The Art Instinct

A critical review of the principal premises of Dennis Dutton’s book “The Art Instinct”.

(Non-Fiction: essay, 2000 words)

In “The Art Instinct”, Dennis Dutton describes our appreciation of aesthetics and historical inclination to create artifacts as a natural extension of the sexual selection process, taking on the daunting task of reducing the nebulous concept of art to a simple, unified biological theory. The artistic individual has a biological advantage over peers, his ability to create proving a distinguishing criterion upon which to be selected as a fit mate. On first glance, Dutton’s comprehensive anthropological research and his ample reference to the works of Darwin make for a fairly persuasive argument, undeniably confirming basic observation of the modern world: we all seem to exhibit an instinct to create aesthetically pleasing things. However, “The Art Instinct” may be an overly ambitious project in attempting to create a cross-cultural definition of what can and cannot be art. Dutton’s critique of post-modernism appears to be a red herring thrown in when he is finally faced with the largest inherent flaw of his theory: if art originates in nature, then nurture cannot regulate its forms.

There are three divergent trains of thought here. The first is that art making is an instinct, which I will briefly address as it seems to be an obvious truth. The second is that some art is a direct function of this biological instinct, while other art is just a natural and logical aberration.

This appears to be a subjective matter and Dutton’s dislike of postmodernism appears to be rooted in the movement’s stubborn refusal to fit into his narrow model. The third idea is that art is an adaptive trait and a part of the sexual selection process akin to the peacock’s colourful plume. The art instinct, the definition of art and the purpose of art as exhibited by human beings are three separate issues and in his attempt to collapse them into one theory, Dutton commits a grave act of oversimplification that tremendously weakens his argument. The result of these premises are Dutton’s “characteristics of art”, but because the concept they are referring to is so vague to begin with, the twelve criteria are nothing more than lowest common denominators that could satisfy many items that he does not consider art, including the much loathed postmodern artifacts.

The instinct to create is undeniable. Humans as a species are unambiguously characterized by their creativity, expressed in an ability to manipulate resources for survival. Tool making as a skill was passed on through generations, as the individuals who discovered this ability were in a Darwinian sense superior. On the debate between nature and nurture, there simply has to be a biological origin to this tendency. Culture cannot create an innate desire in someone who has never encountered it before. It can only influence people who have seen and comprehend culture and art to some degree. The desire to create has clearly been exhibited by people for whom either or both of these are false.

This assertion alone bears some resemblance to Pinker’s discussion of the language instinct. It relies upon an assumption that either art or culture predated the other and one is subservient to the latter. My belief is that that an individual’s experience of culture starts when that individual meaningfully communicates with another in their species. On the other hand, “art making” is exhibited by individuals who have no understanding of what culture is. The Lascaux cave paintings 16,000 years ago depicted hunting scenes. Could that not be an attempt at proto-communication, establishing the premises of a culture centered around this practice? If so, the desire to create art derives from a desire to communicate, before the individual producing it was in any way able to comprehend the notion of society. So far, supporting art making as a more primal instinct than creating culture is parallel to Dutton’s thesis of the biological origins of art.

The argument here is that aesthetic representation is the forefather of modern communication and culture, in that specific order. Human beings had an instinct to create which manifested itself in the emergence of art, tools, language, social contracts and so forth. All these notions are interrelated through the same biological predisposition. However, isolating artifact making in particular as an adaptive trait used in sexual selection is much more problematic. This is a far more powerful statement than simply claiming the human species instinctually began creating art; it is a question of why art exists, and should likely be the premise of an entirely separate academic volume.

Mate selection is a crucial determinant in the genetic outcome of a species. Darwin argued that the fittest will ultimately survive by passing on their biological traits through offspring. Outside of the human species, aesthetics also appear to have a part in the sexual selection process and provide an adaptive advantage. One of the most famous examples of this assertion is the peacock’s tail. The bird’s colourful plumage is a means to attract mates and has obviously proven to be effective, as all peacocks now exhibit the same intricate arrangement. Thus the crude answer to why peacocks are aesthetically pleasing is simply “because the peahen found it appealing”.

The same cannot be said about human art making (including artifacts, self-adornment and architecture), simply because not all individual’s are, by Dutton’s definition, good artists. Some may exhibit a “natural talent” for art making but if this trait was so crucial to sexual selection, 16,000 years should have been more than enough for all non-artists to be bred out of existence. Aesthetics alone cannot be a ground for sexual selection in humans; the creative instinct that resulted in art making and appreciation however can. This creative instinct and its numerous permutations (dance, tool making, communication) manifests itself in numerous species. A lot of animals behave in ways that would support the theory. If Dutton wanted to make a sexual argument, he could bring up a lot of species that perform mating dances, sing, and bring each other shinny objects, and probably make a case that it results from a similar instinct. There is no reason why art absolutely has to be an evolutionary advantage. Nevertheless the previous observation precludes any possibility of it being cultural (at least by the contemporary definition of this concept).

