The Art Instinct : Denis Dutton replies to Roberto Casati

(Editor's note) Denis Dutton is kind enough to reply at length to Roberto Casati's skeptical review of his book, The Art Instinct. The review has sparked a heated debate between Duttonites and Casatites on this blog.


Like most authors, I appreciate any thoughtful analysis of my work, and for me that includes Roberto Casati’s review of my book. I won’t take up all Casati’s provocative points, but just a few, and not in the order he presents them.


At the close of his remarks, Casati says that my “intimidating name-dropping occasionally gets tiresome – "the Iliad, the Cathedral at Chartres, Leonardo's Lady with an Ermine, Breughel's Hunters in the Snow, Hokusai's Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji" etc. The list he refers to here is in the book’s introduction, where I am describing my intention in the last chapter to discuss the what I take to be Clive Bell’s “cold white peaks of art,” the summits of artistic achievement. The list is therefore to give the reader examples of the what I regard as greatest art in history. It does not, as Casati claims, “go on and on,” but has four further items: Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” Schubert’s Winterreise, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and Beethoven’s Sonata op. 111.

Where is the intimidation here? Most people are taught about the Iliad, or will have seen a movie based on it, will often know “Tintern Abbey,” if they have studied English poetry, will have seen that Breughel painting, will know something about Chartres, and will have seen “The Wave,” the most famous of all Japanese woodcuts, even if they don’t know that it forms part of Hokusai’s series. Yes, maybe Winterreise is a bit obscure, and a lot of people don’t know the Opus 111. I’m not sure about the Leonardo choice; I was avoiding the Mona Lisa, a great painting but also, alas, a cliché. Again: that list is intended to denote examples of the highest of high art, and yet be familiar enough that most readers will recognize a couple of items on it.

Casati continues: “If I want to learn something about the arts, I need to know what is it that makes Schubert's Winterreise a masterpiece, and it is not by enlisting it along other masterpieces and adding that “their nobility and grandeur … flow from their ability to address deep human instincts” that we'll make progress in understanding.” But that is what is discussed in the last chapter, as promised in the introduction. And by the way, I stand by the phrase “nobility and grandeur.” If anyone finds such notions corny, or Victorian, or embarrassing, so be it.

Intimidation? Excuse me, but that is something that art theorists, especially those of a poststructuralist stripe, have been inflicting on readers for the last forty years or more – talking down to their audiences with obscure jargon and esoteric references.

I’ve tried throughout to find examples and make references that I believe will be shared by a large number of my readers (Pride and Prejudice, The Simpsons, Beethoven’s 9th, Jackson Pollock, a Woody Allen movie, the Bach Chaconne, Robinson Crusoe, and many other works of broad familiarity).

For his part, Casati adduces a video by the artist Jimmie Durham (“Cousine mutique des Deschiens et de Monsieur Cyclopède”) as evidence that repetition can have its values in art. (I certainly agree with the point in general: the cited video was not on the web, but another Jimmie Durham work I found had a lot of repetition, too, and precious little nobility and grandeur.) Casati also mentions the movie Memento. While I didn’t find Casati’s examples intimidating, they did send me to Google to find out more. For myself, I want my readers to have examples from their own experience that may support my arguments without always having to take my word on some argued conclusion or other.

Is there an art instinct?

Casati says that he can find in the book no evidence “for an art instinct: a specific, dedicated module or system modeled on the language module or instinct, that would react automatically and mandatorily in front of artworks in the way, say, in which the language system reacts when presented with linguistic stimuli.”
I have trouble regarding this as a criticism. Here is what I say in the book: "The art instinct proper is not a single genetically driven impulse similar to the liking for sweetness but a complicated ensemble of impulses – sub-instincts, we might say – that involve responses to the natural environment, to life's likely threats and opportunities, the sheer appeal of colours or sounds, social status, intellectual puzzles, extreme technical difficulty, erotic interests and even costliness.” Various sections and chapters of the book explain how these impulses combine in the experience of art. By the way, the word “module,” by my direct intention, hardly occurs in the book. The soundness of its main theses does not depend of how arguments over mental modules are ultimately decided. The fundamental argument of the book is that a rich experience of art tends to layer various responses on top of each other in a coherent whole: the pleasure of color, skill, representation, human beauty, and emotion can operate simultaneously in the experience of a work of art.


