Here are two books by professors of philosophy—one in Tel Aviv and the other in Christchurch, New Zealand—keen to grapple with the nature of art. Ben-Ami Scharf-stein is a veteran scholar of art and comparative religion: Art Without Borders, published as he turns ninety, surely stands as his aesthetic summation. The middle-aged Denis Dutton is best known as the founder of the Web site Arts & Letters Daily, but The Art Instinct is the first book into which he has committed his energies as a controversialist. Both professors are warmhearted educators, glad to engage their readers on a conversational level rather than to deliver pronouncements ex cathedra, and each is fired by an evident love and reverence for art. But what kind of conviction can they lend to aesthetics? Can they confer on this latecomer among intellectual projects—once memorably denounced by the Australian professor John Passmore in an essay entitled “The Dreariness of Aesthetics”—some aura of urgency?
Art Without Borders, the larger of the two books, focuses principally on the visual arts. Initially, it is true, Professor Scharfstein’s search for an “open aesthetics” leads him to float a proposal that the act of speaking could itself be considered as art; but he hardly carries this forward, unless by his own commitment to extended discussion, digression, and storytelling. (At one point he wryly describes himself wishing, as he sits at his computer, to do nothing “but only, stubbornly and self-forgetfully, keep on writing.”)
The reason Scharfstein wants to open wide the doors of aesthetics is that he can hear so many voices clamoring to gain entry. The terms of an inquiry that originated in Enlightenment Europe, predicated on classical antiquity and the Renaissance, must now be reshaped to accommodate art from every tradition across the globe. And it is not only what constitutes art, but what can be ascertained about art, that has expanded exponentially during Scharfstein’s decades of teaching. The ever-mounting studies of historians, anthropologists, and psychologists confront him with a daunting stack of information awaiting interpretation. If only he can devise sufficiently supple principles, perhaps he can encompass it all, showing “how art’s variety is qualified by its unity, and vice versa.”
Scharfstein keeps on writing; Scharfstein keeps on reading. His library stretches from New Kingdom Egypt and Tang Dynasty China, through Giovanni Pietro Bellori’s idealist art theory of 1664 and Marcel Griaule’s 1930s fieldwork among the Dogon of Mali, to the texts of postmodern conceptualists such as Sherrie Levine and the recent “neuro-aesthetic” studies of Semir Zeki. Myths from Tibet, Aboriginal Australia, and the Inuits rub shoulders with statements by Pliny the Elder, Friedrich von Schiller, and the postwar avant-gardist Karel Appel. Art Without Borders is indeed as wide-ranging a survey of the available literature on art as any single author could probably produce.
Moreover, Scharfstein reads attentively and judiciously. When it comes to Griaule, for instance, an anthropologist often suspected of planting a fabricated shamanic lore in the mouths of his colonial interlocutors, he determines that while as an art collector, the man was “less than morally exemplary,” his tales of tribal wisdom are worth relaying: “I see no sufficient reason to accuse him of conscious misinterpretation.” The temperate note is characteristic. The book abounds in generosity and a patient will to listen. It collects remarkable acts of witness, such as this reflection of a Liberian mask-carver on his own handiwork:
It is not possible to see anything more wonderful in this world. His face is shining, he looks this way and that, and all the people wonder about this beautiful and terrible thing. To me, it is like what I see when I am dreaming. I say to myself, this is what my neme [spirit] has brought into my mind. I have made this. How can a man make such a thing? It is a fearful thing that I can do. No other man can do it unless he has the right knowledge. No woman can do it. I feel that I have borne children.
With the many local lores of sub- Saharan Africa and, still more, with the long reflective history of Chinese painting, Scharfstein’s inexhaustible curiosity occupies itself happily. Art Without Borders could serve as a useful sourcebook in both these fields.
A rare exception is when Scharfstein essays a risky comparison between a photograph of the musclebound back of Michelangelo’s figure of Day (circa 1530), in the Medici Chapel in Florence, and another of the corrugated brushwork of Tung Ch’i-Ch’ang (Dong Qichang1), the formidable but unlovable doyen of late Ming Dynasty painting. “It is unlikely to be an accident,” he writes, “that Tung’s mountains and mountain ranges are in their bulges, thrusts, and forceful organization not unlike Michelangelo’s figures’ bulging muscles, thrusting movements, and forceful organization.” But what the parallel might be, if not an accident, Scharfstein can hardly explain, beyond offering the unilluminating comment that both artists were strong creative personalities. Formal analysis is not in his tool kit, and he flounders when he tries to characterize a style. When he writes of “the imitative, individualistic, abstract, analytical, quite human nature” of Tung’s art, what on earth are we expected to envisage?
