April 2010

On Denis Dutton's The Art Instinct (2009)

What Makes Art Art?

Does Denis Dutton Know?

by Louis Torres

[I]f we desire to avoid obfuscation and discussions which move at cross-purposes, we must give definite and precise meanings to our terms. A definition sets a term within its proper boundaries, and the injunction "Define your terms!" is of first importance.

Indeed it is. Yet as the author of that sage advice, Lionel Ruby, acknowledges in his classic book Logic: An Introduction (1950, 1960) the process of constructing an adequate definition can be very difficult, "particularly when there is controversy over the 'proper' meaning of a word." As it happens, one of the controversial words with which he chooses to illustrate that process is art. It is precisely such a vague or ambiguous term, he explains, that calls for a definition.

What makes art art? How, in other words, should the term be defined? Denis Dutton--an American expatriate philosophy professor in New Zealand best known here as the founder and editor of the popular web portal Arts & Letters Daily--thinks he has the answer. He offers it in his latest book, The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution, which was published a year ago to unprecedented critical acclaim for a book on philosophy.

The book's website includes links to a selection of no fewer than four dozen mostly laudatory reviews, topped by philosopher-critic Carlin Romano's assessment as "a philosophy of art for the ages," in the Philadelphia Inquirer. In addition, there are remarks and responses by Dutton, a sprinkling of accolades from key sources, a dozen or so photographs of the happy philosopher himself (who would not be happy with all that attention?), and news of Dutch and Spanish translations, with others in Greek, Korean, Polish, and Portuguese in the pipeline, and still more under negotiation. Whew! (1)

At the outset, Dutton asserts that the time has come to consider art in Darwinian terms. The main title of his book mimics that of Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct (2007) which, though not the first to trade on Darwin's cachet, may be the most influential. (2) But the appropriateness of Dutton's title, as well as the validity of his thesis, depends, as Ruby would insist, on the precise meaning of the terms art and instinct.

Dutton properly defines "instinct" as "automatic, unconscious patterns of behavior." Yet he also maintains that "art works are the most complex and diverse of human achievements, creations of free human will and conscious execution," and that art-making "requires rational choice . . . and the highest levels of learned, not innate skills." How does he attempt to reconcile this seeming contradiction? He does not.

Even more crucial is how he does attempt to answer the underlying question, Exactly what constitutes a work of art? Though he devotes an entire chapter [all but the last two pages are accessible online] to it, reviewers have largely glossed over, or have failed to grasp, Dutton's conception. Yet if he does not get that right we are left with nothing.

To begin with, Dutton erroneously asserts that "thinkers from Aristotle to contemporary evolutionary psychologists have suggested [that] there is a human instinct to produce and enjoy artistic experiences." Humans do not produce artistic experiences, however. They produce art. More important, Aristotle did not argue that art making is an instinct. Instead, he referred to "the instinct of imitation," and observed that imitation (mimesis) is one of two instincts from which poetry "sprang" [Poetics, IV]. That is quite different from Dutton's claim that art making is itself instinctive.

Dutton's Definition

Dutton's definition of art consists of a dozen "cluster criteria" with accompanying annotations. As he observes, however, these "defining characteristics"--direct pleasure, skill and virtuosity, style, novelty and creativity, criticism, representation, special focus, expressive individuality, emotional saturation, intellectual challenge, art traditions and institutions, and imaginative experience-- are "continuous with non-art experiences and capacities." These characteristics apply not only to art but to a host of other aspects of daily life--reminders of which Dutton provides in parentheses following his discussion of each criterion.

Here is a brief summary of Dutton's annotated cluster-criteria definition of art.

1. Direct pleasure. Art is "a source of immediate experiential pleasure in itself." (Such pleasure is also found in other areas of daily life, "such as . . . sport and play, . . . quaffing a cold drink on a hot day, or . . . watching larks soar or storm clouds thicken . . . [and] sex.")

2. Skill and virtuosity. The making of art requires and demonstrates "specialized" skill (which is also "a source of pleasure and admiration in every area of human activity beyond art, perhaps most notably today in sports").

3. Style. "Objects and performances in all art forms are made in recognizable styles, according to rules of form, composition, or expression. . . . Styles . . . allow for the exercise of artistic freedom, liberating as much as they constrain. Styles can oppress artists; more often styles set them free. (Virtually all meaningful human activity . . . is carried out within [a] stylistic framework: [for example,] gestures . . . [and] social courtesies such as norms of laughter. . . .)"

