Denis Dutton’s The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution sets out to answer that question. Along the way, he makes use of darwinism, evolutionary psychology, archaeology, and aesthetic philosophy to arrive at a very satisfying answer – and provides a valuable set of criteria to use to address the related questions of “What is art?” and “Is this art?” Dutton offers insight into the origins of music, Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, Pride and Prejudice, and calendar art. He demonstrates that the broad categories of art (music, dance, storytelling, body adornment, the visual arts) are common across all human cultures and that the aesthetic criteria used within cultures are common and comprehensible to outsiders.
Denis Dutton is the founder of the excellent website Arts and Letters Daily and professor of the philosophy of art at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. He’s studied the sitar with a student of Ravi Shankar’s and Polynesian mask making with tribal masters.
From the book’s forward:
These pages offer a way of looking at the arts that flies in the face of most writing and criticism today – a way that I believe has more validity, more power, and more possibilities than the hermetic discourse that deadens so much of the humanities. It is time to look at the arts in the light of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution – to talk about instinct and art.
Instincts, we tend to think, are automatic, unconscious patterns of behavior. The spider’s web that glistens in the morning dew was dictated by a genetic code in the spider’s tiny brain. The web may be a lovely sight to our eyes, but its beauty is a mere by-product of a spider’s way of enjoying breakfast. From the standpoint of either the spider or the human observer, such pretty accidents of nature are a long way from how we normally regard works of art.
…On top of this, artistic works and performances are often amongst the most gaudy and flamboyant of human creations – seemingly the opposite of pragmatic behavior – when at the rarefied level of the most profound and enduring masterpieces, they can reveal an eleveated spirituality unparalleled in human experience. Any way you look at it, the arts have nothing to do with the mundane facts of body and brain that Darwinian evolution typically explains.
Everything I have written about art is true except the last sentence.
I think we all understand what natural selection is: organisms with a higher differential survival rate have their genes (and hence the characteristics that improve their survivability rate) increase in subsequent generations. The “fitter” members of a species pass along more offspring than the merely adequate. If this were the only force at work in evolution, then the existence of the arts (and many other aspects of human and animal behavior) would present us with quite a challenge. Better eyesight, quicker reflexes, greater endurance – all of those things have obvious advantages for survival. But how does painting, or poetry, or mask making increase an individual’s chance of survival?
That is the correct question, but the answer lies with a different sort of selection: sexual selection. In creatures where a mate is selected, the females (or males in the rare cases where the males raise the children) often select mates based upon physical or behavioral criteria. The peacock and his tail are the canonical example. The tail of the peacock does not make him abler to survive, but it indicates to the female that he is so robust, so healthy, so able to take care of himself, that he has the additional resources to grow this big, beautiful plumage. So the peahen chooses the peacock with the biggest plumage. Peacocks resulting from this mating have bigger tails, and peahens from this mating inherit a preference for peacocks with large plumage.
Dutton shows us how sexual selection is the appropriate driver for our instinct toward making art. Along the way he demolishes Stephen Jay Gould’s spandrel explanation and Steven Pinker’s Cheesecake theory (art is like cheesecake, we didn’t evolve to like it specifically, it just happens to hit our sweet tooth and our love of fat and creamy texture). One of the things I admire about Steven Pinker is his ability to recognize a better argument – and so he endorses Dutton’s book.
E. O. Wilson, in his excellent book Consilience, makes reference to one of Darwin’s statements in Origin of Species, “In the distant future, I see open fields for the more important researches. Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of mental power and capacity by gradation.” Wilson expresses the belief that art (and economics and sociology and psychology) can be examined from an evolutionary framework, and Dutton’s book is a very good example of this.
Dutton places much of the evolutionary adaptations that lead to humans making art as occuring during the Pliestocene Epoch. As an example, he cites a study of landscape art. Two artists were commisioned to study 10 countries to see what people most and least wanted to see in landscapes. The results were remarkably similar across the US, China, Kenya, Iceland, etc. Everyone wanted water, people, and animals. Further, the ideal landscape would include:
1. Open spaces of low or mown grasses interspersed with thickets of bushes and groupings of trees;
2. The presence of water directly in view or evidence of water nearby on in the distance,
3. An opening in at least on direction to an unimpeded vantage on the horizon, evidence of animal and bird life,
4. A diversity of greenery, including flowering and fruiting plants
There are some sex-related differences: women seem to have a greater preference for vegetation in the landscapes, while men prefer landscapes with views and hunting or exploration possibilities. This leads to the Savana Hypothesis – that we like what would have been welcoming landscapes for our ancestors from the Pleistocene period.
I do not want to list all of the other examples, hypotheses, data, and explanations that Dutton lays out. I found the section on why we like stories and the section on the origins of music to be incompletely convincing. But with that cavil, I recommend this book to anyone curious about why we make and enjoy art.