Why Everyone Is an Artist

Denis Dutton says evolutionary psychology explains the ubiquity of art across cultures and eons.

by Carlin Romano

The Philadelphia Inquirer, Sunday Book Review, January 25, 2009



The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution, by Denis Dutton, Bloomsbury, 278 pp., $25.00

“What an artist dies with me!” whined the nasty Roman emperor Nero as he prepared to commit suicide. Posterity has generally mocked the thought, judging the occasional singer-actor more of an artless thug.

Not so. We’re all artists of a sort, or at least we all vibrate with the art instinct, a certain “ornamental capacity.”

Paleolithic cave painter, Renaissance madrigalist, New Guinea carver, urban hip-hopper — each confirms us, Denis Dutton writes, as “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.”

Why do we create art and beauty? Dutton may be the best-equipped thinker in the world to explain.

An American who serves as professor of the philosophy of art at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, and founder and editor of the journal Philosophy and Literature, Dutton used to run a contest to identify wretched academic prose. He then launched and still curates Arts & Letters Daily, an international digest of sophisticated cultural pieces that the Guardian named the “best Web site in the world.”

In short, he combines a magisterial command of the history of aesthetics back to Plato and Aristotle, a total commitment to clarity and verve in writing, and an up-to-the-minute grasp of almost every trend on the contemporary cultural scene.

Result? A philosophy of art for the ages. Dutton argues that evolutionary psychology — the school of thought with which cognitive scientists such as Steven Pinker have helped us understand the Darwinian dimensions of much social life — also explains the ubiquity of artistic activity across cultures and eons.

If you care about art writ large as a miraculous bounty for the world, or only for your own selfish sake, The Art Instinct should impress you as the most shrewd, precisely written and provocative study you’ll find on its topic’s place in human nature.

“What does it mean to call the arts evolutionary adaptations?” Dutton asks. He explains, expanding on his assertion that “the arts, like language, emerge spontaneously and universally in similar forms across cultures, employing imaginative and intellectual capacities that had clear survival value in prehistory.”

Dutton’s method proves idiosyncratic, lively and persuasive. He begins with fascinating attention to a 1990s experiment by the expatriate Russian artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid. It showed that people in 10 countries preferred landscapes of a certain savanna-like sort — “with trees and open areas, water, human figures, and animals” — a choice confirmed by preferences in calendar art.

For Dutton, the research indicates that calendar-makers, in responding to “human landscape tastes,” are in fact “catering to prehistoric tastes shared by their customers around the globe,” a yen for the territory from which we evolved.

He moves on to articulate a larger view of human nature and a “cross-cultural definition of art,” using them to explore the human urge to storytelling and imaginative fiction, which offer advantages to survival and “social health.” Along the journey, he forays into issues he’s treated before, such as how concern for authenticity affects our reactions to forgery, and suggests that sexual selection “explains some of the most creative and flamboyant aspects of the human personality, including the most gaudy, profligate, and ‘show-off’ characteristics of artistic expression.”

One critical reaction to this developing narrative might be to charge “reductionism,” to fault Dutton for lowering art to mere biological reflex. But one of the many pleasures of The Art Instinct is how deftly and convincingly Dutton refuses to fall into that trap.

“The art instinct proper,” he writes, ”is not a single genetically driven impulse similar to the liking for sweetness but a complicated ensemble of impulses — sub-instincts, we might say — that involve responses to the natural environment, to life’s likely threats and opportunities, the sheer appeal of colors or sounds, social status, intellectual puzzles, extreme technical difficulty, erotic interests, and even costliness. There is no reason to hope that this haphazard concatenation of impulses, pleasures, and capacities can be made to form a pristine rational system.”

Indeed, Dutton eloquently blasts reductionism, contending that “great works of music, drama, painting, or fiction set us above the very instincts that make them possible. Paradoxically it is evolution — most significantly, the evolution of imagination and intellect — that enable us to transcend our animal selves. . . .”

Freed, then, of any obligation to present a rigid model of his theory, Dutton launches into his book able to amuse, challenge and entertain with multiple examples and hypotheticals. A believer in Clive Bell’s so-called “cold white peaks of art” — masterworks such as the Cathedral of Chartres, or Wordsworth’s ”Tintern Abbey,” that win admiration from generation to generation — Dutton elaborates his theory in fine form, anticipating objections, producing evidence, offering his cosmopolitan perspective with winning modesty (he acknowledges that music poses a challenge to his theory).

The richness of The Art Instinct means that even those who sympathize with Dutton’s views will find points to quibble with. At the outset, for instance, he takes a strong view against “chimpanzee art” and other such feats of the animal kingdom, asserting that animals “do not create art.” Time and research will tell whether such confidence is justified.

Similarly, he reveals intermittent annoyance with the views of fellow philosopher of art Arthur Danto, whose vision of the “socially constructed” way criticism and interpretation validate art he considers contradictory to his own.

One might, however, discern a “third way” in which Dutton’s theory of the art instinct, and Danto’s vaunting of art-world institutions, go hand-in-hand, capturing different time-slices of what we call culture.

Such invitations to debate, however, merely reaffirm rather than undermine the sterling quality of Dutton’s brief. “I love fools’ experiments,” Charles Darwin once wrote. “I am always making them.” The Art Instinct is the experiment of a master, and future aestheticians, one suspects, will naturally need to adapt to it.