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Reviewed by:
  • The Art Instinct
  • Mohan Matthen (bio)
Denis Dutton, The Art Instinct. New York: Oxford University Press 2009. Pp. 278.

Denis Dutton died a day or two after Christmas in 2010. I had the good fortune to meet him in February 2010, when I participated in an Author-Meets-Critics session on The Art Instinct at the American Philosophical Association, Central Division. (The Critical Notice that follows is a development of my comments there.) Dennis was a passionate, intelligent, influential, and well connected man, who had a vigorous philosophical mind, fully on display in The Art Instinct. Outside of academic philosophy, he was famous as founder of the Arts and Letters Daily, the pre-eminent content-aggregating blog for intellectuals. It is in that capacity that he was obituarised in many of the world’s leading English-language newspapers, including the Globe and Mail, which published this interestingly quirky take on Dutton’s achievements: <http://tinyurl.com/28mkzur>. Though I met him on only one occasion, I looked forward to years of friendship. I will miss him.

Denis Dutton’s book The Art Instinct is a rich work of philosophy, a lively and intellectually challenging read. Dutton’s knowledge of art and culture was extraordinarily deep and cross-culturally rich — he was the founder-editor of the enormously successful cultural news aggregator, The Arts and Letters Daily, had taken sitar lessons while a Peace Corps volunteer in India, and had conducted anthropological field work in New Guinea — and this is just to skim the surface. He was also a clear and elegant writer and a passionate communicator. He was thus well-placed to argue powerfully against materialist conceptions of [End Page 337] art that restrict it to the capitalist societies of North America and Western Europe, post-structuralist accounts that discount the artist’s role, and the kind of Saatchi-connoisseurship that unduly valorizes whatever might be going on at the moment.

In this book, Dutton argues for an evolutionary conception of the ‘art instinct,’ which is sure to attract the ire of many philosophers and humanists, and he does so passionately, fearlessly, and uninhibitedly. He uses the evolutionary conception to undermine some of the artistic and aesthetics-theory excesses of the twentieth century. What more could one ask from 250 pages? In my comments below, I will question some of Dutton’s argumentative strategies, and use others as foils to my own views. I hope this will not mask my admiration for his achievement. The Art Instinct is a wonderful book, a must-read for anyone interested in art theory or human evolution.

I The Adaptationist Approach

The evolution of Homo sapiens in the past million years is not just a history of how we came to have acute color vision, a taste for sweets, and an upright gait. It is also a story of how we became a species obsessed with creating artistic experiences with which to amuse, shock, titillate, and enrapture ourselves, from children’s games to the quartets of Beethoven, from firelit caves to the continuous worldwide glow of television screens.

(2–3)

The ‘art instinct’ has evolved in us, Dutton says, and is evident in every human culture. Culture-bound conceptions of art that deny this status to some of the products of non-western cultures, simply miss the evolved psychological source of cultural production.

At some level, this should be obvious to anybody who understands the modern theory of evolution. The capacity to make, or at least to appreciate, art is something just about all humans possess and all other living things lack. This in itself demonstrates, in the strict sense of the term, that the art instinct is evolved. It is not something that humans simply learn. Of course, one does have to learn how to appreciate certain art forms and art works — it may not be easy to enjoy Kabuki or Kathakali until one has been schooled. But such schooling takes off from the universal human response to skilled artistic performance. This response is universal not just in the sense that everybody responds to some art — though that would be remarkable in itself — but in the strong sense that all art...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1911-0820
Print ISSN
0045-5091
Pages
pp. 337-356
Launched on MUSE
2011-08-21
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived
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