The Frontal Cortex

The Art Instinct

In yesterday’s Washington Post, I reviewed The Art Instinct, a new book by Denis Dutton that uses evolutionary psychology to explain the odd human obsession with making art:

The list of cultural universals — those features that recur in every human society, from remote rainforest tribes to modern America — is surprisingly short. There’s language, religion and a bunch of traits involving social structures, such as the reliance on leaders.

Denis Dutton, a New Zealand philosopher, would like to add one more item to this list: art. As he observes in his provocative new book, The Art Instinct, people the world over are weirdly driven to create beautiful things. These aesthetic objects are utterly useless — W.H. Auden pointed out that they make “nothing happen” — and yet we enshrine them in climate-controlled museums and pay millions of dollars for a silkscreen of a soup can. What began with a few horses on the walls of a French cave has blossomed into a human obsession.

The premise of Dutton’s work is that this instinct for art isn’t an accident. Instead, he argues that our desire for beauty is firmly grounded in evolution, a side effect of the struggle to survive and reproduce. In this sense, a cubist painting by Picasso is no more mysterious than the allure of a Playboy centerfold: Both are works of culture that attempt to sate a biological drive.

Dutton frames his argument as a scientific response to the idea that art is a “social construction,” driven by the fads of society. He begins the book by describing a series of paintings by the Russian artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, who in the early 1990s surveyed people in 10 countries on their preferences regarding color, subject matter and painterly style. These poll results were then distilled into a series of realist landscapes. The American painting, for instance, featured a foreground of sun-dappled grass, a lake, a few adorable children and the figure of George Washington. It’s an absurd pastiche, the visual equivalent of combining all of America’s favorite foods in the same dish. We might enjoy pizza and ice cream, but that doesn’t mean we want pizza-flavored ice cream.

While Dutton appreciates the irony of Komar and Melamid, he’s more intrigued by the striking similarity of their paintings. Although the 10 national landscapes differed in their details — the Russians wanted a brown bear, while the Kenyans preferred a hippo — the basic layout was identical. In each case, people craved a painting that featured a large body of blue water, some open grass, a human figure and a few animals.

Why the cross-cultural similarity? According to Dutton, the survey results reveal our hard-wired preferences, which developed when we were Pleistocene hunter-gatherers roaming the African savannah. The landscapes we find most beautiful are simply those from which we evolved. If we like paintings with a foreground of short grasses, it’s because that habitat contains more protein per square mile than any other, which is a crucial perk for a meat-eating primate.

There’s an alluring logic to such arguments, which promise to rescue aesthetics from the fog of post-modernist theory. Who needs Jacques Derrida when there’s evolutionary psychology? Why talk about “texts” when we can talk about “genes”? Like Steven Pinker, whose writing inspires much of The Art Instinct, Dutton reserves his harshest criticisms for the modernists, whom he holds responsible for things like “pure abstraction in painting, atonality in music, random word-order poetry, Finnegans Wake, and readymades,” such as the upside-down urinal made famous by Marcel Duchamp. Such unpleasant works of art are inspired, Dutton says, by a “blank-slate view of culture,” which assumes that the mind can learn to appreciate just about anything. As a result, modern artists have delighted in being difficult: They’ve given us works of abstraction when all we really wanted was a grassy landscape with an eminent figure such as George Washington.

The problem with such “evolutionary aesthetics” is that, in the end, they excel at explaining kitsch. Our Pleistocene preferences might justify the work of Komar and Melamid, or the neo-impressionist art of “painter of light” Thomas Kinkade, but when everything in the Museum of Modern Art violates your theory of aesthetics, then it might be worth revising the theory. Just because the laws of human nature as presently understood can’t explain the allure of Mark Rothko doesn’t mean we should stop looking at his paintings. It just means we don’t understand human nature very well.

And, speaking of Washington D.C., I’ll be speaking at the Corcoran tonight…

Comments

  1. #1 bob koepp
    January 12, 2009

    I find Dutton’s attitude toward modern art a bit surprising. As a child, I was taught that “the point” of modern art was to educate viewers — to make them conscious of the interplay between spatial forms and colors — so they could see these same dynamics at work in their perception of the “ordinary” objects and scenes they encountered outside museums and art galleries.

