January 19, 2009

The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution

I made ya'll wait several days for new content despite my resolve to post more frequently. Sorry, but at least I'm all moved into the dorm again!

Book Cover

By Denis Dutton

If you can't tell, I don't read much non-fiction for pleasure. I love learning about things, but I usually save that for school and use my reading time for other pursuits. However, THE ART INSTINCT appeared to combine two of my favorite things, genetics and the arts. Unfortunately it is not friendly to casual reading. Denis Dutton's authorial voice is rather dry and unengaging.

Various ideas caught my attention, but I didn't really get into his argument until the 8th chapter (Intention, Forgery, Dada: Three Aesthetic Problems). Of course, this may be my personal interests talking. I often work at reconciling modern interpretation of text with its contemporary interpretation and possible authoritorial intent. And who doesn't find Dada fun?

But there were many points before that where I thought the text should hit its stride, particularly Chapter 5: Art and Natural Selection. Instead it felt like the argument just wasn't coming together. Dutton sets out to prove a rather large thesis, but at the end I feel like I'm still not sure what he's saying the connection between art and evolution is. He sometimes contradicts himself (especially in one terrible argument about a pill vs. a Salvador Rosa landscape) and he's far more familiar with art than the science aspects.

The book's best parts are the smaller arguments. He combats the extreme lengths academics go to to avoid ethnocentricism which only exoticize other cultures in the end through interesting thought experiments and examples of genres that may compare though they're done with different mediums. It's when he tries to connect the science and art that I often feel a disconnect.

For instance, Dutton explores why smell is not used more often as an artistic medium. He settles on memory being a large part of the problem, as building on a basic theme (as in music or fiction) cannot be done with smells as it would be hard to remember a specific sequence. Another problem would be lack of emotional impact. Yet smell is the best sense for bringing about instaneous memory. Smells triggering memory is an important survival instinct and an important part of human evolution. Research being done now with the human sense of smell is both incredibly weird and fascinating. Why write an entire passage about smell and art that seems to ignore this work?

I don't want to sound like I hated the work. (Although I did hate that his go-to example was Andy Warhol's Brillo boxes. He just kept mentioning them and it was driving me insane.) THE ART INSTINCT contains many interesting passages, but they're put together towards a shaky whole. I think a less provocative thesis might have served Dutton better. People interested in the philosophy of art will probably enjoy THE ART INSTINCT quite well.

Kudos to Bloomsbury Press's Art Department for changing the cover between the ARC and the final. The final's landscape is (scientifically) more aesthetically pleasing - very important on a book about art.

THE ART INSTINCT released December 23, 2008. Britain, Australia, and New Zealand will get the book on Darwin Day (February 12, 2009). Denis Dutton is the editor of the beyond cool Arts & Letters Daily. His personal website can be found here.


  1. What a great review. Daniel likes art books, but this sounds like it would be too dry for him.

  2. The concept of smell in art is a fascinating one! I had never even stopped to consider that. When I was studying dance in college, we had to study the philosophy of dance as well which introduced me to a wide range of "art" questions - what is art? what makes art? can art be good or bad? A good presentation of those arguments can really expand your horizons - or blow your mind...:)

  3. Lenore - If you see it in a bookstore, you might read a little to see what you think about the dryness.

    Leigh - One nice part was a list Dutton wrote about the qualities needed (some combination of more than one) to qualify something as "art."


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