Thursday, January 29, 2009

Art from evolution

Some deadlines are facing me. So I will leave you here with some Colbert - an interview with Denis Dutton on the origins of our artistic instincts:

If there are some things that are bothering you after the interview, you can check out this review of Dutton's book by Jonah Lehrer. I think the end of the review sums it up nicely:

His second explanation, which leans heavily on the work of Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico, involves sexual selection. Like Miller, he 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. (He cites Cyrano de Bergerac as an example of poetic courtship, although he fails to note that Cyrano doesn't get the girl. His eloquent genes are never passed on.) According to Dutton, this process of mate selection -- chicks dig big vocabularies -- is responsible for the propagation of genes that lead to "the most creative and flamboyant aspects of the human personality," including artistic expression.

On the one hand, this 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.

Dutton is an elegant writer, and his book should be admired for its attempt to close the gap between art and science. It really is time that art critics learn about the visual cortex, musicologists study the inner ear and evolutionary psychologists unpack Jane Austen. Unfortunately, like so many other aesthetic theories, Dutton's ideas are ultimately undone by what they can't explain. This is the irony of evolutionary aesthetics: Although it sets out to solve the mystery of art, to explain why people write poems and smear paint on canvases, it ends up affirming the mystery. The most exquisite stuff is what we can't explain. That's why we call it art.

Read the full review here.


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