Sunday, January 11, 2009


Evolutionary Art

Jonah Lehrer, in the Washington Post, reviews a book on art and evolution, The Art Instinct, by Denis Dutton, a New Zealand philosopher. Dutton wants to add art to the list of cultural universals that have been identified, including language, religion and certain traits of social structure, such as the reliance on leaders.

As he observes in his provocative new book ... people the world over are weirdly driven to create beautiful things. These aesthetic objects are utterly useless -- W.H. Auden pointed out that they make "nothing happen" -- and yet we enshrine them in climate-controlled museums and pay millions of dollars for a silkscreen of a soup can. What began with a few horses on the walls of a French cave has blossomed into a human obsession.

The premise of Dutton's work is that this instinct for art isn't an accident. Instead, he argues that our desire for beauty is firmly grounded in evolution, a side effect of the struggle to survive and reproduce.

According to Lehrer, Dutton argues against the idea that art is a "social construction," driven by the fads of society, citing to a survey by the Russian artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid in the early 1990s of people in 10 countries on their preferences regarding color, subject matter and painterly style. They then distilled the poll results into a series of realist landscapes, which you can see here.

The American painting, for instance, featured a foreground of sun-dappled grass, a lake, a few adorable children and the figure of George Washington. It's an absurd pastiche, the visual equivalent of combining all of America's favorite foods in the same dish. We might enjoy pizza and ice cream, but that doesn't mean we want pizza-flavored ice cream.

While Dutton appreciates the irony of Komar and Melamid, he's more intrigued by the striking similarity of their paintings. Although the 10 national landscapes differed in their details -- the Russians wanted a brown bear, while the Kenyans preferred a hippo -- the basic layout was identical. In each case, people craved a painting that featured a large body of blue water, some open grass, a human figure and a few animals.

... According to Dutton, the survey results reveal our hard-wired preferences, which developed when we were Pleistocene hunter-gatherers roaming the African savannah. The landscapes we find most beautiful are simply those from which we evolved. If we like paintings with a foreground of short grasses, it's because that habitat contains more protein per square mile than any other, which is a crucial perk for a meat-eating primate.

It takes neither a seer nor a séance to know what the late great Stephen Jay Gould would think of such an assertion. It is a just-so story of the first rank and, in the absence of Pleistocene hunter-gatherers to survey on their aesthetic preferences, the only evidence bearing on the proposition would seem to be the limited surviving art from the period. But there's no way to know if that art is representative and determining its aesthetic "meaning" to the artists and their audiences is an exercise in cultural interpretation exactly of the sort that Dutton deplores.

Dutton reserves his harshest criticisms for the modernists, whom he holds responsible for things like "pure abstraction in painting, atonality in music, random word-order poetry, Finnegans Wake, and readymades," such as the upside-down urinal made famous by Marcel Duchamp. Such unpleasant works of art are inspired, Dutton says, by a "blank-slate view of culture," which assumes that the mind can learn to appreciate just about anything. As a result, modern artists have delighted in being difficult ...

As Lehrer acerbically comments, this is accusing artists of giving us "works of abstraction when all we really wanted was a grassy landscape with an eminent figure such as George Washington." Lehrer nails this attitude neatly:

The problem with such "evolutionary aesthetics" is that, in the end, they excel at explaining kitsch. Our Pleistocene preferences might justify the work of Komar and Melamid ... but when everything in the Museum of Modern Art violates your theory of aesthetics, then it might be worth revising the theory. Just because the laws of human nature as presently understood can't explain the allure of Mark Rothko doesn't mean we should stop looking at his paintings. It just means we don't understand human nature very well.

Lehrer continues the ... well ... aesthetic assault:

Dutton is also interested in the origins of the art instinct. Shouldn't those cave-dwellers have been busy hunting instead of drawing on the wall? Why do we squander so much time and energy on art? Dutton has two distinct theories. The first is that fictional narratives, from the Iliad to "The Sopranos," provide people with a "low-cost, low-risk surrogate experience." Because I watch HBO, I'll be prepared the next time I'm in New Jersey.

His second explanation ... involves sexual selection. ... [H]e sees the arts as a tool of seduction, an intellectual version of the peacock's tail. Consider poetry, which for Dutton is little more than a way of showing off to potential mates. ...

... [T]his explanation of art is just common sense. It doesn't take an evolutionary psychologist to know that a lot of poetry is written to impress the opposite sex, or that Lord Byron and Elvis Presley seldom slept alone. However, arguing that the sex lives of poets explains the origins of poetry makes about as much sense as using the bedroom exploits of Wilt Chamberlain to construct a biological explanation of basketball. Yes, poets have sex, perhaps even more sex than normal. That still doesn't explain Shakespeare.

There is something uniquely human about the impulse to create art and the ability to appreciate it. And, since humans are a product of evolution, there must be, at some fundamental level, a connection between the two. But if that connection is as facile -- as uncomplicated -- as evolutionary psychologists would have it, we would have long ago plumbed the shallows of the human psyche that would imply. The fact that we haven't come close is another data point that suggests revising the theory.

Without wishing to appear chauvinistic, I find it odd that the Komar/Melamid survey did not include British landscape art given that we have some of the finest in the world in the likes of Constable, Turner, Gainsborough, Cotman, Crome, Girtin, etc.
I hadn't noticed that but you're right, it is strange.
Holey Moley, what's with the Dutch?
I guess people in a country so often underwater have had the impulse for landscapes with water in them kicked out of them.
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