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The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution

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In a groundbreaking new book that does for art what Stephen Pinker's The Language Instinct did for linguistics, Denis Dutton overturns a century of art theory and criticism and revolutionizes our understanding of the arts.

The Art Instinct combines two fascinating and contentious disciplines―art and evolutionary science―in a provocative new work that will change forever the way we think about the arts, from painting to literature to movies to pottery. Human tastes in the arts, Dutton argues, are evolutionary traits, shaped by Darwinian selection. They are not, as the past century of art criticism and academic theory would have it, just "socially constructed."
Our love of beauty is inborn, and many aesthetic tastes are shared across remote cultures―just one example is the widespread preference for landscapes with water and distant trees, like the savannas where we evolved. Using forceful logic and hard evidence, Dutton shows that we must premise art criticism on an understanding of evolution, not on abstract "theory." He restores the place of beauty, pleasure, and skill as artistic values.

Sure to provoke discussion in scientific circles and uproar in the art world, The Art Instinct offers radical new insights into both the nature of art and the workings of the human mind.

278 pages, Hardcover

First published December 23, 2008

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About the author

Denis Dutton

11 books8 followers
Denis Dutton was the founder and editor of the immensely popular Web site Arts and Letters Daily, named by the Guardian as the “best Web site in the world.” He also founded and edited the journal Philosophy and Literature.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 95 reviews
Profile Image for Lazarus P Badpenny Esq.
175 reviews146 followers
July 6, 2010
Occasionally irate academic becalmed in his own backwater mentality fails to deliver the book this subject deserves.

Thank God it's over. Like this book, life's too short to waste another moment on such a risible act of narrow-minded scholarship [an oxymoron if ever there was one:], suffice to say it was rife with under-argued assumptions and intermittently self-contradictory. Yet, paradoxically, if the experience had been prolonged it may have been less painful. In a longer, better book every lazy conjecture, too numerous to catalogue for reasons given, could have been met with its counter. There was so much to take issue with here that I even began to doubt the veracity of the man's name.

Perhaps I'm missing the point. After all, this was very well received by The Journal of New Zealand Art History. If you want a second opinion:


"But then, the whole idea that art worlds are monadically sealed off from one another is daft. Do we need to be reminded that Chopin is loved in Korea, that Spaniards collect Japanese prints, or that Cervantes is read in Chicago and Shakespeare enjoyed in China?"

What? Every Spaniard? Are we to understand that the drawing rooms of the Iberian peninsular, from the sea-dipped southern extremities of Andalusia right up to the wind-swept Galician cliffs, are stuffed to the gills with Hokusai? Do the booksellers of Chicago take a collective holiday whilst they wait for the city's readers to traverse the arid plateau of Don Quixote's la Mancha?

"A determination to shock or puzzle has sent much recent art down a wrong path. Darwinian aesthetics can restore the vital place of beauty, skill, and pleasure as high artistic values."

But whose definition of these values? Dr Dutton's, mine, Adolf Hitler's?

Might have been better-titled The Art Critics Instinct as, so far, it has dealt exclusively not with the creative impulse but with aesthetic judgement.
Profile Image for MA.
308 reviews118 followers
September 18, 2023
Ta książka nie jest zuniwersalizowaną definicją sztuki. Nie jest także uproszczeniem jej dekonwencjonalności albo, całe szczęście, jakimś aktem pseudozdolności do uchwycenia jej w 400-stonnicowej myśli. Jest co najwyżej quasi-definicją tego dziwnego, niedosłownego przywiązania człowieka do sztuki. No właśnie - ale czy na pewno do sztuki? Czy może raczej do nas samych, których doznajemy w wyniku styczności ze sztuką?
Takiego rodzaju dywagacji jest tutaj aż po horyzont, ale to właśnie ten aspekt bardzo w tej pracy doceniam; to, że nie próbuje wmawiać czytelnikowi, że to poradnik jak się zachwycać (artyzmem) lub jak nie zachwycać (kiczem). "Instynkt sztuki" jest w pełni świadomą formą samouzalążkowanej teorii, która jest jedynie początkiem swojego końca. Więc nie jest kompletna, nie jest całościowo skończona, nie jest nawet całościowo zaczęta. Ale nie jest przy tym przeszkodą do wysnucia swoich tez i spowodowania nimi bodźca, który chyba najlepiej określiłoby zdanie: myślimy, że stworzyliśmy sztukę dla całego wszechświata, ale stworzyliśmy ją dla samych siebie.
Mały minus za epizodyczną powtarzalność i (według autora chyba udaną) próbę uproszczenia świata, w którym żyjemy [żarciki]. I w którym jest mnóstwo sztuki, która nią nie jest - i równie dużo niesztuki, która właściwie nią jest.
Profile Image for Gretchen Rubin.
Author 30 books98.7k followers
April 3, 2020
A fascinating, thought-provoking, controversial argument for why we love art.
Profile Image for Al Bità.
377 reviews41 followers
February 8, 2019
The Arts have been with us a long time, starting, perhaps, with language and story telling, dance, musical sounds, cave paintings, etc. Ditto regarding speculation on them: as early, at least, as Pythagoras and music. In general, each of these disciplines have developed and flourished more or less independently (or so we have been lead to believe) culminating in reaching alleged apexes (within specific cultures and racial groupings) determined more or less in the 19th-century. But it was really in the 20th-century, when the Arts were all included in academic institutions and subjected to more intense study and theorising, that a veritable flourishing of ideas on aesthetics for each discipline came to fruition. Much of this is highly conceptual, often using highly specific jargon, exploring the many nooks and cavities of each — so much so that often enough they can be almost impenetrable for anyone not within the discipline to grasp readily. At the core of this is the implication that each of the disciplines associated with the Arts generally considers itself as separate and distinct from the others, requiring specialised training and expertise by its acolytes. Anyone trying to come to terms with the Arts in general, therefore, will often find themselves inundated, as it were, by mountainous waves of specific theorising and speculation that can be disorienting, to say the least.

In The Art Instinct Denis Dutton attempts to reorient much of this disorientation by suggesting that in fact, the Arts are not really distinct and separate disciplines, but rather manifestations of basic human evolutionary instincts that are part and parcel of who we are as human beings. In so doing, Dutton does not wish to completely discredit the implicitly separate nature in theoretical considerations, as they often enough have useful things to say, but he does need to go through these ideas if only to give them some credit where it is due. As such, some readers might find Dutton’s discussions a little hard-going, particularly since most of us have never actually participated in, or familiar with all the all the associated jargon of, the relevant discussions, but Dutton does try his best (and in my opinion more or less succeeds) in being as clear as he can be regarding those theories and theorists.

The book is not long — merely some 250 pages — so a lot of information is provided in very condensed form. This can provide its own difficulties for the ordinary reader, but it can be (and is) of real value to the persistent reader. Many of the individual chapters are very insightful all on their own. Put all together, Dutton is arguing that one needs to consider all the Arts, not as separate, individualistic manifestations (as they might appear to us specifically in the 21st-century) but as in fact representing a more holistic aspect of humanity which is better appreciated by taking an evolutionary approach to them. Dutton’e conclusion remains: the Arts are not separate disciplines, but instead form a united and cohesive whole.

Regardless of whether one agrees with Dutton’s approach or not, the book is intellectually stimulating on many levels, and one is, I would venture to suggest, educated into a more encompassing appreciation of humanity as a whole. I will end with Dutton’s own conclusion (at the end of the Afterword he added to the 2010 edition of his work): after referring to the nuances reflected in the numerous theories of aesthetic responses in the Arts, he concludes —

“Knowing about such nuances of aesthetic response — if they are knowable at all — might give us a more subtle understanding of human nature, but it will make little differences to the larger picture of beauty and the arts and their permanent place in human life. Homo sapiens remains a species with insatiable tastes for music, pictures, dance and storytelling. The unity of the arts emerges from the unity of mankind.”
Author 2 books31 followers
June 23, 2009
I began this book with unbounded optimism, excited to hear a Darwinian take on the human drive for creativity. I liked some of the information, like Dutton's ideas on how storytelling helped our Pleistocene ancestors survive their hunter/gatherer lifestyle or the ways our ancestors may have come to enjoy certain types of landscapes over others. I was slightly less excited about Dutton's take on postmodern ethnography and his weird repetition of the physical characteristics of women as they apply to the notion of evolutionary beauty.

As I approached the middle of the book, I couldn't help but notice that, while Dutton pays lip service to art from other cultures in his discussion of ethnography, his examples of great art and literature are overwhelmingly old, white, European, and (above all) linear, whether he's discussing music, visual arts, or literature. I love Middlemarch and Hard Times, but I wish Dutton could also cite great works of literature in the 20th and 21st Centuries.

Finally, my enamor with the book completely dissipated as the discussion shifted from Darwin toward criticism -- with a decidedly anti-postmodern flavor. Throughout the book, for example, Dutton states that pleasure and representation are two of the chief aims of art. He goes so far as to say that these are two of twelve qualities that define art (Dutton 51-55). This seems a narrow classification, leaving out the sense of wonder we can get from tragedy, ugliness, the non-linear, and the abstract. At the end of the book, Dutton also asserts that the greatest arts are created with "a belief that real beauty exists, there is objective truth, and the good is a genuine value independent of human cultures and choices" (239). Objective truth? Oh Dutton, that's so 19th Century!

Maybe I'm a product of my own postmodern education, but in the end, despite my optimism for his subject, I just don't like Dutton's take on art. I can't help but wonder if he would like to rewind to the early 1900s and freeze our views of art and beauty in a pre-Modern, perhaps Pleistocene era.
Profile Image for Nelson Zagalo.
Author 10 books333 followers
March 16, 2017
A masterpiece, and a mind-bending work. Denis Dutton faced criticism from the entire continent of art theorists to research and publish his work. As evolution theory continues to be doubted and critiqued by sceptics, trying to extend its rules and naturalism to the arts, is not only an act of bravery, but also of pure scientific curiosity. Humanities have lacked for too long a scientific foundation, Dutton opened here a new avenue for critical thinking. As Steven Pinker states in the back cover "This book marks out the future of the humanities..."

