Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Two Thousand Words That Do Not Mention the Economic Crisis of 2008

An Essay on Art Theory That Ends With a Philosophy of Bathroom Accessories: A Non-Review of Denis Dutton’s The Art Instinct

Cross-posted by Jerry Cullum to and

I guess one of the commonplaces of anybody’s college education back in the day was that the fundamental challenge of twentieth century intellectual life was how to reconcile Marx, Freud, and Darwin.

I used to add the symbolic names of Kropotkin, Alfred Russell Wallace, and Jung purely as shorthand, to indicate early divergences of opinion from the previous three estimable European gentlemen rather than unequivocal agreement with any one of the competition.

However, after one added the later contributions from Fanon and his successors, and the theorists of gender, and the sciences symbolized by cybernetics, one saw quickly just how much those three founding fathers left out of their (purely metaphorical) equations. (The attempt to make the word “equations” literal, to enlist the prestige of mathematical precision for the human sciences, is yet another story, a very long one.)

I leave physics out of the picture because it is hard to fit Einstein into the human sciences, simply because of the scale of the processes involved. As a thinker whose name I shall not mention put it, the scale creates the phenomenon. Or as in the movie Adaptation’s memorable satire, narratives that begin with the galaxies and end with genetics miss a few key points along the way.

And yet we ought to treat “the human sciences” as sciences, unmathematical though most of them largely are and ought to remain. That French term for anthropology and all the rest is quite accurate; we are in quest of a twenty-first century science of how humanity functions in its social context as well as its environmental one, and the problem is that we can’t afford to forget the state of research in any of the disciplines. We shouldn’t read the previously mentioned foundational texts in the understanding of the human enterprise any more uncritically than we would read foundational texts in medicine or in the so-called pure sciences.

The point I have made many times over in my joculum blog, however, is that just as Sir Isaac Newton set forth some principles that are modified or set in new contexts, not overthrown, the earliest advocates of a “science of man” (as it was called in less gender-inclusive times) may have hit upon some ways of understanding the problem that should be taken seriously but not uncritically. And those advocates stretch farther back into history and in geographic location than the European nineteenth century.

What brings all this up is a review copy of Denis Dutton’s The Art Instinct, scheduled for publication by Bloomsbury Press in…well, one learns not to trust publication dates, but officially very early in 2009. So there will be time before then to engage with the book in detail, rather than picking up on early chapters plus a significant later segment, as this present essay does.

Dutton is the founder of the Arts and Letters Daily website that writes teasers about and links to a range of provocative discussions, from popular to accessibly theorietical, in areas of, well, well nigh all the arts and sciences (encompassed by the term “letters”), though some of the arts and some of the sciences get shorter shrift than others. There is no guarantee of what one will find when one clicks on the link; the journal to which one navigates may be left-wing or right-wing, mainstream or revisionist, but always interesting and always containing a logically argued discussion of the topic at hand, and one can waste enormous amounts of time clicking through to, sometimes, half a dozen differing debates on the same hot topic.

So a book by Dutton comes with massive expectations, and it’s inevitable that this attempt to interpret art via Darwinism is a disappointment. Dutton founded the journal Philosophy and Literature, after all, even if Arts and Letters Daily approaches being the longed-for Journal of Just About Everything, and our predilections and presuppositions shape and distort our perceptions. (“Peter Piper picked”…sorry, the plethora of philosophic terms that begin with “p” frequently result in spates of alliteration like that regrettable lapse in style.)

My aside about prose style is to the point, though Dutton’s book is reasonably well written. Just as we tend to overlook the subjective effect of style when we are constructing an argument (otherwise, academicians would write better than they do), we tend to skip over the aspects of a problem that do not interest us, or, worse, we deny that they have anything to do with the problem.

Dutton’s quarrel with aesthetician and art critic Arthur Danto early on in the book is a case in point. Discussing why Komar and Melamid’s humorous “most wanted paintings” are revelatory even as they make fun of statisticians, Dutton misses what ought to be his main point. He rightly sees that just as with a culture’s favorite foods, such as hamburgers, pizza, ice cream, and chocolate for Americans, people who say they like certain things in a realist painting don’t mean that they would like to have them all mixed together at the same time.

But having heavy-handedly dismissed K and M’s witty paintings as a con rather than a joke with a serious point, Dutton argues that the worldwide preference for landscape cannot be overlooked, especially since the sorts of landscape involved are not always commonplace in the countries surveyed.

Danto argues that the preference of Kenyans for Hudson River School types of landscape reflects the global distribution of bad calendar art. Dutton argues that it’s the consequence of evolutionary preferences for certain features of the environment that became less a part of the human story as we spread out from our points of origin, places that obviously did not include upstate New York but that shared some of its geological features. Natural selection, according to Dutton’s interpretation of others’ hypotheses, made us a species hard-wired to prefer certain types of advantageous surroundings, and thus our hearts leap when we see representations of them.

Maybe. But bad calendar art also codifies whatever predilections are hard-wired into us by virtue of who survived to have offspring, and the story of evolution is not that simplistic.

