Why Art?

Julian Bell – The New York Review of Books

Copyright The New York Review of Books
An excert from a brilliant piece by Bell in response (largely) to Denis Dutton’s book, The Art Instinct.
… 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.
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