Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Is Art?

Denis Dutton rubs a lot of aesthetes the wrong way with his new book, The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution. Dutton invites readers to entertain the notion that art is shaped by aesthetic preferences buried deep in our evolutionary past. Postmodern bullshit artists worry that good science about what humans like and why might jeopardize their racket as the self-appointed arbiters of taste.

"Why, then, should we find art museums everywhere packed with modern art? Whence the profound sense of the artist's triumph in the presence of Duchamp's Fountain, if what we really want are quotidian depictions of bucolic landscapes reminiscent of our Pleistocene-era origins, as philistines like Dutton contend?"
It should be remembered that the vagaries of modern art are lost on the average art consumer. And it should come as no surprise also that the status of being able to truly appreciate the counterintuitive, often deliberately obscure ins and outs of modern art is one that signals an elite, cultivated, and altogether acquired sensibility, or skill. Art snobs even have a name for the art that's for "everybody else." Kitsch.

Dutton courts the worst from his critics when he speculates that Schoenberg's atonal symphonies, which any uncultured swine at the local WalMart would take for random noise, won't stand the test of time because the unconventional works don't jive with our inner caveman. Schoenberg fans get the message that evolutionary theorists have implied they are all under some mass delusion. But I do not believe Dutton is trying to make the point that it's impossible to appreciate dissonant compositions, only that innate preferences over the long run will tend to deplete the population of individuals available to pass on the very distinct language and vocabulary required to appreciate it as intended. I don't detect an attempt to disqualify atonality as an art form.

In the face of Dutton's claim, an explanation for inscrutable modern forms is demanded, and deserved. This is precisely where the New Zealand scholar positions a strong word of caution against the traditional aesthetic approach. Rather than try to come up with a definition of art that encompasses the "hard cases" like Piss Christ, Dutton suggests that we first work our way backward through clearer, more established examples, using what we can learn about how art has stimulated and even shaped us throughout our evolutionary history to explain how more recent departures from the norm could have been given rise.

But there's considerable resistance to the idea that reverse-engineering art through deep time is a fruitful endeavor. Every well-reasoned reconstruction of the conditions in which certain cultural elements must have emerged is sure to be met with the darling accusation of being nothing more than a "Just So" story. This clever move alone is enough for many detractors to declare the matter closed. Skeptics of the evolutionary approach to aesthetics (or language) should ask themselves whether evidence abounds of a common ancestor between humans and chimpanzees, or does it not? We have no such fossil. We haven't the animal's genome, but we have human DNA, and chimp DNA, and the ability to extrapolate from the available data that such a creature almost certainly existed. Is this a "Just So" story?

Dutton illuminates the kind of research that might support testable hypotheses, including studies which seem to outline some kind of shared, aesthetic sensibility which transcends cultural boundaries. The task is to isolate what may have fixed those values. Impossible, comes the charge, any attempt to assign cultural predispositions universally meets with the problem of cross-contamination. Still, one is unlikely to find an educated person making this argument who is also willing to reject the science of heredity because horizontal transmission of viral strains could fudge the picture.

The rear guard of social science has nothing to fear from maximalists aimed at synthesizing multiple fields of study in order to yeild predictive models of human behavior. The hard won gains of anthropology and sociology become more vital than ever in this new consilience, so that researchers from outside the discipline don't have to reinvent the wheel.

[Edit: Steven Pinker stands by his "auditory cheesecake" remark. Although an enthusiastic supporter of consilience, whose own views about evolutionary psychology have changed over the years, he maintains his position that art is not adaptive.]

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