Casati’s criticism of what I say about religion is extracted from five sentences in the introduction. I remark there that religious believers naturally dislike evolutionary explanations of their religions, because religions tend to make claims about truth and morality. I’m on the side of the Darwinians, of course, but I can see why believers are made cross by writers such as Pascal Boyer and Richard Dawkins. I’m hardly intending at that point to put forward a general account of religion which anthropologists might dispute. I’m talking about Dawkins & Co. and about the negative popular reaction to them among theists. I’m simply stating that I do not expect a parallel reaction among aesthetes to an evolutionary analysis of art. This is because it is widely accepted that the arts are a realm of fiction, imagination, and make-believe. Sure, sometimes artists make truth claims and sometimes religion uses art to make truth claims (as I discuss in the last chapter). But an evolutionary explanation of the arts will not be a threat to the art establishment in the same way that an evolutionary explanation of religion is to the religious establishment. That was my only point, and I stand by it.

Art as a Cluster Concept

I also stand by the cluster definition of art and the perfectly intentional vagueness of how it applies to specific instances: the Mozart 40th Symphony, Groundhog Day, David Copperfield, Les Fleurs du Mal, Pierrot Lunaire, and my favorite episodes of Ren and Stimpy. They are all works of art, but they partake or rely on different items of the list, different aspects of art in general. Casati requests that I put the list in a hierarchy. Why? Different works and different genres exploit some items of the list more than others. Novels and landscape paintings us make use of representation more than instrumental music, but are not for that reason superior art forms. Let readers meditate on the list and form their own hierarchies. My guess is that virtuosity and imagination will be high in most people’s thinking about art. For art aficionados who are intrigued by Duchamp and the traditions of the readymade, the institutional aspect of art will loom large. Such interests and tastes are personally and historically variable.

I am not trying to dictate people’s reactions to art, to tell them what they ought to enjoy. My intention is to describe and to some extent to explain, in terms of evolved preferences, the existence of that broad range of interests in the first place. Again, with the marginal cases I discuss – fine food, World Cup football finals, and bullfighting – I am not trying to force down my readers’ throats my own interpretations. (In the World Cup case I use the list to explain why I personally think the final does not qualify as art and also why someone might reasonably disagree with me.) What I want to do is make sense of these kinds of disputed cases and demonstrate how an argument might be conducted in terms of the Cluster Definition. Art works such as Duchamp’s readymades are delightfully created in order to incite dispute, in fact. I also deliver a detailed analysis of Fountain and its artistic siblings in terms of my list.

Institutional Theory

Casati says that Dada is:

“the real hard test case for Dutton's definition. Duchamp's readymades only satisfy his criterion (#11) [being recognized as art by art institutions]; which is of course a necessary condition for the Institutional Theory of art. Dada is discussed extensively later on: “…any artifact that has all, or nearly all, of the other twelve features on the list does not need to have this one to be a work of art; such an object could not fail to be a work of art in the absence of only this feature” (p. 200). This amounts to saying that the institutional feature is a non-necessary feature. In my view, this amounts to a change of subject.”

There is no change of subject at all. We are talking here about the nature of art. My claim is that the arts constitute a natural category of human experience and production that existed long before art theorists. The institutional feature (#11) in my opinion is a non-necessary feature, in that there exist many cases of indisputable art that are not institutionally sanctioned, or were not at the time of their genesis. Item #11 is therefore like other items on the list. Henry Darger spent years alone in his Chicago apartment creating and expressing a fantasy world of the adventures of the Vivian girls in their fight against evil. Did he think he was creating art? Would the nearby, and conveniently named, Chicago Art Institute have considered his tracings and fictions as art? Who cares? I say that what Darger was doing was art in terms of the rest of the list, regardless of whether Darger knew it or whether it was validated by any institutional setting or decree. The same argument can be mounted with some genres and individual works of tribal art, as extensively discussed in the book.

Duchamp’s readymades are not a hard case for me at all: they are easy. In chapter seven, I analyze Fountain against every item of the list and come to the conclusion that this reluctant object, despite its reluctance, can’t help being a work of art. It has at least seven of the twelve features on the list, and depending how you interpret it, maybe more. I don’t understand how Casati can claim that Fountain would only fall under a single item on my list, #11, the institutional criterion. Readymades are intellectually challenging (#10), they have special focus (#7), generate a critical world around themselves (#5), are objects of pleasure, (#1), and even show in their manner skill and virtuosity (#2) – in the artist’s choice of the object and its presentation, anyway. Skeptics about the artistic status of readymades may disagree, but they will have to do so in terms of the Cluster Definition (which is in my view a true definition; see the work, especially by Stephen Davies, referred to on p. 249).