Personalities and the issue of artistic egocentricity form one vector to this text-driven survey of art; local traditions across the globe, another; there are also chapters on the psychology of viewing and on the confluence of cultures in the contemporary world. What unifying principles emerge from all the erudition? In another turn of phrase that is so fumbling it is almost inspired, Scharfstein notes that “surely, a basic lesson is that the art of all these peoples has been congregating into a vaguely single world of artistic discourse.” Vaguely single: rather an apt characterization, if one thinks about it, of a world in which pictures of Renaissance marbles and Ming Dynasty scrolls, along with all other reproducible material—from madonnas to Madonna, from icons to emoticons—cohabit the diffuse, centerless common ground of Google Images.2 This kind of globalization, however, does not make it any easier to engage fully with art, as Scharfstein points out while discussing Aboriginal work:
To the extent that the painting becomes universal, it loses its symbolic references and therefore its depth. By Aboriginal standards, to appreciate it as an abstraction is to trivialize it.
The respect for local traditions and their diversity shown in that considerate comment proves, in the end, to win out over the philosopher’s impulse toward unity. Provisionally casting an eye over art’s “vaguely single world” in Chapter 1, Scharfstein arrives at thirty-one numbered observations, all of them tolerably plausible, or at least amiably uplifting. (“24. The experience of a work of art involves a sharing of intimate experience between whoever creates it and whoever enjoys it.”) The last of these remarks, namely “I am convinced that the views I express here are worth arguing out and arguing over,” was in fact the only one I felt any urge to disagree with. But as he proceeds with his researches his wisdom takes a more negative cast: bringing his encyclopedic labors to a close, he admits that “I have lost the desire to…[reduce] the varying cultural views of aesthetics to a few easily assimilated generalizations.” Where then is one to seek the heart of this rambling, genial, awkward hulk of a book? Although Scharfstein asserts that “art is not a single problem nor does it have a single solution,” the drift of his opening paragraphs seems to express his deepest motivation. If we humans had no art, he claims (and, by extension, if we had no aesthetics), “it would be harder for us to escape boredom, and boredom would, as always, lapse easily into apathy, and apathy into depression….” Write on, then, by all means write on.
Dutton’s The Art Instinct is a brisk, bracingly confident performance in argumentation, full of smart journalistic touches. Dutton wants to indicate, for instance, how religiously oriented art production in New Guinea differs from tourist-trade material: “The spirit,” he writes, “may prefer a very large carving, and is not concerned whether it taxes a twenty-kilo luggage limit.” The fine-tuning of that figure lets us in on the author’s savvy when it comes to the tricks of the ethnic art market, to the check-ins at Port Moresby Airport, and indeed, when it comes to life in general beyond the library. (We also get to hear a little about his childhood around the California film industry and his time in the peace corps in India.)
Nonetheless the library is his business. There is an equal panache to the professor’s filleting of Plato and Aristotle for their thoughts about the arts; and when he has to define the nature of that field (here taken to include literature, music, and performance, as well as visual art), he weaves his way past Kant, Tolstoy, et al. to arrive at a compact dozen “cluster criteria,” for example “expressive individuality ” and “emotional saturation.” Unlike Scharfstein’s thirty-one, these are so trenchantly formulated that one can imagine them pinned up independently on a classroom wall, whether for edification or for target practice. But in the context of his book, they simply serve as a base camp in his foray in search of an enemy. The humanities, Dutton asserts, have been for the past half-century too much in thrall to a certain model of the human mind. That model posits that all our distinctly human qualities are products of nurture, inscribed on a brain that by nature is indefinite: the “blank slate” hypothesis denounced, as many readers will recall, in Steven Pinker’s best-selling book of that name, published in 2002. That celebrated evolutionary psychologist is, Dutton readily declares, his mentor in many matters—not least when it comes to drafting polished, pugnacious prose.