More in my blog (portuguese): "A Ciência por detrás da Arte" - https://virtual-illusion.blogspot.pt/...
Profile Image for Monika.
612 reviews45 followers
June 21, 2022
10 rozdziałów pełnych wiedzy i inspiracji do przemyśleń. O ludzkiej potrzebie sztuki. Z czego ona wynika i czy wszyscy ludzie ja mają. Czemu nie ma sztuki zapachowej? Który z filozofów uważał sztukę za niebezpieczną?
Na dłuższą recenzję zapraszam na podkast Fiszkowa kartoteka.
Profile Image for Kara Babcock.
1,954 reviews1,292 followers
July 17, 2010
I am at war with myself. The feminist in me, who has been taking philosophy courses and reading books that challenge contemporary notions about gender, regards much of culture as a construction, something abstract and even arbitrary that we should alter to improve the status of various groups of people. The scientist in me, who reads books about genetics and ponders how amazing it is that we're programmed to learn how to talk but have developed writing as a skill, not an innate ability. These two selves often conflict, as biological determinism clashes with cultural relativism, and I find myself forced to walk carefully the line between the two. I never thought I would have to do this for art!

In The Art Instinct, Denis Dutton challenges the commonplace assertion that our notions of what constitutes art and what we find aesthetically pleasing are entirely constructs of our culture. Rather, his thesis is that evolution plays a large role in our tastes. We prefer savanna-like landscapes because it hearkens to our homes of the past; we place a value on skill and creativity because these are useful traits in a mate. Overall, Dutton insists that art criticism must be rooted in an evolutionary perspective (he seems to like using evolutionary psychology as a poster-child) rather than any particular school of thought based only on culture.

And that's the book, right there. Now you don't have to read it. Happy? You should be.

The Art Instinct has such a great premise, but, like so many books, the execution fails to fulfil that potential. Dutton's writing is stultifying at best, arrogant at worst, and always more loquacious than necessary. It takes him forever to get to the point—he loves lists in which each point is several paragraphs long. And for such a short book, Dutton spends remarkably little of it discussing art itself. Many pages he devotes to explanations of evolution—helpful, yes, but sometimes tangential. And unlike his evolutionary asides, he seldom goes into detail about the theories of art criticism he debunks for us, so much of that went over my head.

Dutton does some things right. He does not focus exclusively on Old Master paintings (although they are there). He talks about literature and music as well. I really enjoyed chapter 6, "The Uses of Fiction," in which Dutton makes a strong case for fiction being a product of natural selection (rather than mere by-products). Also in this chapter is the best glimpse at the argument Dutton tries to make, the idea that art (or the eponymous "art instinct") is an innate concept universal to every culture.

In that respect, I agree with Dutton's assertion that cultural relativism should not dismiss other cultures' creative works because "they don't have our concept of art." So if that is what Dutton set out to achieve with this book, then perhaps he has succeeded. But I didn't enjoy it.

This is not even a very academic book, despite constant name-dropping and enough quotations of Steven Pinker to qualify him for co-authorship. Seldom do I read a book which is just written in such an unsatisfactory way that I dislike following the author's arguments. Thus, even if Dutton has managed to convince me of his thesis, he has achieved the even greater feat of doing it while boring me too.

The Art Instinct is successful, then, in showing evolution's role in the arts. I won't dismiss all of art as stemming from evolutionary roots (and I don't think Dutton is trying to argue this, but it could easily be seen that way). Culture still has a role to play—evolution might influence the desirably body types, but fads and fashions contribute to changing representations throughout history. Even so, the way Dutton advances his argument leaves me with a distinctly apathetic attitude toward the entire book. It is very "ho-hum." Books should not just seek to convince or to move; they need to shake, to challenge, to galvanize new directions of exploration. The Art Instinct does not do this. It sort of loafs around in the lobby of one's critical cortex, half-heartedly attempting to hand leaflets to passing neurons.

I have a passing interest in aesthetics, in the sense that I have taken enough philosophy to know I need to read more about it sometime soon, lest I have a vast gap in my philosophical knowledge. Unfortunately, The Art Instinct does little to fill this gap; and while it held my aesthetic interest, it did not stoke the fire like I had hoped. Dutton's just not charismatic enough, not compelling enough, to make this book great.

