Phi­los­o­phy of cre­ation

What com­pels hu­man­ity to make, and ap­pre­ci­ate, art, asks Miriam Cosic

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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