The Art Instinct


America’s Most Wanted, Komar&Melamid

The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution, by Dennis Dutton, Oxford University Press 2009.

This book tackles the relation between current art practices and drives (‘instincts’) established in the Pleistocene era, when humans as we currently know them first appeared. It argues that these drives originally had an evolutionary purpose, including sexual selection and other factors affecting ‘survival of the fittest’.  But just what is this ‘fitness’?

Evidently it refers to successful competition for a mate, and to other attributes that helped our ancestors to survive the trials of prehistoric life. But it can also explain apparent anomalies, like the male peacock’s cumbersome tail, which requires great resources to produce, and led to a ‘fitter’ individual. Not only did such factors have ‘survival value’ in demonstrating superior fitness, but, according to Dutton, also benefited the group through enhanced communication and the ability to enter into other people’s minds. Warning cries or intuiting a stranger’s intentions are advantageous, but other forms of empathy are perhaps mixed blessings: the advantage of an instinct being that it bypasses conscious thought. However, once you begin to stretch the criteria for ‘survival’ there is a danger of having your evolutionary cake and eating it.

Dutton’s thesis is that these needs or impulses connect to our experience of art, both as creators and spectators, and provide evidence for what he calls a ‘Darwinian aesthetics’. This links modern art experiences to the formative period of human nature, and so attempts to justify art at its root. Ellen Dissanayake’s ‘Homo Aestheticus’ follows a similar line but with a less pronounced evolutionary slant. However, Dutton’s book is robustly argued and would provide an excellent introduction for anyone not yet familiar with the field.

Dutton maps out the foundations for an evolutionary theory of art in Chapter Three, defining twelve ‘surface features’ that characterise art. However, the list includes features whose relevance to Pleistocene mentality is questionable: ‘novelty and creativity’, ‘expressive individuality’, ‘emotional saturation’ and ‘imaginative experience’.  We simply do not know to what extent the relatively late cave paintings in Lascaux, say, had such qualities for their original audience. Furthermore, on account of the latent functionalism of evolutionary aesthetics, Dutton has to emphasise the more immediate and life-imitating aspects of art. Later in the work, he argues that art provides a window into the minds of others, so fakes enrage us because we have been conned into accepting a forged personality.

Likewise, he says the emotional charge of works of art is directly linked to recognisable life-situations, but admits that they can also have a more diffuse ‘emotional contour’. However, there seems little room for art, especially music, to deal in complex ‘feelings’ that aren’t readily identifiable in everyday terms. The most important item on his list is ‘imaginative experience’. For Dutton this amounts to art taking place in a ‘make-believe world’, but there is far more to it than that: the world of fiction can sometimes be more real than the ‘real’ world, and the imaginative spectrum across which we respond includes fantasies and projections that are hard to justify using evolutionary aesthetics. In other words, it’s hard to put a strict ‘survival’ value on experiences that may enrich us, but that serve no obvious ‘function’. I think here of Kant’s often misunderstood ‘disinterestedness’ in relation to judgements of beauty in art, from which desire or appetite are absent or only present in a translated or sublimated form.

To be fair, Dutton’s list is a cluster: something can be a work of art without ticking all the boxes, but the list is, as he says, ‘a useful guide for assessing hard, marginal or borderline cases of art’ (p. 62). Like Dissanayake, he seeks to establish a universal phenomenon recognisable to us as ‘art’, which can be identified as such in all cultures. He takes a very no-nonsense approach to cultural theorists who claim that this is a projection on our part, and his experience of fieldwork in New Guinea gives him added credibility. If art is such a widespread activity, then we must ask why: are we simply wired up that way, or is there a more complicated, deep-seated rationale for it? Dutton’s thesis is that Darwinian evolution provides the basic key to answering this question.

Evolutionary theory, according to Dutton, distinguishes between adaptations e.g. larger brains, which serve the purposes of survival or reproduction, and by-products of these adaptations, which, no matter how interesting or significant they may appear to us, do not serve such functions. He accepts the fact that ‘the arts … are commonly thought to be good for us in any number of ways, giving us a sense of well-being or comfort’ , and that this is not enough to give them an evolutionary justification. Are they therefore to be seen as ‘non-adaptive by-products’ (as Stephen Pinker calls them)? Dutton’s solution is to sidestep this dilemma:

…a Darwinian aesthetics will achieve explanatory power neither by proving that art forms are adaptations nor by dismissing them as by-products, but by showing how their existence and character are connected to Pleistocene preferences and capacities.’ (p. 96)

This has to be done by a retrospective process:

…what evolutionary aesthetics asks for is to reverse-engineer our present tastes- beginning with those that appear to be spontaneous and universal- in order to understand where they came from. (p. 101)

In effect, this connection is assumed to be sufficiently direct to serve as a causal explanation.

