Evolutionary Art

It happens to most of us who like classic art: You’re reading an article about some contemporary artist who’s making millions selling “art” made from rumpled beds, carved-up corpses, or human waste, and you ask yourself, why? Why can’t art be heroic and life-inspiring? Why does art have to degrade and shock? And what is art, anyway?

Denis Dutton, Bloomsbury Press, 243 pages, $25
It happens to most of us who like classic art: You’re reading an article about some contemporary artist who’s making millions selling “art” made from rumpled beds, carved-up corpses, or human waste, and you ask yourself, why? Why can’t art be heroic and life-inspiring? Why does art have to degrade and shock? And what is art, anyway?
These are questions that have perplexed Denis Dutton, a philosopher of art at New Zealand’s Canterbury University, for his entire career. Dutton, who is best known for running Arts and Letters Daily, an invaluable Web site that aggregates interesting articles about the arts and humanities, is a thoughtful and sensible man. His goal of restoring standards and good taste to determine what is good and bad art is an admirable enterprise. But Dutton argues that evolution is the key to separating good art from bad, ensuring that his book is ultimately unconvincing.
For Dutton, great art — which, in his definition, includes not just painting and sculpture, but also fiction and musical compositions — has these characteristics:
· Complexity. You can listen to a Beethoven sonata, read War and Peace, or see Hamlet again and again and find new meaning in the work each time. Great artists aren’t deliberately obscure, but they create works whose complexity ensures that they’re deep and enduring.
· Seriousness. “The themes of great works are love, death, and human fate.” This doesn’t mean that great art has to be tragic; Jane Austen was a great artist. But great art has to address the meaning and purpose of life.

· Purpose. An artistic creator has to produce a work based on what Charles Murray, in Human Accomplishment, refers to as “transcendental goods” — or what Dutton describes as “a belief that real beauty exists, there is objective truth, and the good is a genuine value independent of human culture and choices.” Artists whose goal is to mock and parody the past or spit on their public can never be great artists.

The problem with The Art Instinct is that Dutton comes up with these reasonable conclusions through an unprovable belief that art is an evolutionary drive that somehow unconsciously persists from generation to generation.
He begins with an experiment conducted by bad-boy Soviet émigré artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid in the early 1990s. Komar and Melamid commissioned a global poll about what sort of elements people like in paintings. The poll found that people in India, America, or Kenya preferred “a landscape with people, water, and animals” with a blue background. The paintings of the great American landscape painters Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Edwin Church are examples of the sort of art the world prefers, at least according to Komar and Melamid.
Komar and Melamid’s poll was anticipated by a 1982 study by psychologists J. H. Balling and J. D. Falk, in which people in five different age ranges viewed photos of different landscapes. They found that while people 15 and over liked looking at different scenery, 8-year-olds around the world preferred the East African savanna more than any other landscape, including those who had never been to Africa or to a desert.
This research, says Dutton, is proof that deep inside every one of us is a preference for the African landscape where early humans lived and loved nearly 2 million years ago. This preference is “an inheritance from the Pleistocene,” according to Dutton, and when we’re enjoying the view at a well-designed landscape like New York City’s Central Park, it’s our inner caveman who’s happy.
Evolution, for Dutton, trumps relativism and allows us to establish permanent standards for determining good and bad art. Marcel Duchamp once famously tried to place a urinal in an art show and declare that the urinal was art. Duchamp, says Dutton, was wrong. He didn’t produce art because art, Dutton believes, comprises complicated works that give their creators an evolutionary advantage over the competition. Duchamp didn’t produce anything that endures, so he didn’t create art.
The Art Instinct is what philosophers call “a thought experiment,” and Dutton offers no proof that the instinct actually exists. There are many more sensible defenses of great art than claiming, as Dutton does, that we should prefer great art because evolution controls our taste. You could, for example, argue that landscapes are aesthetically excellent because the world is charged with the grandeur of God.
Denis Dutton is a thoughtful man, and The Art Instinct is an important book. But the defense of great art must ultimately rely on firmer ground than evolutionary theory. Dutton is provocative — but not, ultimately, persuasive.


Martin Morse Wooster’s reviews have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Times.

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