Feb/Mar 2009

Origin Of The Specious

Positing an innate art instinct tells us almost nothing about the value of art

Rochelle Gurstein

Denis Dutton is a man with a mission: Against cultural anthropologists, art historians, critics, and aestheticians who have advanced the idea that taste is relative and socially constructed, he wants to demonstrate that there is an “instinct” for beauty, skill, and pleasure. As proof of the universality of this instinct, he offers descriptions of its “spontaneous” emergence in children, along with ethnographic reports of its existence in “preliterate hunter-gatherer tribes that survived into the twentieth century, since their ways of life reflect those of our ancient ancestors.” The second part of that sentence—“since their ways of life reflect those of our ancient ancestors”—signals both the novelty and the burden of Dutton’s book, The Art Instinct, for its central claim is that the art instinct can be found in the “prehistory” of “our nomadic human and proto-human ancestors in the Pleistocene.”

Dutton grounds his argument in the neo-Darwinian field of evolutionary psychology, but much of his case is necessarily the product of speculation. The art instinct emerged, he contends, when “our Pleistocene ancestors” (a favorite phrase of his) struggled to survive in a hostile environment over a period of 1.6 million years, spanning approximately eighty thousand generations. In his introduction, Dutton tells us that the Darwinian approach to aesthetics is not “deflationary,” though his repeated zoological descriptions that call people “large-brained, bipedal creatures” and characterize our emotional life in terms of “face recognition, foraging, mate choice, sleep management, and predator vigilance” cast such assurances into doubt.

So, too, when he insists that the evolutionary approach is not “reductionist.” Given Dutton’s reliance on Darwin’s theories of natural and sexual selection, we learn, predictably enough, that the art instinct emerged via natural selection because it served a useful evolutionary purpose: to increase “the chances of our Pleistocene forebears surviving and procreating.” Here is the kind of logic Dutton employs throughout the book: “This faculty for imaginative practical reasoning”—i.e., the human penchant for storytelling—“obviously had immense survival value in the ancestral environment, enabling hunter-gatherer bands who were especially adept at it to exploit opportunities, cope with threats, and outplan and outcompete less articulate and imaginative groups and individuals.”

Dutton, however, recognizes there are limits to natural selection when it comes to “the most gaudy, profligate, and ‘show-off’ characteristics of artistic expression.” How, then, to explain “the most creative and flamboyant aspects of the human personality” in evolutionary terms? This brings him to the second part of his argument—sexual selection. The ur-Darwinian example is, of course, the peacock’s tail, an impediment to the bird’s ability to run and fly and thus inimical to its survival. Why, Darwin wondered, did such extravagantly wasteful plumage persist? Because, he surmised, it attracted peahens that (somehow) knew that only a healthy, fit peacock could afford to grow such a tail. Dutton speculates that, similarly, the art instinct developed as a “fitness indicator” to mark the prehistoric artist or poet as a healthy mate. Sexual selection ensures that it is not just “the physically strongest” who survive but also “the cleverest, wittiest, and wisest.” Which leads to some pretty funny descriptions of Pleistocene man choosing to “bed, protect, and provision a woman because she struck him as, say, witty and healthy,” to say nothing of Pleistocene woman, who was attracted to her man because of his “extraordinary hunting skills, delightful sense of humor, and generosity.” One can almost picture NoŰl Coward dropping by the cave for cocktails.

Such scenarios appear regularly throughout the book, and they raise, at least for this reader, a number of questions: How does Dutton know such things happened? What is the evidence? Even more vexing, what would evidence look like? All too often, I felt that Dutton was drawing me into the resolutely unscientific realm of faith or . . . academic burlesque. And all too often, I found myself thinking that even if one could prove the existence of an art instinct or, simply for the sake of argument, one were to grant all of Dutton’s premises, what difference would it make? For Dutton, “what sexual selection in evolution does is give us an explanation of why so much human energy has been exhausted on objects of the most extreme elegance and complexity.” This is all well and good if you care about such Darwinian conundrums—but the expenditure of energy has never been a pressing question for people who care about the arts. They have instead been preoccupied with questions about beauty, sublimity, taste, genius, invention, originality, aesthetic autonomy, form, and composition.

