The Kitsch Instinct: A Letter to Denis Dutton

by Asad Raza

Denis Dutton is the author of The Art Instinct.

Dear Professor Dutton,

Thanks for agreeing to read this; your generosity is much appreciated. Your book is wide-ranging and compendious, so I'll confine my remarks to three topics: landscape painting, Austen's Pride and Prejudice, and Duchamp's Fountain. One thing I am not very interested in, I will say up front, is replaying another of the confrontations that have marked so many discussions of the application of Darwinian ideas to higher human functioning (think: Eagleton v. Dawkins). Those antagonisms, in my opinion, are much more symptomatic of a two-cultures clash than of any useful disagreement, and, worse, they prevent any meaningful conversation: each side simply rejects the other tout court. I hope to avoid the aggrieved and defensive tone of such confrontations. I will, however, try to speak my mind as clearly as I can, with the object of a generative exchange, rather than a head butt.

I'll start with the thing that confused me most about the book: I thought it would be more scientific. As you know, Darwinians are often charged with coming up with only quasi-plausible stories about the Pleistocene Era origins of some human behavior and asserting them without any evidence: “Just So Stories,” after Kipling. I assumed you would attempt to counter this by basing your observations on universal tendencies in art-making (if there be any such). Your first chapter cites a survey finding that human beings are attracted to a certain type of landscape, which you point out resembles the most habitable savanna landscapes of the Pleistocene: “a landscape with trees and open areas, water, human figures, and animals.” You hypothesize that people are attracted to such landscapes innately, and that is why calendars tend to feature them. When we are pleased by such a landscape, you conclude magisterially, “we confront remnants of our species' ancient past.”

It seems to me that two problems occur here. First, this is a classic Just So story: you present no genetic evidence for this affinity for savanna landscapes. A love of sunsets and sunrises seems equally popular around the world; let's say I argue that that is an innate preference. You might reply that your landscape is the best one for human habitation–hunting and shelter and running water and so on–and thus a preference for it would be an adaptive advantage. I might reply that the preference for sunsets and sunrises confers an advantage because those times have a heightened importance, as periods in which the sun signals that one should plan for the coming day or ready oneself for the fall of night, as a great but short time to hunt and fish, etc., etc. A third person comes along and says, “You're both being silly. Both preferences are obviously adaptive. That's why there are so many beautiful paintings of landscapes at sunset and sunrise!” In the absence of evidence, we are left with a contest of who has the more compelling anecdote. This is not the scientific method.

The second problem has to do with the identification of landscape painting with universal pleasure. Obviously, some landscape painting is meant to be beautiful and thus pleasurable, especially in European painting between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. But just because this particular genre of painting (lasting only ten generations or so) has some analogues in Eastern painting does not establish, to my satisfaction at least, that humans innately take pleasure in such pictures. To the contrary, most forms of painting, including that which decorates the caves in Lascaux, do not depict perspectival landscapes. Also, much landscape painting does not produce pleasure but fear and awe (think of Friedrich, or Turner). Isn't it just as likely that landscapes with a certain perspective view, from high ground, with sublime natural features such as high mountains at a safe distance, but with an enticingly serpentine river or path winding from foreground to background, producing a sense of exploration and travel, became popular when they did for historical reasons? And, having become popular, were later spread around the world, after technologies for the mass reproduction of images were invented, in the lowbrow form of calendars? Finally, even if you had a strong scientific case as to why humans take pleasure in looking at certain kinds of landscapes, that doesn't explain why paintings of such landscapes have at some times in some places been considered art, which does not mean simply pleasurable things–what you are arguing for (a love of calendar landscapes) might be better called “The Kitsch Instinct.”

Before I go on, let me point out here that I am not a social constructionist, at least not in the radical sense. I do not object a priori to the idea of innate human faculties, the way that friends of mine who are based in the literary humanities do. When a study appears theorizing that women are more attracted to the colors red and pink than men, on the basis of their role in the Pleistocene era as berry-gatherers, I don't think, “Absurd! Absolutely impossible!”, I think, “Wouldn't it be amazing if that were true? I'm skeptical.” In fact, it was this kind of theorem that I thought would undergird your book's claims about human art-making. The difficulty and challenge of a Darwinian account of art, I thought, would be to give an account of how extremely simple kinds of preferences, such as those for color or contrast, are utilized in extremely complex works of art. Just as there are many steps in between establishing our predilection for sugar and fat, and the appreciation of a dessert by Ferran Adria (who is also a kind of artist), so there must be many between liking red berries and Georgia O'Keefe's Single Lily with Red.

Moving on to your treatment of fiction, I did not find this kind of subtlety. Instead, I was surprised by how unspecific your remarks on Pride and Prejudice were–first, you mention that it functions as a kind of guide to the variety of people and how they behave. The members of the Bennet family demonstrate that dull people make dull judgments (Mary), opportunistic people make opportunistic ones (Mrs. Bennet), and intelligent people make intelligent ones (Elizabeth). Okay, sure, but this hardly seems the most interesting thing happening in Austen: this is the case in hundreds of novels of manners. (It's Austen's suppleness of voice, her “free, indirect” way of slipping into and out of each character, new in her time but old-hat in ours, that accounts for her importance in the history of the development of English prose styles–but whoops, that's a historical argument.)

