Friday, January 23, 2009

Strong Arguments on a Shaky Premise - Review - The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution

The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution

"The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution" by Denis Dutton concludes itself before it begins, and it does so masterfully. It tries too hard, and asks too much of the reader, all with more aplomb than solid premise.

Charles Darwin argued a species evolved to protect itself, to multiply itself in his theory of evolution. All instincts meet that function, one way or another; no instinct exists that does not meet that function except for anomalies that are bleed from the gene pool.

Art, says Dutton, is instinctual. I caught this in the rambling introduction, and on the back flap. The back flap owns great praise summed up by Steven Pinker, a psychologist (not an artist or biologist or geneticist) who is listed six times in the bibliography. That's far more than any other author (including Kant, Derrida and Aristotle). That's except for Dutton himself, who happens to list himself six times as well.

In other words, his introduction was a chapter in itself, but lacks the strength of a good structure.

He does not adequately show why beautiful birds', in their beauty, are form and not just function, and how, if that is true, humans are part of this. Instinct's goal is never art for art's sake, but pure function without form. The base animal mind is not asking for art, but for a way to gauge the worthiness of a mate.

He tries to define art, which he agrees is a dicey thing to pin down, loaded with bias, knowledge issues and "personal idiosyncrasies." He dodges around the cultural differences, while swooning toward tribal art with only the most vague critique.

Among his larger challenges are ones surrounding the Dadaist movement, and forgery. This begs back to his chapter, "What Is Art?" Not Dutton, nor I, can clear up whether Dadaism is art or just a philosophically statement. He rightfully cites "Fountain," the urinal signed by Marcel Duchamp in 1917 as a pinnacle of what the Dadaists offered.

Dutton sees art as including the visual, musical and literary arts, and tries to respond to all of them at once, integrated and interdependent. That might be more than his small book can handle, as the topic requires several times the volume to make the necessary points.

Readers, in turn, cannot appreciate the book without a vast range of knowledge in each area. Dutton includes notes, but misses the opportunity to quote more from, at least, the literary pieces. Pictures, too, are in order. I caught myself reading this with an online search engine and encyclopedia opened, and even then, am not convinced I understood all his allusions.

Art may have, in its past, some kind of instinctual use, but Denis Dutton does not prove it. "The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution," discusses making an argument for itself, but never really lands. As Dutton himself once asserted about another writer, his book "beats readers into submission and instructs them that they are in the presence of a great and deep mind."

I'm not so sure.

Anthony Trendl


Anonymous said...

I disagree most certainly and feel if anything the book was a bit too easy to read and I could have hacked a bit more information. I thought Dutton set out an excellent argument and considering the nature and vast amount of different topics, pyschology, anthropology, biology... he had to incorparate in order to make his argument logically - for all aspects must be covered in regards to a function which has so many layers of interest - it was of ample size to begin forming a better understanding for one self. Furthermore, I think it might well be worth noting that this is non-fiction i.e. the conclusion should be noted at the beginning so that we are always reffering back to the question we are discussing, it makes it easier. And since all the reviewer can talk about is that the book is about art as an instinct rather than actually going towards any further understanding of it I wonder if they even read more than the intro or blurb in the first place. And finally what is most interesting is the intonation of the review, academia should be about helping each other come to some more truthful understanding of the world, if you disagree give an informed opinion as to why, not snipey comments about the mode rather than the content of other's investigations.

Resilient Hawk said...


Thanks for your thoughts, but sniping was not my MO here. Examining the book's merit was my goal.

All arguments are evolved from the first premise, and the book presumes a faulty perspective. Not all academics are created equal, and, in this case, the author of the book brought his bias toward the limitations of evolultion and the absence of God that he distorted the depth of true art.

As you know, once a premise is shown faulty, all it supports comes into question. While the book has some merit, and asks intriguing thoughts about how the human condition matches with art, he tries too hard to investigate topics, as it were, over his payscale. I agree with you fully that it was "too easy," which represents the shallowness of his arguments. The premise cannot be piecemealed through a cursory look at the range of topics he tried to discuss. The questions he asks are good ones, but he wasn't the writer to answer them.

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