Showing off the life of the mind; Denis Dutton sketches out our innate artistry
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 30 December 2008)

Charlie Allnut, the gin-swilling Canadian boat operator played by Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen, explains his drinking habits by saying, "It's only human nature." That doesn't satisfy the puritanical Rose Sayer, played by Katharine Hepburn. She answers: "Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in the world to rise above."

Denis Dutton, in his exhilarating new book The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution (Bloomsbury Press), comes down firmly on Rose's side. But while Rose sees humankind battling to escape its innate imperfections, Dutton outlines something grander and more complicated, the struggle of artists "to transcend even our animal selves" through their work. Evolution makes art possible by endowing humans with imagination and intellect. Art, in response, lifts us above the very instincts installed in our brains by evolution.

As 2009 approaches, let us set aside the great puzzle of 2008 ("Where did the money go?") and deal with a more pleasant question: "Why are we so crazy about the arts?" Why, for instance, did Toronto build, in the last four years, an opera house, two major museums, a conservatory and a ballet school, each of them risky and expensive? Speaking as a Torontonian, I appreciate the effort, but realize it wasn't done just to please me. This flurry of construction, like many such civic phenomena around the world, reflects an urgent need for the arts -- a need that became part of our personalities over many thousands of years.

We do all this, Dutton explains, because it's built into us. We have no choice.

Originally a Californian, Dutton is now professor of the philosophy of art at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. He edits a learned journal, Philosophy and Literature, where he conducted a furious and much-publicized campaign against academics whose bad prose beats readers into submission just to prove "they are in the presence of a great and deep mind." More important, Dutton edits Arts & Letters Daily, a website that collates articles from everywhere on the planet and has become much more than its founders expected.

By shrewdly choosing the best material available, A&LD has emerged as the most useful intellectual magazine in the English-speaking world.

Dutton's interest in cultural evolution began in the 1960s when he was a Peace Corps volunteer in India. As a student he had absorbed (and partially accepted) the academic belief that cultures are so sealed off from each other that cross-cultural understanding is all but impossible; art is "socially constructed," the product of a certain time and place, nothing else. That suggests to many scholars that attempting to see connections between cultures amounts to a form of colonialism.

But in rural India, Dutton changed his mind. He discovered that the hopes, fears and vices of the Indians were altogether intelligible to a twentysomething graduate of the University of California Santa Barbara. And much of the cultural life of India was equally graspable. In Hyderabad he learned the sitar from a student of Ravi Shankar and found Indian music no more remote from Western music than 17th-century Italian madrigals are from the harmonies of Duke Ellington: "The lure of rhythmic drive, harmonic anticipation, lucid structure and divinely sweet melody cuts across cultures with ease."

How could this be? Were these cultures somehow connected at their roots?

In 1993 two Russian artists, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, organized a statistically impeccable survey of taste in 10 countries. They concluded that people from Iceland to China hold similar opinions about art: All express affection for landscapes, particularly landscapes dominated by blue, with water somehow involved. Melamid suggested that this implies that a blue landscape is genetically imprinted on humanity. It may be a paradise we all carry within us, he speculated. Perhaps "we came from the blue landscape and we want it."

Well, yes, says Dutton. In the Pleistocene era, the nomads who developed into people like us were (it's widely believed) living under blue African skies in savannas and woodlands. These protein-rich regions were good hunting grounds. Those who chose to inhabit that landscape had a "survival advantage." They prospered, had children, passed on their genes.

That process continued for a length of time that we find almost impossible to imagine -- about 1.6 million years, or 80,000 generations. In the extreme slo-mo theatre of evolution, the architecture of the mind developed. Countless minor choices, when rewarded by success, created impulses that live within us now.

Take, for instance, the universal obsession with storytelling. In all cultures (including the few remaining clusters of hunter-gatherers) narrative is an essential element. It's both a source of pleasure and a way to convey information. Those who had this inclination and talent in the Pleistocene era had a special "survival advantage." A nomad with a storyteller's imagination could weigh a group's travel plans, outlining a new territory's opportunities against its potential dangers. Storytelling, perhaps, began as a question of life and death. In detailing the complications that followed, Dutton demonstrates both his own poised scholarship and the infinite richness of the subject he's opening up.

And music? There's no obvious reason for it to exist, since the ability to perceive pitched sound provides in itself no contribution to survival. Dutton notes Charles Darwin's suggestion that musical tones and rhythm were part of courtship for our ancestors. And perhaps musical sounds were a way of inventing language. Dutton finds that plausible and suggests that music and dance also build "empathy, co-operation and social solidarity." He speculates that music, dancing, storytelling and other art forms "evolved specifically to strengthen the social health of hunter-gatherer bands."

The Art Instinct offers fresh and liberating ideas while demonstrating Dutton's profound sense of curiosity and his willingness to take risks while dealing with puzzling and largely fragmentary pre-history. He bluntly argues with fashionable theorists and the reviews of his book will not be uniformly favourable. Some will be offended and angry.

Whatever the critical response, the discussion of his book deserves to reach far beyond academics and people directly involved in the arts. His subject is the mysterious beginning of the cultural life that all of us, on whatever level of complexity, live. As he says, we resemble our distant ancestors in the way we share communion with other humans through art. "Our art instinct is theirs."

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