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.