4. Novelty and creativity. These qualities, as well as "the capacity to surprise," are integral to art in Dutton's view. ("Creativity is [also] called for and admired in countless other areas of life. We admire creative solutions . . . in dentistry and plumbing as well as [in] the arts. . . .")

5. Criticism. "Wherever artistic forms are found, they exist alongside some kind of critical judgment and appreciation, simple or, more likely, elaborate." [Even in prehistory?]

6. Representation. "Art objects . . . represent or imitate real and imagined experiences of the world." ("Blueprints, . . . passport photographs, and road maps are equally imitations or representations. The importance of representation extends to every area of life.")

7. Special focus. All art is "bracketed off from ordinary life, made a separate and dramatic focus of experience" (as are other areas of life, from "religious rites . . . [and] political rallies" to "advertising [and] sporting events," in which special focus and "a sense of occasion" are found).

8. Expressive individuality. A work of art possesses this trait (but so does "[a]ny ordinary activity with a creative component--everyday speech, lecturing, home hospitality" and so on).

9. Emotional saturation. Art is "shot through with emotion" (as are "many ordinary, non-art life experiences--falling in love, watching a child take its first steps, . . . seeing an athlete break a world record, [and] having a heated row with a close friend. . . .")

10. Intellectual challenge. Art "tends to be designed to utilize the combined variety of human perceptual and intellectual capacities to the full extent." Aspects of art that are not so easily grasped include complex plot in fiction and recapitulation in music. (But life presents intellectual challenges as well: "Games such as chess or Trivial Pursuit, cooking from complicated recipes, home handyman tasks, . . . or even working out tax returns can offer challenges of exercise and mastery that result in achieved pleasure."

11. Art traditions and institutions. Works of art "gain their identity by the ways they are found in historical traditions, in lines of historical precedents." [Dutton is here referring, albeit opaquely, to the "institutional theory" of art that has governed the artworld in one form or another in recent decades--more on which below.]

12. Imaginative experience. The chief defining characteristic of art may be that its objects "provide an imaginative experience for both producers and audiences." (While imagination is "virtually coextensive with normal human conscious life"--in activities ranging from problem-solving to daydreaming--the experience of art is different. It is "marked by the manner in which it decouples imagination from practical concern, freeing it, as Kant instructed, from the constraints of logic and rational understanding.")

Thus freed, how do we experience art? For one thing, Dutton says, we appreciate it even if no objects are represented. We contemplate its "make-believe world" --"the nonimitative, abstract arts" as well as the "representational arts"--in a "disinterested" manner. In thus attempting to accommodate "abstract art," he ignores that "make-believe" is by its very nature imitative, based on the mimetic instinct Aristotle referred to. In claiming that we experience art with "disinterest," Dutton also belies his apt observation that art is "shot through with emotion" (see #9, above), for he fails to recognize that the primary source of emotion is one's values--which preclude such detachment.

Dutton's annotations, which purport to explain his criteria, often leave out important information or require explanations themselves. In #1 (direct pleasure), for example, he refers to the "art object" as including such things as "narrative story," which is clear enough--fiction and drama come readily to mind. Next is "crafted artifact" (are not all artifacts by definition "crafted"?), which is also unambiguous. What is one to make, however, of Dutton's term "visual performance"? Would he include both juggling (which is entertainment, not art (3)), for example, and pantomime (4) (which is an art, albeit a minor one)? Dutton does not say. Given the open-ended nature of his definition, he may be referring to "visual performance art" (a sub-category of the bogus postmodernist genre performance art"), which is not to be confused with the legitimate performing arts associated with theater, dance, and music.

Regarding #4 (novelty and creativity), Dutton might have noted that "novelty" is a hallmark of the avant-garde--as artist-critic Kenyon Cox astutely observed in his 1910 lecture "The Illusion of Progress" (see his Aristos award citation).

The Institutional Definition of Art

Dutton's entire discussion of the institutional theory of art (#11: art traditions and institutions) will leave ordinary readers unfamiliar with its sorry history at a loss. What sense can be made by them, for example, of his statement that "works of art gain meaning by being produced in an art world, in what are essentially socially constructed art institutions"? Or of the revelation that "institutional theorists tend to apply their minds to readymades [on which, see below] and conceptual art because the interest of such works is close to exhausted by their importance in the historical situation of their production." This is not philosophizing "for the ages," it is mere philosophic pretentiousness.

