Sunday, November 21, 2010

On Darwin and Esthetics

When broaching the subject of beauty, especially in the realm of the arts, people can very quickly go up in arms. Why is this such a contentious subject? Isn't beauty supposed to sooth, to heal? How is it that beauty can divide people, when it's supposed to bring us together? The answer likely goes back as far as the feeling of esthetic pleasure itself. As Denis Dutton describes, at least as far back as the cave paintings 30,000 years ago, at least as far back as the Venus of Willendorf 100,000 years ago, but as he suggests, all the way back to paleolithic hand axes, nearly 100,000 years before verbal language. Perhaps in some way, our ancestors were attempting to define beauty even then, even if they didn't have the abstract concept to define it.

There are two primary camps. The dominant theory is that "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder". That is, beauty is entirely subjective and is either decided only by individual perception, or by culturally learned perspectives, or both. Dutton is an advocate of the other side: that beauty is biologically determined and that we have evolved our sense of beauty due to natural selection.

His most interesting example are the paleolithic hand axes, which have been found in the thousands all across Europe and Africa. They have been finely crafted and show little or no signs of being used for butchering. So, Dutton hypothesizes that these axes were made for esthetic purposes.

In the realm of painting, my niche, the argument falls generally along the dividing lines of the abstract vs. realist and the concept vs. the object. I would argue, another false dichotomy. Yes, we can all tell the difference and many people have a preference for one or the other. Both camps argue that their side is more natural and fundamental, and the other only chooses what they like because they were conditioned to choose it by society. And I certainly have an opinion about this - which doesn't fall into one camp categorically, but simply by a degree of shared values. But, that's for the many other articles that I've already written. Suffice to say, both camps seem to have something of the truth and neither side is benefiting from facing each other across the battle field. Just as in politics, we are expending much of our energy trying to win, rather than understanding and problem solving. Just as in politics people are aligning along ideological lines based on an imprecise analytical tool. What is it that they say: "Divide and Conquer"? It seems to me that both sides of this argument have already conquered themselves.

Personally, I don't think it's necessary to choose one side of this false dichotomy whether in the abstract or in the specific. First of all, there are other possible explanations for the use of hand axes, and though I like the charm of his theory, it's also possible that most of them were used as weapons. Yes, to protect oneself from other proto-humans who might try to steal one's mate or food. For these objects to be useful, one needn't use it for butchering, all that would have been required would have been to simply threaten or cut someone, which wouldn't produce much more wear on the tool. Sorry to be a little cynical, but mankind has been violent towards each other far longer than we know, and it's a bit naive to project our ideal of peace and beauty for all onto our ancestral past. Further, we have to admit that there are other, equally viable explanations, though they may be less elegant and compelling as Dutton's. I'm not writing off his theory, in fact I rather like it; but it seems necessary to introduce a healthy amount of skepticism into the discussion. It's also possible that these hand axes served both purposes: a beautiful symbol of intelligence, skill, and resourcefulness, as well as a means of self-defense. In terms of the general argument regarding genetic vs. culturally defined beauty, objectively speaking, it's equally likely that both theories are true. That is, it's likely that the human perception of beauty is determined to some degree by genetic pre-disposition, and that sense of beauty is refined and molded by a layering of other factors such as genetic variation, culturally learned behavior, and the accumulation of individual life experiences. Hence, embracing one does not mean that we must reject the other. I think both give valuable insight and both give value to the esthetic experience.

But, as much as we like to think it, we are not so different from our flint carving ancestors. Fundamentally, our DNA is the same. And as we likely did then, today we do have a tendency to categorize things. We are hardwired to see patterns in complex and seemingly random data- whether it's there or not. We like to find order in chaos. We like to create abstract principles such as good and evil, light and darkness.... this is both a useful tool for understanding, and a cloudy lens which can distort our perception. But, you know, this is the beauty of it. This is part of the joy of being human.


Anonymous said...

richard, a thoughtful post once again. i too feel that there's a false dichotomy here. while i appreciate dutton's thoughts i am convinced they're a bit too simplistic. the vast web of conceptual intersubjectivity i receive simply by being conscious and having experiences is at least as important as the trajectory of biological propensity. when i teach using dutton, i always have a few other perspectives on hand, such as the work of ananda coomaraswamy and ellen dissanayake ( a couple others i like to share are roger seamon's “let them naturalize aesthetics: a response to dennis dutton.” available here:

and this, perhaps a bit more priggish piece by ben davis: “in defense of concepts”. available online here:

hope you enjoy these

New York City said...

Thank you kindly for sharing these links. I very much like Seamon's analysis. He seems to be quite near the mark as I see it. It's accurate to say that our goals in the arts are different than the goals of the scientist who might study the same subject. Though I have to say that we, as aestheticians, can ALSO consider the biological basis for our sense of beauty, though our goals may remain different.

Davis, I found very entertaining indeed. He brings up some very good points, among others, that Hirst covered "For the Love of God" with diamonds for a reason that Dutton might recognize. And the fact that understanding much Art throughout history does require context. Aesthetic experience can't be simplified to simply "Gee, he sure made that really well." So, Davis makes some excellent points.

However, as you might agree, mixed in with the insight is also more of the same false correlations and generalizations that I see on both sides of the debate, re-asserting "we are the one's who are correct, and the others are just stereotyping and ignorant of the nuances. They should just accept the facts, which are self evident". By asserting that all Art is Conceptual art: being art whose primary means of communication is the concept (perhaps more accurately, contextual Art), he ignores, or is perhaps ignorant of the fact that a great deal of relevant content can and is communicated vis a vis the technical narrative (or craft). And his conflation of criticism of Conceptual (or contextual Art) with anti-intellectualism... is more than exaggeration, but I guess discussing these questions completely objectively doesn't make for snarky and entertaining writing.

Both, I agree, are well worth the read. I'll have to get a copy of Dissanayake's book. Looks interesting.