Tag Archives: Denis Dutton

The Useful and the Useless

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Among the many definitions of beauty is the one most operative in our everyday lives: the pleasing or attractive features of something or someone. This is beauty in the intuitive or experiential sense; we know it when we sense it. Aesthetic snap-judgments of this sort and the disagreements they ignite recall the cliché, “There’s no accounting for taste,” and its Latin predecessor, de gustibus non est disputandum (“In matters of taste, there can be no disputes”). This does not mean that taste is thoroughly or hopelessly subjective. Anthropologists and evolutionary biologists have uncovered basic universal principles of art. For example, philosopher Denis Dutton observed that we find beauty in things done especially well, while anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake contends that “decorating” was a crucial way our ancestors marked off practices essential to physical and cultural survival, such as hunting, peacemaking, and rites of passage. Yet, once we move beyond the baseline acceptance of the existence of beauty and its importance in human life, opinions take over and vary widely.

Historically, aesthetics has been a difficult subject to intellectualize. George Santayana observed in The Sense of Beauty (1896) that, as a philosophical subject, beauty has “suffered much from the prejudice against the subjective.” This is mitigated in part by the inclusion of art history and critical theory under the philosophical umbrella. Yet, such efforts highlight rather than bypass the fundamental obstacle of personal taste: in order for beauty to be taken seriously, it must be removed from the proverbial beholder’s eye and placed in some externalized rubric. Santayana summed it up: “so strong is the popular sense of the unworthiness and insignificance of things purely emotional, that those who have taken moral problems to heart and felt their dignity have often been led into attempts to discover some external right and beauty of which our moral and aesthetic feelings should be perceptions or discoveries, just as our intellectual activity is, in men’s opinion, a perception or discovery of external fact.” In other words, if beauty (and morality) cannot find footing in objective truth, they are forever doomed to triviality.

The dismissal of emotions runs counter to the biological-anthropological theories alluded to above. Whereas philosophers tend to view beauty as an end and art “for its own sake,” evolutionary theorists investigate the basis for art’s emergence and persistence as a cross-cultural phenomenon. For them, what constitutes the beautiful from one person or group to the next is less important than its functionality. Beauty and utility are not at odds, but are instead inextricably linked.

In a way, our aesthetic judgments harmonize the philosophical and biological-anthropological sides of this debate. On the one hand, we over-rely on the moral-philosophical categories of “good” and “bad” when describing art, giving the impression of absolute or empirical standards, whether or not they actually exist. On the other hand, these designations stem from a functionalist response: “good” means useful; “bad” means “useless” (or “less useful”). A painting or musical composition might be beautiful according to academic standards, but fail to move us on a personal level. We can intellectually appreciate its creativity and execution without being emotionally attracted to it. Likewise, something of lesser technical quality can be strikingly beautiful if it serves a purpose. As Baruch Spinoza put it in his Ethics (1677): “By good I mean that which we certainly know to be useful to us.”

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Art Everywhere

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Some assert that it is a fallacy to compare cultural elements cross-culturally. Sometimes called the “incommensurability thesis,” this position posits that because objects, concepts and behaviors tend to have very specific meanings for the groups that produce them, they must therefore be utterly unique. Variety negates universality. Basically a version of cultural relativism, this attitude emanates from three circles (or, rather, minorities within three circles): philosophers who attack commonalities in human experience; critics who over-emphasize outlier phenomena in order to challenge conventional assumptions; and ethnographers who argue for the absolute uniqueness of the populations they study, in part to elevate their own stature as privileged experts. Yet, just because human activities take heterogeneous forms does not eliminate the possibility of shared motivations.

Steven Pinker argues this point as it relates to the human capacity for language. He concludes in The Language Instinct: “Knowing about the ubiquity of complex language across individuals and cultures and the single mental design underlying them all, no speech seems foreign to me, even if I cannot understand a word.” This observation seems indisputable: language is a biological characteristic of the human species.

Philosopher of art Denis Dutton expands on Pinker’s claim in The Art Instinct. He asks: “Is it also true that, even though we might not receive a pleasurable, or even immediately intelligible, experience from art of other cultures, still, beneath the vast surface variety, all human beings have essentially the same art?” Dutton contends that, like language, artistic behaviors have spontaneously appeared throughout recorded human history. Almost always, observers across cultures recognize these behaviors as artistic, and there is enough commonality between them that they can be placed within tidy categories: painting, jewelry, dance, sculpture, music, drama, architecture, etc. To Dutton, this suggests that the arts, again like language, possess a general omnipresent structure beneath the varied grammar and vocabulary.

