The Art Instinct

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Denis Dutton begins The Art Instinct by asserting that most art history, criticism, and theory of the last century has been premised, either explicitly or (more often) implicitly, on the idea that artistic production falls in the category of “learned behavior.” Culture, including the arts, has appeared to exist in “a realm of free creativity” that falls into “the uncontested domain of the humanities untouched by biology.” Recently, Denis says, this viewpoint has been changing in ways that affect critics’ understanding of the underlying foundations of the arts. Evolutionary psychology has introduced lines of inquiry and methodology that are applicable to studying the place of the arts within an evolutionary context. Even more, the fields of anthropology and ethnography offer both evidence and theory that can help situate the artistic impulse and art production within an evolutionary framework. For example, the work of cultural anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake in books such as Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why (1992) and Art and Intimacy: How the Arts Began (2000) has delved into these issues. The theory of evolution has also found its way into literary theory and criticism as “literary Darwinism.”

None of these evolutionary explorations into the origins of various art forms has yet brought together their ideas to form a broad philosophy of art. The Art Instinct takes on that ambitious project. Dutton’s thesis is that art is a natural instinct in humans. He argues that the arts are evolutionary adaptations that, in Darwinian terms, were necessary for the survival and evolutionary development of humans. It may seem from a modern perspective that the arts belong to a more rarefied category of activity that demands high levels of complex abilities in both artistic creation and appreciation. Dutton, however, believes that all artistic experiences rest on deep foundations in the evolutionary origins of the human animal. His book embraces all of the arts, including the visual arts, music, dance, drama, and literature. To examine his premise, Dutton takes a global cross-cultural approach. His examples range from the earliest prehistoric evidence of art to contemporary multimedia art and technology.

In the first four chapters, Dutton lays the groundwork for his study by discussing several basic features of art. The chapter “Art and Human Nature” brings together views ranging from Greek philosophy to evolutionary psychology to introduce the idea that art seems to be a universal capacity of the human mind. This propensity toward art does not, in and of itself, prove that art reaches the Darwinian standard of a trait that contributes to the survival of the species. However, the universality of the arts in human culture suggests for Dutton the possibility that art springs from deep evolutionary roots.

In the chapter “What Is Art?” Dutton establishes a method for examining the nature and basic characteristics of art, not by trying to define art, but rather by “treating art as a field of activities, objects, and experience that appears naturally in human life.” He presents twelve “cluster criteria” that appear universally in the arts throughout the historical and global spectrum of human culture. These criteria are: direct pleasure, skill and virtuosity, style, novelty and creativity, criticism, representation, special focus, expressive individuality, emotional saturation, intellectual challenge, art traditions and institutions, and imaginative experience. He points out that each of these twelve characteristics, taken individually, overlaps with nonart experiences. A significant cluster of the criteria are needed for an object or activity to qualify as art.

Chapter 4, “’But They Don’t Have Our Concept of Art,’” confronts the arguments of various art theorists and anthropologists about cultural relativism, a view that different cultures have distinct concepts and practices of art that do not translate cross-culturally. In part, some of these positions arise in response to what might be regarded as the hegemony of Western cultural values. In each case, Dutton rebuts these arguments to demonstrate that the art instinct is, indeed, universal and cross-cultural.

Finally, beginning with Chapter 5, “Art and Natural Selection,” Dutton arrives at the centerpiece of his thesis: that the arts arise from evolution of the human species in the terms...

(The entire section is 1827 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

American Scholar, February 24, 2009, pp. 121-125.

Booklist 105, no. 9/10 (January 1, 2009): 34.

Commentary 127, no. 4 (April, 2009): 74-76.

Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 21 (November 1, 2008): 1146.

New Scientist 201, no. 2693 (January 31, 2009): 44.

The New York Review of Books 56, no. 15 (October 8, 2009): 22-24.

The New York Times Book Review, February 1, 2009, p. 12.

Philosophy and Literature 33 (2009): 204-220.

The Times Literary Supplement, March 20, 2009, pp. 10-11.

The Wilson Quarterly 33, no. 2 (Spring, 2009): 109-110.