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Profile Image for Billy.
174 reviews10 followers
January 22, 2014
I suspect that portions of this work were written while drunk, given the blazing confidence of some of its assertions. Dutton's exploration of what primitive, evolutionarily-derived characteristics of the human species drive our interest in making and appreciating art today is built on two premises that permeate (to the point of stifling the analysis, in my view) the exercise: (1) that there is a definable, intrinsic and essential human nature; and that (2) there is a definable, intrinsic essence of what is Art. He believes that as long as you buy (1), marketed with purportedly an appeal to scientific authority based on evolution (rather than religious dogma), he can get away with (2) and pretend that he's doing something other than shoring up orthodox assumptions about what artistic endeavors are and mean. The surface discussion of evolutionary science married to what is really a collection of philosophy of aesthetics musings seems a little gimmicky. It's old wine in a new bottle (probably labeled 'biodynamic'). He's at his most insufferable in the chapter fretting over Duchamp's Fountain, admitting finally that it does count as Art by his own criteria, but still sore about it. That said, I'll acknowledge I was delighted by the chapter on why we love fictional narratives (although even there, I think he for the convenience of his argument elides the difference between storyteller and audience). The analysis was often stimulating in its individual parts, but overall disorganized. I suspect Dutton privately intended this book to be taken as a work of Art as he defines it, (in part) as a singularly arresting window into individual genius. I pass no judgement on whether the author is himself a genius, but this work is not that - it will not end conversations (or suspend them, at least, with dazzled reverence), but it may start them. In that sense, it is like much great art - but so are a lot of other things.
Profile Image for Hande Kılıçoğlu.
173 reviews69 followers
May 29, 2017
Kitapta çok fazla imla hatası vardı.Bu yüzden özellikle son bölümleri okumakta zorlandım.
Profile Image for Flynn Evans.
129 reviews8 followers
August 13, 2019
A compelling case for the necessity of art and beauty from a purely Darwinian perspective. While I’m still not fully convinced, Dutton’s work does well in explaining the utilitarian aspects to aesthetics that many too readily neglect.
Profile Image for Simone.
9 reviews
November 17, 2011
While Dutton's theories are interesting, I find he relies to often on singular sources of knowledge, specifically Steven Pinker. While I understand Dutton is modelling his theory loosely on Pinker's developments in linguistics as an evolutionary adaptation/instinct, I think the subject matter of art as a human instinct and not a culturally infused by-product of evolution demands a wider array of sources and scientific research. Dutton also takes a significantly long-winded approach to his explanations. I did not always find his explanations or examples on target, and they were often unnecessarily repetitive, rather than adding new information. Therefore, once Dutton had come back to his point I was left wanting more sources and examples to back up the theory.

Dutton makes a good start, but his examples and follow through is lacking. Take for example chapter 5. He argues that art is not an adaptation, but also it is not a by-product. But he never really clearly defines what it is. It seems he has spent the whole chapter defining the way in which we should approach the chapter, while never really giving an explanation for how art is related to natural selection. Dutton explains that each individual piece of art gives us a unique experience that excites an intrinsic emotional reaction therefore it is not acting as a convenient replacement for going out and experiencing the same thing (ex. climbing a mountain) - meaning it is not a by-product. Well, that's all and good if you're talking about landscapes and still-lifes, but how does this apply to Suprematist, Constructivist, Neo-plastic, or Pop art? While I can theorize as to what he means - obviously the black square being the ideal "universal" form that would allow for a "universal" art means it has intrinsic value to us a human beings, if it is intrinsic it must relate to our evolution from our Pleistocene ancestors, but what Dutton should explain is exactly where this "intrinsic, emotional reaction" comes from. In my opinion, he fails to do so.

I find Dutton's arguments for fiction's evolutionary basis compelling. However, I don't think this was a very innovative take on the subject. Common sense tells us that fictional literature is still a didactic tool used to assess possible situations of conflict that may occur in our own lives, and to "deepen our grasp of human social and emotional experience." This would have been of use to our hunter-gather ancestors in forming societies, relationships, and for surviving threats. I also feel that Dutton tries to tackle too many forms of art in his analysis. In such a short book he is unable to give each topic the detail and attention it deserves.

So, I finally got to the crux of his argument. Art is the result of sexual selection. I think it best if I allow Dutton to speak for himself on this subject. What I think his ideas pare down to is that language, music, eventually the visual arts developed from a need to demonstrate to the opposite sex our fitness levels. When choosing a "mate" females look for someone who possesses the ability to provide for us - first, by being physically strong and able to protect us, and second by having considerable resources for us to live comfortably, which also suggests fitness, since these people will survive over those without resources. Men (again this is only the basic element of Dutton's arguments) look for women who will be able to give birth and carry on strong genes for the survival of the species - ie. women with wide childbearing hips - which explains the number of tiny-waisted, large hipped women in "beautiful" art. Leaving out some of the sexists implications in his arguments for present-day sexual selection, the idea that art forms represent early courtship "calls" seems a bit of a stretch. Dutton's claim that because most art shows a waste of resources leading to the assumptions that this potential mate has resources to waste (money, time, skills and knowledge that could be put to other more practical uses, but instead is applied to the relatively useless form of artistic creation) also seems ... well out-to-lunch. I slightly agree with the argument that art forms (music, literature and visual) give us a glimpse into the imaginative mind of the creator/author a response to the intrinsic desire to intimately know and understand our fellow human beings. I think that Dutton claims this also as a pursuit of fitness - understanding each other leads to strong ability to survive. But I felt he did not explain or pursue it well enough. His comparison of art to a peacock's tail feathers - an attractive feature, but unnecessary except for indicating fitness for sexual selection - also seems slightly absurd.

