Philosopher Denis Dutton shares his theory of beauty in this 15 minute TED lecture, illustrated with the white-board animation of Andrew Park.
Dutton dismisses the notion that beauty is in the eye of the beholder or is somehow connected to ideal form. Instead he takes a Darwinian approach, arguing that our response to beauty is wired into our human existence and our need to find mates.
He describes the ideal pictorial landscape as containing an open vista, with an element of water, a forked tree, and a sampling of wildlife, and a path or a road leading into the distance.
Above: Asher Durand.
This landscape, Dutton argues, is universally appealing across cultures because it appealed to our Pleistocene hunter-gatherer ancestors, presumably scanning for game to feed their mates.
Although I was impressed with Park’s animation, I didn’t find Dutton’s aesthetic theory particularly convincing, nor useful from an artist’s perspective. Part of the problem is semantic. As he says, we are impressed by skilled action, and we call it beautiful. It attracts the girls. Or vice versa.
But what skilled actions are we talking about? Do we include backing a trailer or skateboarding or card-shuffling? What about soccer? These things might be described as “beautiful” only in the loosest sense of the term. Most people wouldn’t include all of them in a definition of art.
And art does not include only skilled action. Many people regard as art certain objects that consciously exhibit a lack of skill: fauve, neo-primitive, and such.
Dutton doesn’t dig very deeply into the nature and the range of the core aesthetic responses, and why those responses might be evolutionarily adaptive. He makes rather unsupportable claims about how he thinks Homo Erectus responded to hand axes. How does he know the axes were art objects? Maybe they were used as money, not art. And how does he know Homo Erectus didn’t have language?
Dutton’s theory also proposes that natural selection provides for a repulsion reaction to such dangerous things as standing at the edge a cliff. How, then, would Dutton’s theory account for the experience of the sublime, as formulated by aesthetic philosophers such as Edmund Burke? According to Burke, we’re attracted, rather than repulsed, by unsettling and disquieting experiences. (Example above: Wanderer by Caspar David Friedrich.)
Far more convincing—and useful— is Tolstoy’s notion that art is the deliberate transmission of emotion. It applies to dance, theater, painting, music, and all other forms. And it is immensely practical to the working artist, because it provides a clear test for the aesthetic value of a particular work. Tolstoy’s theory is a rich topic, perhaps fodder for a future post.
Dutton’s TED lecture on YouTube
Burke’s theory of the sublime
Tolstoy’s essay: “What is Art?”
Related GurneyJourney post: Neuroaesthetics