Casati ends by saying, “I, for one, am quite happy with the idea of a mature, unconstrained art.” I agree, but I’d go farther than that: I am unhappy with the idea of a constrained art. Romanticism is okay by me, and modernism is delicious. I rather like the cult of art as an ultimate expression of human freedom, which I feel I find not only in the greatest modern works, but also the most ancient art. Nevertheless, I have written a book that does indicate that our genetic natures may place limits – not on artistic freedom, on art’s power to shock, but on the receptivity of audiences. When I explain in chapter nine why I think atonality will not help any composer to attract a large audience (that, in any event, is one of the upshots of my discussion), I find it nothing to celebrate. That’s just the way it is in music perception, and very likely the way it will remain. Likewise, when in chapter seven I suggest that there may be an intrinsic connection in the human mind between art and being made of rare materials, or beauty and expensiveness, it is not because I approve of this. The same can be said about what I say about the appearance of landscapes on calendars, chocolate boxes, and many a living room wall.

I’m describing the human response to art, not endorsing it. Against this evolved backdrop, modernism has a lot going in its favor, including precisely its emphasis on imagination, creativity, individuality, and rocking the boat, setting itself in opposition to boring, conventional expectations of prettiness. My message is also one of pointing out that modernism in its more rigorous forms is probably going to continue to struggle for popular acceptance. Please don’t shoot the messenger.

There are further reviews and discussions of The Art Instinct on the book's website.


  • comment-avatar
    José-Luis Guijarro 12 May 2009 (14:24)

    Carlin Romano, one of your book reviewers, has this to say: [i]Philosopher of art Denis Dutton “combines a magisterial command of the history of aesthetics back to Plato and Aristotle, a total commitment to clarity and verve in writing, and an up-to-the-minute grasp of almost every trend on the contemporary cultural scene. Result? A philosophy of art for the ages.[/i] I am sure that these words are absolutely true. You certainly seem to be an outstanding expert in the History of Art and it must be difficult to attain your dedicated knowledge in these matters. And you are an outstanding writer who knows how to express yourself beautifully and clearly. But this is not the central point, as far as I am concerned. Time and again, when I read what Roberto said, and what I have succeeded in reading myself from the introduction and from what you have written here, I can’t get rid of the impression that you have not attempted a real materialistic theory of art to predict how this phenomenon will appear in the human environment. As a symbolic-cognitivist linguist, I am, perhaps wrongly, biased by theories that are so explicit as to be possible candidates to be implemented in a sort of Turing machine that will be able to predict things that have never occurred before. This is, to my mind, the achievement that Chosmsky and followers have been able to do in the linguistic field. To [i]let readers meditate on the list and form their own hierarchies[/i], for example, is not a good sign of a theoretical soundness, at least in the way I need it. Neither is “guessing” (as [i]My guess is that virtuosity and imagination will be high in most people’s thinking about art.[/i]). Your guessing here should also be strongly and explicitly fundamented by situating it in a given social and personal environment, as I pointed out in my comments in the other thread. I am not going to repeat myself again. But my feeling is that we don’t seem to have the same “object” in mind when we point to the conceptual mental field using the word “scientific (naturalistic/darwinian) theory”. But, as Kipling wrote, If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you, If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too; If you can wait and not be tired by waiting … … yours is the Earth and everything that is in it.

  • comment-avatar
    Denis Dutton 13 May 2009 (02:30)

