The science of art

Linking artistic endeavour to genetics is one thing, but using evolution to dismiss modern art is something else

If one of the hallmarks of evolutionary fitness is adaptability, then few things would seem to be better equipped for survival than evolutionary theory itself. So adaptable has Darwin's account of natural selection proved that very little of the natural or human world now lies beyond its explanatory reach.

The arts are a longstanding exception. Many feel they are not necessarily explained by unconscious procreative strategies. But a new book by Dennis Dutton, the New Zealand philosopher and editor of the influential Arts and Letters website, flies in the face of this received wisdom. In The Art Instinct, Dutton asks why the universal human tendency to create and admire works of art should not be susceptible to explanation in much the same way as our other universal desires for things and places that offer opportunities for sex, safety and sensory stimulation.

All human behaviours are products of evolutionary processes of one kind or another, so there is no reason why evolutionary theory shouldn't answer the question of why there are artworks. It does not follow, however, that Darwinian accounts offer a good platform from which to investigate what art means to those who produce, consume and criticise it. Scientific perspective necessarily stands outside its object of study, much as an entomologist necessarily stands outside the ant on which he is conducting his experiments. But while evolutionary theory can account for the basic elements of our make-up, which artworks reflect, but its power of explanation has little real purchase on what those artworks are in themselves.

The very nature of art resists any exhaustive explanation of its value. For this reason, the modus operandi of arts criticism is in one crucial respect diametrically opposed to that of scientific explanation. Scientific enquiry explains away human value in terms of rendering phenomena accountable to laws of nature. Enquiry into the arts, by contrast, renews and enhances its human value. The internal, human perspective is, in this sense irreducible (which is why it is called the humanities).

One of the implications of Dutton's blindness to this distinction is his decision to try to write off the entire category of "difficult" modern art. Modernism, according to Dutton, is an aesthetic irrelevance because it seems to bear little relation to the complex of instinctual desires he argues make up our art instinct. Now you may, or may not, agree that much of what passes for art in the last 100 years has been an aesthetic irrelevance. But to bash it with the bluntest reactionary instrument in existence – the "it's not in our nature" gambit – is about as wrongheaded as it is possible to be. It is wrong because, as has been argued and shown for at least two-and-a-half millennia, art exists precisely to change and reshape what is "in our nature". It is wrong because it is bad science (entomologists don't criticise ants for their strange behaviour; they try to explain it). Most of all, it is wrong because there is no structural difference between such pseudo-naturalising in an artistic context and in more obviously moral contexts, such as when our esteemed Holy Father denounced homosexuality on the grounds that it was a deviation from our duty to reproduce.

In this sense, Dutton's rejection of everything from atonal music to abstract expressionism on the grounds of natural predisposition is profoundly disturbing. If we have an art instinct, which we evidently do, then clearly it is also fundamentally tied at some level to the manifestation of the new. Conservatism of the kind Dutton tries to naturalise, in this sense, is the least "natural" aesthetic creed of all.

Dutton claims to offer a "way of looking at the arts that … has more validity, more power, and more possibilities than the hermetic discourse that deadens so much of the humanities". While he may be right that the humanities are currently suffering from a crippling identity crisis – caused, largely, by bureaucratic insistence on concepts of accountability and research assessment adapted clumsily from scientific models – he's wrong to think evolutionary science is the way out of this mess. Indeed, if this book "marks out the future of the humanities", as one Steven Pinker suggests on the back cover, I, for one, want out.

Original version here

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