The art instinct


Dear Artist,

The reason so many people in so many cultures prefer a landscape painting to other art is that in the Pleistocene and earlier times, pastoral images were part of finding something to eat. So suggests philosophy professor Denis Dutton in The Art Instinct. While landscape art may indeed be etched into the unconscious mind as remembrance of happy hunting grounds, lots of other valuable points can be found in Dutton’s widely lauded book:


One of the best books I’ve read in some time, it upsets a lot of ideas about art making, art history and art criticism.

Connecting Darwin’s evolutionary theory to the making and appreciating of art, Dutton says that art had its origins as a display that might lure prospective mates. He views art-making as a skill that only an extraordinary individual could perform — a person who perhaps exhibited a degree of laid-back leisure and who didn’t have to expend full resources on the basics. This evolved artistic character could also be seen as taking part in casual, exploratory pursuits, the outcome of which was often unknown. Dutton’s idea is that art is a kind of specialized fitness display.

Many artists have known about and reflected on this idea. I certainly did in grade five when Shirley Fulton (the one with the cute smile and the dimples) said she “liked” my painting. Even with my primitive little brain, I knew that Shirley had actually started to like me.

Whether we were cave men or school kids, we soon found out that some of us were good at one thing and not another. Grade-five sport prowess, related as it is to spear throwing, was for the bigger kids. Some of the girls went for the athletic types. Other girls in my class were attracted to Jim Bone, who had smarts in practically everything and even bedazzled Miss Ledingham, the teacher. I stuck to art prowess.

There was a kid in our class who could do magic tricks and make things disappear — like rabbits and handkerchiefs — and he was popular all right, but I noticed that my kind of magic had longer-lasting effects — particularly if I gave a girl something I had made. This sheds light on another situation that Dutton touches on and can’t quite figure out: humanity’s well-nigh universal distaste for forgery and copying. Even though copies have a kind of appeal for some folks, it’s the genuine article — original art from the heart — that really cranks up the old endorphins, gets the oxytocin surging, and is the valued product in the well-motivated artist’s display.


Denis Dutton is a professor of philosophy in New Zealand. He is also one of the founders of the excellent website Arts and Letters Daily.

Best regards,


PS: “The arts, like language, emerged spontaneously and universally in similar forms across cultures, employing imaginative and intellectual capacities that had clear survival value.” (Denis Dutton)

Esoterica: On the other hand, for some time I was attracted to Linda Cozlowsky, who could draw better than I could. Also, her colour sense was really exquisite. I watched Linda a lot. She didn’t last. Perhaps two artists in a cave is one too many — which brings us to the territorial nature of visual artists. We are apparently unlike dancers or musical artists, for example, who are more likely to try to be in harmony with one another. Further, individualized mutation in art is related to Darwin’s idea of survival of the fittest. The next time you put your work before a selection committee, consider, just for a moment, that you are also being subjected to the long-term process of natural selection.


Art is a lot more
by John Kuti


“Wooden window”
by John Kuti

Dutton’s book is classic competitive natural selection, and some of what he says may be so. There is a biological competitiveness in males trying to impress females. Most rock stars say they started playing to get chicks. But I think it goes much deeper. I think art was meant to express the deepest psychological feelings we have. Its origin in caves like Lasceaux has been found to be directly parallel to the hallucinogenic rituals of the Isan people in S Africa. Many of the earliest art in caves was done where no one could see them but the makers. These early painting are similar to some current art — personal representations of a deeper reality. New research on mirror neurons shows that personal identity is a shared experience. A painting, a work of art, is an internal creation two or more people can share as a representation of our deepest feelings, our deepest reality. I think that art is a lot more than showing off for the girls or a genetic memory of lost grasslands.

(RG note) Thanks, John. And indeed Dutton does give a lot more examples than the business of showing off for girls or a genetic memory of lost grasslands — more than I could give in a short letter.


Birds do it
by Alan Feltus, Assisi, Italy


oil painting
by Alan Feltus

You seemed to be describing me when I was a very shy kid who disliked athletics and drew all the time. Do you know about the Bowerbird? That is one animal whose survival is largely based on how well the male does in attracting a mate through his making and decorating of a beautiful nest. The discussion about landscape though: Strange how the cave paintings depict animals and men and not landscape. And I remember a small landscape, maybe by one of the Lorenzetti brothers in Siena, as being said to be the first landscape, or landscape unto itself.

