The Art Instinct

Reviewed by Hugo Meynell

The Heythrop Journal, vol. 51.1 (2010): 170 - 71

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

  Arnold Schoenberg hoped that, at some time in the future, postmen would go their rounds whistling tunes constructed on the twelve-tone system that he had invented. I have always felt that this hope was based on a profound, and perhaps rather tragic, mistake; and this wonderful book is a sustained vindication of my hunch from the point of view of evolutionary biology. Human nature, the author argues, is such that not just anything can be aesthetically successful, for all the strident propaganda emitted by modernist art critics, and supported by cultural-relativist sociologists and anthropologists, during the second half of the twentieth century. The “arts” typically commended by such people is essentially parasitic; or, to put it in less pejorative terms, second-order. After all, the impact of a moustached Mona Lisa depends on there being an original Mona Lisa, and that of Duchamp’s lavatory-seat on the fact that such objects are not usually hung on the walls of art galleries – or at least used not to be.

Art as such has to appeal to the wellsprings of our humanity in order to succeed; what these wellsprings are, as the author argues at length. is best discovered by the study of human evolution. Calendars for the public market all over the world. carry pictures of landscapes with grassland, trees, and water which reflect the African savannah frequented by our ancestors at a crucial stage of human evolution. This also accounts for the perennial appeal of the pastoral convention as we find it in the poetry of Theocritus and Virgil, Shakespeare’s plays and Handel’s operas. The appeal of similar plot-lines in stories world-wide, at once to the most uncultured as to the most sophisticated people, may similarly be accounted for in evolutionary terms, by way of the “survival of the fittest,” or of the sexual selection postulated by Darwin in The Descent of Man.

After a discussion of “landscape and longing,” and of the roots of the arts in our common human nature, the author asks what art is. He refutes the common objection, to the effect that other cultures do not share our concept of art, which is often made to his own claim that art is universal to humankind. He then relates art to natural selection, and considers its role in human self-domestication, and the uses of fiction. Next, he deals with three salient aesthetic problems: the role of the artist’s intention in assessing the merit of a work of art, what is wrong with forgery, and the nature of dada. (A prominent British art gallery paid a large sum of money to an Italian artist of the avant garde for some tins of his excrement. In commenting the acquisition. a spokeswoman of the gallery, without a hint of irony, described the artist’s contribution as seminal. “Not that too!” (pp. 201 – 202). Reflection on the contingency of aesthetic value (to what extent could Martians, with their different evolutionary history, share our delight in a painting by Mondrian or a Haydn quartet?) leads to the concluding chapter, on greatness in the arts.

Splendid and entirely convincing as is this book as a whole, it has one curious oversight. “It follows from my approach that after the analysis is done, the aesthetic masterpieces we love so much lose nothing of their beauty and importance.” So far so good. “This makes The Art Instinct different from recent evolutionary treatments of religion. Religion by its very nature makes grand claims about morality, God, and the universe. It follows necessarily that explaining religious beliefs in terms of an evolutionary source attacks religion at its core. Works of art, however, seldom make overt assertions of fact or instruct people how they must behave. Art’s world of imagination and make-believe is one where analysis and criticism spoil none of the fun” (pp. 9 – 10).

The real question is, whether we human beings are capable of what has been called “cognitive self-transcendences” – that is, of using our mental faculties to find out about states of affairs which obtain prior to and independently of our mental faculties. Such, short of extreme subjective idealism, is our knowledge of the boiling-point of water, the chemical composition of common salt. the Big Bang. the extinction of the dinosaurs between sixty and seventy million years ago, and the date of our paternal grandmother's birthday. If we are not so closely sheathed in our biological routines as to be incapable of cognitive self-transcendence in matters of science – and of course the whole of the author's argument presupposes that we are not – why should not the same apply to matters of religion? The “grandness” of religious claims is a red herring.

University of Calgary