The Art Instinct Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution

Denis Dutton

Bloomsbury Press




288 Pages



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Denis Dutton's 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.


Praise for The Art Instinct

"[Dutton's] discussion of the arts and of our responses to them is uniformly insightful and penetrating . . . he touches on all the major issues of aesthetics in this fairly short book and invariably illuminates them . . . Dutton's eloquent account sheds light on the role art plays in our lives, whatever its ultimate origins"—Anthony Gottlieb, The New York Times Book Review

"The Art Instinct is a brisk, bracingly confident performance . . . an unusually stimulating venture in aesthetics."—Julian Bell, The New York Review of Books

"An important book that raises questions often avoided in contemporary aesthetics and art criticism . . . He has woven a powerful plea for the notion that art expresses a longing to see through the performance or object to another human personality."—Michael S. Roth, Los Angeles Times

"As he observes in his provocative new book, The Art Instinct, people the world over are weirdly driven to create beautiful things . . . Dutton is an elegant writer, and his book should be admired for its attempt to close the gap between art and science."—Jonah Lerner, The Washington Post

"A hard-hitting amalgamation of critical theory and evolutionary science . . . Cogent and exhilarating."—The Atlantic Monthly

"A substantial contribution to the debate we ought to be having."—Martin Kemp, New Scientist

"Mr. Dutton's book is anything but strident. He argues his thesis—that art-making evolved among humans as a means of demonstrating physical and cognitive fitness to potential mates, and that this fundamental reality provides the best answer we can give to the question "What is art?"—with almost old-fashioned politeness toward his adversaries. And that, perhaps, is the best way to read The Art Instinct: as a guided tour of the great landmarks of the philosophy of art—aesthetic theory explained, modified and refuted with patience and fluency by a writer whose mind was apparently formed well in advance of the meme-ocracy it helped to create."—Damian Da Costa, New York Observer

"This book marks out the future of humanities—connecting aesthetics and criticism to an understanding of human nature from the cognitive and biological sciences . . . A bold and original contribution."—Steven Pinker, author of How the Mind Works and The Stuff of Thought

"Denis Dutton's title is also his conclusion. In 250 elegant pages, he demonstrates that aesthetics are linked at the profoundest level to our biological and cognitive prehistory, and that our 'tastes'—those famously wavering and manipulable urges—emerged in the Pleistocene, and haven't changed in essentials since then."—Brian Morton, The Guardian (UK)

"A wonderful, mind-changing book . . . a rich and persuasive argument for the centrality of art in our evolution . . . Dutton's arguments are coherent and convincing."—Peter Forbes, The Independent (UK)

"Dutton's prose is direct, entertaining and stylish. He never pulls his punches. Unlike most works on aesthetics, this book is a great read."—Nigel Warburton, Prospect (UK)

"Matching such a refined sensibility to the explanatory demands of Darwinian biology makes The Art Instinct a riotous—and irresistibly followable—marriage."—Edmund Fawcett, Royal Academy Magazine (UK)

"The Art Instinct gives a comprehensive survey of the field, written with fluency, wit, and wide erudition."—John Derbyshire, New Criterion

"Why do we human beings make art? . . . That is the question raised and answered, more or less, in this intriguing book. Author Dennis Dutton teaches philosophy, has done archaeological work in New Guinea and is founder of the popular Arts & Letters Daily Web site. Art's appeal, he argues, is lodged in our genes and in the genes of our Ice-Age ancestors, those shaggy forebears who first painted cave walls and told stories around the campfire."Dallas Morning News

"If you care about art writ large as a miraculous bounty for the world, or only for your own selfish sake, The Art Instinct should impress you as the most shrewd, precisely written and provocative study you'll find on its topic's place in human nature."Philadelphia Inquirer

"The Art Instinct offers fresh and liberating ideas while demonstrating Dutton's profound sense of curiosity and his willingness to take risks while dealing with puzzling and largely fragmentary pre-history."—Robert Fulford, National Post (Canada)

"Dutton brings to this task a gentle and incisive wit, abundant learning well-grounded in the social sciences and humanities, and an infectious enthusiasm for art and humanity of all sorts."—Peter Berkowitz, Policy Review

"[A] peacock's tail of a book. Taking us on a world tour of creative masterpieces and exploiting a rich spectrum of the mind's resources, Dutton succeeds in persuading us that we will never understand human culture unless we understand human nature."—John Onians, Wilson Quarterly

"Full of observations that again demonstrate [Dutton's] uncanny ability to collect complex arguments and present them as thought-provoking statements."—James Panero, City Journal

"Vigorous and wonderfully provocative."—Todd Shy, Raleigh News & Observer

"Pugnacious, witty and entertaining first book by prolific essayist and critic Dutton . . . Picking up where evolutionary psychologists like Steven Pinker leave off in their investigations into the origins of human language and other mental phenomena . . . even those who disagree with these opinions will find his manifesto scintillatingly written and not to be missed—even the end notes are indispensable . . . Promises to instigate a lively conversation about the origins and meaning of art, not only among the author's peers in academia, but also in the culture at large."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"Founder and editor of the highly trafficked Web site Arts & Letters Daily, Dutton proposes a fascinating account of the possible evolutionary roots of aesthetics and the arts. Taking off from a meditation on America's Most Wanted, a painting done in the mid-1990s by expatriate Soviet artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid to satisfy the artistic preferences of Americans as expressed in polls, focus groups, and town hall meetings, he eventually considers the full range of arts, from literature to music, carefully tracing the adaptive and sexually selective benefits in each case. Along the way, he raises many of the central issues of the philosophy of art, including the definition of art, the role of the artist's intention in interpreting and evaluating artworks, the problem of forgery, the paradox of Dada, the nature of aesthetic value, and greatness in art. Dutton's philosophically responsible and illuminating treatment of these in terms of evolutionary aesthetics, written in sprightly and jargon-free prose, cannot fail to interest and perhaps even convince readers who approach this controversial topic with an open mind. Essential. All academic and public libraries."—R. Bonzon, Choice magazine

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  • Denis Dutton

  • Denis Dutton is the founder and editor of the hugely popular Web site Arts & Letters Daily, named by the Guardian as the best Web site in the world. He also founded and edits the journal Philosophy and Literature, and is a professor of the philosophy of art at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand.