As some readers may have noticed, I am moving slowly in my book review(s) through The Art Instinct, almost chapter by chapter, since that is how I took my notes. In this post, I wish to address the concept of art as a universal across cultures, which is Professor Dutton’s main concern in chapter 4. The author easily exposes the inconsistencies of many anthropologists who argue that other cultures do not possess the Western concept of art, and yet, I am troubled by what I perceive as an inconsistency in his argument. If art is limited to objects or practices that show the 12 conditions as enumerated in Part I of this blog series, then I am not sure he has demonstrated art’s universality. And yet, it is universal. Therefore, in U.S. Supreme Court parlance, one might say that I do not join in the opinion but I concur in the judgment.
I thoroughly enjoy the evidence Dutton gives us of scholars past who have apparently dominated anthropological discourse in this subject in the past 50 years, who, as Joanna Overing did, claimed that “the ‘aesthetic is a bourgeois and elitist concept in the most literal historical sense, hatched and nurtured in the rationalist Enlightenment.” Dutton very politely remonstrates that, in fact, concerns of the aesthetic far predate the Enlightenment, going at the very least back to the Greeks. As for the modern sense of the word “aesthetic,” I always appreciated George Santayana‘s discussion on it in The Sense of Beauty (emphases mine):
If we combine, however, the etymological meaning of criticism with that of aesthetics, we shall unite two essential qualities of the theory of beauty. Criticism implies judgment, and aesthetics perception. To get the common ground, that of perceptions which are critical, or judgments which are perceptions, we must widen our notion of deliberate criticism so as to include those judgments of value which are instinctive and immediate, that is, to include pleasures and pains; and at the same time we must narrow our notion of aesthetics so as to exclude all perceptions which are not appreciations, which do not find a value in their objects. We thus reach the sphere of critical or appreciative perception, which is, roughly speaking, what we mean to deal with. And retaining the word “aesthetics,” which is now current, we may therefore say that aesthetics is concerned with the perception of values.
Incidentally, The Sense of Beauty (whose author and contents are not mentioned in The Art Instinct, whether because Dutton finds nothing of value or because Santayana himself renounced the work I do not know) is available in its entirety on Project Gutenberg. Another odd note, I found that the quote “Only the dead have seen the end of war” comes from Santayana! I was really excited to learn this, considering that it is one of my heroes, General Douglas MacArthur, who has led many as the guilty culprit in attributing it to Plato.
But back to The Art Instinct. I think Santayana’s quote is important for refining Dutton’s category of art, as will become clear later in this post. For now, let us survey other people’s conception of beauty and art. Apparently, Overing claims that “[the Piaroa people of the Amazon’s] notion of beauty cannot be removed from productive use… objects and people are beautiful for what they can do….” (p. 67) Dutton declares that this is hardly an affront to Western aesthetic sensibility because although the Piaroa have a different sense of beauty, it is still a sense of beauty, and therefore within the domain of Western aesthetics, considering the rough Santayana definition of the subject. ( I use Santayana partly since I do not remember encountering a definition of aesthetics in The Art Instinct. ) Yet later in the chapter (p. 82-84) seems to agree with Arthur Danto, the long-time art critic at The Nation who Dutton considers highly, that “art is opposed either to utilitarian artifacts or tourist kitsch: all parties can agree so far that art objects are those apparently formally significant objects that express or embody ideas.” Dutton positively summarizes Danto thusly:
Danto insists on a conceptual distinction between art and utilitarian artifact…. Artifacts are not problematic for Danto: they are simply nicely made useful objects. Art works are altogether something else, ‘a compound of thought and matter,’ as he puts it. A utilitarian artifact ‘is shaped by its function, but the shape of an artwork is given by its content…. To be a work of art, I have argued, is to embody a thought, to have a content, to express a meaning, and so the works of art that outwardly resemble Primitive artifacts embody thoughts, have contents, express meanings, though the objects [i.e. artifacts] they resemble do not.”
[ For readers without the book, Dutton makes arguments only slightly different in form but exactly the same in substance in this lengthy but interesting excerpt from Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. ] I confess that I am not actually sure if the author agrees with this passage, but as shown by the quote before the passage, it seems that he does. If this is so, it is roughly consistent with his attempt to demarcate the borders of art. However, it would not be entirely consistent with his chiding of Overing, who still fails the common sense litmus test because of course the other cultures’ senses of the aesthetic may fit within the Western one. Nonetheless, her claim that “[Piaroan] beauty cannot be removed from productive use” goes unchallenged by the author, so let us assume that it is true. If so, then Piaroans may not have art works in the Danto sense, only artifacts. According to the author, this would be impossible, unless he relents on the strength of his conditions and allows for artifacts.
This seems eminently reasonable for me for many reasons. First, let us assume that what I believe Dutton argues in this chapter is true: that every culture produces art that is not artifact. Let us look at another thought experiment. Further, let us assume that while every culture has a sense of beauty, and that there is a spectrum of cultures that spans those which produce art work that is strictly useful for its directly pleasurable visual qualities in addition to many other types of art all the way to cultures that produce art that is never only useful just due to the visual, aural, tactile, or olfactory pleasures/beauty people may derive, but is always useful in some other way. We have no problem with the former ideal, that fits perfectly into Dutton’s conditions. But somewhere along the way, the purpose (intention?) behind the art becomes less about achieving those pleasurable ends and more about other useful ends, yet you can have both at the same time.
So here is the question: does a set of objects exist beyond the latter ideal end for which there is no possible way to satisfy the Dutton conditions? If so, then Dutton is fine. If not, then he’s inconsistent. No human action is taken without some kind of need, and since (admittedly knowing very little about anthropology) it seems that (1) no art work is undertaken in most societies without some other purposes besides merely the aesthetic pleasure of it all, and (2) it would seem impossible to draw an arbitrary line at the point where the extra-aesthetic needs satisfied becomes trivial, then the Danto / Dutton artifact / art distinction falls. The subset / set argument would prevail. ( This is another way of arguing that sport events are fine: if old art works have purposes like repulsing enemies, pleasing gods, honoring ancestors, I’m still unsure why *winning* as one of many concerns precludes a Super Bowl from becoming an artistic event. )
A final argument on this point relates to the naturalism so fondly used in The Art Instinct: artifacts are regularly considered art by those without stakes in the battle over theory. Consider Ceramic Art museums proudly displaying artifacts, or the Harn Art Museum’s current “African interiors” exhibition that features doors and window frames amongst other “more clearly” artistic objects. Although it is interesting to note that on the Harn page, they elsewhere draw a distinction between artifact and art work, it seems clear that the usual sense of the word “art” in the Western sense includes artifacts as a subset. This means that while all artifacts would be considered art, not all art would be considered artifact (duh).
In summary, I agree with Professor Dutton that aesthetics is a cross-cultural category. But if it is, then art must be a broader category of human endeavor than what he currently allows. If art is an instinct, then almost all of us must exhibit it in some way or another. There may be those who find solace in the beauty of their driving technique, whether on the golf course or on the road, who find nothing so much inspiring in music, theater, cinema, or other visual arts. On the other hand, let me emphasize that while writing these posts I have come to realize the relative uselessness of just waving a wand and saying all of human activity is art. Still, I favor it for the reasons outlined and now believe perhaps we should just consider all these activities subsets of art, and art theory / aesthetics, in turn, subsets of economics. In the next post, I will put an “interlude” post discussing reflexive and instant aesthetic judgments and their role in The Art Instinct.