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The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution Paperback – February 2, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

From The New Yorker

Dutton, an aesthetic philosopher best known as the curator of the Web site Arts & Letters Daily, sets out to do for art what Steven Pinker and others have done for psychology, language, and religion: consider it from a Darwinian standpoint. Along the way, he gives an engaging, if opinionated, survey of various currents in aesthetic debate; it is perhaps unavoidable that he seems on more solid foundations here than in the realm of science. When trying to assess whether artistic impulses should be considered adaptive or merely by-products of the evolutionary process, a crucial question raised by his approach, he argues by analogy and tries to have it both ways. But the book is ultimately animated less by its grand thesis than by all the questions tossed up along the way�why did no art form develop to exploit smell, as music does hearing?�and by Dutton�s infectious and wide-ranging love of art, a passion that clearly goes beyond anything that could be considered an adaptive trait.
Copyright ©2008 Click here to subscribe to The New Yorker --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

We talk about the maternal instinct and the mating instinct, why not, asks Dutton, the art instinct? We are a species “obsessed with creating artistic experiences,” so surely there’s a coded-in-our-genes reason for that. Darwinian concepts have been applied with illuminating effect to psychology, history, and politics, why not art? And who better to attempt this mind-expanding analysis than Dutton, a professor of aesthetics and the philosophy of art, and founder and editor of Arts & Letters Daily, named the “best Web site in the world” by the Guardian. Creative, nimble, and entertaining, Dutton discusses landscape art, pottery, Aristotle, forgeries, and ready-mades. Rigorous in his definition of the “signal characteristics” of art and application of evolutionary science, Dutton identifies cross-cultural commonalities in art, explicates our innate feel for images and stories (devoting an entire chapter to the “uses of fiction”), and explores art’s role in individual expression and community cohesiveness. Marshaling intriguing examples and analogies in a cogent, animated argument destined to provoke debate, Dutton formulates the best answer yet to the question, “What’s art good for?” --Donna Seaman --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Press; First Edition Thus edition (February 2, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1608190552
  • ISBN-13: 978-1608190553
  • Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 0.8 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (56 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #409,745 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Denis Dutton (1944-2010) was the founder and editor of Arts & Letters Daily, named by the Guardian as the "best Web site in the world." He was also professor of the philosophy of art at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. For more, please visit:

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

168 of 181 people found the following review helpful By Kevin Currie-Knight VINE VOICE on January 10, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
In "The Art Instinct," Denis Dutton asks an interesting question: is there a way to explain our human prediliction for art in evolutionary terms? How can this drive for art be seen as a trait instilled by the process of evolution? Dutton's answers, unfortunately, turn out to be rather pedestrian, in that he (a) borrows and does not add to the conclusions of others; and (b) focuses on "easy cases" of representative art as opposed ot cases that would be more problematic for his theory.

First, Dutton outlays his very pluralistic theory of what constitutes art. He makes very good arguments against the reigning culturally relativistic views (art is whatever we define it as). In its place, he offers twelve criteria that art must have in order to be art (none of which are necessary or sufficient on their own. They are:

(1) gives direct pleasure; (2) exhibits skill and virtuosity; (3) novelty and creativity; (4) style; (5) ability to evoke criticism; (6) representation; (7) special focus; (8) expressive individuality; (9) emotional saturation; (10) intellectually challenging; follows artistic traditions; (12) imaginitive experience.

Dutton writes that while none of these critiria are necessary or sufficient, anything that is to be classified as art must exhibit a greater or lesser degree of at least several of these traits. He certainly shows that even the most different cultural definitions of art all have at least these criteria in common, and more importantly, that, regardless of culture, we all have a human drive to admire things with these characteristics.

From here, Dutton's argument focuses on how to see art in evolutionary terms.
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61 of 68 people found the following review helpful By Retired Reader on January 2, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Aesthetics certainly appears to be one of the more difficult branches of philosophy. How for example does one tackle such abstracts such as `beauty' or deal with concepts like perceptions of reality? Well in this quite interesting book Denis Dutton neatly sidesteps these issues. This book is based entirely on his premise that the capability to appreciate and create art in all of its forms is as integral to the human condition as language or social relationships (hence the title "The Art Instinct"). His premise is of course self evident, but only after it is articulated. Since Dutton is a professor of philosophy he does not take `self evident' as a supporting argument. Rather he devotes this book to marshaling carefully constructed arguments to prove his premise and, more interestingly, to refute the arguments of philosophers who have maintained that art is not an innate quality of man.

To this end Dutton even goes after Immanuel Kant, arguably the greatest idealist philosopher since Plato. He directs his argument against Kant to what is one of the weakest points in Kant's philosophical system, his understanding of aesthetic values. Dutton points out among other things that Kant may have had a literal blind spot for art.

A number of Dutton's arguments supporting his premise are not particularly strong, but all are interesting. He provides a fascinating perspective on aesthetic analysis and the question of what indeed constitutes art. To this reader's great relief he does so using straight forward, clear prose. He avoids the often obscure jargon and syntactical mazes so often found in modern philosophical writing. This quality along makes the book worth buying.
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27 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on January 3, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Every culture we know of, every tribe, current or historic, tells stories. They all make music. They might not all do watercolors, but they all do some sort of representational art. Why is this? After all, storytelling, music, and painting are far less effective in putting food on the table than, say, hunting or planting. In examining a cultural universal, like making art, it makes sense to seek an answer from evolution. No one scientifically doubts that we have our bodies and physiology due to evolution (although religious doubters continue to pipe up). Over the past three decades, we have seen evolutionary explanations for human sexuality, language, even religion. Can Darwin's principles be applied to our diligence in making art, and our of love of art? Denis Dutton thinks so, and in _The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution_ (Bloomsbury Press), he has put forward a cogent and entertaining evolutionary explanation of our artistic impulses. Dutton, who teaches the philosophy of art, and also founded and edits the popular and useful website _Arts & Letters Daily_, has good grasps on art and evolution, and his explanations for artistic behavior and appreciation help us understand both disciplines.

If evolution explains art-making through all cultures, you'd expect some general agreement on, say, what paintings are beautiful. Statistics have been done, and it does seem that there is a consensus between cultures on what is the prettiest landscape. In the Pleistocene era, our ancestors were nomads. They would have liked the blue of water or of distant vegetation; it would have meant sustenance from good hunting grounds. Music is perhaps harder to explain.
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