Forced by his own approach to connect all this to real life, Dutton makes the astounding claim that "institutional theory as promoted in modern aesthetics can be applied to any human practice whatsoever," including medicine, warfare, and education. Heaven help us if our surgeons, generals, and kindergarten teachers were to emulate contemporary philosophers of art. What we have now is not "modern aesthetics" but postmodern aesthetics, with its extreme relativism and denial of objectivity. (5)

Most important, as Dutton implies here and elsewhere in his book, he ultimately accepts the institutional theory of art--which Michelle Kamhi and I dubbed the "authoritarian theory " in What Art Is, because it declares, in effect, that something (anything) is art, merely if the artworld says it is.

Dutton claims that his list identifies the "defining features" of art, its "most common and easily graspable" characteristics. How many of them have to be present to justify calling something art? He does not say. Furthermore, as he points out, they are all features of non-art aspects of life as well. Yet he insists that "the list . . . presents in its totality a definition of art." Does it? Is his "definition" in fact a definition? Does it serve the function of one? He thinks it does:

Taken individually or jointly, the features on this list help to answer the question of whether, confronted with an artlike object, performance, or activity--from our own culture or not--we are justified in calling it art.

If you can remember them all, that is--if then. Perhaps Dutton expects you to have his book in hand so that you can consult all twelve criteria in his seven-page-long definition. But first you have to figure out what he means by "an artlike object."

"Any object that possessed every feature on the list would have to be a work of art," Dutton insists. Yet he notes that his definition "does not exclude fringe art, avant-garde art, or other controversial cases," and his discussion of a number of examples makes clear that an object need not meet all the criteria to qualify as art in his view.

Examples of presumably "artlike" objects, performances, and activities cited by Dutton range from modernist abstract works such as Jackson Pollock's One: Number 31, 1950 and Ad Reinhardt's "black canvases" [Abstract Painting, 1960-1966] [more] to postmodernist works such as Andy Warhol's "Brillo boxes" [more] and John Cage's 4'33" [more] [more]. Dutton's definition also does not exclude Japanese tea ceremonies ("widely regarded as art") or Harlem Globetrotters basketball "performance[s]" [see video] ("true artistic event[s]"). Finally, Dutton explains that "by 'art' and 'arts'" he also means "decorated objects such as tools or the human body." Nothing, it seems, is excluded by him from the realm of art.

Duchamp's Fountain and Other Readymades

Most perversely, Dutton insists that Duchamp's infamous "readymade" Fountain [more] is a work of art in spite of the fact that (as suggested by another scholar) it "'reflects and embodies the intention to produce something that does not, and could not, satisfy the criteria we employ in classifying things as art.'" While regarding this as a "perfect description of Fountain," Dutton nonetheless devotes some nine pages of his book to arguing why Fountain is, after all, a work of art. In a response to a review of his book, Dutton summarized that argument, immodestly declaring:

Duchamp's readymades are not a hard case for me at all: they are easy. In chapter seven [eight], 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. . . . 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 . . .). (6)

Instead of taking the plumbing fixture at Duchamp's word (as Dutton knows, Duchamp himself declared that he never intended his readymades to be art), Dutton argues that Fountain is art because it meets seven of his cluster criteria, among them that it is "intellectually challenging." If by that he means that slogging through the voluminous literature on them is no easy task, he is right. In order to have "even a minimal appreciation" of Fountain, he explains, one must have a knowledge of art history, "or at least of the contemporary [avant-garde] art context."

Moreover, Duchamp's readymades are "objects of pleasure" in Dutton's view. His own first criterion of "direct pleasure" does not support that conclusion, however, for the readymades lack the crucial quality of "beauty," the very source of "aesthetic pleasure . . . derived from the experience of art." Ordinary people are more likely either to experience the readymades as clever little artworld jokes (if they know something of their history) or to dismiss them as mere oddities.