A crucial difference of perspective, however, impels Dutton to develop his own treatise against the follies of denying that there is such a thing as human nature. In The Blank Slate and its predecessor How the Mind Works, Pinker spliced his researches in cognitive science and artificial intelligence together with the style of Darwinism developed over previous decades by Richard Dawkins. Such an approach not only sought out the structures of causation running through all forms of life, it sought to dramatize them. That demanded wit—both Dawkins and Pinker have been memorably sharp phrase-makers—which, in turn, tended to involve, if not entail, deriding other ways of apprehending the subject at hand. Arguing for strong relationships of cause and effect to explain how living things evolved over time, these writers wrangled with other Darwinians (notably the late Stephen Jay Gould), who dwelt on the frailty of the hinges linking one form of life to another.
Typically, the tug-of-war tilted over how much in the zoo house was structural carpentry (an “adaptation,” properly speaking, a genetically determined form of physiology or behavior, arrived at through processes of Darwinian selection) and how much (if any) might be considered a “spandrel”—literally, a space between two adjacent arches and a dome they support, a space whose decorative possibilities are incidental to the architecture; and thus, metaphorically, an opening, unintentionally offered by the evolutionary structure, for biological features to arise that are not directly the result of natural selection, not “adaptive” in the sense used by evolutionists.
All this comes into play when Pinker, describing the mind, starts to discuss one of its typical products, namely the arts. “The mind is a neural computer,” he sets out in How the Mind Works, recapitulating the various functions and “goal states” he has assigned to it. “That toolbox, however, can be used to assemble Sunday afternoon projects of dubious adaptive value.” These include ways to stimulate its own pleasure circuits. We enjoy cheesecake, Pinker writes, “not because we evolved a taste for it,” but
because it is a brew of megadoses of agreeable stimuli which we concocted for the express purpose of pressing our pleasure buttons. Pornography is another pleasure technology…I will suggest that the arts are a third.
There are two main things wrong with this saucy statement, as far as Dutton is concerned. They come together in the phrase “dubious adaptive value,” in which Pinker slyly but typically manages to insinuate that if any spandrels—nonadaptive features of life—do exist, they are in some way to be disparaged. Now naturally Dutton, as a devotee of the arts, believes that the joy of his encounters with Jane Austen, Chekhov, Beethoven, and Brahms—to name some of his touchstones of excellence—is different in kind from Pinker’s Sunday afternoon binges on cheesecake and porn. In his admiration for Austen, Dutton declares his interest in an outlook that is at once unillusioned and respectful of social and cultural hierarchies. He asserts that the arts have their lofty heights, which are not to be derided, and that by the same token they may have their lows. (He spends some of his last chapter wagging a finger at the contemporary “kitsch” of Damien Hirst et al.) But aside from this defense of art’s value, Dutton wants to argue that Pinker is in error when he claims that art lacks adaptive value and is one of the mind’s optional extras. He wants to set art into place as a structural component in the timberwork of human evolution.
All the while, as Dutton enjoys announcing—though the idea dates from Darwin, he dramatically claims to rediscover it—two factors are at work. While natural selection favors the preservation of individuals with an eye for nutritious green valleys and a talent for lying, it is individuals who flaunt their fitness to potential mates by outstanding eloquence or by making things well who get a best chance to breed and who thus pass the test of sexual selection. The resulting sexually selected, fictively inclined mind will be able to “use its hands and tools to carve an animal; for it, a cave wall can be the perfect place to paint a whole menagerie.” And that, in outline, is how Dutton would take us from ape behavior patterns to the beginnings of the human artistic record, circa 30,000 bce.3
Having arrived at this position, two thirds of the way through the book, where he can glimpse “the beginnings of a possibility for a complete theory of the origin of the arts,” Dutton uses his vantage point to review some of the standard problems of aesthetics. Before he does, one might beg for some clarifications. “Fiction,” a central component of Dutton’s hypothesis—the underpinning, seemingly, of our sense of beauty—he repeatedly equates with “storytelling,” something that would seem to require grammatical language; but grammatical language, the majority of human evolutionists agree, is unlikely to have predated the emergence of Homo sapiens sapiens, our own subspecies, some 160,000 years ago, which would reduce Dutton’s available time for all the adaptations needed to sustain the arts to a mere 8,000 generations, rather than 80,000. But then his sketch of an explanatory “theory” is shot through with strategic vaguenesses.4
The fact is that in his determination to erase any “blank slate” notion of the mind, Dutton has reached for a much bigger and more formless blank slate—the Pleistocene. From that unimaginably vast stretch of the ancestral past, still thinly documented for all the ongoing work of paleontologists, you can summon up whatever “Pleistocene values” and “Pleistocene tastes” you may need for the purposes of current argument. That is your right: it is certain that there was some chain of events leading up to our present species behavior and that the best methods we currently have to sketch it out are indebted to Darwin; also, it is almost equally certain that we will never have a complete, argument-settling reconstruction of that chain of events.
