Monday, November 29, 2010

Book Review: The Art Instinct

Book reviewed -- Denis Dutton. The Art Instinct. New York: Bloomsbury Press. 2009.

Modern humans have a profound fascination with our Pleistocene past, in part because many of us, disillusioned by technology and modernity, find something more authentic and natural in the ways of hunter-gatherers. A recent post by fellow Refugee, Alvin, highlights research suggesting that barefoot running may be better for our bodies. For some people, the 'Paleolithic Diet' is becoming fashionable, while even literary theorists are looking to Darwin and the hunter-gatherer psyche to explain the ins and outs of literature. Can other human endeavors, like art and music, be explained by our evolutionary past in the same way?

Those who would dismiss the field of evolutionary psychology (EP), which applies ideas from evolutionary biology (in particular sociobiology) to explain human behavior and mind, would consider all this to be various manifestations of what Marlene Zuk terms 'paleofantasy'. Practitioners of this field, it is claimed, make up 'just-so stories' and mine subjects like literature and art, previously the province of the humanities, to support conclusions about our purported hunter-gatherer past that have already been decided upon. In its crudest pop-sci form, EP is cited to support statements like 'art is merely a means to advertise for mates, just as the male bower-bird decorates its bower to attract females'.

Denis Dutton, a New Zealand philosopher, does indeed mention bowerbirds in his latest book, The Art Instinct, but his arguments are more nuanced and level-headed than the pop-sci version of EP. He argues that we humans have an instinct for liking art, and that what art is (a perennial debate among artists and critics) should be understood on the basis on that instinct. Dutton also runs the well known weblog Arts and Letters Daily, which posts daily links to thought-provoking articles in the arts and humanities. The book, in many ways, shows the same tendencies as his curation of the website - some of the hot topics he followed on the blog (such as the plagiarizing pianist Joyce Hatto) show up in the book, and both have a level-headed skepticism of fashionable ideas or trendiness.

Thus far there have been two broad classes of explanation for why humans like art. One is due to Stephen Jay Gould, and basically states that art is a kind of spandrel - it's a by-product of other true evolutionary adaptations in the mind, but has no functions of its own. The other holds that art itself is somehow adaptive, and points out for example how people like landscapes with lakes and hills, and that these are probably good places to forage and hunt. Dutton, as I understand him, proposes a third way. He acknowledges the role of instinctual preferences shaped by natural selection, but is not content to dismiss art as a spandrel (a concept which has always been contentious). He explains how sexual selection has shaped our minds and behavior, and ties all these disparate threads - sexual selection, natural selection, non-adaptive roles - together compellingly. Art, as it is seen today, is not easily explained as being adaptive for this or that purpose, but is a complex product of various kinds of innate instincts or even hypertrophied preferences.

Along the way (but admirably concisely), Dutton sorts out the issue of what art actually is. Are art-forms like Marcel Duchamp's Fountain (a urinal that the artist bought and signed) and other 'readymades' really art? Are Schoenberg's unlistenable atonal works really music? He acknowledges the difficulty that these cases present to definitions of art, and he proposes that art is a 'cluster concept' with these as fringe cases, hence to understand what art is we should not look to the fringe, but instead begin with the center, with things which are universally acknowledged to be art. With that understanding in place, we can then understand why our innate 'art instinct' makes it so difficult for us to accept those outliers, because they were designed to challenge our notion of art in the first place. But it is precisely because of that challenge that they have value as art, but only within the context of the point they were trying to make. Because of their status as experiments and singular statements, however, they are not really repeatable, and subsequent readymade art, for example, receive little sympathy from the viewing public.

This is an ambitious book, and covers a lot of ground, but although it is readable it does not sacrifice much rigor or clear-mindedness. To an evolutionary biologist, this is clearly not a scientific work, but it is of a much higher quality than much pop sci writing in the press and online. It is easy to dismiss humanists trying to grapple with the consequences of Darwinism for their own disciplines, but here Dutton shows the value that can be derived from a qualitative, conceptual analysis for a better understanding of our human condition.

No comments: