Only this evening, when finally shelving Dennis Dutton's new book, did the title click: "The Art Instinct" - it's like "The Language Instinct
", only for art! Brilliant!
As a summary, that's as clear as you're likely to get: a fanboy attempt to do for the notoriously nebulous concept of "art", what the author's intellectual hero, Steven Pinker, once tried to do for the (less nebulous) concept of language: courtesy of the good offices of Charles Darwin
, to sanctify, objectify and de-relativise it, to put it beyond the critical reach of those ghastly post-modernists. Given that Pinker failed miserably with an easier job, I didn't hold out much hope for Dutton.
And so it transpired: just as Pinker's book did, Dutton's will entertain the party faithful; others will be left unmoved. They might well wonder whether we can expect to see like-minded treatises on "The Cricket Instinct", "The Cycling Instinct" or "The Embroidery Instinct", those concepts being not obviously less worthy of academic investigation. Should the fetishisation of "Darwin's Dangerous Idea
" continue at its present clip, that's the logical end point.
So, herein, Dennis Dutton has a go at applying evolutionary principles to the categorisation and interpretation of art. What, you might reasonably ask, would that hope to achieve? In this book I found no answer: instead Professor Dutton addresses questions only art theory professors uncomfortable with the post-modernist direction their discipline has taken feel need answering. For he believes, I think, that art may be transcendentally evaluated; that far from our categorisations being matters of historical and cultural contingency they somehow carve nature at its joints; that what an artist or writer might have meant by his creation has some priority in understanding it, and that our Pleistocene inheritance has something to do with it.
Dennis Dutton thus spends much time trying to convince there is a problem in need of explanation, and that his evolutionary psychology-derived view is that explanation. In doing so he is obliged to spend much time away from his home soil of aesthetics, drearily analogising into art theory from psychology and biology, and is further waylaid by a need to explain what he even means by "art" itself - in order for there to be a meaningful "art instinct", we must first agree on what we mean by it, after all. As any aesthetics student will know this is a boring and derivative debate at the best of times, but one Dutton must engage in for his book to have any coherence at all. And he spends pages and pages agonising over it, which in itself is cause enough to drop Dutton's theory through the trap door.
"Art" is a semi-permeable concept which refers generically (and conveniently) to a category of things we will broadly recognise, and whether or not at the limit I draw precisely the same boundaries round the category that you do - or a Kalahari bushman does - isn't of enormous importance. Dutton is persuasive enough that, in terms of content, things in the category's sweet spot (the Mona Lisa) will almost certainly be conveyed (and are most likely the sorts of things one has in mind when using the word "art" with no greater particularisation anyway - when speaking of more specific and contestable art forms we will tend to be more precise in our formulations). Yet Dutton seems oddly transfixed with this question of what we all, cross culturally, think of as art, as if it might reveal some deep insight about "the nature of art". Especially given the patent looseness around the concept, you just have to wonder whether it really is a valuable question to ask.
It certainly makes the idea of sheeting back "our concept of art" to biology an implausible one. It seems mightily arbitrary to me, but maybe I've read too many of those ghastly postmodernists
: I have trouble finding the ontological boundary even between art and science: at one level they're both metaphorical/figurative enterprises, only with (somewhat) different emphases, but their similarities are more obvious than their differences.
Dutton has no such qualms, and draws a distinction between the "play world" - shorthand for the imaginative alternative universe of art - and the "real world of mundane experience", inhabited by things like science and truth and internal combustion engines. It's not a distinction that bears close scrutiny, yet he says "the overt resemblance of some art forms to the real world should not obscure the fact that most adult art forms are no more real than a tea party with teddy bears."
Now this struck me as a curious view for an aesthete to take, relegating the arts as it does to a curious by-product of our biological development; something baffling and even embarrassing - not unlike Steven Pinker's characterisation - with which Dutton takes issue - as "cheesecake for the mind". It also, and just as curiously, sets up a dualist view of the world: there's the real - albeit mundane - world of real tangible, proper stuff, and then there's this ether of figurative discourse which, seeing as it isn't made of proper mundane everyday stuff, must floats free of truth and falsehood and like some sort of anomaly, begs for explanation - like a peacock's tail, it's something that simply shouldn't be there. Dutton's optimistic attempt to explain art via the Darwinian double cocktail of natural selection (survival of the fittest for an environment) and sexual selection (the enhanced chances of reproduction of the most appealing in the group) unwittingly outlines a significant explanatory drawback of that combination: it can be used, retrospectively, to explain just about anything: if an adaptation *is* adaptively useful and increases fitness, it is natural selection. If it's *not* adaptively useful and would hinder fitness, like a peacock's tail, then it is sexual selection! In this way evolution can be made in principle to explain anything, and therefore by itself, nothing.
It also overlooks another way of viewing art as a subset (without the need for hard edges) of those sorts of discourse by which we model our world - a collection of discourses which include the sciences (note plural) and - shock, horror - religions. On this view the dualism Dutton see dissolves, as indeed does the need to explain art as an apparently anomalous phenomenon. We create art because we model the world. Perhaps our capacity to model the world is an evolved one; perhaps it's a more recently arranged configuration of our plastic brains. But just what we expect achieve by dwelling on this point is never made clear.