I should have known better than to post Part I before I was coherent, if only because Professor Dutton owns the internet and knows everything that is said on it (as evidenced by Arts & Letters Daily, which he runs and I have read since 2002). Still, I am honored he would even deign to respond to my thoughts. In lieu of a one-post book review, let me say here that I find the book eminently persuasive and right on almost all counts. I wish it had been much longer! However, I do have some additional thoughts. Coming to the book from an economics and linguistics background, I was fascinated by the discussion on landscape paintings and preferences early in the book.
What, after all, could make Kenyans, Asians, Europeans, and Americans all have the same overall preferences for landscapes in paintings, and specific landscapes at that? Without taking too much from the book, it seems that these landscapes, in particular those of the savanna (some trees, a slightly hilly terrain, some water, maybe a few mountains in the distance and some bushes… woo-lah!) tend to cater to prehistoric tastes. Humans would prefer to see themselves in these environments, as opposed to either flatlands or deserts, because there are vantage points from which they would feel more secure in addition to abundant life-affirming resources such as food and water. I personally connect with this argument, though perhaps there is something to be said for the hilly versus the flat in terms of Dutton’s 10th art condition — intellectual challenge. Hills and the spaces they create offer more questions than flatlands do.
In order for it to be a universal, assuming insignificant changes in the species DNA over the past few thousand years, a few more conditions need to be established, however. One cannot consistently on one hand argue that the cultural biases aren’t very important and then argue that a cross-cultural finding is very important. Of course, it is true that we do need to know if it is cross-cultural, but we also need cross-incomes, cross-class, and cross-temporal references. In the latter case, did people in 1000 BC prefer the savanna landscape to anything else? How about 300 BC China, 545 AD Byzantium, 1300 Avignon, and 1860 London? Even if there are differences in these measures, you could still argue that there are only deviations against the baseline preference of landscapes. Personally, I strongly suspect Dutton’s thesis would be vindicated by such research, though much of it is impossible at this point.
Yet an explanation would still be necessary to explain the continuum of art production, ranging from the most preferred (landscapes) to the least. Evolution through natural and sexual selection is a solid starting point, and might have significant explanatory power, but there’s another way of framing the question. This is through the economics sciences: the hallowed concept of utility. Underrated economist Murray Rothbard describes it thusly:
All action involves the employment of scarce means to attain the most valued ends. Man has the choice of using the scarce means for various alternative ends, and the ends that he chooses are the ones he values most highly. The less urgent wants are those that remain unsatisfied. Actors can be interpreted as ranking their ends along a scale of values, or scale of preferences. […] Whenever an actor has attained a certain end, [then] he has increased his state of satisfaction, or his [utility].
Makes sense, right? But then there’s an even more important concept: marginal utility. Rothbard’s discussion of it is the best that I have read in any economics treatise, and I strongly encourage readers to check it out. However, for this, I turn to Parkin’s Microeconomics textbook:
Marginal utility is the change in total utility that results from a one-unit increase in the quantity of a good consumed. When the number of six-packs Lisa buys increases from 4 to 5 a month, her total utility from soda increases from 181 units to 206 units. Thus for Lisa, the marginal utility of consuming a fifth six-pack each month is 25 units.
It is important to note that it is impossible to precisely measure utility, so “units” is used for convenience. The only way that we are able to compare utility in truth is by choices and the way people rank their preferences. Unfortunately, I am not done building the economic foundations for my points on The Art Instinct. There are a few more. Rothbard writes that “for all human actions, as the quantity of the supply (stock) of a good increases, the utility (value) of each additional unit decreases.” Meaning that if you have 11 gallons of water in storage, the 12th gallon of water will increase your total utility, but not by as much as the 11th gallon of water increased it. The 13th gallon will increase it less still, and so on. In other words, “The greater the supply of a good, the lower the marginal utility; the smaller the supply, the higher the marginal utility.” This is the law of diminishing marginal utility. In application, it is easy to see. When forced to reduce costs at a business, you will terminate the least important parts first, the most expendable personnel from your perspective, and so on, until you are left with the absolutely indispensable portions — perhaps a few managers, some particularly skilled laborers, and fixed costs such as utilities and rent. ( This is part of why the minimum wage raises unemployment amongst the least-skilled. )
What do these concepts have to do with The Art Instinct? Assuming Professor Dutton’s thesis to be true, it seems to me that the concepts could be very useful indeed. It suggests that in economics terms, savanna landscape paintings give people with no paintings the greatest marginal utility. Then comes deciduous and coniferous forest paintings. Then whatever is next according to the survey. After beautiful landscapes, let us assume that we have Impressionist paintings of gardens and sailboats. Then we have a set of infinite categories of art, and at infinity + 1, we have diamond encrusted skulls by Damien Hirst, and at infinity + 2, we have Duchamps readymades. This suggests that while the existence of Duchamps readymades gives us an increase in our total utility, it is smaller than the increase in total utility we get from a Hirst skull. But this does not mean that a Duchamps readymade must be less valuable than a Cage performance or even a landscape painting. This becomes a supply and demand question. Again, we turn to Rothbard to explain this “paradox of value” which so long vexed economists:
The question was: How can men value bread less than platinum, when “bread” is obviously more useful than “platinum”? The answer is that acting man does not evaluate the goods open to him by abstract classes, but in terms of the specific units available. He does not wonder whether “bread-in-general” is more or less valuable to him than “platinum-in-general,” but whether, given the present available stock of bread and platinum, a “loaf of bread” is more or less valuable to him than “an ounce of platinum.” That, in most cases, men prefer the latter is no longer surprising.
In the context of our discussion, if landscape paintings are so important, than how can a Hirst skull or a Duchamps urinal be worth more than a landscape painting? It’s quite simple: the supply of landscape paintings is far, far, far greater than the supply of Hirst skulls and Duchamps urinals. Do we see this in reality? Yes, we do. While a Hirst or Duchamps might be sold occasionally at Sotheby’s in New York or Christie’s in London, landscape paintings (and prints, an acceptable substitute for many) are a dime a dozen at Walmart, local art fairs, or Thomas Kinkade stores. This suggests that if the supply were cut off by government, in the short-run a few landscape paintings would be worth vastly more than anything Hirst has ever made, and in the long-run, landscape paintings would become objects of great passion on the black market. Landscape paintings are so prevalent in free markets that they cross all classes, going from the bottom to the Florida Highwaymen to Park West auctions on cruises to the big boys, Sotheby’s and Christie’s. [Updated 8/12: To be sure, there are markets for knock-offs of Hirst and Duchamp, but it is relatively minor. Why is that? Because if truth be told, the utility people and institutions get from the work is less from the contemplative, imaginative, and virtuoso qualities of the works (that is, almost anything that suggests increased fitness value or selection from an evolutionary perspective). The utility in some cases comes from prestige identification, which in turn maintains position, or from challenging the status quo for its own sake. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the marginal utility for an individual with no art or the total utility for society at large from landscape paintings is far greater. ]
If we tie Dutton’s thesis with these remarks, it seems that we ought to be able to learn more about selection in the human race. As technology increases, so do our capabilities and choices — it is possible that landscape paintings will one day be supplanted by something virtually perfectly pleasing to us. But given the current state of affairs, if we could extrapolate market data for the various dispersions and popularity of an almost infinite range of art works, we would better be able to hypothesize the traits selected for as shown in art. Or, more importantly, the relative importance of Dutton’s (or anyone else’s) conditions: intellectual vs. special focus vs. imaginative experience.