Dutton however, seems to confuse instances of discussing biological instincts and the social institutions that legitimizes “fine art”. In attempting to establish what is art, he creates a list of cross-cultural “characteristic features” that delineate the cluster definition of the notion (50). They are followed by a disclaimer that art-making takes on many forms that may not satisfy all twelve “aspects” or that “non-art” experience may incidentally qualify by these standards. With that, Dutton’s cluster is nothing more than the lowest common denominators of all creative endeavours. While they all hold true for some incarnations of Western art, they are in no way exhaustive or able to provide a useful definition of art. It’s a lot like saying “red things may be tomatoes and thus edible”. Eating poisonous red berries thinking they are tomatoes however has much greater repercussions than “accidentally” labeling non-art as art. Rather than defining art, Dutton’s analytical skill would be put to much better use elaborating why art continues to exist. His sexual selection theory certainly did not provide a sufficiently compelling argument for the prevalence of artifact making.
While Dutton draws some interesting parallels between natural sciences and cultural analysis, the marriage of the two seems a tad unfortunate in this context. There is no real danger to an individual of the human species in accidentally ingesting some form of non-art. If Dutton wishes to root his argument in biology, this discipline employs much graver consequences for misdefinition and making such nebulous assertions in regards to the properties of an object. Poisonous red fruits mistaken for tomatoes could eradicate an entire tribe. Marcel Duchamp’s fountain has yet to kill anyone. Dutton’s “The Art Instinct” is an interesting thought experiment, but not necessarily a matter of life and death. He alludes that art-making was once a determinant in human evolution and failure to procreate could very well wipe out a species. However, I remain unconvinced that art in particular was a crucial ground for sexual selection entirely abstracted from the overall human creative nature.
The introduction of “cultural institutions”, art critics, “public discourse” and “audience” (54) into a question of biological determinism is also very awkward. I stand by my previous assertion that the art instinct manifests itself in individuals who have no understanding of culture or have not yet been indoctrinated into the social contract Dutton seems to refer to. If 16,000 years ago art was a proto-language, it is difficult to imagine an individual delivering a scathing criticism of it in a newspaper column. The only manner in which this could be achieved would be if said individual then used the same medium to create a new piece of art of higher aesthetic or cultural worth than his predecessor. This would constitute the inception of art history, where a new artifact is a commentary or refinement upon an earlier one. While undoubtedly plausible, this evolution of art entirely legitimizes the goals of the postmodernist movement which Dutton found problematic in its tendency to subvert cultural institutions and bite the hand of the artistic community that fed it.

Postmodern art is at odds with the cultural institutions that have previously elevated the works of certain individuals. The inclusion of the term culture however hints at a social order established based on nurture or learned behaviour. From the biological perspective that Dutton advocates, Duchamp shares the same creative instinct exhibited by Pleistocene tool makers, sub-Saharan tribe dancers and Van Gogh. Even the term “readymade” implies a critique or commentary upon a preexisting object. The perceived aesthetic or cultural worth of the new form of art I previously mentioned is a subjective interpretation, a private dialog between the audience and the artist. The small amount of interaction between the artist and the art object (minimalism) cannot be used as a grounds to dismiss it as non-art, especially for Dutton who is trying to create a cross-cultural definition of the concept. He certainly makes no distinction between tribal ritual dances that may involve a simple stamping of the feet with repetitive chanting and Bollywood or Broadway musical productions.

I found it useful to study “The Art Instinct” in two different manners. First one can take Dutton’s argument at face value and attempt to see the connection between nature and the art phenomenon from the Pleistocene to modern times. Secondly, one can also view Dutton’s work as a product of the cultural institutions he discusses, and the writer himself as a modern incarnation of the same age old creative instinct. There is no question that human beings are innately creative. As for what is “art”, if we are to take a scientific approach, we could conduct a double-blind study with 50,000 participants around the world in an attempt to discover the “most-wanted” piece, just as Komar and Melamid had (13). However this would not be indicative of what “art” is and we could at best extrapolate vague recurring themes as Dutton has with calendars. It remains ambiguous though whether these themes are a product of nature or nurture.

Duchamp’s “Fountain” was recognized as the most influential artwork of the 20th century by many members of the artistic institution Dutton proposes. Whether he feels this is art or not is a subjective matter and therefore a cultural debate not a biological one. Dutton simply cannot forfeit from his discussion of the science behind art when he comes across inconveniently popular exceptions. The very act of writing “The Art Instinct” is in fact part of the long cultural tradition of philosophy. Dutton shares a creative instinct with many other members of the human species and in his case it materialized in writing or his discipline of choice.

Science (be it biology, anthropology, chemistry or astronomy) is also an application of this same creative instinct; science can very well be art. The biological determinant here is that human beings have large brains and can use them for academic pursuits, which further kindle an inquisitive drive to turn toilets upside down or critique them. We made tools, art, math and medicine for the same reason, and some of the products of these disciplines (hammers, paintings, quadratics and insulin) proved useful to our survival. Other products of the same branches of knowledge may very destroy the human species. It is nevertheless of no surprise Leonardo da Vinci’s lifelong accomplishments include scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, painter, sculptor, architect, botanist, musician and writer. Da Vinci is an extreme manifestation of the human interdisciplinary creative instinct. His proficiency in each field is not a discrete adaptive advantage, but an exercise of the muscle that most distinguishes human beings from other species and from our own ancestors: the brain. So long as we continue performing mental gymnastics our species will continue to exist.