You Own an Art Instinct

Photo by clare and ben — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

Why do we make art?

I was in the audience of a small Vermont music club for a show by Ethan Lipton. (If you are ever in southern Vermont, do stop by the Vermont Arts Exchange, which is a great example of what a community arts organization can be; and, if you ever get a chance to hear Lipton’s music or plays, you should go — most of us in the audience hadn’t laughed that much in a long time.) At intermission, a friend came over to talk about the economics of touring. Without a guarantee of increased, let alone established, returns, she wanted to know why artists are willing to go through so many struggles to produce their work.

In such tough economic times, it is a fair enough to question why spend diminishing personal resources on going to art. Maybe the answer should be informed by understanding why we need to make art.

Denis Dutton has the answer. Dutton, a professor of philosophy at University of Canterbury, in New Zealand and master of Arts & Letters Daily, has written a perfect guide to understanding our deep seated relationship to art, The Art Instinct.

A post in a KadmusArts Culture News story (“Why Do Humans Make Art”) covered Dutton’s recent tour to Australia. Dutton has been talking about how his book examines the history of art within the prism of evolutionary science.

“Show me something pleasurable and I’ll show you something which is very likely associated with Pleistocene adaptation,” says Dutton. In other words, our art-making abilities have become part of our survival instincts for the last 1.6 million years.

The art instinct has helped us overcome technical problems, gravitate to safe areas (doesn’t everyone respond to pastoral paintings of mountains, rivers, and sun shine — that’s where the food is!), and develop a quick sense for what will give pleasure and what should be feared. We need art to inform our adaptive behavior.

We are driven to create beautiful things, sounds, and movements. We are compelled to share stories, and to invent stories.

For Dutton, it is our imagination which has enabled us to survive. That is no small point. We are hard wired to make and receive art.

Recommendation of the week: Check out The Art Instinct. You might feel better not only about surviving these times, but all times.

- Bill Reichblum

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2 Responses to “You Own an Art Instinct”

  1. Denis Dutton
    March 2nd, 2009 01:40

    Many thanks Bill. There are reviews of the book and discussions at

    Hope you enjoy them.


  2. Bayimba Team
    March 2nd, 2009 08:24

    Thanks for the Art - Please also check out also for the Bayimba International Festival of Music and Arts -

    June 12th - 14th 2009

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