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What Evolutionary Explanlation Can There Be For Our Love of Art?
on January 10, 2009
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. While Dutton discount's Stephen Gould's assertion that art (and human culture) is best seen as an evolutionary byproduct (while language may be an evolutionary adaptation, love of poetry is a byproduct and has no adaptive value on its own). Dutton does little to argue out of this, only suggesting that by-products of adaptive traits should themselves be seen as adaptive. (?!)
He then goes on to borrow heavily from Steven Pinker in his explanation for how representative art could have served an evolutionary purpose. (Stories helped early humans learn information and acquire knoweldge of others' experiences. Admiration for landscape art stems from early humans' abillty to recognize and judge landscapes.) Dutton also borrows liberally from Geoffrey Miller's idea that art acquisition may have an advantage via sexual selection: like the peacock's tail, art may be a way of conveying to mates one's sophistication, affluence, and civility.
My biggest problem with these explanations is that they focus on the easy cases of representative art. Dutton dismisses 'dadaism' and abstract art as not really art, suggests that scents never developed into an art because they are not reperesentative in nature, and is at a complete loss to explain music as an art (other than to rehash Darwin's suggestion that love for music may stem from our affinity for language and bird songs.) And his discussion very unkowingly dismisses that fact that, attached to our love for art is a love for decoration and style in the sense of having nice looking things (bedsheets for instance). Very few of these fall within the purview of representative art, which leaves all of this outside the purview of Dutton's narrow theory.
Quite honestly, I was very unconvinced by this book. I am VERY symapathetic to Dutton's desire to find an evolutionary explanation for art, but do not dismiss as quickly as Dutton the 'byproduct' theory of Stephen Jay Gould and Jerry Fodor. The theories that Dutton does expound are all borrowed, namely from Steven Pinker (The Language Instinct) and Geoffrey Miller (The Mating Mind). Also, the application of his ideas is too narrow in its almost exclusive focus on representative art (leaving music, abstract visual art, and the human prediliction for "nice looking" non-represenative things untouched.