributes that seem to form the core not only of a Western understanding of art but of a cross-cultural one as well.
Dutton also takes on Gould and Pinker. Through his analysis of art and natural selection, Dutton suggests that it is fruitless to argue whether the arts are an adaption or can be dismissed as by-products of adaption (like Pinker's cheesecake). Rather, it is more pertinent to "show how their existence and character are connected to Pleistocene interests, preferences, and capacities." Unlike Gould and Pinker, who consider art to be the result of an overly developed brain looking for intellectual steam to blow off, Dutton argues that art reworks and reactivates fundamental aspects of human consciousness. If Darwin revealed the reality of Tennyson's "Nature, red in tooth and claw," Dutton suggests that art is a necessary weapon in this bloody act of survival, for it "provides us with templates, mental maps for emotional life" as we "work out levels of intentionality." Art is not fundamentally about self-expression, celebrating creativity, or even about representing the spiritual or the transcendent. It involves making decisions in the world.
The most provocative and useful chapter in The Art Instinct for my own work at the moment is the first. Dutton discusses the research project in the mid-1990s of two conceptual artists, Komar and Melamid, which explored what elements of painting people are most likely to respond to. And to their surprise, most responded to a landscape with trees and open areas, water, human figures, and animals. Dutton quotes one of the surprised artists who said that such landscapes seem "genetically imprinted on us." No matter where the respondents lived and the landscapes with which they were most familiar, no matter their cultural or social upbringing, the majority responded in the same way. For Dutton this is not, as Arthur Danto argued in his review of the project in The Nation, because people around the world have been hopelessly influenced by calendar art, but because it is part of our genetic template developed in the African savannas during the end of the Pleistocene Era 50,000 years ago. Dutton argues that "human landscape tastes are not just products of social conditioning"; rather, they reflect "prehistoric tastes." I was definitely not expecting this.