"Definition" Defined

In any case, Dutton's cluster approach violates virtually all the traditional criteria for a proper definition grounded in the rules of logic. Once a commonplace of intellectual discourse, these rules have sadly been abandoned by philosophers, although at least one respected logic text, Patrick J. Hurley's A Concise Introduction to Logic (7) continues to recommend them. These rules for formulating an accurate definition may be summarized as follows:

(1) It includes a genus (the general class of things to which the referents of the concept belong) and a differentia (the principal characteristics distinguishing the concept's referents from other things in that class); (2) it is neither too broad nor too narrow; (3) it identifies the essential attributes or characteristics of the concept's referents; (4) it avoids circularity (it must not employ a synonym or cognate of the concept being defined) and (5) it is clear--avoiding vague, obscure, or metaphorical language.

Dutton's purported definition has no genus and differentia, is much too broad, identifies no essential attributes applicable only to the arts, and is riddled with vague or obscure language.

As Hurley explains:

A definition by genus and difference assigns a meaning to a term by identifying a genus term and one or more difference words that, when combined, convey the meaning of the term being defined. Definition by genus and difference is more generally applicable and achieves more adequate results than any of the other kinds of intensional definition. (8)

Hurley defines definition as "A group of words that assigns a meaning to a word or group of words." In her Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, philosopher-novelist Ayn Rand more precisely defines the term as "a statement that identifies the nature of the [referents] subsumed under a concept." She further observes that "the purpose of a definition is to distinguish a concept from all other concepts and thus to keep its [referents] differentiated from all other existents." (9)

Needless to say, Dutton's cluster definition is neither a "group of words" in Hurley's sense nor a "statement." Finally, one would be hard pressed to demonstrate how it distinguishes and differentiates "art" when he himself conflates examples from art and life in each of the twelve items on his list.

In conclusion, to return to the question posed by the title of this essay: Does Denis Dutton know what makes art art? The answer must be No, he does not.

For my reply to Denis Dutton´s response to this review, see "The Ad Hom Instinct" (Aristos, November 2010).

Select Reviews of The Art Instinct

Bob Thompson, "A Mind for the Arts," Washington Post.

Maureen Mullarkey, "Wired for Art," first published in The Weekly Standard.


1. The worldwide coverage generated by The Art Instinct has generated since its publication over a year ago is nothing short of astounding. Key to understanding the phenomenon is the fact that the book has enjoyed prominent (presumably free) virtually non-stop advertising the Arts & Letters Daily website since its publication over a year ago. The ads have featured an image of the hardback cover (Frederick Church's Heart of the Andes, 1859); the paperback edition cover (which includes an image of Fred Astaire); and the cover of the Spanish edition (Escaping Criticism, a trompe l'oeil work by the nineteenth-century Spanish painter Pere Borrell del Caso). In the months following publication, links to reviews were added to the middle ("New Books") column of A & L D the moment they appeared in print. Dutton's is no doubt the most widely publicized new book on philosophy in publishing history.

2. Books following Pinker's have included The Pleasure Instinct (2008), The Faith Instinct (2009), The Interactional Instinct (2009), The Compassionate Instinct (2010), and The Primal Instinct (2010).

3. Some critics consider the renowned juggler Michael Moschen to be an artist (see reviews). His official biography characterizes him as "one of America's most visionary performing artists." Dutton would probably agree. In "The Art of Juggling in Performance," the founders of the Notre Dame Juggling Club more properly use the term art in its original broad sense, meaning "skill." They see themselves entertainers, not artists.

4. Mime (or pantomime) has been defined as "the use of bodily movements without speech to communicate emotions and actions or to tell a story."

5. On these aspects of postmodern philosophy, see Stephen Hicks, "What Postmodernism Is," Chapter 1 of Explaining Postmodernism (2004).

6. "The Art Instinct: Denis Dutton Replies to Roberto Casati," Weblog of the International Cognition and Culture Institute, May 12, 2009.

7. Now in its tenth edition, Hurley's text is considered by many to be the standard for introductory logic classes. Its companion site will be of interest to some readers (see especially the glossary for Chapter 2, "Language: Meaning and Definition").

8. A Concise Introduction to Logic, Chapter 2, p. xxx. In Logic: An Introduction, Ruby refers to "intensional, connotative, or analytical" definitions, preferring the latter term. He states that analytical definition is "far and away the most useful" of definitions. "When we speak of 'definition,'" he adds, "we usually refer to this type of definition." [99]

9. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, on which see William Thomas's excellent "Ayn Rand's Theory of Concepts: A Brief Overview ," a paper delivered at the 2004 Advanced Seminar in Objectivist Studies under the auspices of the Objectivist Center (now the Atlas Society).