(RG note) Thanks, Alan. Dutton mentions and discusses the Bowerbird of New Guinea, which seems to be one of the few species that builds elaborate and decorated “art” in order to win the approval of a mate. This is separate from other animals that display “art” in the form of bodily decoration, such as the peacock.

There is 1 comment for Birds do it by Alan Feltus

From: Dayle Ann Stratton — Feb 27, 2009

Not so strange that prehistoric paintings (and art of non-urban cultures until the present) rarely depict landscape (though many of the paintings and incised images seem to take advantage of natural features to represent landscape_. People in non-urban cultures were part of landscape: it was not separate from them nor they from it. I would suggest that landscape didn’t become part of “art” until it became necessary to replicate it because people had come to see it as separate, “outside”. And that may be the very reason landscape has come to be so dominant now — our need to reconnect with it.


Collaborating with the unseen energy
by Linda Saccoccio, Santa Barbara, CA, USA


“Pool of faith”
oil painting
by Linda Saccoccio

I have often envied the collaborative projects that those in other arts have enjoyed. I yearn for some connection like this with a musician, writer or visual artist. Although, I have to admit I work best completely alone. I do learn and grow by witnessing the creativity of others. As I have taken to writing more in the past three years, and have attended the “Summer Writing Workshop,” at Naropa University, I have found great relief in being in an incredibly creative community that is not harsh and aggressive. It is more supportive and generous, with a desire for as many people to succeed as possible. It’s not like the rigid, competitive, even pessimistic environment that I have experienced in most visual art schools. In the visual arts it feels like everyone is playing king of the mountain with all the fear, suspicion and remove that those competing for power might display. I think it is incredibly valuable that you make a point of noting that even those who are supposed to have a certain amount of success and neutrality, who are in positions to judge art and offer constructive criticism are also caught, consciously or unconsciously, in their own survival issues. The roots of natural selection run deep for some. We come back to the point that we must be able to self-critique and self-motivate as visual artists. Perhaps this work must be without a human buddy, yet a deeper relationship grows with something indescribable that assists us directly. This unseen energy is what we get to collaborate with, and sometimes it takes our hand and guides us profoundly.


Dissanayake’s theory
by Jenny Arntzen, Vancouver, BC, Canada


by Ellen Dissanayake

A few years ago I read the work of Ellen Dissanayake, including Art and Intimacy: How the Arts Began. Her theory was that we human beings are biologically evolved to appreciate art because it helped early humans adapt to their environment and reproduce themselves successfully over generations. Her argument was that, because humans at birth are immature and helpless infants, humans evolved to be lovable. Babies were born to be able to attune themselves to their caregivers from the moment of birth. Dissanayake described how the mother and infant participated in rhythmically patterned vocalizations and exaggerated face and body movements to build responses to each other. Dissanayake called these behaviours rhythm and sensory modes. She suggested that it was this predisposition to respond to rhythmic-modal signals that gave rise to the arts. The arts served beyond mother-infant bonding, to align and attune communities to be able to cooperate and survive. Those communities with the strongest affinities were able to survive the harshest conditions and procreate. Dissanayake noticed that all societies have elaborated rhythm-modal rituals, such as music, mime, dance, and display which serve to instill and reinforce valued cultural beliefs.

In my own art practice, I find the time I spend in my studio helps me to feel aligned and attuned to a greater sense of community. Although I do not sell or show my work, my engagement in its production serves to help me feel connected beyond the confines of my small world.


Quality control in visual arts
by Dwight Williams, Meridian, ID, USA


“Mores Creek, Idaho”
original painting
by Dwight Williams

One difference I have always noticed between the performing artists and the visual artists is, though they practice a lot, their performance is usually before an audience where things must be right. We, on the other hand, can practice and perform in private which means our mistakes are throwaways never to be seen again. Our family has several professional musicians and I am very aware of this difference. Having painted watercolors for a living for forty years I could not even guess at the number of paintings (or attempts) that never saw the light of day. I call it quality control. The performer does not have this luxury.

There are 2 comments for Quality control in visual arts by Dwight Williams

From: Kenneth Flitton — Feb 24, 2009

I really like this watercolour! Very well done!!

From: anon — Feb 24, 2009

It seems the same. I’ve acted and played music as well as paint. All that whacking away and touching up and changes made to a piece ARE the practice. When you feel it is right, you frame and show. Maybe as a H2O painter you are more used to tossing than an oil painter and so you think differently about it.


