Philosophy of creation
What compels humanity to make, and appreciate, art, asks Miriam Cosic
WHY do humans make art? It can be lovely. It can be stimulating. It absorbs some of the finest minds in any society. It can change hands for ridiculous sums of money. And dizzying edifices of commentary have been built around it since the time of the Greeks. But all those aspects of art beg a fundamental question: why do we do it?
In his new book, The Art Instinct , Dennis Dutton looks to the man of the moment, Charles Darwin, for an answer.
Dutton suggests that because all humans make art, and people from many different cultures appreciate similar subjects in art, art is an evolutionary adaptation, helping humans survive as individuals and as a species. Eventually, over the millennia, art-making traits have been absorbed into the repertoire of human instinct.
‘‘ Show me something pleasurable and I’ll show you something which is very likely associated with Pleistocene adaptation,’’ Dutton says in conversation about the book.
A US-born professor of philosophy at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, he is best known as the founder of the essential website Arts and Letters Daily, an aggregator of essays, criticism and feature writing of all flavours from across the English-speaking world. Energetic and upbeat, he is an easygoing contrarian, the sort of person who enjoys the intellectual joust.
Dutton has been in Sydney for the past week, to visit his son and deliver addresses to mark Darwin’s birthday, expounding his theory that art — whether visual representation, or storytelling, or music-making — is an adaptive behaviour.
Evolutionary psychologists believe that lessons learned when Homo sapiens came into its own on the African savannas during the Pleistocene era, which ran for 180 million years until about 10,000 years ago, are still hardwired into our brains. Functional responses helped us live, mate and pass on genes; dysfunctional responses led to an early death or lonely bachelorhood and no progeny. We developed our phobias and our pleasures then: the taste for fat and sweet foods, calorific nutrients that the body could lay down against lean times when low-tech hunting and gathering failed; fear of snakes and roaring animals and precipitous heights.
Dutton points out that the pictures of landscapes that are most pleasing to most people — the scenes of pastures, copses, gentle hills, rivers, the odd furry animal and signs of human habitation, found on calendars and chocolate boxes worldwide — are what our long-ago ancestors in the Pleistocene learned to associate with a temperate climate, fresh drinking water, plentiful game and places to hide from predators.
‘‘ The emotions felt by our ancestors towards advantageous landscapes are of little use to us today, since we are no longer nomadic hunters who survive for the land,’’ he writes in the book. ‘‘ Nevertheless, since we still have the souls of those ancient nomads, these emotions can flood into modern minds with surprising and unexpected intensity.’’
So far, so good. But Dutton demands some uncomfortable leaps of logic: how to go from instinctively liking favourable landscapes, for example, to wanting to reproduce them artificially in the way we call art ( as opposed to maps, say)? Indeed why did it take until the late Renaissance in the West for artists to start painting landscape for landscape’s sake, after millennia of portraying people and animals and gods in creation stories, funerary rites, sympathetic magic and objects of personal prestige? Philosophers are generally open-minded people and Dutton admits he can’t answer that question.
Born in 1944, Dutton was raised in the liberal atmosphere of North Hollywood, California, by parents who met at Paramount film studios. They later established a large independent bookshop, and books became the default family profession. He studied philosophy at the University of Santa Barbara, eventually combining it with a love of art to specialise in aesthetics.
‘‘ I have a longstanding interest in crosscultural universals and variations,’’ he says. ‘‘ The question is whether radically different cultures can understand each other. I have grown up through an epoch in which it was fashionable to imagine that cultures can’t significantly speak to each other. My own experience militates against that idea.’’
As a young man, he worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in India. He later took a leave of absence from academe to live for a while in New Guinea, studying Sepik culture in order to make informed cross-cultural connections.
He came to the politically incorrect conclusion that the Other is indeed knowable and that connoisseurs from very different cultures — a curator of Sepik art in a Western museum, for example, and a carver who has never left his highland village — will choose the same exemplars of local art form.
It’s a bit of a no-go zone, and forces gathered on opposing sides are the usual suspects in the culture wars.
It’s hard to imagine, for example, that nonindigenous Australian connoisseurs made a spontaneous and seamless leap from von Guerard’s neat landscapes to the austere spatial explorations of Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula or the hot exuberance of Walangkura Napanangka’s canvases without considerable intellectual selfdiscipline. And yet Dutton’s comparison of Rothko’s abstractions to primordial landscapes could equally apply to the paintings of Rover Thomas or Paddy Bedford. ‘‘ There’s something of the sublime, there’s something of the sense of a horizon, there’s something about the mysterious margins of the rectangles that they almost look like mountains in the distance,’’ he says.
It’s a stretch, but the thing about Dutton’s book is his ideas are thought-provoking even when you know he’s making a stretch.
His opinions of art are full of surprises. He is scathing of ‘‘ postmodern’’ art which, descending to irony and kitsch, tells us nothing about ourselves and ignores our hankering for the sublime. Then he writes of the modernists with admiration: even Malevich, the Soviet suprematist, whose famous black square must be as far from Pleistocene tastes as one could imagine, and Duchamp’s ‘‘ ready-mades’’, including Fountain , the infamous urinal, which he can parse at length.
‘‘ I have an answer to that!’’ he says when asked why some people get so het up when faced with art they don’t like.
‘‘ When you see that reaction from the conservative, from the naive, or people on the street who say ‘ That’s not a work of art’, they are harking back to the older sense of art as an honorific,’’ he says. ‘‘ Those of us who are deeply into the art world stop making these kinds of assessments.
‘‘ But who knows? Maybe the guy in the street has a point, too. If art is a display of skill, if it is designed to reveal some kind of human spirit, then of course we might feel there is something missing in Jeff Koons’s jokes, or Damien Hirst’s pickled sharks.’’
Dutton draws a clear distinction between kitsch and great art. His discussion of them in the book is more nuanced than his explorations of neo-Darwinianism — and a long way from the preferences of the Pleistocene.
‘‘ Much the greatest art of human history comes not as an expression of religion, or even of individuality, but of a human mind trying to overcome a technical problem,’’ he says. ‘‘ The foremost example of this is Beethoven, who flourished as a composer just at the time when tonality was breaking up and romanticism was opening. He could produce these incredible quartets, these phenomenal symphonies, because he was obsessed by the problems of his craft and his art.’’
Poor old Beethoven: his art instinct may have been strong, but he died not only deaf but childless. The Art Instinct is published by Oxford University Press ($ 49.95).
A man with answers: Dennis Dutton says art is an evolutionary instinct