Review of Denis Dutton’s ‘The Art Instinct’

I think it would be more appropriate to call this a commentary:

Book here.

“What would a universal aesthetics or theory of art look like?”

“…my aim has been to elucidate general characteristics of the arts in terms of evolved adaptations.”

I think these quotations are fairly representative of what most engages Denis Dutton in his new book “The Art Instinct’.

Landscape painting, for example, can be best understood as exemplifying the traits developed for our own survival within Darwinian natural selection (to which he appeals to the popularity of landscapes as portraying abundant food and water, a good view and a safe place to enjoy it from).

Thus, Dutton may be trying to synthesize Darwin’s theory of natural selection with aesthetic theory and art (and also by drawing somewhat on the philosophies of Kant, Aristotle and Plato).   From this synthesis, Dutton comes up with a rough list of the criterion he thinks art ought to give, possess, or meet:

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


Dutton then puts these ideas to the test (not scientifically) against a piece of art which openly questions what a piece of art ought to be, and which he finds emblematic of where he thinks art theory and criticism have gone partially wrong:  Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Fountain,’ or likely the most famous urinal in the world.

Marcel Duchamp 'Fountain' 1950, Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by hanneorla.

by hanneorla

Dutton finds that while ‘Fountain’ does meet a majority of his criterion, it is best thought of as an outlier, and an outlier which has influenced art for quite some time now (think Duchamp to Andy Warhol to Damien Hirst) and which Dutton seeks to change by aiming the debate toward evolutionary science and thus broadening it considerably.

This is where his theory meets with some success.  If I were an art critic, for example, or a theorist or academic making a living in this field, or perhaps just someone who had spent an hour listening to Mozart and been tremendously moved….then I might find these ideas useful in providing a broader context for the experience I had just had (though I still think Nietzsche provides the deepest thought here, which is why he and the existentialists have been so influential).

So, as a theory of aesthetics, Dutton may be on to something.


However, I grew doubtful as to the scientific validity of his thinking when he tried to apply natural selection theory to orgasms, sex, and chocolate.

As a scientific theory Dutton seems to fall short of the mark:  that the truths and universality of Darwin’s theory of natural selection when applied to the arts fully and best explain why people make art.  I’m pretty sure Dutton’s theories aren’t intended too, nor function, as scientific theories.  In addition, I don’t think many scientists will find his thinking a compelling addition to their respective fields of knowledge.

I should mention there is some philosophical debate as to whether or not Darwin’s ideas are scientific (upon which creationists seize), but they are quite obviously more predictively successful and universally applicable than aesthetic theories are….and I just don’t believe that Dutton has come up with a true synthesis here that would benefit, say, an evolutionary biologist.


That said, Dutton does however demonstrate a good understanding of Kant, and where Kant may (or may not) have left room for aesthetics in his thinking.  The ‘imagination’ as defined by Kant was a part of the elaborate metpahysical framework of his, and as Dutton notes:

“Trying to understand what life was like in ancient Rome is an imaginative act, but so is recalling that I left my car keys in the kitchen.  However, the experience of art is notable marked by the manner in which it decouples imagination from practical concern, freeing it, as Kant instructed from the constraints of logic and rational understanding.”

Dutton also brings up Plato, and Plato’s idealism: that art is an imitation of an imitation…twice removed from the ideal forms that yield genuine knowledge.

Plato regarded the whole Greek literary tradition, but especially the Homeric epics that lay at its heart, as setting the worst possible moral examples.”

…so much so that Plato’s Ideal State would cen(sor) them.

Dutton responds with the following caveat:

“Religion, ethics, and politics all require to some degree adherence to a conceptual stability that even the most conformist artist may wish to test.  The arts never quite fit with the moral demands on which any functioning society depends.”

He seems to understand reasonably well some of the philosophical challenges that await an aesthetic theory…


All in all, it’s not a bad read.   If you’re interested in the philosophy of art, aesthetics and art theory…libertarian aesthetics?…perhaps the debate within psychology and its philosophical influences (the Pinker/Spelke debate) evolutionary psychology and anthropology…then I would recommend it.

There are certain targets (cultural relativism and social contructionism particularly) that Dutton, as a libertarian, has in his sights.  Hopefully, he doesn’t focus too much on them…

Addition:  I should add that I’m quite sympathetic to many of Dutton’s themes, and am impressed with the scope of his aesthetic thinking (especially in regard to philosophy). I’m trying to piece together how his theory is pieced together and what it may achieve and what it may not.

Dutton’s bloggingheads appearance here. (read the comments).

Dutton On The Colbert Report here.

Denis Dutton by wnyc

See Also On This SiteFrom The Washington Post: A Few Thoughts On Jonah Lehrer’s Review Of Denis Dutton’s ‘The Art Instinct’

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