  2. #2 OneEyedMan
    January 12, 2009

    Donald E. Brown’s list of human cultural universals in The Blank Slate is actually pretty long.
    http://condor.depaul.edu/~mfiddler/hyphen/humunivers.htm

  3. #4 waynecat
    January 12, 2009

    Doesn’t a lot of modern art appeal to our innate attraction to innovation? Wouldn’t the representation of an interesting and often abstract concept by a novel means appeal to the same neural mechanisms which drive us toward scientific discovery and technological innovation? Both would seem to involve a neurological reward, the feeling of excitement, for having processed a new idea in one’s brain.

  4. #5 jb
    January 12, 2009

    Unhappily I am in California and can’t attend Jonah’s talk in DC or the NYAS lecture on the neuroscience of sight tonight with Christof Koch in NYC. Both are highly recommended. See http://www.nyas.org/5senses for the NYC event.

  5. #6 Kurt
    January 12, 2009

    Speaking of modern art, I was surprised Jonah didn’t bring up the one exception in Komar and Melamid’s polling that they discussed on a recent This American Life: the Dutch. Apparently they prefer abstract art rather than realist. It would be interesting to dissect out why that is and how that would fit into an analysis such as what Dutton attempts.

  6. #7 Barry Katz
    January 12, 2009

    I would be more interested to read about the neural mechanism that enables me to feel a sense of wholeness while looking at a Rothko but causes a sensation similar to hearing fingernails on a blackboard at the mere mention of the name Thomas Kinkade.

  7. #8 OftenWrongTed
    January 12, 2009

    The human race is indeed obsessed with art; perhaps it can be explained in part.

    “What is pure art, according to the modern conception? It is to create a suggestive magic containing at one and the same time the object and the subject, the external world and the artist himself.”
    L’Art philosophique by Charles Baudelaire

  8. #9 pb
    January 12, 2009

    it seems to me that this book concerns itself more with the question about the topics of our art, and/or perhaps the mediums, rather than addressing the question of “why art, in the first place?”

    that the subjects of our art are somewhat limited to our life-experience (what we “know,” or less contentiously, what we have seen and heard and sensed in our past and present) — this should not be so surprising. the more interesting topic is this: why are we drawn to representation and abstraction? (commentor waynecat had some interesting conjectures, above.)

  9. #10 pb
    January 12, 2009

    it seems to me that this book concerns itself more with the question about the topics of our art, and/or perhaps the mediums, rather than addressing the question of “why art, in the first place?”

    that the subjects of our art are somewhat limited to our life-experience (what we “know,” or less contentiously, what we have seen and heard and sensed in our past and present) — this should not be so surprising. the more interesting topic is this: why are we drawn to representation and abstraction? (commentor waynecat had some interesting conjectures, above.)

  10. #11 pb
    January 12, 2009

    it seems to me that this book concerns itself more with the question about the topics of our art, and/or perhaps the mediums, rather than addressing the question of “why art, in the first place?”

    that the subjects of our art are somewhat limited to our life-experience (what we “know,” or less contentiously, what we have seen and heard and sensed in our past and present) — this should not be so surprising. the more interesting topic is this: why are we drawn to representation and abstraction? (commentor waynecat had some interesting conjectures, above.)

  11. #12 Anonymous
    January 12, 2009

    it seems to me that this book concerns itself more with the question about the topics of our art, and/or perhaps the mediums, rather than addressing the question of “why art, in the first place?”

    that the subjects of our art are somewhat limited to our life-experience (what we “know,” or less contentiously, what we have seen and heard and sensed in our past and present) — this should not be so surprising. the more interesting topic is this: why are we drawn to representation and abstraction? (commentor waynecat had some interesting conjectures, above.)