Questions about the animals
by Jeanne Jackson, Manhattan Beach, CA, USA


“Petra I”
oil painting
by Jeanne Jackson

Most of the cave drawings in France were all about the hunt or about the animals that had a significant impact on the group. Were the artists calling upon the gods for survival assistance, along the lines of creative visualization? If I draw the image of a mammoth, will it help me capture it? Was the artist showing respect for the beasts that provided sustenance, such as the auroch, the warthog and the deer? There are also images of creatures that preyed on humans such as the big cats and the wolf. Were they attempting to somehow ward off those frightening animals by capturing their spirits on the walls?

One thing is clear. There’s not a flower, a cloud, or a tree in sight. Pastoral scenes arrived way after the original artists made their first marks in caves. There were also special markings, symbols if you will, on the entrances to the caves. To me, these seem more mystical rather than an elaborate attempt at survival of the fittest.

We’re not even sure women were allowed to see these cave paintings. Could they be more impressed by a drawing than the actual meat cooking over the fire? Of course, it’s an assumption that the artists were male. This assumption is based on the reality that women were too damned busy keeping the children alive; they had no time to paint in the caves. Maybe the male artists were the ones who were terrible hunters and had to do something to make themselves valuable to the group. Hmmm. It’s also been suggested that men do the things they do to compete with the ultimate creativity of women — that is to give birth. So much to think about here. Great question!

(RG note) Thanks, Jeanne. Animals play an important part in researchers’ speculation about idealized landscapes. Apparently, even today, people like seeing “game.” The singling out of specific species, such as are seen in French and Spanish caves, appears to be part of “removal” from the landscape, either as game or some spiritual or animist connection. There are no real answers to this, only speculation. Incidentally, in the landscape visions, sparse foliage on savannah-type landscape, with water in there somewhere, seems to be the norm. These open landscapes are neither too complicated nor too simple. Places to lurk behind are valuable. Dutton also speculates on the imagery provided by calendar art, a remarkably standardized form that is seen universally even in the humblest environments.


Art as history-keeping
by Hap Hagood, Clover, VA, USA


“On a Winter’s Morn”
spalted holly
by Hap Hagood

I tend to agree with those who consider the early artist to have been a storyteller, a historian. Having no alphabet, therefore no method of writing, Paleolithic man’s method of recording history was art, both painting and sculpture. There are the cave paintings of Lascaux, that are a record of those people’s lives and beliefs; the “Venus” sculptures of Western Europe, Russia, the Ukraine, and Morocco, that suggest societies that either worshipped a goddess or were matriarchal; the totem poles of the various peoples of the Pacific Northwest, depicting spiritual images of their animal gods. Then there are the pictographs and petroglyphs of the American Southwest and Aboriginal Australia, definitely telling the story of those people’s lives and spiritual beliefs. While modern man has no way of actually interpreting these ancient artworks, they definitely had meaning for the people of their day, and for one to say art had its origins solely as a display to lure prospective mates is to lessen the importance of the prehistoric artist as a historian who kept the stories of his people alive.


Girls attracting guys?
by Martha Faires, Charlotte, NC, USA


“Light and flight”
acrylic painting
by Martha Faires

Is it possible that Denis Dutton, as brilliant as I am sure he is, is making some good observations but drawing the wrong conclusions? Could it be that instead of art being an evolutionary process that it is rather the reflection of humans having been made in the image of God who is the first Creator? I love to paint landscapes, but instead of making me think “food” they make me think of God who constantly creates beautiful scenes all day and night all over the universe. Further, I can’t think of a single guy who ever fell in love with me because of my art. Does it only work with guys attracting girls?

(RG note) Thanks, Martha. Regarding the attraction of men, we can all attest to stellar relationships where non-artistic men have gone for artistic women. It’s the mystery, the excitement, the focus of creative energy that is just as tangible as beauty, character or waist-hip ratio that are so often touted.

There is 1 comment for Girls attracting guys? by Martha Faires

From: BJ Wright — Feb 24, 2009

I, too, paint landscapes…all the while thinking of the Creation. I imagine all the peoples who have lived the land before us. Our 19th century ancestors fought Civil War battles on this/my little section of the world. Before them, the Creeks and Cherokees occupied the land. And before them??? Peoples come and go, but the land remains.


