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The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution Paperback – February 2, 2010
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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.
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.
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Nevertheless, I particularly perked up at the chapter on the adaptive uses of fiction, and again at the chapter on forgeries. I think that the topics Dutton brings up here are pivotal -- they have changed my opinion completely about what I do and why I do it.
Furthermore, and I wish he'd expanded on it, there is a connection between what is aesthetic and what is moral. An example given in the appendix seems to bear this out. Bullfighting, he says, despite Hemingway's opinion, is not an art, because the bull is killed. Otherwise, it meets enough of his criteria to constitute an art. But why does he think that the bull dying relieves it of artfulness? There are at least two possibilities: first, that he has an aesthetic objection, that the death of the bull pulls the entire display down into an unartful literalness. Or, more simplistically, because it's morally wrong to kill animals needlessly. And are these the same argument? that is, is not the simple (presumably moral) assumption that it's wrong to kill animals needlessly a compacted statement of the first? I wish Dutton had spelled that out. (Philosophers seldom have the familiarity with animals that would be required if the subject were anything else. This is a cultural (I think!) misconception -- as though having a set of teeth made you a dentist.)
The book breezily assumes at least a passing familiarity with a wide range of art, and doesn't talk down to its readers. This is a feat.
Read this book, and Steven Pinker, Brian Boyd and Ellen Dissanayake as well.
When I recently returned to The Art Instinct, I realized that my lukewarm initial appraisal was premature, and based more on my preconceived expectations of content and topic, and how these might be introduced. The first two chapters provide, as it turns out, a well constructed and highly relevant foundation for fully embracing and appreciating the real value of the book for the artist. The final sentence in chapter 2 reads, ..."And along the way in developing all of this ("evolved life"), the arts were born". I should have held my judgement until I had actually read this remarkable book.