The Philosopher's Eye

News and brain candy for the philosophy community

Dutton on Darwin: The Biology of Art

Image: The Yorck Project 2002

The world of digital media rested its scrutinising eye on philosophy late last year, as the late Denis Dutton, philosopher of art, delivered a talk to TED, the American-based conference organisation dedicated primarily to its eponymous fields of technology, entertainment and design, as well as more broadly business, global issues and science. Dutton, who held the position of professor of philosophy at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand until his death last month after losing his fight with prostate cancer, gave a taster of the evolutionary theory of art appreciation developed in his 2009 book The Art Instinct. Since 1984 the TED audience have been addressed by speakers such as Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, Al Gore and Michelle Obama, and even Jamie Oliver. In keeping with the theme of the aesthetically pleasing, the whole lecture has been stylishly illustrated by animator Andrew Park and released for all to admire on YouTube.

Gladly taking Darwin over ancient and modernist thinkers alike, in his talk Dutton rejects the old adage that “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” as much as he does the postmodernist appeals to culturally contingent and cultivated notions of beauty and art. Natural beauty, Dutton explains, has it origins in the pleistocene landscape of our prehistoric ancestors, evident, he believes, in the fact that its features are repeated in all universally pleasant views: open spaces featuring animal, bird and plant life, with trees that fork near the ground (ideal for climbing up), a sizable body of water and an inviting path, riverbank or shoreline to walk along. To explain the crafted beauty of art, Dutton takes us back 1.4 million years to consider the axe-heads found in the French commune of Saint-Acheul. The sheer abundance of the seemingly unused Acheulean hand axes suggests that these artifacts were created with the sole intention of displaying fine craftsmanship, an act of a kind reflected throughout the animal kingdom in “fitness signaling” behaviour, such as the peacock’s celebrated tail. Where beauty in art is evident, Dutton predicts, incredible technical abilities, along with the attendant, desirable intellectual and physical capabilities of the creator, will be evident too.

Amongst those who will be very excited by Dutton’s theory, there will be philosophers as well as artists who may respond sceptically to Dutton’s account. It seems necessarily to be an affront to the much-discussed aesthetic concept of ‘disinterestedness’, the highly influential feature of Kant’s aesthetic philosophy whereby our desires, inclinations, and instincts are momentarily put to one side in the appreciation of art. Even Arthur Schopenhauer, whose worldview was not dissimilar to Darwin’s ruthlessly efficient and vitally driven picture of nature, made especial room for this moment of quiet from instinctive imperatives (peacefulness of this kind being, in fact, a centrepiece of Schopenhauer’s philosophy). Furthermore, of Dutton’s account of natural beauty, those who have commented on the lecture via TED’s website have pointed out that powerful, threatening, many-toothed beasts, such as sharks and tigers, are at once beautiful to us. And where, the artist may ask, is room made for the beautiful works which do not display obvious technical intricacy, such as Klein’s deep blue monochromes? And, finally, we might ask ourselves; are artists honestly those historically most fitted to life?

In interactions like this with the world of science and technology, as well as his endlessly insightful website, launched when the internet was still at a relatively tentative stage, Professor Denis Dutton is marked out as a philosopher who was at the forefront of a new, 21st century direction for philosophy.

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About David Woods

David is a Teaching Fellow at the University of Southampton. His main research interest is the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, as well as the philosophy of religion, the problem of evil, optimism and pessimism, and post-Marxian critical philosophy.

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