In this light the book’s closing chapters, in which Dutton takes a supposedly “evolutionary” approach to such old debating chestnuts as the status of artistic forgeries, strike me as veritable “spandrels” in prose—decorative add-ons, on quite another plane to the structure proper. His pertness as a controversialist must surely pack the lecture halls, but I would rather bear with Scharfstein as he meanders through Tang Dynasty elegies and the praise songs of the Yoruba than attend to Dutton’s arid attempt to rummage for fresh aperçus in the conceptual detritus surrounding Duchamp’s Fountain.
Just where you draw the line between innate and acculturated human qualities remains, needless to say, a legitimate open question (very likely an endless one). Clearly Arthur Danto, whom Dutton baits while advancing his opening argument that landscape tastes across the globe all stem from our Pleistocene ancestry, draws it somewhere else when he argues that they are largely shaped by the global trade in picture calendars, but while either ingenious aesthetician may happen to be right when it comes to the question at hand, Danto is hardly to be accused of abolishing human nature, let alone of a deadening “hermetic discourse.”
I would emphasize that for much of the way, The Art Instinct is an unusually stimulating venture in aesthetics, an antidote to the bleariness that a panoramic investigation such as Art Without Borders may induce, with its bewildering excess of evidence. (“So many positions, so many problems,” Scharfstein at one point sighs.) Maybe Dutton’s lively wit and shapely drafting depend on the contrivance of a combat situation: such are the instincts of a fiction-driven sensibility. Like his mentors in science writing, Dutton feels impelled to dramatize the story he believes in, the story of evolution. He himself notes that “stories are essentially about agency and emotion.” I would gloss that. Think of stories as necklaces: the linking thread being agency (or causation), and emotion (or lived experience) being the beads it is passed through. Consider also that the success of the binding operation is independent of the color—the specificity, the sensuous quality—of those beads.
I reach for the metaphor to try to pinpoint the blind spot many a reader must have sensed in the passage of The Art Instinct I quoted a few paragraphs above. “Provide this sexually selected mind with a piece of wood and it can use its hands and tools to carve an animal.” Yes, the proto-artist may—or may not—happen to be interested in impressing a potential sexual partner. But what he or she (he, in Dutton’s distinctly macho hypotheses) most certainly does find interesting is (a) the log and the way its grain resists his implement, (b) the thought of bison, and (c) the way that the emerging artifact both is wood and is bison. With respect to immediate experience, that is to say, art is an engagement with a specific sensual object; art is the miracle of symbolism; art is, above all, an act of attention. These experiential facets of aesthetics are given exultant expression by that Liberian mask-maker whom Scharfstein quotes; but they are also borne out almost tragically by Scharfstein’s own response to the question of why we need art—that all these acts of attention are quite literally a filling of time, a staving off of ennui. All such considerations are in effect bypassed by Dutton’s narrative hardwiring.
That does not mean that his explanations need be incorrect in their own terms, or that it would be impossible to account for those facets of visual art on evolutionary lines. What it does serve to underline is that narration has a resistant grain of its own, a bias that sets it at odds with focused contemplation. Hence the age-old wrangles over the “reductionism” of scientific narration. In principle the abstract, colorless lines of causation that evolutionary theories trace should smoothly complement the bright beads of our sensuous and aesthetic experiences. Yet they cannot be traced except by narration; and narration is always a flavorsome performance by some human voice, some wit, some artist in words.
October 8, 2009
Most people these days would spell his name in pinyin, but Scharfstein sticks to Wade-Giles. ↩
A much better argued meditation on the same cultural predicament can be found in David Carrier’s recent book, A World Art History and Its Objects (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008). ↩
The point about sexual selection (the so-called “Come up and see my etchings” theory of art) will in fact be familiar to readers of other treatments of evolutionary psychology, such as Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal (HarperCollins, 1992). ↩
A more deeply conceived (if less stylishly drafted) sketch of the evolutionary progression that might have led to art can be found in the works of the Canadian neuroscientist Merlin Donald, Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition (Harvard University Press, 1991) and A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness (Norton, 2001). ↩