THE ART INSTINCT by Denis Dutton
Kirkus Star


Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution
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Pugnacious, witty and entertaining first book by prolific essayist and critic Dutton (Philosophy of Art/Univ. of Canterbury, New Zealand), who founded the influential blog Arts & Letters Daily.

Picking up where evolutionary psychologists like Steven Pinker leave off in their investigations into the origins of human language and other mental phenomena, Dutton argues that the arts too—why and how they are made, how they are experienced, why in all their myriad forms they are so central to human life in every culture and age—can be explained by Darwinian natural and sexual selection. He plausibly suggests how a nearly universal taste for paintings of rolling landscapes, dotted with trees, bodies of water and animals, may be a relic of our Pleistocene ancestors’ evolutionarily successful preference for the savannas of Africa, where game and safe prospects to view it from were plentiful. He makes the case for fiction’s origins in the adaptive advantage to our ancestors of imagining scenarios they would not actually have to live through as an aid to planning for survival. He cites work from evolutionary psychologists to show how the art instinct, like the peacock’s tail, may have developed as a “fitness signal” to mark the prehistoric artist as an abundantly healthy mate. After a century of criticism that divorced art from ordinary human experience—either placing its definition in the hands of institutions like museums and university art departments or reducing it to authorless “texts” that defy consistent interpretation from critic to critic—Dutton wants to shift the discussion about art to more common, solid ground. He treads shakily when he tries to use his Darwinian aesthetics to justify his own (vehemently anti-modernist) tastes, but even those who disagree with these opinions will find his manifesto scintillatingly written and not to be missed—even the end notes are indispensable.

Promises to instigate a lively conversation about the origins and meaning of art, not only among the author’s peers in academia, but also in the culture at large.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2009
ISBN: 978-1-59691-401-8
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 2008


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