The Art Instinct, By Denis Dutton

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The Independent Culture

Denis Dutton's big idea is that the human love of art can be explained by Darwinism. All the standard explanations of why we value art – because it's expressive, because it's informative, because of its formal qualities – are mere fragments of explanations, which only make sense in the context of our evolutionary history.

That's easy to say, and given Darwinism is true, it can hardly be wrong. The hard part is showing just how our evolution shaped our art. Dutton does so with skill and charm, using the tools of philosophy, anthropology and evolutionary biology. He shows that much of our response to art is cross-cultural: the "blue landscape" is universally appreciated, water is vital to us, and we still have "the souls of ancient nomads". Art, he further argues, is a by-product of an adaptation, stemming from "capacities and yearnings" that helped our distant ancestors to survive.

Dutton supplies a persuasive 12-dimensional model of what art actually is; a stimulating discussion of why Duchamps' "readymades" were high-quality art while modern imitations are not; and a fascinating exploration of why the sense of smell has never given rise to great art.