Later, you use Austen's novel to show the folly of the intentional fallacy, suggesting that it is a display of human virtuosity that requires that we impute an author by whom to be impressed: “it is impossible for any sophisticated, informed reader of English to read her novel without feeling twinges of admiration for her extraordinary skill and style. Our intense interest in artistic skill, as well as the pleasure that it gives us, will not be denied: it is an extension of innate, spontaneous Pleistocene values, feelings, and attitudes.” This statement raises a huge question for me: why do you need Austen? Why “Art,” at all? If all you are trying to prove is that we humans have an innate admiration for people who do things well, you have said nothing specific about Austen's book, or about art-making as distinct from weight-lifting, or snake-charming.

Incidentally, if ever there was a book crying out for interpretation along Darwinian lines, it's Pride and Prejudice. The novel is about the nineteenth-century marriage market. Its plot concerns which men will court Elizabeth, which man she will choose, how she will best maximize her own attractions (primarily wit, since the novel is explicit about her being more plain than beautiful), should she even bother to get married, what an asshole that guy Darcy is! In the end, she feels a primal rush of feeling for this asshole, who happens to have a large fortune and a massive estate (perhaps with a landscape view offering the sense of control and dominance that people were attracted to in those days…), which sweeps aside her misgivings and sees her installed as the lady of an enormous house. I would have thought you could have had a field day teasing out various interesting Darwinian strands here. Instead, you chose to use Austen as an example of human admiration for virtuosos, which admiration you claim is an innate Pleistocene feeling that comes from sexual selection, i.e. the need to impress others, in order to find a mate and reproduce. And you make this point using a virtuoso who happens to be the most famous English novelist in history to have died unmarried and childless! I have to say, it's this kind of thing that gets the literary types chortling.

I have a final point to address, which is about what I consider to be the unscientific, partial nature of your book. This has to do with your own distaste for aesthetic modernism, to which you allude over and over. Surely a scientific account that values objectivity should not reject conceptual art, which has dominated the last century of art-making, but seek to expand its definition of art in recognition of the important place such art practices have achieved in our time–otherwise you are prioritizing your personal preferences over social reality. Instead, you give reasons why such works are nominally art but do not fully qualify under your scheme. Your stated reason for this is that you do not wish to attempt to define art by reference to “marginal cases” such as Duchamp's urinal, Fountain, yet despite this caveat, you seem unable to resist dismissing modernist experimentation and end your section on Duchamp with a contemptuous account of Piero Manzoni's Merda d'Artista, his notorious cans of his own shit.

You write that Duchamp's Fountain is “anti-art,” or an “art-theoretical gesture,” rather than art, because it reverses many of the principles that you claim define what a work of art is. Yet I think you haven't thought about Fountain closely enough–for instance, you claim that Fountain is not a “direct source of pleasure,” since it is merely a “disagreeable piece of plumbing.” Isn't part of the point of Fountain that it is a sculptural shape, all the more striking because it is an object used for the “lowest” form of human activity? Your view of most “art intellectuals” is that they are “incapable of appreciating [the readymade's] wit or [Duchamp's] irony.” But isn't it precisely the opposite? Don't most admirers of Fountain appreciate it because of its humor, because its succinct reversal of high and low strikes a blow at bourgeois high seriousness and the idea that an appeal to sentimental, “exalted” emotions is the goal of art?

The idea that in the most abject regions of human experience, the regions of piss and shit, we can still find a curvaceous sculptural shape is an insight. You might even postulate that Duchamp's piece makes use of a possibly innate human revulsion towards urine and feces in order to perform an expansion of the field of art, using the trope of reversal. This is why he turns the urinal on its back–to render it useless, and thus art according to Kant's definition–and this is why he names it Fountain–a deliberate reversal of its usual function as the receptacle for human “fountains.” (The title, by the way, is an important part of the work.) Yet you seem to have missed all this in your insistence that the object is simply “disagreeble.”

Perhaps much more of the meaning of Duchamp's work, Professor Dutton, is to be grasped through history rather than in our pre-historical genetic inheritance. Perhaps his work is a response to the age of mechanical production, when beautiful objects can be mass-produced by machines, robbing them of their connection to human virtuosity and the touch of the master artisan's hand. Perhaps the rise of exhibitions of art themselves, as a large institutional reality beginning about fifty years before Duchamp, is a precondition for the work his readymades do. Perhaps these developments bring forth a new kind of artist, who is revealed as someone whose works begin to comprehend and conceptualize modern conditions, even to satirize–not an unheard of function in art–while demonstrating mastery of form. You seem not to have considered why so many take real pleasure in Duchamp's work, and the humor it contains, in your rush to prove the transhistorical rules by which you say art must play–even if that means your account must end well short of and even reject the recent past, in order to preserve what, from my vantage, looks like an ungenerous delegation of the status of “art” to only those works that meet your personal fancy.

In the middle of your book, you write “video games do not… much improve on the older kinds of games and fictions, except by the addition of intense visual or virtual-reality effects. (Someday, a video-game version of King Lear may allow players to step into the action, even to save poor Cordelia if they play skillfully enough. Whatever the fun, this will not be an enhancement of Shakespeare.)” To me, this doesn't sound like an open, Darwinian investigator of the full range of human play and art-making. It sounds like the voice of the kind of old-fashioned cultural guardian I associate with certain cranky literature professors. By the way, some very thought-provoking and beautiful art is currently being made out of video games. You might want to check out Cory Arcangel: he limits himself to nothing in his search for new material, and he's having a lot of fun.

all the best,
Asad Raza