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The Art Instinct by Denis Dutton

January 21, 2010

In The Art Instinct, Denis Dutton, a philosopher of art at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, explores the evolutionary argument for the development of an “art instinct” in humans. This is a huge question and involves first successfully proving that there is indeed a shared desire to create art and a recognition of what constitutes art that spans cultures across the globe. Secondly, one must prove that this creative drive to make something beautiful with no other function than to be appreciated for its beauty, was evolutionarily necessary and helpful to the human species as we developed over time. As you can imagine, this question lends itself perfectly to a professor of philosophy and definitely reminds me of those structured logic arguments I read in Introduction to Western Philosophy.

I really wanted to love this book – the idea of PROVING for once and for all that art has a function, that it was helpful to human societies and in furthering progress, would finally shut up all those critics who make fun of me for enjoying it in the first place! However, I have to sadly say that perhaps this book was better destined to be a longer essay in an academic journal. Many of Dutton’s points are repeated throughout the book ad infinitum and to no further effect, and I got bored halfway through. However, if you are in the least bit interested in this question I would say definitely borrow this from your local library and read the first few chapters because who wouldn’t want to read Dutton’s 12 criteria that he lays out in order for “art to be recognized as art”? According to the author, a work of art must meet at least a few of these standards in order to be true art (none of the criteria can stand alone and only two or three would not suffice). These criteria are that the work:

1) gives direct pleasure; 2) exhibits skill and virtuosity; 3) exhibits novelty and creativity; 4) exhibits a distinct style; 5) is able to evoke criticism; 6) is a sort of “representation” of the world; 7) exhibits special focus; 8 ) exhibits expressive individuality; 9) is “emotionally saturated”; 10) is intellectually challenging; 11) follows artistic traditions; 12) provides an imaginative experience to its audience.

I had a wonderful time discussing these points and thinking about them as they apply to my favorite works of art (whether it be Dvorak’s Slavonic dances or Sherlock Holmes or a Monet – Dutton used examples of all sorts of art throughout his book, even discussing why we don’t view perfume as an art at one point!). So just for that experience I would recommend this book. You can imagine what he ends up arguing is art’s ultimate function – to attract the opposite sex with displays of virtuosity. I am still not sure if it’s so simple that it’s brilliant or… just wishful thinking.

If you are interested, Dutton is a very active professor and maintains a very entertaining website where he lists his lecture topics and articles of interest. You can access it here. He also recently wrote an op-ed for the NYTimes regarding the new decade (and how our fear of things like Y2K and other doomsday scenarios have kept us from focusing on more pressing, and more relevant, issues), available here.

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