Dutton goes on, however, to discuss the cross-cultural nature of aesthetics in ways that offend against the ruling pieties in ways that are potentially highly productive. He points out, for example, that not only do most of the constitutive factors of art occur in the vast majority of cultures whether they use the category of “art” or not, but the notion of the anonymous creator has been greatly exaggerated. In his field research in the Sepik River region of Papua New Guinea, he found that groups still leading a traditional lifestyle had well-defined ideas as to what made a Sepik carving good or bad, and everyone knew who the good artists were. Anyone who paid attention to such things in the Sepik culture could tell at a glance who had made what.

In fact, ethnographic museums now pay attention to who made what, too (as I noticed years ago in a Dutch show on the carvers among the Asmat of West Papua), and I suppose in small societies in which artworks are made of perishable materials, there is less inclination to recite the names of illustrious forebears and originators of artistic styles, lists of ancestors such as one might find in lineage-oriented cultures like those in West Africa.

I omit a discussion of African aesthetics because I don’t remember enough of the evidence to make any statements I would trust, but overall Dutton makes a fairly relentless case for human universality, for similarities that outweigh differences in terms of emotional reactions to art—even though the range of responses ought to make us suspicious of Family-of-Man-style sentimentality.

I haven’t read more than random fractions of the book and am thus reluctant to state that Dutton simply overestimates the impact of evolutionary factors, but I suspect he does. In an era in which we have learned that culture actually can reprogram not just outward behavior but certain autonomic physical processes, the feedback loops of what we once thought were nature-and-culture dichotomies really do need to be looked at differently.

And this is so even if, as researchers are finding with twins raised apart and adoptive children raised together, nature is beating out nurture almost every time. It is the “almost” that counts most here. We may be genetically predisposed to like sweet foods more than other people do, but whether we prefer Moon Pies or red bean ice cream is a matter of cultural variables. There are people in this world who like both equally, but not because their genes made them that way.

I have gone through this fourteen-hundred-word digression (commonplace in the joculum journal, to which I shall cross-post this) to get to the point that made me feel I needed to grapple with this book immediately.

Dutton is apparently downright offended by the elevation of what art theorists themselves call “anti-art,” or art that overrides visual stimuli in favor of conceptual issues. He is scarcely the only intellectual to have had this reaction, rather than simply accepting that it is possible to love Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Henry Darger, Hans Haacke, Bill Traylor, Mel Chin, Julian Schnabel, David Hammons, and in general everything from Paleolithic cave paintings to video projections. (Okay, maybe not Julian Schnabel.)

So Dutton comes down hard on the prototype of the anti-retinal revolution, Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain. I’m not sure that he himself is aware of his loaded language in the discussion, since he discusses the “aesthetic problems” of this chapter in terms of the “evolved human excellences” that feed into our “self-designed species,” which exists along a continuum at the end of which “rational choice and innate intuitions can overlap and reinforce one another.”

This is where evolutionary theory starts siding towards philistinism, whether the topic under discussion is art or religion or pretty much anything that involves the human imagination as distinct from our computational abilities. (I’m still grappling with John Johnston’s lovely book on The Allure of Machinic Life in which consciousness is regarded as computational…which it would be, were it not the sum total of so many bodily processes that those actually doing work in the field observe that the biochemical complexities shade off in an immense number of directions.)

So Dutton gets into high dudgeon about the line that leads from Duchamp’s urinal to Manzoni’s can of artist’s excrement, which latter is a joke comparable to the Komar and Melamid paintings that roused Dutton’s ire at the beginning of his book. Dutton doesn’t find many things funny, but neither do the art theorists he rages against.

And he and the art theorists alike misunderstand Duchamp as badly as Duchamp himself did. Because Fountain is, as someone else has pointed out and I concur unreservedly, actually a rather beautiful work of retinal art, comparable to Picasso’s discovery of a bull’s horns in a bicycle part.

Duchamp turned his found object ninety degrees, which immediately made it resemble the niche that is a feature of so much traditional architecture, often as the setting for a basin of water (or, indeed, for a faucet or a drinking fountain). Duchamp saw the formal architecture of a urinal and turned it into a visual joke that seems to have been a joke on himself as much as on anyone else. For the work, once rendered functionless, was as much a piece of sculpture as the Michael Graves toilet brush that can still be had at Target stores. Duchamp’s urinal, like Graves’ toilet brush, has more in common with the history of gracefully shaped vessels than with the history of bathroom accessories.

Rotated ninety degrees and functioning as a niche rather than a urinal (for as a piece of sculpture it could no longer be used for its original function), if one were to hook Fountain up to its intended plumbing and then flush, the water would spurt more or less upwards and form…a fountain. It would be a piece of participatory kinetic sculpture.

So Dutton doesn’t get it. But neither did Duchamp, as far as we know.

And I wish I could remember who it was who pointed out that the urinal is not just hauled into the gallery and plopped down untransformed except for the “R. Mutt” signature.

And if neither Dutton nor Duchamp completely understand why they are pursuing more agendas than they think they are pursuing…why, my goodness, we are back to Freud at the very least, and easily right back to the whole problem with which I began this essay.


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