    Dear José-Luis, Thank you for your clarifying comments. I quite enjoy your Kipling quotation. Let us hope that in the end it applies to us both in our different ways. As for “My guess is that virtuosity and imagination will be high in most people’s thinking about art,” you indeed have caught me out in a bit of rhetorical modesty. Trying, no doubt, to be Mr. Niceguy. It is actually no guess at all, as my book makes repeatedly and vividly clear. Across the globe, the admiration of skill and virtuosity is an essential component of almost all forms of artistic experience. It’s not just the skill of Claudio Arrau in performing that Beethoven sonata, but the skill of Beethoven in the constructing the piece, making your hair stand on end in the development section. People are amazed at how Cezanne modulates colors, how Jane Austen can describe human folly with such penetration, how Fred Astaire can dance, how Marcel Duchamp can foil middle-class expectations of what “art” should be with such consummate wit. This fascination and awe in the face of technical and other forms of human skill display is found in tribal cultures as much as in Western cultures. It is perhaps the single most reliable feature of art through recorded history. (And, by the way, evolution, both in terms of natural and sexual selection, explains it.) Anyone who seriously believes I’ve just made a “guess” about virtuosity, or that I am wrong, can begin to refute me by coming up with the culture where artistic or creative skill in artistic production is not in general admired. The same could be said about imagination as I discuss it in [i]The Art Instinct[/i], but I’ll stop now. Thanks again.

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    José-Luis Guijarro 13 May 2009 (20:23)

    Dear Dennis! As I mentioned in the other thread where I got the first contact with your book [i]by proxy![/i], you and I seem to belong to two theoretical frames: you appear favour the [b][i]behavioural[/i][/b] one, and I tend to be more in the [b][i]cognitive[/i][/b] side. You are in excellent company, at least from my own point of view, since the first hint I had about how to go about explaining an artistic field, namely LITERATURE, came from a book written in 1979 by Marie-Louise Pratt, [i]Towards a Speech-Act Theory of Literary Discourse[/i], where she insisted in that ELABORATIVITY was an essential characteristic of it. I had never had a clear thought about what ART and LITERATURE really meant at that time, and I became a dedicated defender of Pratt’s theory during the eighties of past century. At the end of that decade, however, I met Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson and they changed my theoretical frame totally, from a behaviourist to a cogntivist one. Therefore, when I met Ellen Dissanayake and she also insisted that this behavioural trait was essential to art, I had a long, interesting and friendly debate with her, but I was unable to make myself understood to her, unluckily. I am not such a good writer as you are, and, besides, my mother language is not English –as I think it is clear to everyone. But let me try again, just in case: You see, to my mind, when we admire “virtuosity”, “elaborativity”, “making special” and so on, we are FIRST indulging in a [i]mental process[/i]. Therefore, I think it may be a better explanatory idea to concentrate in that admirative process and find out how it may work in the so-called ART world. To admire, or better, to evaluate is a natural human process and it must be easier to describe in evolutionary terms than the elaborative condition of artefact. If we are able to state the characteristics that distinguish this evaluative process from others ([i]i.e[/i]., from the one I have when admiring your art erudition, or admiring Rafa Nadal’s tennis feats, or the nice smile of Barack Obama, etc., would be a real success in the explanation of ART, from an evolutionary point of view. Does that make any sense to you, or is it just cold (and therefore, disgusting) coffee? BTW, I thank you very much for your two answers, which I think are very kind when dedicated to a person who hasn’t read your book. Really kind!

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    Oran Kelley 23 May 2009 (02:52)

    [quote]Nevertheless, I have written a book that does indicate that our genetic natures may place limits – not on artistic freedom, on art’s power to shock, but on the receptivity of audiences. When I explain in chapter nine why I think atonality will not help any composer to attract a large audience (that, in any event, is one of the upshots of my discussion), I find it nothing to celebrate. That’s just the way it is in music perception, and very likely the way it will remain.[/qoute] “*May* place limits!?” Reading too much Gould of late? Of course there are limits. Inaudible music probably would have a limited audience (but not non-existent!) (I actually don’t think Gould is guilty of temporizing: he just has a respect for the uncertainties involved in speculating about our pre-historic ancestors. but anyhow . . .) I think the big problem with your book is that you actually don’t spend much time “describing the human response to art.” You have some mildly interesting studies on what people’s stated preferences are when asked, some very observant and interesting commentary about art, and a strident effort to imbue your aesthetic theory with an air of certainty by regularly referring to other people’s speculations about the Pleistocene. But the problem is all you are really talking about is the canon. If you really want to test this theory, don’t explain the Iliad, the Cathedral at Chartres, Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine, Breughel’s Hunters in the Snow, Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” Schubert’s Winterreise, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and Beethoven’s Sonata op. 111. This list is more or less cherry-picked to favor theories such as yours. But the vast majority of us, most instances of the human species, spend very little time contemplating these things. If you want to explain the human interaction with the astehtic, explain body art. Explain emo. Explain the revival of 80s music. Explain filmi music. Explain black clothes. Explain the popularity of Davinci Code. The art that matters most isn’t Shakespeare, whom most people will never read or appreciate. It’s contemporary cultural expressions which are eagerly consumed every single day everywhere around us. Trying to come up with an evolutionary explanation of art and then overwhelmingly using examples drawn from what is in fact a fringe of cultural activity is completely contradictory; but it may the ONLY way you could possibly have come to the conclusion that art is primarily driven by appeals to genetic determined palate reactions. Art is a way we speak to each other, and the primary context of each instance of expression is the conversation NOT the biological possibilities or limits.

