Art for Heart’s Sake

by Damian Da Costa

The New York Observer, April 4, 2009


Denis Dutton. The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution. Bloomsbury Press, 243 pages, $25.


SOON AFTER DENIS DUTTON, a professor of the philosophy of art at a New Zealand university, founded the Web site Arts & Letters Daily in 1998, it became known as the Internet’s most reliable source of the type of writing to which the Web is intrinsically hostile — belletristic essays, philosophical and scientific speculations, discussion of the latest book on Henry James or Albert Einstein. There was a genius, too, in the way the site’s design adapted the Web’s addictive qualities to the world of ideas: A Pez-like meme dispenser ordered with the commerce-driven efficiency of a porn portal, ALDaily teases its links with two- or three-line hooks dense with keywords dear to the hearts of humanities majors.

Loyal visitors know the strange turn the site has taken over the last couple of years. Mr. Dutton, whose contrarian tendencies were already apparent in his annual administration of a contest for the worst academic writing, has, judging from the articles he now favors on the site, surrendered to a predictable cluster of obsessions — culture as explained by evolutionary biology, screeds against Modernism in art, screeds against utopian ideologies in politics, and even, lately, screeds against Malcolm Gladwell. The tone of the site has grown increasingly strident, its bias, some would say, ideologically conservative. So it was with trepidation that I opened Mr. Dutton’s The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution. A good book and a good Web site are, after all, two very different things. Six hundred words of snappy Gladwell-bashing? Sounds fun. But 250 pages? I’d rather read Outliers.

IN FACT, MR. DUTTON’S book is anything but strident. He argues his thesis — that art-making evolved among humans as a means of demonstrating physical and cognitive fitness to potential mates, and that this fundamental reality provides the best answer we can give to the question “What is art?” — with almost old-fashioned politeness toward his adversaries. And that, perhaps, is the best way to read The Art Instinct: as a guided tour of the great landmarks of the philosophy of art — aesthetic theory explained, modified, and refuted with patience and fluency by a writer whose mind was apparently formed well in advance of the meme-ocracy it helped to create.

Mr. Dutton’s most sustained engagement is with Nation critic Arthur Danto’s assertion that aesthetic value is a function solely of context — that whatever our institutions happen to ratify as art is art. Mr. Dutton, whose views were powerfully influenced by his own anthropological field work in Papua New Guinea, counters with ingenious thought experiments intended to show that the common denominator of art across cultures is not the will of societies to single out special objects for contemplation; it is, rather, the intention of artists to display skill and individuality.

By sticking to this point, Mr. Dutton offers satisfying resolutions to some of the knottier paradoxes of aesthetics. The problem of forgery, for one. An entertaining chapter on famous frauds tells the story of Eric Hebborn, who forged “new” works by old masters suffused with such deep understanding of the artists he copied that connoisseurs still find his work ravishing (and maybe you do, too — his fakes are thought to be on display in museums all over the world). From the disinterested point of view of aesthetics, then, shouldn’t we credit Hebborn with the same skill as the great artists whose work he replicates? As Mr. Dutton points out, it just doesn’t feel right to do that.

That’s the hook Mr. Dutton’s Darwinian aesthetics hangs on. He argues that we feel wronged by forgers no matter how talented because style in art evolved as a means of distinguishing the exceptional individual from the crowd of suitors — a principle that applies equally to the Mona Lisa and Duchamp’s ready-mades. In his book’s most deeply provocative passages, Mr. Dutton gives teeth to his Web site’s habitual dismissal of the Modernist aesthetic: Duchamp, he says, was indeed a genius for the way he threw the extra-aesthetic, institutional elements of art experience into relief; such a genius, in fact, that with a single gesture he called into being a blind alley that theorists of art’s essentially institutional nature have been running up and down ever since.

I want to register one doubt, an uneasy feeling, really, about Mr. Dutton’s finely wrought arguments. For all our wish to leap-frog cross-cultural difference and gather the diversity of human experience and behavior under the single, rational umbrella of evolutionary science, individual artworks — and Duchamp’s ready-mades are a perfect example — will always, it seems to me, have irony on their side against the even the most brilliant explainers. Mr. Dutton quotes Clive Bell: “[L]et no one imagine, because he has made merry in the warm tilth and quaint nooks of romance, that he can even guess at the austere and thrilling raptures of those who have climbed the cold, white peaks of art.”

Has Denis Dutton ever scaled the heights?


Damian Da Costa is on the staff of The Observer. He can be reached at