August 4, 2009

Aesthetics and our evolutionary history

I might write up longer reviews later, but short plugs will have to do for now. I recently finished Denis Dutton's The Art Instinct and a write-up of the Komar and Melamid project to find out what people truly desire in paintings, Painting by Numbers. They're the first two books in my Amazon box above, and both are cheap.

The Art Instinct does a decent job of summarizing the findings of evolutionary aesthetics -- that is, what evolution-minded social scientists have discovered people like, and perhaps why that's so, given how we evolved.

But the real value of this book is that Dutton is an aesthetics philosopher, and so is far more knowledgeable about aesthetic questions and debates. Most of the participants in these debates argue mostly on intuition, without really trying to justify those hunches. Dutton puts them under the evolutionist's microscope and shows why the gut feelings of even ivory tower aestheticians are mostly adequately explained by features of sexual selection.

For example, if part of the ultimate reason that artists make art is to signal their greater genetic quality to potential mates and allies, then finding out that they somehow faked it would disgust the audience -- even though the purely aesthetic qualities of that artwork had not changed. We feel the need to penalize them for dishonest signalling, not for having created ugly art -- we liked it perfectly well before we found out it had been faked.

This is just one case, but most of the middle and later sections of the book are like this -- Dutton illuminating debates both old and new in aesthetics by casting them in terms of evolution. This makes the book much more fascinating for the target audience, who probably know a lot about evolution or evolutionary psychology but much less about art and aesthetics.

In this way, it is unlike the dry lists of "things humans find attractive" and why that makes sense in light of our evolutionary history. Those are neat too, but they don't provide you with any new data -- you already knew that hourglass shapes were hotter than pear shapes, that young girls and dirty old men go together better than young bucks and dirty old women, that we like fatty and sweet foods, etc. The fun part is in speculating about, and hopefully testing ideas about, where these tastes come from.

I'll bet you didn't know much about our innate tastes for landscapes, though, or for painting in general. Dutton, along with many others, mentions the work of the artists Komar and Melamid, who got funding to survey a random and representative sample of people about their tastes in art. The result was essentially a landscape painting, mostly blue but with a fair amount of green too, with a body of water, women and children, and domestic animals in their true habitat.

Their surveys contain much more information than the summaries of their work usually include, though, and for that you have to read Painting by Numbers. It's a very cool book. It has an opening description of the project and extensive interviews with Komar and Melamid, which are pretty funny for their view into how out of touch the Art World is with people's tastes -- or even the suggestion that artists *should* concern themselves with what people want. The full tables of data are included, as well as the resulting paintings that would most please and most offend the tastes of the people in the various countries surveyed.

There's also a pretty boring essay by Arthur Danto, a token inclusion of "the other side," but you can easily skip that.

For the data, paintings, and humorous interviews, it's well worth getting your hands on. I should add for the the data junkies out there that the data are cross-tabulated, so you can see how the preference for red as your favorite color changes across education levels, income levels, age, sex, geographic region, and so on. Or how does a preference for busy vs. tranquil painting vary across those groups. Fun stuff to flip through -- and there's a lot of it.

So this turned out longer than I'd planned, meaning I probably won't write up longer reviews. Still, I'll probably be referring to them sometime soon, as they're packed with lots of ideas to pursue further. In any case, I recommend them both.


  1. Very insightful review. Many thanks for it. Actually, I've done an analysis of some of the tables at the back of Komar and Melamid. They don't stand up very well to careful evaluation. You can find my account here:

    With best wishes,

    Denis Dutton

  2. Does Dutton present a viable evolutionary explanation for the "critic's" changing artistic taste? The contemporary art community seems to still love the "splotches on canvas" stuff while regular folk like me prefer the more traditional stuff that requires incredible skill.

  3. Yes, some of the interpretations of the Komar and Melamid data were suspect, but the good thing is that all the raw data are there for the numbers people to mine for real patterns.

    Does Dutton present a viable evolutionary explanation for the "critic's" changing artistic taste?

    No, that's more of a "sociology of academia" question, although he does provide a summary of what the historical trend has been (i.e. toward more abstraction in painting, toward social constructionism in criticism, and so on).

    Instead, the book uses an evolutionary framework to inform the aesthetic debates themselves -- do the artist's intentions matter when we judge art, or does it matter if it was forged, etc.?


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