Dennis Dutton’s The Art Instinct, Darwinism and a Question

The following piece on Denis Dutton’s new book The Art Instinct, originally published yesterday in Blogcritics Magazine, is a case of ‘ask and ye shall receive.’ I wrote the review of a book lecture around a question: does a Darwinistic basis for art mean we can judge art’s merits by its popularity? Then the author answered my question!

The heady realms of aesthetic theory floated during a recent Friday afternoon when I attended a lecture at NYU’s School of Philosophy. It was not so heady as it might have been given that lecturer, Denis Dutton, rebels against the jargon of much aesthetic criticism. He was promoting his new book, The Art Instinct, which argues for a Darwinian basis to art and aesthetic tastes in man.

Note that this Darwinism contradicts the common assumption of art as a cultural construct. It also implies that art has helped humans survive in some way. Yet nobody knew how, including Dutton, for certainly art seems to be a useless, weird, and inexplicable impulse.

Dutton, inspired by how “weird” our aesthetic tastes are, investigated the human reason for creating and valuing art. He believes that strong roots in Darwinism complement our understanding of why art is important and what, in fact, art is. It’s a contentious argument for an ambitious book. Dutton starts by defining art.

For all the audacity, Dutton made some interesting points. For instance, why is it that humans have developed from their sense of hearing the tonal music of Beethoven that so delights us instead of using their sense of smell to create nose symphonies? Smell is just as useful as hearing. Yet very few people pick out the notes of a perfume the way they do out of a symphony, nor are perfumes created out of a structured set of notes.

Dutton also commented that humans, unlike other animals, constantly seek out imaginative representations of reality rather than true, real things. That is, they seek out lies rather than truth. Think of all the time that is spent watching TV shows, reading stories, or looking at pictures. How have lies proven a more useful trait, in an evolutionary sense? By extension, how has art?

A different question bothers me, and I wished I had asked Dutton for his opinion. His theory considers art a natural need and that we are uniquely configured as a species to appreciate it. A Darwinian basis for art suggests a set of universal aesthetics that people everywhere use to appreciate and judge art. If aesthetics are universal, are artworks that appeal to the most number of people better?

I don’t know if Dutton would agree. In fact I doubt it, despite the fact that he ridiculed the academics who congratulate themselves on being sophisticates for understanding modern and contemporary art in comparison to a “bourgeois” majority.

One could argue that Darwinism provides a biological basis for elitism. In fact, Dutton’s theories are more useful for enticing one to form arguments than they are at answering questions. Often enough I’m satisfied with discussions with no answers, yet this particular question fascinates me. While I’m no philosopher, my art instinct suggests that popular art equals better art.

Dutton’s response to the original article here (scroll to the bottom of the page).

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