It should be noted that Pinker himself has elsewhere challenged this assumption. Most famously, he dubbed music “auditory cheesecake,” or a non-adaptive by-product (of language, pattern recognition, emotional calls, etc.) that serves no fundamental role in human evolution. It is not my intention here to place that hypothesis under a microscope or investigate the many arguments against it. (Perhaps, being a linguist, Pinker sees language as a sort of holy ground that mustn’t be stepped on by “lesser” human activities.) Wherever the evolutionary debates travel and whatever clues or counter-clues they accumulate, one thing is convincing: art appears rooted in universal human psychology.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.


Funktionslust, Birdsong and Beauty

Jonathan L. Friedmann, PhD.

Ethology, the biological study of animal behavior, concerns itself primarily with uncovering survival advantages in animal activities. Balancing a desire to find purpose in animal behavior and avoid the sin of anthropomorphism, ethologists refrain from ascribing emotions or extraneous pleasures to non-human species. What appears to the untrained observer as a creative act or outpouring of feeling is reduced to a survival impulse or an instinctive behavior. It is, of course, wise to keep from seeing too much of ourselves in other animals. Our tendency to anthropomorphize everything around us says less about reality than it does about ourselves. Yet strict adherence to the ethologist’s code can create undue distance. As Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson asks in his controversial bestseller, When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals: “If humans are subject to evolution but have feelings that are inexplicable in survival terms, if they are prone to emotions that do not seem to confer any advantage, why should we suppose that animals act on genetic investment alone?”

This question is all the more penetrating given the impressive spectacles exhibited by many species. A gibbon swinging fervently from branch to branch, a dolphin thrusting itself out of the water, a cat hunting backyard critters for sport. The German language has a word for such behavior: funktionslust, meaning “pleasure taken in doing what one does best.” This, too, is thought to be adaptive. Pleasure derived from an activity increases an animal’s proneness to pursue it, thus increasing the likelihood of survival. A gibbon who spends extra time swinging in the trees is better fit to flee leopards and snakes when they attack.

But is that all there is to it? Masson points out that a loving animal (again, a controversial concept) may leave more offspring, making lovingness a survival trait. But the same animal may also provide excessive care to a disabled (and therefore doomed) offspring, exposing itself to hazards in the process.

The presumed practicality of funktionslust is further challenged by the performance of songbirds: the roughly 4,000 species of perching birds capable of producing varied and elaborate song patterns. To the standard scientist, the sounds these birds produce—no matter how inventive—serve the basic purposes of establishing territory and advertising fitness to potential mates. But some researchers argue that survival alone cannot account for the amount or variety of imitation, improvisation and near-composition evident in birdsong, nor the seemingly arbitrary times and circumstances in which the songs are often heard.

David Rothenberg and other birdsong experts see this music-making as approaching pure funktionslust, or pleasure derived from a native ability exceeding any evolutionary purpose. In his book Why Birds Sing: A Journey into the Mystery of Bird Song, Rothenberg proposes that songbird patterns rival human music in terms of structure, aesthetics, expressiveness, interactiveness and extra-practical life enhancement. A philosopher and jazz clarinetist who “jams” with songbirds in the wild, Rothenberg has been accused of the double infractions of anthropomorphism and evaluating birdsong with the bias of a musician. In his defense, he concedes that birds, not people, are the arbiters of their own songs, and only they can know what their repertoires mean to other birds. But he calls it art nonetheless, quoting Wallace Craig: “Art is a fact and after all it would be rather ridiculous from our evolutionistic ideology to deny the possibility that something similar may occur in other species” (“The Song of the Wood Peewee,” 1943).

Following this argument, we might deduce that songbirds experience beauty in their songs. This proposition harmonizes with the work of Denis Dutton, a philosopher of art who posits an evolutionary basis for the human perception of artistic beauty (The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution). Dutton identifies Acheulean hand axes as the earliest hominid artwork. Prevalent from 500,000 to 1.2 million years ago, these teardrop carvings have been located in the thousands throughout Asia, Africa and Europe. This sheer number and the lack of wear on their delicate blades suggest they were not used for butchering, but for aesthetic enjoyment. Indeed, they remain beautiful even to our modern eyes. The reason for this, explains Dutton, is that we find beauty in something done well. We are attracted to the meticulousness and skill evident in the axes. They satisfy our innate taste for virtuosic displays in the same way as well-executed concertos, paintings and ballets. Beauty is in the expertise.

If this attraction existed among our prehistoric ancestors, why not in songbirds? Taking funktionslust in a logical direction, might we assume that songbirds sing for the joy of it, and that their skilled displays feed aesthetic yearnings of other songbirds? These questions point to a possible compromise, in which animal behavior retains its evolutionary explanation and art finds evolutionary justification outside of the drive to survive.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.