The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution







I’ve just finished reading Denis Dutton’s fascinating book on art:The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution.
Dutton uses “instinct” to refer to the adaptations that evolved through both natural and primarily sexual selection over time that form the basis for our artistic faculties.

The retention process of sexual selection with human beings is, however, in large measure purposive and intentional. In this context, puzzling about whether peahens have purposes in their mating choices is an unnecessary distraction: other animals aside, it is absolutely clear that with the human race, sexual selection describes a revived evolutionary teleology – the reintroduction of intentional, intelligent design into the evolutionary process. The designer, however, is not a deity but human individuals themselves.

During the 80,000 generations of the Pleistocene period, even slight biases in sexual selection “can deeply engrave physical and psychological traits into the mind of any species.”  The competition among our ancestors was to attract and seduce members of the opposite sex. Although physical fitness indicators such as health, symmetry and height are still used even today, the key decisive fitness indicators became dominated by intelligence and character cues.  Creative warning cries were selected for which led to language which led to expressing inner character and emotion and charm as fitness indicators, with increasingly sophisticated art creation as a primary tool in expressing one’s inner life to a prospective mate.

Although Dutton does not present a formal definition of “art”, he does present us with a list of 12 core items found in both art and art experiences:

1. Direct pleasure. The art object – narrative story, crafted artifact, or visual and aural performance – is valued as a source of immediate experiential pleasure in itself, and not essentially for its utility in producing something else that is either useful or pleasurable.

2. Skill and virtuosity. The making of the object or the performance requires and demonstrates the exercise of specialized skills.

3. Style. Objects and performances in all art forms are made in recognizable styles, according to rules of form, composition, or expression.

4. Novelty and creativity. Art is valued, and praised, for its novelty, creativity, originality, and capacity to surprise its audience.

5. Criticism. Wherever artistic forms are found, they exist alongside some kind of critical language of judgment and appreciation, simple or, more likely, elaborate.

6. Representation. In widely varying degrees of naturalism, art objects, including sculptures, paintings, and oral and written narratives, and sometimes even music, represent or imitate real and imaginary experiences of the world.

7. Special focus. Works of art and artistic performances tend to be bracketed off from ordinary life, made a separate and dramatic focus of experience.

8. Expressive individuality. The potential to express individual personality is generally latent in art practices, whether or not it is fully achieved.

9. Emotional saturation. In varying degrees, the experience of works of art is shot through with emotion.

10. Intellectual challenge. Works of art tend to be designed to utilize the combined variety of human perceptual and intellectual capacities to the full extent; indeed, the best works stretch them beyond ordinary limits.

11. Art traditions and institutions. Art objects and performances, as much in small-scale oral cultures as in literate civilizations, are created and to a degree given significance by their place in the history and traditions of their art.

12. Imaginative experience. Finally, and perhaps the most important of all characteristics on this list, objects of art essentially provide an imaginative experience for both producers and audiences.

Coming next: “Understanding Beauty”

The idea for this blog grew out of a talk I gave at Pecha Kucha Volume #31 in San Franciso, “Architecture Has The Power to Transform Your Lifestyle”.  In preparing for the talk, I focused on how architecture impacts your lifestyle, how the choices people made for their homes and simply where they chose to live represented major life decisions with lifestyle implications.

Architecture is only a part of lifestyle – I want to explore the depths of what it really means to live a life to its full potential.  The goal of the blog is to think deeply about how to maximize  lifestyle, and then to act on those ideas.  To focus on those key decisions in life that so impact the way we live and feel.  To think about the little choices we make that either help us on the journey toward happiness or detract from it.  In short, to make the most out of the time we have.

I also would like to invite guest posts.  Please email me any articles you’d like considered.

The Dimensions I’m thinking about now:

  • Mind
  • Body
  • Environment
  • Relationships
  • Career

The current banner image is of my firm’s design of the Semple House Penthouse in Wellington, New Zealand and was photographed by John Veltri.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.