Popularity of Darwinian hooey
by Mike Young, Oakville, ON, Canada


“Four pillars”
by Mike Young

In common with most philosophers, Dutton must have plenty of time on his hands. I have not read Dutton’s book, but from the brief summation, it sounds like a load of hooey to me. I do note that Darwin is the historical figure de année and he seems to have acquired long coat-tails. As for pleasing people with one’s own original art, I have long held the opinion that the receiver of the original art, either through gift or purchase, derives satisfaction through the ownership of a fragment of the artist and also acquires part of the artist’s destiny. The artist symbiotically receives that most precious of qualities — recognition, and, of course, sometimes money. That’s my hooey for today. Maybe I have too much time on my hands.



Benefit of non-artist friends
by Kim Werfel, Pittsboro, NC, USA


original painting
by Kim Werfel

Lately I’ve come to the conclusion that I really need to make more friends that aren’t artists. My world has shrunken to include mostly artists, and having been a teacher, art students. Your experience with Linda Cozlowsky, where you concluded that “two artists in a cave is one too many,” rings true. “Artist friends” of mine were constantly competing with me, looking over my shoulder, or worse, copying my ideas. They are not going to be routing for you when you both enter the same competition, festival or are hanging side by side in the same gallery. Musicians and dancers do harmonize together easier than artists do. Competing against friends changes the energy of creating art in the first place. Don’t like it. The only one I want to compete with is myself. I know this is unrealistic and idealistic, but there you go. That’s who I am.

There are 2 comments for Benefit of non-artist friends by Kim Werfel

From: Don Cadoret — Feb 24, 2009

Perhaps Kim you have the wrong friends in the first place, or that you’re calling your artistic acquaintances “friends” – my best friends in life are both artists and non-artists. With them I trust everything in my creative life. Acquaintances are kept at a comfortable distance.

As for Samantha – wonderful painting! Solid on all fronts.

From: Jeffrey J. Boron — Feb 25, 2009

Your letter struck a chord with me Kim as I am (not for the first time) running these thoughts through my mind.

My thoughts are that I will try to keep doing what I do and strive to do it well. I will hold on to my ideals while realizing that they probably won’t be shared by other artists or “normal folk”. I will revel in my accomplishments and cheer the accomplishments of others.

Lead by example and revel in your accomplishments and cheer the accomplishments of others. If your expecting rooting from your “friends” expect disappiontment.



(another artist)

“Write the bad things done to you in the sand,

but write the good things that happen to you on a piece of marble.”

(Arabian wisdom)


Development of the addiction
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA


“Bays Mountain Park #4”
pastel painting
by Paul deMarrais

I am sure the people who created the wonderful cave paintings gained some fame in their clan. Maybe their skills were thought of as magic. Drawing is magical. I have always chuckled at a quote attributed to Freud that goals of the artist were money, fame and beautiful lovers. Not a bad lineup. I was tiny and painfully shy as a first grader but had already developed a classroom reputation for drawing and coloring. My parents encouraged my efforts as well. All children want to be noticed, first by parents, then later by peers and the opposite gender. All humans want to be noticed. Specialized skills are a way to be noticed, whether it be sports, public speaking or drawing. Drawing is also therapeutic for me. I could escape my shyness and retreat to a calm dream world. There have to be rewards for any activity to be pursued. As an older artist I think my motivations are less primal. While it is nice that people like my paintings, I think I am more drawn to the personal challenge that each painting possesses. I would continue painting even if I never made another nickel at it or got another compliment. Art has become ingrained in me. I greatly admire those artists who do it much better than I can. I love the materials of my trade and putting the first strokes down on a blank paper. The process itself has great appeal to me. It’s an addiction that harms no one!


No approval, no joy
by Dianne Bugash, USA


“Survival swirl”
acrylic painting
by Dianne Bugash

I am an artist and teacher — my love of the arts has been with me my entire life. However, in my mid-career, I find myself working alone and isolated, becoming an aging woman, and being out of the center of attention. In 2005, I put on 5 shows of my work, with great enthusiasm and energy only to be disappointed by the end of the year with not one comment, thank you, or recognition for the hard work. Since then, I have not been able to work. It seems the joy has been overshadowed by the art “beast” or the art machine which grinds you up and spits you out (newspapers, galleries, curators, critics). Until today, when I met someone who said to me, you must do your work and get it out there. There was no feedback. What do you think? Must we (artists) all suffer and be doomed to a life of loneliness, misunderstandings and our work hidden away? What is to be done?