Even Dutton knows that his Darwinian aesthetics can take him only so far. Immediately following his explanation of what sexual selection does, he adds, “Sexual selection explains the will of human beings to charm and interest each other.” Which leads the hardheaded social scientist to make a rather fanciful leap: Beautiful objects are “captivating because at a profound level we sense that they take us into the minds that made them.” Which he then immediately and coyly disavows: “This sense of communion, even of intimacy, with other personalities may be erroneouseven systematically delusional.” Lest we forget, he reminds us what is really important: “The self-domestication of sexual selection was not about truth; it was about living the richer sociality that would carry on the human species and allow it to flourish.” And this leads to a conclusion as stunning as it is anticlimactic: “If along the way this amazing process has given us Lascaux, Homer, Cervantes, Chopin, Tolstoy, Stravinsky, and The Simpsons, as well as minds to appreciate and take pleasure in them, then so much the better.”

This sort of lazy theorizing (“if along the way”; “then so much the better”) and glib inventory taking serve to remind us that Dutton is far more preoccupied with the Darwinian thrust of his argument than with its implications for the understanding of art. Indeed, his favorite mode of aesthetic engagement is the compilation of lists: here, some individual masterpieces; there, the names of great writers, composers, and artists; and here again, a litany of thoroughly unobjectionable concepts, as when he spends seven pages describing twelve features key to experiencing art, ranging from “direct pleasure,” “skill and virtuosity,” and “style” to “art traditions and institutions” and “imaginative experience.”

And when Dutton tries to come up with a definition of the arts from a Darwinian standpoint, things grow more banal still, as he offers the familiar romantic view that the arts produce a communion of souls, that they serve as “windows into the mind of another human being.” At the same time, he concedes that evolutionary theory cannot explain “exactly how or why the arts have come down to us.” Indeed, he continues, the theory “remains a kind of natural history—in truth, an unrecoverable prehistory—with twists, turns, and genetic bottlenecks we shall never know about.” This is certainly a devastating flaw of evolutionary theory, but happily it is not true of the arts themselves, which have a recoverable human history.

There is, of course, a record of what artists and writers have thought they were doing and of what spectators and readers felt on experiencing the fruits of their labors. This outpouring of writing first appeared during the Renaissance, came to self-consciousness during the eighteenth century, and has continued unabated into our own time. But such things are apparently of little interest to Dutton. He provides a quick survey of “signposts in the history of aesthetic theory”—Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant—and when it comes to actual artworks, he has a single and rather narrow chapter titled “Intention, Forgery, Dada.”

Only someone who has not taken the time to immerse himself in the enormous—indeed, overwhelming—historical record would be so presumptuous as to offer the following definition of “greatness in the arts”: the effort “to create works of aesthetic pleasure that are saturated with emotion, specifically expressing distinct emotions that are perceived as yours.” This would be news to champions of the classical tradition like Sir Joshua Reynolds, who believed that the greatest artists from the Renaissance through his own time (the end of the eighteenth century) were trying to create “ideal beauty” through the imitation of “general nature” or of the Greco-Roman sculpture that exemplified it. No doubt it would also be news to Zola, who thought that Manet was “trying to see nature as it is without looking for it in the works and opinions of others,” and to Roger Fry, who said of CÚzanne and other Post-Impressionists: “These artists do not seek to give what can, after all, be but a pale reflex of actual appearance, but to arouse the conviction of a new and definite reality. They do not seek to imitate form, but to create form; not to imitate life, but to find an equivalent for life.”

Dutton’s book is particularly baffling because he clearly esteems the arts. But why he thinks he can distinguish the genuine article from art-world sensations like Damien Hirst by rooting it in the art instinct is beyond me. As, for that matter, is his closing paragraph: “Preoccupied as we are with the flashy media and buzzing gizmos of our daily experience, we forget how close we remain to the prehistoric women and men who first found beauty in the world. Their blood runs in our veins. Our art instinct is theirs.”

Such imagery may give the would-be naturalist a primordial thrill, but for Dutton to redeem the values of beauty, skill, and pleasure that he cherishes, he would be better served by actually looking at works of art and reading the words of those who have made, championed, and attacked them. This means engaging deeply not only in the works of our own time but also in works from the past that outlasted those who made them and, in turn, made the world that we have inherited. In this enterprise, Dutton has not made a convincing case that our hunter-gatherer ancestors, trapped as they were in the struggle for sheer survival, have anything to offer.

Rochelle Gurstein is the author of The Repeal of Reticence (Hill & Wang, 1996). Paleolithic painting from the Chauvet Grotto, Vallon-Pont-d’Arc, France.