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    José-Luis Guijarro 25 May 2009 (13:49)

    [i]Art is a way we speak to each other, and the primary context of each instance of expression is the conversation NOT the biological possibilities or limits.[/i] Does that suppose to mean that when you think of ART you refer to a specific way of speaking? Why is it [b]specific[/b], do you think? In other would you describe this specificity? Since almost everything we humans do is covered by conversation of one kind or another, from making love (I mean LOVE, precisely) to politics, to say that ART is conversation is indeed to point to something understandable, but it does hardly describe or explain ART. Which means that, from my point of view, what you are stating in your above posting is that Dennis is not pointing to the same semantic field as you want to look, which is fair enough. But you are not giving enough details to contradict what he tried to describe and/or explain. I think that the real distinguishing feature of the sort of [i]speaking[/i] you have in mind is that we value it (anything, you are right, say, Schubert and High School Musical) in a certain way which has to be described too, I agree, for we may value economically, politically, intellectually, etc., and this again is not ART. As I said in the first thread, what I think we value (as ART) is the power of the experience to blend contexts at one go ([i]i.e[/i], at least (1) the context where we are living a certain situation and (2)the context that provides an alternative interpretative tool which amplifies and widens that experience of the moment). That, I propose, is what Toto managed in [i]Miracolo à Milano[/i], as I mentioned the other day, or what happened to me when I finally managed that cognitive blending of Rothko’s paintings in the Tate –which I also mentioned in the other thread.

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    Oran Kelley 30 May 2009 (03:22)

    [quote]Does that suppose to mean that when you think of ART you refer to a specific way of speaking? Why is it specific, do you think? In other would you describe this specificity?[/quote] If you are looking at ART from an evolutionary perspective, this insistence on specificity is out of place, because the evolutionary perspective is specifically talking about the USE of art–in other words its applicability, or the applicability of its antecedent traits to non-aesthetic problems. What are the qualities of aesthetic discourse–I am not afraid to just endorse Dutton’s description of them. That’s the sort of thing he explains well, I think. Why, from an evolutionary perspective, does this mode of communication exist? Here he falls, if you asked me. And that is what the book is about. The WHY. And I do not think, from that evolutionary perspective, that we can separate Schubert from High School Musical. Consuming either represents the same activity until proven otherwise. I do enjoy Schubert and do find High School Musical tiresome, but, from Dutton’s evolutionary perspective, so what? Most of my contemporaries enjoy things like High School Musical, so therefore THAT is the sort of thing I ought to be explaining if I want to explain the aesthetic from an evolutionary perspective.

  • comment-avatar
    José-Luis Guijarro 3 June 2009 (20:24)

    By “specificity”, I was trying to point out to the ART evaluative process, which, as I think I made clear, is a human attitude which embeds whatever you decide to evaluate into a higher order proposition. That is, [b][P (P)][/b] in general; [b][V (X)][/b] as an evaluating attitude; and [b][Va (X)][/b] as an “artistic” evaluating process. I don’t understand why you contend that to try to describe / explain the “specificity” of the [i][b]art [/b][/i]evaluation as a specific instance of the evaluating process, which, in its turn, is a specific instance of the process which characterizes attitudes, etc. is not relevant in an evolutionary frame. Maybe it’s the use of the term “specificity” which cringes. But my scant knowledge of English prevents me from using a more appropriate word. I hope you now understand what I mean. As for the rest of your posting, I entirely agree with you. The best explanation is the one that clarifies why we enjoy [i]Ulysses, Schubert, Matisse[/i], etc. AND AT THE SAME TIME, [i]Falcon Crest, High School Musical[/i], and a pictorial pastiche. Let me put my former question in a different mode: what would be [b][i]your[/i][/b] description of the ART process so that we may distinguish it from, say, the POLITICS process, since both require a lot of conversation to work?