There was plenty of interesting facts in the book. And I feel I did learn a few things. But I don't really agree with Dutton's conclusions. It's not hard to believe we have an art instinct. Explaining it well and convincingly is the challenge. I would like someone with a strong knowledge of Darwin, evolution, and human biology to take a crack at it.
Profile Image for Lauren Albert.
1,809 reviews161 followers
August 23, 2010
There are basic logic problems here but I think Dutton's book is worth reading even if you don't agree with his theories. I like books that give me something to think about.

I tend to be a Dantonian (to coin a term)--I mostly agree with Danto's institutional theory of art. To give an example, Dutton uses his 12 criteria of "art" to look at Duchamp's readymades and to "decide" if they are truly art. He writes, "On a numerical calculation of items on the cluster criteria list, not to mention the overwhelming agreement of generations of art theorists and art historians, the answer is a resounding "Yes, [Duchamp's:] Fountain is a work of art." His "numerical calculation" shows that Fountain fits MOST of the 12 criteria. So, I ask, just how many criteria does a work have to fit in order to qualify as art? 9? 10? 11? What happens if one person says that 9 criteria are enough and another refuses to recognize a work as art if it has fulfilled less than 10? And, then, of course, we are back to the "who decides what is art" problem if we ask "And who gets to decide whether a work fits the criteria in question?" Who decides if a work reflects "skill and virtuosity" (#2), "novelty and creativity" (#4) or provides "intellectual challenge" (#10)? All of this brings us back to art's institutional being.

Have we evolved in search a way that we are likely to make and/or enjoy art? It would be silly to say no--whether or not there was "intent" behind evolution, our ears (among other things) enable us to enjoy music, our eyes, the visual arts. But I think it is a not very relevant subject. Will we find high pitched screeching sounds enjoyable? Not in a strictly auditory-aesthetic way. But as Dutton himself points out, art is capable of giving other, more intellectual pleasures. I can certainly imagine a scenario in which someone would enjoy such painful sounds. Anyone who has been to a John Cage concert knows that music can and has been defined in ways that don't consider a traditional feature like harmony. "Contingent facts about human nature," writes Dutton, "ensure not only that some things in the arts will be difficult to appreciate but that appreciation of them may be impossible." That "may" says everything. Since we can't imagine ourselves totally out of our own limited experience, there are some things that we can never imagine enjoying. But how can we ever claim that something will never be enjoyed by anyone? To do so would be to express an extreme ignorance of the amazingly diverse and ever-changing world of human artistic experience.
Profile Image for Duncan Berry.
42 reviews26 followers
April 28, 2012
A modestly competent popularization of the evolutionary psychology of artistic expression.

While there is a fairly decent representation of more recent speculations on the topic — the survival-, fitness- and sexual selection-value of artistic "activity — Dutton completely ignores the notion that the idea of an "art instinct" has a long and glorious pedigree outside the Darwinian intellectual trajectory.

When I was first thinking about these matters as an undergrad in the late-70s, there was only one author who had raised this issue. To write an entire volume with this title and NOT include a single reference to Alois Riegl (1858-1905) is simply unconscionable and irresponsible. Back then, and until the mid- to late-80s, there was only a handful of esoteric passages from Riegl available in English translation. Now, with almost his entire corpus available not only in English but in paperback, no less, there was simply no excuse to ignore this seminal thinker on the emergence, psychology, biology and history of art.

Of course, Riegl, coined the term Kunstwollen for this "art instinct," and because of its shimmering, neo-Nietzschean lexical resonances, it has been something of a lightening rod for art historians and critics since Meyer Schapiro lanced the intellectual boil that centered on its use (see Schapiro's devastating critique of the so-called "New Vienna School" of 1936, which closes the anthology published by Christopher Wood under the title The Vienna School Reader. Politics and Art Historical Method in the 1930s in 2000, over a decade before Dutton undertook his discussion).

So, while I find it to be a useful source for locating themes in the secondary and scholarly literature, this is definitely NOT a book to savor — from an aesthetic, literary or intellectual point of view.
Profile Image for Jeff.
306 reviews19 followers
December 28, 2010
For the past 50 years or so, most discussions about art and its meanings have been based in either semiotics or phenomenology. Discourse either focused on how art (in whatever medium) functioned as a language, or it focused not on the construction of art but rather the experience of the perceiver. Denis Dutton's book is part of a new trend (particularly popular in the UK, Australia & New Zealand it seems) to examine the notion that artmaking and art enjoying are part of a deeply ingrained ancestry that evolved in humans over the past 50,000 years or so. We can debate the speculative nature of this "science," but the viewpoint on the arts is refreshing, simply because it poses a "third path," if you will, to semiotics and phenomenology. Dutton is a persuasive writer. found this an enjoyable, provocative read.
Profile Image for David.
1,461 reviews
April 3, 2017
So why are the best selling calendars in Africa made up from scenes in the foothills of North America? Why are snake statues placed on buildings to frighten away birds in New Zealand when there are no snakes in the country? What makes us like art? Dutton brings several almost unconnected elements together to build his theory. I'm not sure he answers everything he brings up (or I buy it) but he made me stop to ponder quite a few things about art and culture.

