I’ve just posted a review of Denis Dutton’s wonderful new book “The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution”:
If you’re reading this, you probably enjoy books. You take pleasure from good writing, compelling insights, and the kind of well-turned argument that gives you that “aha!” moment of recognition, identification, and delight.
Imagine then the pleasure of reading a book which not only has these characteristics, but provides a convincing explanation of why you feel that way. And not just of why you enjoy that kind of experience, but why (for example) you would feel disappointed if you learned that the author had plagiarized the material. (Why should you? It’s the same text, isn’t it? There’s something else going on here.)
This is a wonderful book. It’s not just about art, in the same way that Pinker’s work (cited in the blurb) isn’t just about language. It’s about being human, and how the last few hundreds of thousands of years of evolution made us that way. It’s about the complex interplay between natural selection and sexual selection in this process, an interplay which Darwin captured so well in The Descent of Man. It’s about philosophy, too: about ontology and category.
The book draws on art as a rich source of facts and paradoxes about human nature. Does intent matter? Why do artists sign their work while plumbers don’t? What is the relationship between artistic value and monetary price? And (notoriously) can a urinal on a plinth be thought of as art – and why do people get so worked up about it?
I hesitated to choose this book, because I feared that it was going to be just another book on art theory. (And why would that make me reluctant? Hmmm….) I’m really glad that I overcame my hesitation. In fact I’d rank this as the best non-fiction book that I’ve read over the last year – and it’s been a good year. (Best fiction is, obviously Fulghum’s Third Wish, a book that I want to re-read in the light of some of the insights I’ve gained from Dutton.)