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Animal figure in carved limestone found in the Judean desert and dated at 10,500-8,300 bce. From the Natufian culture which ranged from Southern Turkey to Sinai.

Why do humans make art? It can be lovely. It can be stimulating. It absorbs some of the finest minds in any society. It can change hands for ridiculous sums of money. And dizzying edifices of commentary have been built around it since the time of the Greeks. But all those aspects of art beg a fundamental question: why do we do it?

In his new book, The Art Instinct, Dennis Dutton looks to the man of the moment, Charles Darwin, for an answer.

Dutton suggests that because all humans make art, and people from many different cultures appreciate similar subjects in art, art is an evolutionary adaptation, helping humans survive as individuals and as a species. Eventually, over the millennia, art-making traits have been absorbed into the repertoire of human instinct.

“Show me something pleasurable and I’ll show you something which is very likely associated with Pleistocene adaptation,” Dutton says in conversation about the book…

His opinions of art are full of surprises. He is scathing of “postmodern” art which, descending to irony and kitsch, tells us nothing about ourselves and ignores our hankering for the sublime. Then he writes of the modernists with admiration: even Malevich, the Soviet suprematist, whose famous black square must be as far from Pleistocene tastes as one could imagine, and Duchamp’s “ready-mades”, including Fountain, the infamous urinal, which he can parse at length.

“I have an answer to that!” he says when asked why some people get so het up when faced with art they don’t like.

“When you see that reaction from the conservative, from the naive, or people on the street who say ‘That’s not a work of art’, they are harking back to the older sense of art as an honorific,” he says. “Those of us who are deeply into the art world stop making these kinds of assessments.

“But who knows? Maybe the guy in the street has a point, too. If art is a display of skill, if it is designed to reveal some kind of human spirit, then of course we might feel there is something missing in Jeff Koons’s jokes, or Damien Hirst’s pickled sharks.”

Dutton draws a clear distinction between kitsch and great art. His discussion of them in the book is more nuanced than his explorations of neo-Darwinianism — and a long way from the preferences of the Pleistocene.

“Much the greatest art of human history comes not as an expression of religion, or even of individuality, but of a human mind trying to overcome a technical problem,” he says. “The foremost example of this is Beethoven, who flourished as a composer just at the time when tonality was breaking up and romanticism was opening. He could produce these incredible quartets, these phenomenal symphonies, because he was obsessed by the problems of his craft and his art.”

The Australian

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Damien Hirst

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