Sadly he passed away recently. A wise man.
Profile Image for Roopa Dudley.
5 reviews4 followers
May 4, 2014
I was attracted to this book because of the title. It promises much but delivers little. The content was all over the place and I found it hard to read. It still has some good information and valid points in it if you can focus and read without getting distracted. I drank a few cups of coffee that helped me not fall asleep.
Profile Image for Carmel-by-the-Sea.
120 reviews16 followers
December 27, 2019
Teoria sztuki to dla mnie tematycznie raczej nieznany kontynent, stąd być może czytając o sztuce i natykając się na wiele ciekawych treści po raz pierwszy, komunikuję o tym z dyletancką szczerością. Książkę „Instynkt sztuki. Piękno, zachwyt i ewolucja człowieka” Denisa Duttona odbieram, jako przykład kolejnego obszar aktywności człowieka oglądanego przez pryzmat darwinowskich ustaleń. Autor zastanawia się, ile z motywacji pobudzających do wyrażania się przez sztukę, można wywieść z mechanizmów biologicznych. Na szczęście jego praca jest czymś daleko większym niż poszukiwania adaptacyjnych źródeł malarstwa czy muzyki. Bardzo pomocne w sprawnym poruszaniu się po kluczowych tematach książki, były wstępne uwagi Jerzego Lutego, jednocześnie tłumacza. To kawał dobrej roboty umieszczającej czasem nowatorskie tezy Duttona w odpowiedni kontekst. Bardzo mi pomogły.

„Instynkt sztuki” będąc interdyscyplinarnym spojrzeniem na istotę artyzmu, przyczynił się do poukładania w mojej głowie sporo rozproszonych myśli. Szczególnie jestem wdzięczny za piękną analizę cech charakterystycznych ‘prawdziwej sztuki’. Chyba warto czasem zapytać o fundamenty, a Dutton zrobił to świetnie w trzecim rozdziale.

Sporo przedyskutowanych tematów jest jednocześnie otwartą polemiką z kolegami i ich często snobistycznym odczytaniem wartości sztuki. Dekonstrukcji został poddany postmodernizm, relatywizm sztuki, przesadnie akcentowana wyjątkowość niszowych lokalności. Mnie przekonał do większości takich obrazoburczych tez, które zdejmują ze sztuki niepotrzebne naleciałości wydumanych mądrości daleko wykraczających poza jej zwykły subiektywny odbiór. Dutton bardzo ciekawie analizuje językiem biologicznej adaptacji sens sztuki. Zastanawia się, na ile jest faktycznie istotna do przetrwania, a co jest raczej produktem ubocznym egzystencjalnego imperatywu. Nie jest jednak rewolucjonistą, szczególnie gdy bardzo trafnie dystansuje się do wielu ludzkich współczesnych aktywności, które z racji samej swej popularności nie stają się jeszcze wartościowe (gry wideo, filmy popularne, ‘romansidła’ i telenowele, cukierkowe landschafty z kalendarzy). Nie znaczy to jednak, że zjawisk tych nie uzasadnia ludzka potrzeba o podłożu biologicznym. Szczególnie ciekawie Dutton przeanalizował uniwersalne tęsknoty za sztampowo skomponowanymi sielankowymi krajobrazami (autor podaje stosowne wyniki badań) - z błękitem nieba i zielenią traw. To nasze sawannowe dziedzictwo sprzed wielu tysięcy lat.

Na osobny komentarz zasługuje dobór płciowy, który u filozofa sztuki urasta do rangi kluczowego mechanizmu wielu emanacji kulturowych. Sam język w okresie paleolitu i neolitu, stanowiący realizację potrzeby komunikacji społecznej, poszerzono z czasem o barwny asortyment prawdziwych, domniemanych, mitologicznych czy zupełnie fikcyjnych narracji, które spełniały wiele ról – od analogii do pawiego ogona, po pełnowymiarową potrzebę przepracowania moralnych wyborów na przyszłość. Literatura, muzyka i malarstwo stały się estetyczną potrzebą ekspresji. Przyjemność zaczęła przeplatać się z artyzmem, użytkowość z mistycznymi i religijnymi symbolami. Całość w czasach historycznych zbudowała ostatecznie wielopoziomowy kulturowy tygiel. Taka, jakoby niepojęta złożoność kodów, u autora „Instynktu sztuki” sprowadzona została, jeśli to było możliwe, do naturalistycznego kontekstu. Dobrym podsumowaniem tego akurat wątku przemyśleń, są syntetyczne słowa:

„Nasze estetyczne gusty i zainteresowania nie tworzą racjonalnego systemu dedukcyjnego, są raczej przypadkowym splotem adaptacji, przedłużeń adaptacji i szczątkowych upodobań oraz preferencji estetycznych. Ewoluowały po to, aby zachwycać i urzekać nasze oczy, uszy i umysły – a nie po to, by stworzyć jakiś logiczny system albo ułatwić intelektualne życie teoretykom estetyki. Oczywiście większość z nas chciałaby wierzyć, że cokolwiek uznajemy za piękne, jest piękne zawsze i pod każdą szerokością geograficzną.”