How does an artist get back up from a bad fall and believe that she can or that she should continue her life as an artist?

(RG note) Thanks, Dianne. I’m inviting members of our community to write to you with their take on your dilemma. In the meantime, my take is to indulge yourself in a degree of self delusion, empowerment, try to be in love with your processes and not your approval rating, and try to paddle your own canoe.

There are 8 comments for No approval, no joy by Dianne Bugash

From: Rena Williams — Feb 24, 2009

Consider an art blog consisting only of your art, a virtual ongoing exhibit. You just need a scanner and a free site such as blogspot. There are many people “out here” waiting to see your work.

From: Pam Stern — Feb 24, 2009

In my world I have to make art – there is no choice – for if I don’t I become cranky and depressed. There is such joy in the making that I would give the stuff away if it started piling up. There are many reasons you might not get good response – people are always afraid of sounding uneducated about art and if it’s very different they might not know what to think. It is lovely to get great response to your work but it’s the doing of it that feeds the soul.

From: Sue Donaldson — Feb 24, 2009

For me it is the process, not the product. It has taken me time, energy and angst to finally realize this. I have conversations with myself about my work and sometimes I ask a very few others who I respect and who care about process; otherwise it is between me and my creation.

From: Liz Reday — Feb 24, 2009

I’ve been making art so long that it’s become a habit. I get enough out of painting to keep my painting the next day. Or sometimes in the evening I do drawings in preparation for the next day. All I know is, once I get into the studio and start fiddling with the brushes and paint, something magic happens. Just add some music, and go….art is its own reward and creates its own satisfaction and excitement.

From: Ron Ruble — Feb 24, 2009

“Survival Swirl” Is a bright, lively and very well composed painting. There is no reason why you shouldn’t continue. I also, don’t get many comments. But, long ago, I learned to live with my own. As my work has became more personal, I have concluded that it is silly to expect anyone to understand what I am doing. The few comments I do get are more from politeness than knowledge. That is O K by me, as it reinforces that I don’t do calendars. Get busy! I care.

From: Rick Rotante — Feb 26, 2009

Dianne- you have a talent that is under appreciated in America in general. I need not comment on your work that would be meaningless. You are the only one to know who and what you are and the degree of your own ability. Look to yourself for compliments for you are your own best critic. Society for the most part, is uneducated and unsophisticated and uninformed about art. The trick of the artist is to inform and show the way. There are those out there who want to know and do appreciate good work. Create good work. That’s your job. The rest will take care of itself.

From: Angela Treat Lyon — Feb 26, 2009

As to Robert’s reply to Dianne Bugash and her question about recognition: as an emotional freedom coach who works on a continual basis with people who are highly sensitive and creative and have gotten feedback like yours and been crushed by it, I take exception.

There are some people in the world who are simply wired to bounce off recognition. It’s not a bad thing, it just is. Their archetypal value system is wrapped around the concept that if they express and get recognition, then they’re on their Right path. It really isn’t about approval; rather, it’s that they are aligned with their Gift and doing it in a way and getting it out there in a way that serves and feeds the people it needs to feed.

If there is no connection – recognition, or re-knowingness – then they feel off-track because they are not fulfilling their purpose; then they feel that they have to reassess to see how they can best serve with their Gifts.

They certainly paddle their own canoes – imagine for a second what it’s like to need response before the next step in a society so individual-oriented! Many of them end up in self-hatred and despair because they think there’s something wrong with them. Not true.

From: Kathy Johnson — Feb 27, 2009

Hi Dianne Bugash, Do you think that people might think that since your the ‘master’ you don’t need comments or encouragment? I think that sometimes people assume that an artist doing work at the higher levels must already know how great they are and so they don’t need encouragement. Especially if you are a teacher–after all, teachers know everything, don’t they?

Turn to your inner muse or wisdom and perhaps use this energy for a subject of a new piece.

Good luck and happy brushes!




Looking south

watercolour painting
by Rose Beattie, Christina Lake, BC, Canada


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.

That includes Carole Mayne of Leucadia, CA, USA, who wrote, “When I was in sixth grade, my friend copied my landscape for homework in an art show. When the parents came to view the exhibit, I overheard someone say about mine, ‘That one’s too perfect.’ The blue ribbon went to her. That comment has stuck in my brain like an Amazonian parasite. The drive to portray the ”ideal” by artistic expression and the need to become more heart-centered and spontaneous has dogged me. Whether gained slow or fast, it’s wonderful to seek and find balance and wisdom in the tapestry of Life.”

