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  • The Dancer and His Dance
  • Mary Bittner Wiseman

The thesis that weaves itself through The Art Instinct is that human beings value art because it takes us into the minds of the individual artists who made the works they are listening to, looking at, or reading.1 “We find beautiful artifacts captivating … because at a profound level we sense that they take us into the minds that made them” (p. 163). In precisely the same way, The Art Instinct puts its readers into the mind of Denis Dutton, whom they meet on virtually every page: he is the dancer and his book the dance in W. B. Yeats’s “Among School Children”:

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, How can we know the dancer from the dance?

The lines are apt. Dutton had danced to the music of the Sepik carvers in New Guinea through a night of singing and dancing, and his glance brightens the individual works he shares with his readers—as when he describes the Brahms Symphony No. 4 in E Minor as “drenched with a certain melancholy, a feeling, or so it seems, that no other piece of music quite has, a feeling that is embedded in the notes and construction of that particular piece of music” (p. 234). Then he uses his experience to argue for certain important features of art: the Brahms symphony exemplifies a universal characteristic, emotional saturation, and demonstrates the difference between artistic expression of emotion and its craftsman-like arousal, which is Collingwood’s distinction between art and craft (p. 228) that Dutton endorses.

The work of a lifetime appears in The Art Instinct. Arts & Letters Daily, the blog that he founded and edited, is there in the breadth of the book’s reach over the fine arts and evolutionary science. So too is The [End Page A15] Forger’s Art: Forgery and the Philosophy of Art, an essay collection that he edited. It is there in the argument that, since art’s value lies in its giving us direct access to the minds of its makers and forgeries do not do this, they are to be shunned even when the aesthetic experiences they afford are indistinguishable from the experience of engaging their original.

And it is there, most clearly, in his commitment to a humanism that gives the lie to cultural constructivism and the poststructuralism that spawned it. I read The Art Instinct as a sustained argument against such constructivism, whose defeat would reverberate far beyond art and aesthetics. There are several different but connected reasons for his passionate rejection of the views that came to infiltrate many humanities departments after the 1966 conference at Johns Hopkins, “The Language of Criticism and the Sciences of Man,” at which Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, et al., spoke. One reason is that structuralism presumes to redefine the human subject as the site of all the languages that pass through it; another is that it claims that culture has appropriated nature, with the result that nature, including human nature, amounts to little more than human fabrications.

The third reason is simpler: it stems from Dutton’s fierce commitment to language that is simple, clear, and elegant. Philosophy and Literature, the journal that he founded and that he edited until his death, ran a bad-writing contest each year from 1995 to 1998. Most of the submissions came from works in poststructuralism, which soon succeeded the theory of structuralism introduced at the Johns Hopkins conference. His idea was that language should be as transparent as possible to the mind of its user. A founding tenet of poststructuralism, however, is that language is not transparent because it is freighted with all that its words have meant, with all that they can or could mean. Moreover, it holds that the meaning any word does have comes from its difference from the other words in the system of language to which they all belong. I am not sure that anyone actually held this extreme view. Even Derrida’s “There is nothing outside the text” should be read as “There is nothing that cannot be treated as a text”—where a text is...


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