W tle takich dyskusji antropologicznych, Datton rozprawia się z licznymi niechcianymi czy zbyt wysublimowanymi naleciałościami na kulturowe wytwory ludzkości. Atonalność, ‘sztuka’ Duchampa czy Manzoniego, reprodukcje, rękodzieła i sztuka ludowa to przykłady przepracowanych zjawisk pod kątem kunsztu, kiczu czy pretensjonalności. Przy okazji tych analiz, pozbierałem sporo porad praktycznych ułatwiających poruszanie się w sztuce – takich cennych ‘meta-porad’.

„Instynkt sztuki” to ciekawa lektura, napisana dość przystępnym dla laika językiem. Datton nie zamyka się w hermetycznym kodzie, a przykłady zjawisk czerpie i z pop-kultury. Z drugiej strony przemyca sporo kluczowych kwestii, z których część jest w środowisku mocno dyskusyjna. Przez to taki czytelnik jak ja czuje, że uczestniczy w żywej debacie. Książka warta była poświęconego jej czasu.

DOBRE 7.5/10

Profile Image for Serge.
344 reviews
September 14, 2023
While I remain skeptical of this thought experiment in evolutionary aesthetics, I found the line of argumentation fascinating. I agree with Dutton that “ art works are the most complex and diverse human achievements, creations of free human will and conscious execution” and that “art-making requires rational choice, intuitive talent, and the highest levels of learned, not innate, skills.” The Komar and Melamid People’s Choice project is an inspired starting point: how does one explain the near universal appeal of the blue landscape? Danto’s paradigm theory is one approach. It is clear that certain characteristics of landscapes continue to evoke emotional human responses, revealed in basic, prerational longings and desires. Dutton revisits Platonic criticism of art (“always merely an imitation of an imitation”) and the Aristotelian understanding of mimesis (“human beings are born image-makers and image-enjoyers”). Dutton notes that (according to Aristotle)” we are captivated to see representations of objects that would disgust us in real life”). Dutton next introduces Hume to this philosophy of art conversation (“Hume is acutely sensible to the fact that people frequently disagree in their aesthetic judgments…. Our uniform human nature… would ensure that people’s aesthetic judgments agreed with each other, were it not for the fact that this same uniform human nature is also prone to systematic mistakes and types of corruption.”) He rounds out classics with Kant and his understanding of disinterestedness (“Judgments about beauty are logically separate from mere personal, idiosyncratic preferences since they are founded in the disinterested contemplation of works of art. For Kant they are about the way the free play of the imagination combines with rational understanding to give us the pleasure of aesthetic experience.”)
When Dutton turns to the loaded question “What is art?” he offers a 12 point list: 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 then tackles “aesthetics as a cross-cultural category”. He leans on Danto’s Pot People and Basket People conjecture to argue that “interpretations are what constitute works.” This is his opportunity to introduce Darwinian theory to explain how we make these interpretations in light of sexual selection for example. Some of our uses of fiction meet our evolutionary needs. Dutton sets out to “reverse-engineer the improbable but manifestly human urge to both make fictions and enjoy them.” He relies on insights from E.O. Wilson’s Consilience about human evolution in the Pleistocene. With respect to sexual selection , Dutton comments on its effects on cave paintings at Lascaux, the Venus of Willendorf, and tattoos on Ice Man (Otzi). He concludes that “sexual selection explains the will of human beings to charm and interest each other. At the same time, it explains why we can regard each other now and again as so charming and interesting. We find beautiful artifacts—carvings, poems, stories, arias—captivating because at a profound level we sense that they take us into the minds that made them.”
The best parts of the last third of the book are Dutton’s thoughts on intention, forgery, and Marcel Duchamp. The Han Van Meegeren forgery episode is spellbinding. Dutton reintroduces Kant to accentuate a point about disinterested contemplation before winding up for his big finish on the contingency of aesthetic values. He categorically states the following four assertions: 1) the arts are not essentially social; 2) the arts are not just crafts; 3) the arts are not essentially religious or moral or political; and 4) high-art traditions demand individuality. I am grateful that my colleague and AP Art History co-teacher Carrie suggested this book. It frames many of our classroom discussions well.
655 reviews10 followers
March 15, 2020
Art, as a subject of awe, wonder, revelation, emotion, appreciation, and more, has been with us since we developed sentience. This book traces with support from evolution as explained by Darwin and others how the appreciation of a landscape vista or a well sung song or well played musical instrument, follows an evolutionary path.
Book subtitle -- Beauty, Pleasure and human evolution is telling and compelling.