And also Sharman Owings who wrote, “Your letter made me laugh on so many levels. I am a studio painter married to an MFA/Sculpture. I OFTEN tell people that there should be laws against two artists marrying. We have no adult in our home; no one to say ‘no.’ It’s magical.”

And also Carole Pigott who wrote, “What a lovely letter to come out after the last few weeks of having the ARTS described as PORK during the government’s debate on funding. It is too bad that our art representatives did not have the knowledge of Darwin’s quote or a dollar figure that represents the yearly total amount raised by artists by their donations to every charity imaginable. It is my wish that some of the money granted to the NEA is used to restore the image of artists to its rightful place. After all, if they had really been doing their job, we would have never been described as PORK.”

And also Elfi Baars of Langley, BC, Canada, who wrote, “This letter is truly strengthening my belief that art is some form of compensation for perceived inadequacies. I can create, so therefore I am, and as a bonus the process takes me away to a wonderful place, quite addictive I find.”


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for The art instinct



From: Derek Kalp — Feb 19, 2009

In my landscape architectural studies years ago, I was introduced to the work of geographer, Jay Appleton, who developed what he called “Prospect-Refuge Theory”. The premise is that people prefer places that provide a feeling of protection or refuge and at the same time offer a view to their surroundings or prospect. Again the idea was based on an evolutionary perspective that such environments offered our ancestors the best chance for survival. Appleton argued that our modern concept of aesthetics is based on these ingrained survival instincts. To this day I continue to evaluate my work based on these concepts and find that the most popular places are imbued with prospect and refuge.

From: — Feb 20, 2009

I paint because I delight in the colors and in finding an inviting and balanced presentation. I’m not too convinced with the “prospect and refuge” idea.

From: Gail Harper, NY — Feb 20, 2009

WHOA….BEST letter ever


From: Rick Rotante — Feb 20, 2009

Firstly, Robert, When do you find the time to read so much and still paint?? I’m amazed!

Professor Dutton is living in the Pleistocene period and much of his ideas haven’t entered the twenty first century. I will have to read this but there are so many holes in his theory from what you offer in commentary.

Early people didn’t have memories of “happy hunting grounds”. Those grounds were anything but happy. They were killing grounds where many of the tribesmen were injured or maimed by the prey they were hunting. Early hunting methods were primitive to say the least and many a hunter lost his life in the process.

If being inured with the outdoors and having it “etched” into our memories, why is it modern man rarely goes into the wilderness and chooses a cold one in front of the teley. Most if not all humans prefer the safety and comfort of a warm fire in an enclosed space, safe from predators. The outdoors was threatening and dangerous. That’s also why early man went into caves for protection and didn’t pitch camp in the open so to me the wilderness was something to get away from not embrace as homestead.

As for prospective mate gathering – here again I’m not so sure. If while painting on the cave walls, game passed the entrance and no effort were made to “gather” it, it would not endear one in the mate department. I would venture a wild guess that here is where the image of the “starving artist” may have evolved. Not to mention there are now many, many women doing art not to care if a man can do it to support them.

Women, throughout history, as with men, are attracted to all types and not especially artist types. History shows us that an artist “type” may actually have lost marital status due to the ambiguity and uncertainty of ever garnering a suitable income. Where is all this leisure time Professor Dutton speaks of for artists?

This other area of artist as “specialized fitness” personality holds as much water a sieve.

Throughout history the number of artists are many. More than I can count with more on the way. So much for specialization!

One thing said here is referring to “natural selection”. Here I have no comment and I’m in full agreement.

I believe we are drawn to bucolic art mostly because it’s benign and doesn’t challenge us.

It’s there for simple visual beauty. It does not cause stimulating thought or worry. It is easy to understand and appreciate with no art training or understanding on behalf of the viewer. It’s that simple.

From: Suzette Fram — Feb 20, 2009

Thanks, Rick, for a well-considered answer. As to what attracts us to certain works of art, I think it’s many different things. Sometimes it’s simply the colours & shapes, and how they interact (which would explain why some are attracted to abstract art). Sometimes a scene evokes a feeling, or a memory, and that is what attracts the viewer. It’s different for everyone and it’s different for every painting. But thank goodness it’s there for that is what makes it worthwhile.

