Homo Aestheticus

The prospect of reading a treatise on the nature of art is rarely enticing. It may evoke distant recollections of a college course in aesthetics, in which hair-splitting abstractions about Beauty seemed calculated to destroy any capacity for its enjoyment, mingled with more recent memories of jargon-laden artspeak. Lay such preconceptions aside and take up Ellen Dissanayake’s HOMO AESTHETICUS: WHERE ART COMES FROM AND WHY, a stimulating, sometimes maddening book buzzing with intellectual energy.

Dissanayake approaches her subject from she calls a “species-centered” perspective, by which she means that “our evolution as a species unifies us as much or more than our cultural and individual variability divides us.” She notes also that she uses the term “species-centered” more or less interchangeably with “Darwinian.” Instead of concentrating on “high art,” she considers the whole spectrum of artful human creations. She focuses more on art-making “behavior” than on its result, the “work of art” as traditionally conceived. How can we understand the distinctive art-making behavior of humankind if we adopt an evolutionary viewpoint? How does this viewpoint lead us to a sense of art which differs significantly both from conventional Western notions and from postmodern theorizing?

Exploring these questions, Dissanayake brings together evidence from a wide range of disciplines. Unsurprisingly, the core of her grand theory is pretty banal. Extending the approach she laid out in WHAT IS ART FOR? (1988), she contends that art is fundamentally a way of “making special.” (In neither book does she refer to Viktor Shklovsky’s influential doctrine that art is in the business of “making strange” or “defamiliarization.”) This premise doesn’t yield the revelatory insights she claims for it. In a book so prodigal with ideas there is much else to take issue with—in particular, a tendency to idealize premodern cultures while regarding art since the Renaissance at least as but an aberration in the evolutionary scheme of things. Nevertheless, no one will finish HOMO AESTHETICUS without having gained some fresh perspectives on the myriad form of art.