Monday 9 February 2009

Instinctive Art

On 14 January 2009, Denis Dutton gave a talk at Google headquarters, to discuss his recent book The art instinct. You can view Dutton's talk by clicking here, and you can read a micro-review of his book in our archive of Books on the Psychology of Fiction, by clicking here. Dutton asks: where do the intuitions of art come from? They are adaptations, he says. This makes it possible to understand art across the range of human cultures.

Here is a list of some of the characteristics of art, of a kind that emerge if one looks across cultures in this way. Works of art:
• provide people with direct pleasure, they are ends in themselves
• require the exercise of skills and virtuosity
• tend to be made in styles
• are characterized by creativity and novelty
• have a special focus, and often involve expense
• involve expressive individuality, each has someone behind it
• are surrounded by critical commentary
• involve intellectual challenge, they use a lot of the brain
• tend to be characterized by emotional saturation
• provide imaginative experience and make-believe worlds.

With a list like this, says Dutton, you can see unity across cultures. You can then also see the list in terms of an ensemble of adaptations. We are descended from beings who had these adaptations. Three important indications are that art gives pleasure, it is found in all cultures, and it develops spontaneously. In the Pleistocene, human personality was formed: our likes and dislikes. Our ancestors avoided snakes and high places. They enjoyed sex, puzzles, and stories. Stories allow for forecasting, but at low cost. They enable us to learn lessons, for instance about hunting but without the danger of the hunt. They encourage us to explore points of view of others. We are the descendants of the survivors in evolution, and the survivors were those who had these inclinations. Those in the past who did have these dislikes and likes were not our ancestors, because they did not survive.

You can think also, says Dutton, in terms of sexual selection. Story-tellers are virtuosi, who squander resources and brainpower. They offer displays that are like the peacock's tail, which is a signal of fitness. Peahens choose the peacocks with the most impressive tails. So alongside natural selection, is sexual selection. Many of the values seen in art are seen in courtship, for instance the wasteful display of useless things like flowers for someone taken out to an expensive meal. Works of art are often made of expensive materials. They have usually taken time and skill to create. These features implies status. Women prefer men who have resources, skills, and status.

What about women artists? Maybe that's for the next book.

Denis Dutton (2009). The art instinct: Beauty, pleasure, and human evolution. New York: Bloomsbury.

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