I am at war with myself. The feminist in me, who has been taking philosophy courses and reading books that challenge contemporary notions about gender, regards much of culture as a construction, something abstract and even arbitrary that we should alter to improve the status of various groups of people. The scientist in me, who reads books about genetics and ponders how amazing it is that we're programmed to learn how to talk but have developed writing as a skill, not an innate ability. These two selves often conflict, as biological determinism clashes with cultural relativism, and I find myself forced to walk carefully the line between the two. I never thought I would have to do this for art!
In The Art Instinct, Denis Dutton challenges the commonplace assertion that our notions of what constitutes art and what we find aesthetically pleasing are entirely constructs of our culture. Rather, his thesis is that evolution plays a large role in our tastes. We prefer savanna-like landscapes because it hearkens to our homes of the past; we place a value on skill and creativity because these are useful traits in a mate. Overall, Dutton insists that art criticism must be rooted in an evolutionary perspective (he seems to like using evolutionary psychology as a poster-child) rather than any particular school of thought based only on culture.
And that's the book, right there. Now you don't have to read it. Happy? You should be.
The Art Instinct has such a great premise, but, like so many books, the execution fails to fulfil that potential. Dutton's writing is stultifying at best, arrogant at worst, and always more loquacious than necessary. It takes him forever to get to the point—he loves lists in which each point is several paragraphs long. And for such a short book, Dutton spends remarkably little of it discussing art itself. Many pages he devotes to explanations of evolution—helpful, yes, but sometimes tangential. And unlike his evolutionary asides, he seldom goes into detail about the theories of art criticism he debunks for us, so much of that went over my head.
Dutton does some things right. He does not focus exclusively on Old Master paintings (although they are there). He talks about literature and music as well. I really enjoyed chapter 6, "The Uses of Fiction," in which Dutton makes a strong case for fiction being a product of natural selection (rather than mere by-products). Also in this chapter is the best glimpse at the argument Dutton tries to make, the idea that art (or the eponymous "art instinct") is an innate concept universal to every culture.
In that respect, I agree with Dutton's assertion that cultural relativism should not dismiss other cultures' creative works because "they don't have our concept of art." So if that is what Dutton set out to achieve with this book, then perhaps he has succeeded. But I didn't enjoy it.
This is not even a very academic book, despite constant name-dropping and enough quotations of Steven Pinker to qualify him for co-authorship. Seldom do I read a book which is just written in such an unsatisfactory way that I dislike following the author's arguments. Thus, even if Dutton has managed to convince me of his thesis, he has achieved the even greater feat of doing it while boring me too.
The Art Instinct is successful, then, in showing evolution's role in the arts. I won't dismiss all of art as stemming from evolutionary roots (and I don't think Dutton is trying to argue this, but it could easily be seen that way). Culture still has a role to play—evolution might influence the desirably body types, but fads and fashions contribute to changing representations throughout history. Even so, the way Dutton advances his argument leaves me with a distinctly apathetic attitude toward the entire book. It is very "ho-hum." Books should not just seek to convince or to move; they need to shake, to challenge, to galvanize new directions of exploration. The Art Instinct does not do this. It sort of loafs around in the lobby of one's critical cortex, half-heartedly attempting to hand leaflets to passing neurons.
I have a passing interest in aesthetics, in the sense that I have taken enough philosophy to know I need to read more about it sometime soon, lest I have a vast gap in my philosophical knowledge. Unfortunately, The Art Instinct does little to fill this gap; and while it held my aesthetic interest, it did not stoke the fire like I had hoped. Dutton's just not charismatic enough, not compelling enough, to make this book great.