This is a bit of an aside regarding The Art Instinct. There’s an interesting note in the book regarding the relationship between the form of art works and our senses. Dutton argues that “not every human sense organ provides a sensory basis for a developed art form… and… why some sensory experiences developed into high arts may remain forever unknown to us.” The prime example of the former is smell. Although our “sense of smell is acute and highly discriminating” and “there is for human beings more potential cognitive information in a single smell than you’d normally expect from a single color or a single sound,” smell has never given us any “grand art tradition.” Dutton argues primarily that it is because repeatability, balance, and pattern. Further, that this precludes smell from giving us any kind of imaginative stimulation.

I really think the argument here is a mixed bag. Much of what Dutton says is doubtless true, but I think it has more to do with cost of production than demand. ( You guessed it: I think a microeconomics explanation works best. ) We are not exactly sure what the demand for aesthetic smells are, beyond the very wide and expanding market for colognes and perfumes. But I am reminded of a presentation I coordinated in 9th grade when I sought to engage all the senses of the viewers by also bombarding them with smell. The main problem? Cost. Purchasing enough of the substances I wanted to create the smell was way beyond our budget. The same would go for aesthetic smell “performances” in the Pleistocene as it would today. Back then, the opportunity cost of devoting time, energy, and possibly very scarce resources to such performances would be massive — possibly including developing skill with some rudimentary musical instrument or epic poem / story-telling memorization. Further, it is not hard to imagine an artist in the future taking advantage of substantially decreased costs of production to develop strictly smell aesthetic performances or indeed to complement masterful orchestral compositions with them.

Dutton has another problem for smell’s capacity to be used aesthetically: “[Smell’s] failure to evoke or express emotions beyond those of personal association and nostalgia.” And yet, just accepting the assertion as true for a moment, the domain of experiences of personal association and nostalgia are limitless in the human mind, so it proves very little. I’m really not sure that the imaginative sense is best limited to transporting one into some sense of the other. Much art resonates with people precisely on the grounds of association and nostalgia, or memory. Now, I’m not saying I’d pay $7 for a smell performance when I could go see Star Trek again at the theater… I shudder to think. I merely say that nothing is proved here and indeed, as costs go down, there may be an entire aesthetic universe awaiting exploration.

Dutton believes that “every known medium that can be manipulated, utilized, or adapted to the basic requirements of an art form has already been turned toward making art.” I sense a little bit of fine arts myopia here. This cannot be true, for it could logically be shown that technology improvements and decreasing costs have fostered new mediums for art forms and that they may do so again. Economists cannot predict the exact form of the future, but at the very least, they can explain obvious cause and effect, such as when the minimum wage goes up, employers must discriminate against workers with the least valuable skills and therefore workers with the least valuable skills suffer from the minimum wage. Just so, if costs to the production of smell sense-data goes down, the chances of being able to get repetition, balance, and pattern in smell performances goes up.

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