The art instinct
by Robert Genn February 20, 2009 Dear Rodney, The reason so many people in so many cultures prefer a landscape painting to other art is that in the Pleistocene and earlier times, pastoral images were part of finding something to eat. So suggests philosophy professor Denis Dutton in "The Art Instinct." While landscape art may indeed be etched into the unconscious mind as remembrance of happy hunting grounds, lots of other valuable points can be found in Dutton's widely-lauded book: Connecting Darwin's evolutionary theory to the making and appreciating of art, Dutton says that art had its origins as a display that might lure prospective mates. He views art-making as a skill that only an extraordinary individual could perform--a person who perhaps exhibited a degree of laid-back leisure and who didn't have to expend full resources on the basics. This evolved artistic character could also be seen as taking part in casual, exploratory pursuits, the outcome of which was often unknown. Dutton's idea is that art is a kind of specialized fitness display. Many artists have known about and reflected on this idea. I certainly did in grade five when Shirley Fulton (the one with the cute smile and the dimples) said she "liked" my painting. Even with my primitive little brain, I knew that Shirley had actually started to like me. Whether we were cave men or school kids, we soon found out that some of us were good at one thing and not another. Grade-five sport prowess, related as it is to spear throwing, was for the bigger kids. Some of the girls went for the athletic types. Other girls in my class were attracted to Jim Bone, who had smarts in practically everything and even bedazzled Miss Ledingham, the teacher. I stuck to art prowess. There was a kid in our class who could do magic tricks and make things disappear--like rabbits and handkerchiefs--and he was popular all right, but I noticed that my kind of magic had longer-lasting effects--particularly if I gave a girl something I had made. This sheds light on another situation that Dutton touches on and can't quite figure out: humanity's well-nigh universal distaste for forgery and copying. Even though copies have a kind of appeal for some folks, it's the genuine article--original art from the heart--that really cranks up the old endorphins, gets the oxytocin surging, and is the valued product in the well-motivated artist's display. Best regards, Robert PS: "The arts, like language, emerged spontaneously and universally in similar forms across cultures, employing imaginative and intellectual capacities that had clear survival value." (Denis Dutton) Esoterica: On the other hand, for some time I was attracted to Linda Cozlowsky, who could draw better than I could. Also, her colour sense was really exquisite. I watched Linda a lot. She didn't last. Perhaps two artists in a cave is one too many--which brings us to the territorial nature of visual artists. We are apparently unlike dancers or musical artists, for example, who are more likely to try to be in harmony with one another. Further, individualized mutation in art is related to Darwin's idea of survival of the fittest. The next time you put your work before a selection committee, consider, just for a moment, that you are also being subjected to the long-term process of natural selection.