Art and Anthropology

October 16, 2009

News flash. Anthropologists, while busy discovering new missing links every other month, have noticed that early humans made art. Furthermore, it appears that artistic endeavor was predicated on crafting things that humans, then and now, found beautiful. Dennis Dutton, a professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, has written a book about this. In today’s New York Times he asks if today’s “conceptual” artists are producing “art” at all.

I have argued here and elsewhere that the pursuit of beauty, in all its forms, is a necessary factor in the making of paintings, architecture, poetry, music, sculpture–any fine art, and most applied arts. For the past century or so, conceptual artists have abandoned this pursuit, and, while many provocative works have appeared, art has suffered. Dennis correctly asks whether the works of such artists as Damien Hirst will remain in the canon a hundred years from now.

Perhaps it is ironic that scientists–particularly neuroscientists mapping the brain and anthropologists mapping human evolution–are making profound contributions to the understanding of art and music these days. Art critics, self-involved as they are, have generally not noticed these discoveries. Antonio Damasio’s critique of rationalism has dismantled much of the philosophical scaffolding that many artists and architects use to justify their work. Scientists analyzing the evolution of the brain continue to point out that aesthetic pleasure is hard-wired, not culturally derived. In short, those who argue that contemporary art has moved beyond the true and the beautiful are wrong.

Well, “chacun a son gout” and all that. Those who enjoy looking a medicine cabinets and embalmed sharks are entitled to spend millions on Mr. Hirst’s work. For me, the Museum of Natural History has better examples of animal parts. But let’s stop denigrating the legitimate work of artists and architects who spend their careers mastering the techniques and crafts that are necessary for artistic production as it has existed for thousands of years. Our old brains still respond to beauty.