  12. #13 jb
    January 12, 2009

    I recall hearing in Art History 101 that there was no secular art before a fairly recent date in human history. I happened to have trained in a Japanese art that has traceable religious roots but is now a popular secular pursuit. Ikebana came to Japan from China with Buddhism and these flower arrangements were a representation of the universe that was offered to the historical Buddha in gratitude for and appreciation of his teachings, at a temple by a male priest. At one time large formal arrangements (rikka) with many lines made of tree branches and flowers were used to signify the sky, mountains, foothills, village, and lake or ocean in one’s universe. These took days to construct.
    Nowadays there are still traditional forms with which one trains before getting into free style plant sculptures but they have been simplified. One system reduces the universe to three lines: heaven, earth, and man(humanity) and this is what you see when you look out any window: there’s the sky, the earth below (with maybe some water) and life in between(humans, animals and plants), your popular landscape painting.
    In Chinese calligraphy the character for monarch is three stacked horizontal lines (heaven, humanity and earth)joined by a single vertical line. The implication is that a successful emperor or monarch is one who joins heaven and earth (the spiritual or ethical with the practical).
    From the Sufi tradition, there is a game called “the cube” in which one imagines a blue sky and brown earth with a cube in between. One describes the cube and its placement as seen in your mind’s eye. Then one adds other elements . You can find the details online. It is necessary to visualize the above and add objects one by one before reading the explanation or you spoil the game.

  13. #14 Art
    January 12, 2009

    I suggest that the components in these pictures don’t primarily suggest the presence of resources. They suggest safety. Short grass in the foreground is preferred because large predators are easily seen.

    A human standing in a relaxed stance implies safety. If there were anything nearby that ate humans the central figure would be serving as lunch. Or at least crouched, alert and ready to fight or flee. Another human in a relaxed pose tells me that the area is safe.

    A scattering of animals in relaxed poses symbolizes the same thing. Even more so because animals are typically much more alert and sensitive to any danger.

    This is offset perhaps a bit in the Russian version as a brown bear is potentially lethal but humans aren’t typical fare for the bear and the presence of the bear serves to symbolize that other, more dangerous animals, are not close by.

    The presence of water is obviously a welcome resource so the idea the scene represents the presence of resources isn’t entirely wrong. Relative safety would be any primitive hominids immediate focus. But once you know your not going to get eaten the next thing on the agenda is water.

  14. #15 Janne
    January 12, 2009

    To appreciate modern art you really do need to know your art history to some extent. Most pieces are riffs or commentary on earlier works, or some other kind of reaction or repudiation of earlier trends. If you don’t know what the association is, you don’t really stand a chance appreciating it.

    I suspect the relation between satisfying landscapes and abstract, modernist art is much the same as between counting things and modern mathematics. They aren’t really different things, but have grown from their roots bit by bit, until by now the connection to their origins are anything by obvious. The connections to their primary origins are still there, but mediated by a whole series of more and more abstract associations, generalizations and re-representations.

    That’s why a good piece of modernist art is normally distinct from a randomly generated piece; it gives the knowledgeable viewer the associations needed to grasp the intended meaning (and that association game and resolution is part of what gives the viewer pleasure in puzzling out the meaning). Of course, sometimes a piece can be so obscure it just becomes a guessing game (in which case I’d argue it’s simply not good), and occasionally an amateur/toddler/elephant may accidentally create something which seems imbued with associations without actually having any. Like a crossword puzzle that looks reasonable at first, but is actually unsolvable.

    jb: there’s been secular art since before antiquity (take the illustrated “menus” painted on a brothel in Pompei for instance). It was just never elevated as “art” by the kind of people normally able to define it – people who until fairly recently usually were nominally religious in their outlook.

  15. #16 Jeff Nelson
    January 13, 2009

    The “Hack Your Brain” article on Boston.com is interesting; I’m going to have to try that ping-pong ball trick. One of my favorite blogs, Boing Boing, had a link to it, and I was delighted to see that it was authored by one of my favorite bloggers. I did notice that Boston.com misspelled your first name…

  16. #17 Kathryn
    January 13, 2009

    Thanks for coming to DC and giving such a great talk last night. I appreciate that you entertained so many questions…Please come again when your next book is out!

  17. #18 sericmarr
    January 13, 2009

    I attended a discussion with Dennis Dutton at the Los Angeles Public Library’s Central Library last week and just received his book, The Art Instinct, from Amazon yesterday.The concept that there is an underlying “blueprint” to the art process is intriguing. As both a scientist and artist (BS, Zoology, BFA ,Drawing and Painting) the discussion is both stimulating and welcome.

    PS I am looking to forward to Jonah’s appearance at this same venue in February.

  18. #19 OftenWrongTed
    January 13, 2009

    Dr. Otto Rank proposed that art is born of a fear of loss and change:

    “Art presents a unity, alike in its effect and in its creation, and this implies a spiritual unity between the artist and the recipient. Although temporary and symbolic only, this produces a satisfaction which suggests that it is more than a matter of passing identification of two individuals, that it is the potential restoration of a union with the cosmos which once existed and was then lost.”