Early in the book, Dutton deals with the issue of our collective preferences for certain types of landscape (wittily condensed in a reproduced Komar & Melamid painting ‘America’s Most Wanted’ (1994)). Let’s take for granted the plausible hypothesis that our Pleistocene ancestors found certain types of savannah landscape attractive, mainly for reasons of survival. There is, however, what could be called a gradient of causality between Palaeolithic preferences for certain landscapes, our current and actual enjoyment of these, and the liking for fairly literal representations of them in art. At what point does what began as ‘evolutionary adaptation’ translate into something so far removed from its origin that the term has questionable explanatory value? The ‘survival’ here might be less to do with the evolutionary pressures once applied to humans and more to do with something that has become an irrelevant atavism.

The explanatory scales are also tipped by a surreptitious anthropomorphism applied to abstract concepts: natural selection has ‘objectives’, evolution ‘achieves’, genes ‘make us enjoy’, and ‘build’ brains, and sexual selection ‘commandeers’ certain features (pp 43-4). To counterbalance this Neo-Darwinian pantomime, Dutton has to give human sociality an equal evolutionary justification and function.

‘Human nature, so evolutionary aesthetics insists, sets limits on what culture and the arts can accomplish with the human personality and its tastes … the vast realm of cultural constructions is created by a mind whose underlying interests, preferences, and capacities are products of human prehistory.’(p. 206)

But just what is this ‘human nature’, and what is the status of these ‘prehistorical’ factors that might elsewhere be described as merely evolutionary? The problem is that human nature is not straightforwardly natural: and even what seems most obviously to serve reproduction might be subject to alteration, as in the different functional values currently assigned to male and female orgasm, as instanced by Dutton.

Dutton claims that, despite calling in the authority of ‘evolution’ (something I shall return to) his thesis is not reductive:

‘Paradoxically, it is evolution- most significantly, the evolution of imagination and intellect- that enables us to transcend even our animal selves, and it is a purpose of this book to show how natural and sexual selection placed Homo Sapiens in this odd situation.’ (p 9)

This, of course, begs the question: if we have transcended our animal selves (by which I take him to mean the ‘instincts’ laid down in the Pleistocene), then how much explanatory weight can we still put on them, particularly in relation to what we now think of as ‘art’?

Furthermore, whilst certain patterns of behaviour may have been reinforced for tens of thousands of years, and become so automatic that they may appear to be ‘instinctual’, it’s arguable that the accelerating pace of cultural and technological change in the last couple of thousand years has radically revised ‘human nature’. Dutton asserts that ‘Art may seem largely cultural, but the art instinct that conditions it is not’ (p. 206). This can be taken to mean two different things: on the one hand that the prehistoric conditions remain immutable simply because they are the foundation of all that follows; and on the other, it could mean they are at work in essentially the same way as they were fifty thousand years ago. I would certainly question the latter. If these factors have been operating to a greater or lesser extent for so long, does that make them primary or more important than any others?

Why, then, should we want to invoke the authority of evolution to justify art? One answer is that, although science was once closer to art, the relationship between the two has become characterised by a degree of mutual suspicion and hostility. One of Dutton’s key ingredients for ‘art’ involves the enhancement of imaginative experience; yet imagination and fantasy are faculties that are ostensibly excluded from empirical science. The very nature of our aesthetic experience, let alone the psychological benefits of artistic creativity, seems to shrink under experimental investigation: hence the problematic nature of empirical investigations of responses to works of art, such as tracked eye-movements. However, if we can demonstrate that these features have a sound evolutionary pedigree, then it seems as if art has a functional justification, and one with a built-in scientific basis.

I can understand the pressures behind this need, but I don’t think it is either desirable or necessary to invoke evolution in order to satisfy it. Furthermore, the expanding range of psychological experience involved in art today, and the complications of modern human nature, mean that evolutionary aesthetics has to discount their importance and see through to what supposedly lies underneath. Such appeals to the lowest common denominator have a tendency to disqualify these ‘superstructure’ features in favour of those alleged to be originary and therefore essential. If the real explanation for, or justification of, art is to be couched in terms of evolutionary survival value, then what is the status of features such as sublimation or catharsis, for example, that have been assigned a secondary status? At least Dutton’s stimulating and argumentative book will bring such questions back into the debate.

The Art Instinct Video:

David MacLagan

David MacLagan is a writer, artist, lecturer and retired art therapist, living in W Yorks. He has published numerous articles on Outsider Art, art and imagination and psychological aesthetics (the title of a book published in 2001 by Jessica Kingsley). His latest book Outsider Art: from the margins to the marketplace has just been published by Reaktion Books.