This piece was first published in New Zealand Books.

Art for Art's Sake

(Review of The Art Instinct by Denis Dutton - OUP, 2009 - and On the Origin of Stories by Brian Boyd - Beleknap/Harvard, 2009)

In 1975 E. O. Wilson published Sociobiology and initiated a debate that has raged ever since over the idea that Darwinian principles of evolution can explain human social and moral behaviour. The question has grown more complex with the increasing sophistication of the science and, gradually, Darwinism has gained ground. In its new guise of evolutionary psychology it has begun to invade many of the traditional bastions of the humanities: anthropology, economics, philosophy, psychology. Now it is the turn of art and literature.

Dutton and Boyd share a common thesis: that art is a product of evolutionary forces. Of the two, Dutton’s treatment is more discursive and populist. His main aim is to convince an audience of general readers that the thesis is true. Boyd has a narrower agenda. His focus is literature and his aim is to challenge the critical orthodoxy of cultural theory and to outline a new approach to literary criticism. Both, however, claim that an evolutionary explanation of art can enhance our artistic appreciation. You may be sceptical of this but I couldn’t possibly comment.

A common approach to Darwinian explanation consists of two steps. First, identify a cultural activity that is universal across all human societies. Second, demonstrate how that activity could have conferred a reproductive advantage on those of our human ancestors in the far off Pleistocene who engaged in it. Dutton and Boyd both adopt this course and Dutton gives a particularly startling example. He cites research into people’s preferences for images of landscapes that suggests a universal preference for scenes containing open spaces interspersed with a variety of vegetation, water, a view out to ‘an unimpeded vantage on the horizon’, and animal or bird life. This landscape, which closely resembles the African savanna of our Pleistocene past, seems to be preferred even by people who live in desert or jungle or icy tundra.

This is suggestive but it raises many more questions than it answers: the most fundamental being whether we look to Darwin to explain why art and literature exist or, given their existence, why they deal with the general subject matter that they do. These possibilities lead to a further distinction between two points of view. On the one hand, we have the perspective of observers, anthropologists, say, whose aim is to understand the function of art within a society. On the other, we have the experience of the agents, the artists and their audience who are engaged in the business of making and doing and enjoying. The attitudes and values of the two are radically different, as different as the points of view of the biologist who notes that the function of sexual intercourse is reproduction, which in turn is an evolutionary device for ensuring a successful immune system, and the lover for whom reproduction is an inconvenience and immune systems an irrelevance. If you are in love, you just want to be with your beloved, you don’t need a reason. Similarly, there are no reasons for engaging in art. You do it for its own sake.

Dutton, taking the observer’s stance, offers us several adaptive functions of art, none of which seem applicable to all art forms and few of which bear detailed scrutiny. Part of the problem is that Darwin offers us two theories to base an explanation on: natural selection and sexual selection. The first focuses on the business of survival and the reproductive success that ensues from it – dead animals don’t have offspring. The second is all about success in the mating game. Thus, natural selection might account for the strange universality of the landscape preference noted earlier. Boyd and Dutton also invoke it to explain the existence of fiction. Dutton suggests three sources of adaptive advantage that fiction might confer. It provides low risk surrogate experience. It is a source of easily absorbed factual information. It enables us to explore other points of view, thereby ‘inculcating potentially adaptive interpersonal and social capacities’.  Again this suggests that the function of literature is related to the content of stories. I’m not so sure. A universal literally theme in all cultures is the lone hero going out to perform some seemingly impossible task. What sort of low risk surrogate experience is this supposed to be? Is it an example to follow or a counter example? One would have thought a literature designed to enhance interpersonal social capacities would have reinforced cooperative behaviour that maximised the chances of success, rather than high risk individual heroics.

Of course, if one theory doesn’t work, you can always try the other. Heroes are sexy. They may risk their lives by running off alone to chase monsters but if they succeed they have the pick of the girls. The difficulty with applying the principle of sexual selection to fiction and to art in general is that while the general idea seems clear enough the detail gets muddled.

The classic example of sexual selection is the peacock’s tail. This extravagant appendage demonstrates to the peahen the cock’s fitness. The hen chooses a mate from among her potential suitors on the basis of this display. The advantage of this theory is that it separates content from function. The tail could be any shape and any colour just so long as it happens to attract peahens. A straightforward application of sexual selection to art, however, would make some odd predictions. It would suggest that artist and audience would be of different gender, that interest in an artist would disappear once they were dead or that because we loved Pride and Prejudice or A Starry Night we would find Jane Austen and Vincent van Gogh sexually attractive. In a general sense, art is bound up with status and high status confers a reproductive advantage but quite how this is reducible to Darwinian principles is blessedly obscure.

One of the difficulties in all this is that Pleistocene culture, whatever it was, is so remote from our own. The closest that we can come now to understanding what art might have been then is a study of cultures that are separate from ours and closer to their stone-age roots. Unfortunately, most of these societies do not have a notion of art remotely resembling ours and although they exhibit cultural activities and artefacts that look like art to us, this may only be because we do not understand how those artefacts are used. Is a boomerang a beautiful object we enjoy for its own sake or a tool beautifully designed for killing birds? If it is the latter, is it a work of art?

Dutton tries to dodge this question by appealing to a ‘natural category’, ‘a cluster concept’ that consists of twelve loosely associated characteristics like skill, style, criticism, tradition and imaginative experience. He derives these from a study of artefacts and cultural practices across a range of societies and he uses it to argue that although society X has no notion of art as we know it, the fact that their ancestor dolls, say, are produced with skill within a particular tradition and are subject to criticism makes them works of art. I fear that this won’t do. In the first place, the argument seems circular. Art is susceptible to Darwinian explanation if it is a universal cultural phenomenon. It is a universal cultural phenomenon because we have defined it in terms of characteristics that are common across all cultures. In the second place, I can’t see how we can talk sensibly about art without taking into account the agent’s perspective – what is it like to write a poem and to read one, to paint a picture and to look at one, to compose a tune and to listen to one. From this perspective, it seems to me, art is a modern phenomenon. For most societies other than our own there is no such thing as an aesthetic experience as we know it. When fifteenth century Russian peasants looked at an icon of St Andrew, they did not experience it in the way we experience it now. Thus, when Boyd ponders ‘art’s once intimate alliance with religion’ he is making a distinction that is only possible to the modern mind. If this is so, it seems to me, an evolutionary explanation of art, seductive though it might be to the reductive temperament, is about as enlightening as an evolutionary explanation of computer technology.



© Chris Else 2008