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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.

Read more: The Art Instinct : Denis Dutton replies to Roberto Casati

Book review : The Art Instinct, by Denis Dutton.

(Editor's note) It would be difficult not to notice the buzz around Denis Dutton's The Art Instinct, (see Nigel Warburton's review, Michael O'Donnell's, and Brian Morton's - and even the Colbert Report). It's always a pleasure to see an accessible and much advertised book written in a naturalistic perspective reach the many. However, it's in the nature of such books to stir controversy. We have asked philosopher Roberto Casati to read and comment Dutton's book, and we look forward to the discussion of his critical review.


Denis Dutton, The art instinct. Bloomsbury Press: 2009.

The importance of Denis Dutton's book lies in its frank endorsement of two very extreme and controversial theses. The theses are, first, that art is an adaptive cultural phenomenon, one that is rooted in an art instinct, and, second, that this rooting has not only, as one may expect, an explanatory import as to how artworks be or look like, but also normative import as to how artworks should be or look like.

The boldness of the two claims is pretty clear. Even if one agrees that the proper explanation of art must use Darwininan resources, one can aling oneself on milder positions, and consider artistic phenomena not the effects of adapatations but by-products or consequences of adaptations; one may even deny that the notion of an art instinct constitute a natural kind. And even if one agrees on Dutton's claim that an art instinct is indeed an adaptation, one can be more cautious in drawing normative consequences therefrom.

Let me confess a general sympathy for an evolutionary approach to culture in general and to art in particular. I take it for likely that if there is a prospect of naturalizing culture, this will be in the framework of a theory of evolution. However, there are many nuances to be discussed and options to be assessed. I think there are various reasons to resist both of the book's claims on the basis of evidence that contrasts with the evidence alleged in Dutton's book, or reinterprets the latter differently.

Dutton's evolutionary hypotheses

At several points in the book, Dutton endorses the strongest possible version of extremely controversial hypotheses, without much arguing.

Read more: Book review : The Art Instinct, by Denis Dutton.

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