Author Denis Dutton concludes the first chapter of his book, The Art Instinct, with a synopsis of the evolution of human features and capabilities beginning in the Pleistocene (1.8 million to 11,000 years before present). The author makes the point that somewhere in this evolutionary time period, humans developed the instincts to produce and appreciate art and so, the arts were born. I like to think of it another way: the arts were born in a refrigerator! That is, Earth was in the midst of a great Ice Age when the arts were developed. Enormous contintental glaciers covered vast regions of the globe and human populations thrived in lower latitudes where vegetation could grow. But, I'm getting side-tracked.
In the second chapter, Dutton asks the timeless question What is Art? How many definitions have you seen for "art" during your lifetime? It's like trying to get a firm grip on a mass of jello. However, I'm intrigued that he decided to tackle this question and will unwrap only the first few pages of the chapter here. On the next post I tackle his set of criteria for what makes art.
Back to the introduction of What is Art? Dutton begins by asking if it's possible to define a universal aesthetic or art theory. To clarify his point, he cites the philosopher Julius Moravcsik who stresses that a transcultural investigation into art as a universal category must be distinguished from an attempt to determine the meaning of the word "art." OK, so it looks like we need to separate the two ideas and search for the boundaries and attributes that define art. The author notes the difficulty of such an endeavor because of the organic nature of "art" which changes in focus and values through time. He also sheds light on the fact that art theorists are usually influenced by cultural bias and personal idiosyncracy as well as philosophical rhetoric. Of course, all of this leads to intellectual arguments and general disagreement about what is art.
Dutton makes a clever observation about the paradoxical situation that exists in aesthetics today as a result. He states that scholars and theorists have greater access to a greater number of works of art than ever before in history but write analyses mostly about the outliers in art at the expense of attending to the center where a universal theory of art might be found. It's like defining the entirety of a forest by describing only the trees at its edge.
So, how does the author expect to overcome this paradoxical situation and provide us with the answer to What is art? He intends to go into the center of the forest and find that which naturally defines it. He will find those characteristic features of art that move across cultural boundaries and find universal acceptance.
If you want to have fun, speculate about what those characteristic features might be in advance and see how closely your ideas match his!
P.S. A personal note: I just finished all 34 canvases in oil for my show in Maine and have returned to watercolor today. It's good to make the switch about now since I was working in oils for nearly a year :)