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'The Art Instinct': In the DNA of the beholder?

February 8, 2009 |  3:30 pm

Britney and Beethoven

In today's Arts & Books section, Michael S. Roth reviews the new book "The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution" by Denis Dutton, editor of the website Arts & Letters Daily. In the book, Dutton argues that art in all its various forms arises out of universal biological impulses, and that all cultures have developed artistic practices.

So, art is grounded in biological impulses? What does that mean? Roth explains Dutton's position:

... Viewed from a distance, all human practices are ultimately grounded in biology. (Where else would they be grounded?) You like Britney Spears, and Dutton loves Beethoven. It turns out that both musical choices stem from the preferences that evolved in the Pleistocene environment. Dutton would say the same thing if you preferred Lil Wayne, Wagner, Javanese gamelan or Scottish bagpipe music. Biology really makes no difference to our judgments about music, except in the sense that we can always appeal to it as the ultimate ground of our pleasures and dislikes. 

Although Roth points out shortcomings in Dutton's theories, he says the author makes some powerful arguments about philosophy and anthropology surrounding the arts -- and does so with a fair amount of wit to boot.

Read the full review here.

-- Scott Sandell

Above: Britney Spears, photo by Matt Sayles/Associated Press; Ludwig van Beethoven, Times file art.