The Art Instinct (1)


“What is art and does it mean the same thing to all cultures throughout the world? What constitutes great art?  And what is kitsch?  Applying a Darwinian perspective to these fundamental questions, Denis Dutton argues that art is a universal human instinct … “(Quoted from the back cover)


Denis Dutton’s ‘The Art Instinct’ is about tracing the human need to make art through time and cultures. In doing so, he proposes universal generalizations about what characterizes art across the world:


  1. Direct pleasure
  2. Skill and virtuosity
  3. Style
  4. Novelty and creativity
  5. Criticism
  6. Representation
  7. Special focus
  8. Expressive individuality
  9. Emotional saturation
  10. Intellectual challenge
  11. Art traditions and institutions
  12. Imaginative experience


He explains:

“Characteristic features found cross-culturally in the arts can be reduced to a list of core items, twelve in the version given below, which define art in terms of a set of cluster criteria. Some of the items single out features of works of art; others, qualities of the experience of art. … It reflects a vast realm of human experience that people have little trouble identifying as artistic … Sometimes when we talk about art we focus on acts of creation, sometimes on the objects created; other times we refer more to the experience of these objects.  Working out these distinctions is a separate task.  The list is therefore the signal characteristics of art considered as a universal, cross-cultural category.” (p51-52)


Dutton demonstrates what he means by each of these categories early on in the book, then goes on to take Marcel Duchamps’ ‘Fountain’ as an example of an artwork which does not easily fit into traditional aesthetic categories. He measures it against the list to see whether it conforms to the criteria held worldwide by which we define art.  Interestingly, this work does score well, enough to be defined as genuine art across all cultures.


Justine Kingsbury, senior lecturer in philosophy, writing in ‘Biology and Philosophy’ Vol 26 no I January 2011, usefully summarises the book:

“Dutton begins by talking about the consistency of landscape preferences across cultures. Chapter 2 is about art and human nature: Dutton points out (illustrating this with discussions of Plato, Aristotle, Kant and Hume) that the idea that art-production and aesthetic enjoyment are part of human nature is not new. Chapter 3 is an admirably clear and sensible discussion of what art is. Dutton defends the methodological principle that it is a mistake to base a definition on peripheral cases, as for example the institutional theory of art is motivated by the need to count as artworks things like Duchamp’s Fountain (a urinal, labeled and placed in an art gallery). Rather, “we must first try to demarcate an uncontroversial center that gives more curious cases whatever interest they have” (51). Applying this method, Dutton comes up with a very inclusive cluster definition of art that fits well with the view (argued for in Chapter 4) that there is art in all human cultures: art is not a modern Western cultural construct. Chapter 5 is about art and natural selection; Chapter 6 discusses the origin of our urge to create and enjoy fictions; Chapter 7 is about how costly and apparently functionless art-making behaviour might have evolved partly by sexual selection. Chapter 8 considers three issues in contemporary aesthetics and how thinking about art in evolutionary terms can shed light on them. Chapter 9 discusses the contingency of our aesthetic values: why, for example, do we have well-developed visual and aural arts but not olfactory ones? Chapter 10 is about greatness in the arts.” images[1]

I plan to focus on Dutton’s ideas and take each of these listed characteristics in turn, adding my own thoughts to the discussion, and relating it to abstract art in particular. Will these categories apply equally well to abstract art as to more representational work?  Is abstract art essentially different in some way, for the artist or the viewer?  Will Marcel Duchamp’s larger than life genius in confronting the accepted art establishment still have the last word?

Marcel Duchamp by Man Ray 1930[1]




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