    Art and Artist Dr. Otto Rank (ISBN: 0-87586-010-9)

  19. #20 jb
    January 13, 2009

    To OftenWrongTed: And I would add ” but is always there.” One of my teachers once said that great art stops the mind. And it is from that right hemisphere mental space of non thought that great art is created spontaneously. People like Jill Bolte Taylor who was stuck in her right hemisphere for awhile after a stroke, remarked on the great peace and feeling of connectedness that she felt there. Thanks OWT!

  20. #21 Barry Katz
    January 14, 2009

    Theories of meaning derived from the pictorial content of paintings don’t tell the whole story. Part of the meaning of any work of art comes from it’s formal qualities. The abstract relationships between shapes, colors, positive and negative space, foreground and background, etc. carry a large part of the work’s emotional weight.

    Janne’s analogy about mathematics and abstract art (Jan 12) is astute. But her assertion that the viewer’s associations make it possible “…to grasp the intended meaning,” and that the “…association game and resolution is part of what gives the viewer pleasure in puzzling out the meaning” only goes so far in explaining abstract art.

    While this is certainly true for some works (Picasso springs to mind), this idea doesn’t adequately explain the allure of purely non-representational art. Jackson Pollack is important not because his work bears associations with art historical references, but because it doesn’t. The meaning is that it has no meaning. All we are left with is form.

    So what is it that non-objective art does for us? I would argue that it operates not on the level of meaning, but on the level of consciousness. Consider paintings that are deliberately devoid of meaning. Ad Reinhardt is a perfect example. He pushed his work to the very edge of nothingness. In some of his works it is almost impossible to discern that we are looking at anything at all. Almost, but not quite.

    As you gaze at a Reinhardt you gradually begin to notice that the rectangle is made up of an arrangement of identical squares, discernible only because of very slight differences between several shades of black. What we are seeing is the nature of seeing. If you give it a chance it has real power.

    The experience is analogous to a meditative state in which the mind transcends meaning and is left only with awareness of its own awareness. People often describe such experiences as one of wholeness, of feeling at one with the universe. This, for me, is the meaning of purely abstract art. What we experience is ourselves.

  21. #22 A.K.
    January 14, 2009

    Barry:
    Perhaps your ability to enjoy abstract art, and the depth of experience you derive from it, has to do with the perceptual and neurological substrates of empathy, as well as personality traits such as openness to experience, and a craving for novelty. Other stuff is just boring, and grating on the nerves as a result. I cannot see any painting as “deliberately devoid of meaning”, although some paintings (Thomas Kinkade) are “perversely devoid of meaning”. Anything created by the human mind has meaning. The genesis of creativity is often in the revolt from boredom.

  22. #23 OftenWrongTed
    January 16, 2009

    Virginia Woolf viewed art as part of ourselves. In a rare autobiographical essay, “A Sketch of The Past”, Woolf states:

    “From this I reach what I might call a philosophy; at any rate it is a constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we – I mean all human beings – are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”

  23. #24 gabi319
    January 29, 2009

    I haven’t read the book yet so bear with me if I’m way off base…

    It’s an intriguing thesis but Dutton’s evolutionary psychology completely ignores a common psychological adaption: When our baser needs are readily met, we have time to focus on other aspects of living. Food, water, safe lodging and the opportunity for human interaction – imagery common in the Komar-Melamid projects – are in plenitude so art evolved to include other aspects of life. Dutton accuses the Modernists of ruining the art aesthetic but we can already see from art history, landscapes and still life begin to decline in favor the centuries before. Renaissance art academies put landscapes to the wayside to elevate portraiture and religion. In much the same way, modernists aren’t using art to force the public ‘to appreciate just about anything’ but rather create commentary on people and current events. What’s so appealing about Dutton’s desire for Kinkade-isms is that prior knowledge of art history or history in general is not needed; his interpretation of the Komar-Melamid experiment did away with most of the defining details of each society to find the base aesthetic desires. In truth, that is ultimate “blank-slate view of culture.”

    I’m skeptical of Dutton’s conclusions, but I’m still very curious about his approach and hope to pick up a copy soon!

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