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  • Art and Selection
  • Brian Boyd
Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution, by Denis Dutton; 279 pp. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009, $25.00. Oxford: Oxford University Press, £16.99.

In the interests of full disclosure: Denis Dutton, the author of The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution, not only edits this journal but has also published here a number of my essays. We share enthusiasms and aversions, but we also now and again disagree. And we both enjoy spirited discussion, which is why I asked him if I might review his book for this journal. Now can we begin?

Ellen Dissanayake, the first to take a modern evolutionary approach to art, in her What Is Art For? (1988), doubts that sexual selection can explain much about art. After all, she notes, men can compete about anything, even about who can pee the highest.1 Denis Dutton, the first philosopher to take a sustained evolutionary approach to the arts, suggests that much in art arises from sexual selection—and he spends a good deal of time discussing and dismissing the kind of philosophy of art that orients itself around the urinal that Marcel Duchamp christened Fountain.

Dutton begins by reporting recent research into the universality of human landscape preferences. Although these preferences explain little about art in the round, they vividly demonstrate the link between human emotions and preferences across cultures now and human survival [End Page 204] needs thousands of generations ago. In chapter 2, Dutton shows that although recent philosophers of art have not sought to ground art in human nature, that has been an aim of their predecessors from Aristotle to Hume and Kant.

But Dutton really starts with the intuitions that art seems a fundamentally similar pursuit around the world, and that artworks like Duchamp's Fountain or Andy Warhol's Brillo Boxes should not be central to our thinking about art, even if they have been central for prominent philosophers of art like George Dickie and Arthur Danto. Dutton stresses that we can appreciate art across cultures. He did so himself when he lived in India while in the Peace Corps, and, an accomplished pianist, learned the sitar from a student of Ravi Shankar, or later, when he lived by the Sepik River in northern Papua New Guinea to ascertain whether "local criteria for beautiful art agree with what Western aficionados and connoisseurs of Sepik art call beautiful. My conclusion was unequivocal: Sepik standards of beauty closely match the opinions of Western experts, including curators and collectors who enjoy a wide experience with Sepik museum collections but who have never set foot in the country" (p. 11).

As this passage makes clear, Dutton is not your average armchair academic analytical aesthetician—thank goodness. Unlike the typical professional philosopher of art, he does not hide behind the porcupine quills of philosophese, good for defense and a certain kind of bristly display but utterly rebarbative. Like that other maverick philosopher, Daniel Dennett, he instead engages with work, the world, and readers outside his discipline.

Dutton argues convincingly for the need to focus first on indisputable examples of art rather than on problematic cases, just as discussions of murder should not begin with assisted suicide, abortion or capital punishment (p. 50). One of his best chapters offers a cluster concept of art, a dozen features shared by the most unequivocal art. Doubtful cases will satisfy fewer than the full checklist, but there is no fixed threshold, no necessary and sufficient number of criteria. And no criterion by itself distinguishes art from non-art. Indeed one of the most fascinating aspects of his cluster concept is that, for each criterion, he parenthetically notes examples elsewhere in human life that would satisfy that criterion but that nobody would consider art. Skill and virtuosity, for instance, he insists on as features of the indisputably artful, but he adds also: "High skill is a source of pleasure and admiration in every area of human activity beyond art, perhaps most notably today in sports. [End Page 205] Almost every regularized human activity can be turned competitive in order to emphasize the development and admiration of its technical, skill aspect. Guinness World Records...


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