Children "grow" language as a natural extension of mental life. p. 30

And along the way the arts were born. p.46
[law] The judge is obliged, however, to be a disinterested observer with no vested interests in the outcome of the case. p. 104
The mind uses fiction to explore and solve life problems in the imagination. p. 110
[Geoffrey Miller] Language puts minds on public display. p. 161 !!!!!!
Laurent Stern has claimed that if we agree that a text is a work of art, "then among two competing interpretations that may equally fit the text, the one which assigns greater value and significanc to the text will be preferred." p. 17
Pride and Prejudice is play, make-believe for grown-ups. p. 174
Speech performances, especially artistic speech performances, are Darwinian fitness indicators: ways of judging the wit, originality, or general cleverness of a person. p. 175
. . . art-saturated ceremonies * * * They may be designed to impress the gods and convey messages about order and meaning in the cosmos, but they build stronger societies along the way. * * *
Leo Tolstoy's What is Art? provides a hilarious eyewitness account of an opera rehearsal. p. 224
. . . true arts, which by his definition must tie together the human community. p. 225
The ultimate reference point for kitsch is always me: my needs, my tastes, my deep feelings, my worthy interests, my admirable morality. * * * (Authentic literary sophistication would be better evidenced by a shelf of dog-eared, broken spine paperbacks of Moby-Dick, Middlemarch, and the like, But that would require reading the books. p. 241
We forget how close wee remain to the prehistoric women and men who first found beauty in the world. p. 243

Profile Image for Aldo Campos.
Author 1 book5 followers
August 13, 2017
There are two main ways in which evolution works: natural selection and sexual selection. Dutton argues that our sense of aesthetics and our apreciation of art come from the later (in the afterword, he points out that it also comes from group selection, but that's a contentious theory and not everyone agrees, myself included, that group selection even exists). Art, the author says, is fitness signaling, in the same way a colourful bird is saying 1) "I'm healthy, look at my feathers!" and 2) "even with all these colours, I can outlive my predators." We admire artists because they are demostrating a skill useless for survival: "look, I have lots of energy to produce all these stuff that doesn't work for anything." Even modern works of art as Duchamp's Fountain are signaling the cleverness of the author. He also describes how storytelling, as theater, opera and novels, was debeloped as a mean to survival. Of our ancestors, those who had the capacity to tell stories had a survival advantage over those who didn't.

I agree with most of the arguments by the author, though I wish they where developed a little bit further and in greater depth.
477 reviews20 followers
February 25, 2019
Overlaps with other stuff I've read recently, but still a fair amount of good unique information (especially in way it applies concepts to particular art examples). Many of the most important arguments for aesthetic grounds and ways we should talk about the arts I agree with, but I think the book more served to clarify my thoughts on topics than to introduce me to new ones. Furthermore, I think Dutton is profoundly wrong that "evolutionary psychology" can be the bedrock of study of the arts. What more is there to say after this book? I'm sure there are new studies/findings that could reveal things on the margins, but the sheer comprehensiveness of this work indicates the insufficiency of evolutionary language for discussing the arts. But it is definitely a useful/interesting tool to have, and one that should likely serve as a reference point more than it typically does. (Also this book was plagued by Augustinian conception thinking which bothered me a lot, probably only because I'm also simultaneously reading Wittgenstein.)
Profile Image for Peter Crofts.
231 reviews22 followers
February 6, 2022
I was only able to read three pages before losing interest. That's probably my own biases at play, particularly toward great "aht" of our own culture, those who define what it is (whom by and large don't actually create anything themselves), and their tiresome need to categorize expression and bury vitality. A solution in search of a problem, a know it all tome for the modern Olympian.

Yep, this book really bothered me, and all it took was several pages. For all of its supposed cutting edge analysis, at least it is according to the author himself, it struck me as a stuffy piece of high Victorian preening.

Dutton considers it high time that Darwin meets art, good for him, maybe some day we'll see it actually attempted. Although to do so we'll have to move beyond assuming that the West and its notion of linear progress is somehow the way things are because that's the way things work. Obnoxious false inevitables, we used to call it imperialism. colonialism etc. Astonishing to see their return, and, as always it's so very stiff and so very stale.
January 4, 2021
Fue un libro interesante que te enseña cosas curiosas sobre el arte. Pensábamos que era lo que nos había jumamos y luego vemos como una especie de aves usa la costumbre de decorar y hacer piezas de arte para cortejar a otro pajarito. Datos así son los que te da el libro otro que recuerdo es como muestran que la mayoría de personas tienen como obras de arte favoritas los paisajes de la naturaleza.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Smith.
104 reviews2 followers
September 28, 2020
This book presented a really interesting idea, and while I largely followed the argument, there were little to no citations or explanations of scientific articles, studies, or hypotheses, just artistic ones. I think this book would have been a lot stronger if it rested less on speculation and more on demonstrating scientific theories.
Profile Image for Daniel Parsons.
33 reviews
April 5, 2023
The description of this book seemed interesting but it wasn't a gripping read for me. It's a comprehensive look at art through the ages, but seems like a masters thesis that doesn't really make any strong points. I appreciate the research that went into it, but that book was really tough for me to get through. I almost gave up on it a number of times.
Profile Image for Josh Eckert.
6 reviews1 follower
March 14, 2018
I've read it multiple times. It's the best, most comprehensive book on the psychology of art (and I've read them all). It stands alone--it makes sense if you haven't read anything of the psychology or philosophy of art.
Profile Image for Taylor Prewitt.
24 reviews
October 22, 2019
Really thought-provoking, gets the gears turning about the place of art in our lives as physiological beings.

Especially liked the parts about fiction.
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