Duncan Berry's Reviews > The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution

The Art Instinct by Denis Dutton
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Apr 28, 2012

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bookshelves: art-history, history, neuro, theory

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.
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