From: Peter Brown — Feb 23, 2009

Professor Dutton may be fine philosopher but his suggestion that the appreciation of landscape painting is somehow connected to our neolithic roots is really quite a stretch. If such a notion is accurate why did it take 35,000 years for this penchant to show up in art history? The cave painters did not paint trees, nor rolling hills. Throughout most of art history landscapes play a very minor role, except as a backdrop for the main subject of the paintings. There are a few Greco/Roman “landscapes” preserved in Pompeii. These are very stylized and decorative, more akin to wallpaper or needle-work designs. Australian Aboriginal art certainly has Stone Age roots, but little of landscape imagery.

That landscape art is so universally popular is likely due to fall-out from the artistic triumph of Impressionism during the past 150 years. Monet and his friends created much more than an art movement. They seem to have created an epoch, For the style, with its landscape based subject matter, is still the most popular variety of painting worldwide.

Another supposition of Prof. Dutton’s which seems rather dubious: “He views art-making as a skill that only an extraordinary individual could perform — a person who perhaps exhibited a degree of laid-back leisure and who didn’t have to expend full resources on the basics.” For one thing, the emergence of cave painting occurred during an ice age. Leisure was most probably distributed evenly and was seasonal. Winter was a long holiday sitting by a cave fire. There was little else a human being could do during the frigid sub-zero months out in the snowdrifts. And secondly, art making is NOT a skill that only an “extraordinary individual can perform.” In my experience as an art teacher I have met about 10,000 kids. About 80% have learned to make credible drawings. About 40% have learned to draw with creativity and some sophistication. The most common feedback that I get from my students is something like, “Hey! Mr. Brown, I didn’t know I could be an artist!” That is merely a sad commentary on the sorry state of art education in our modern world.

The art gene is widely distributed in the human population. What is lacking are the educational resources allocated in the early elementary years.

From: Barbara Mulligan — Feb 23, 2009
From: Amy Wagner — Feb 23, 2009
From: Anitta Trotter — Feb 23, 2009

My story is quite different from yours. I wanted desperately to be an artist, not for the sake of impressing anyone, but because the desire to create was so strong it made me cry sometimes that I could not. I actually felt tingling – an emotional pain – in my fingertips. This began when I was a child. My Grade 2 teacher told me I had absolutely no artistic talent when I asked her opinion. I loved colour so much that in that same year I actually did what I knew was wrong and stole money from my mother’s purse and told the shopkeeper, who knew my mother had said no when I drooled over the box, that she had changed her mind; then deliberately used every crayon a bit so they could not possibly be returned. And yes, I got into deep trouble, and yes, guilt harangued me so much that I was not able to derive any pleasure from my ill gotten gains. A grade 7 art teacher also told me never to waste an art teacher’s time, as a favour (to the art teachers?), so I didn’t. As my children grew up, time finally permitted me to take up the study of art in spite of what my teachers had told me.

Unlike Dennis Dutton, I look on art and its creation differently. God created us in his image, and he is a creator. Hence the desire to create is in each of us to some degree, and art takes different forms. There are people who claim to be unable to create art yet create a business which employs many people. Others fulfill their desire to create through rearing children. Perhaps those who do not create are the unhappy people around us. When I create, I feel the pleasure of God. It is always fascinating to me how people attempt to tie evolution into everything. My faith is in God who cannot be seen but neither can evolution.

From: Brad Greek — Feb 23, 2009

I’ve noticed over the years that not everyone started out creating art but done it as a last resort. Got to retirement age, had accidents, mental or physical disabilities before finding their muse. Some of us were or appeared to be born with the need to create. I personally had an interest in creating from the start. I also was very competitive and liked sports. My physical size (extremely small till 11th grade) kept me benched for most sports as I got older. Art was always there to fill that gap. For me it didn’t win over any sweethearts nor created a following of awe seekers. It created a loner. Today, art had taking me to places that otherwise I would have never went. And I have made many friends with people that otherwise would never have met had our paths not of crossed through art. We are still competitive and want to be individuals yet we know that we are a brotherhood of a greater entity. It’s all I ever wanted to be.

From: Maggie Parker — Feb 23, 2009

“He views art-making as a skill that only an extraordinary individual could perform–a person who perhaps exhibited a degree of laid-back leisure and who didn’t have to expend full resources on the basics. This evolved artistic character could also be seen as taking part in casual, exploratory pursuits, the outcome of which was often unknown.”

As per usual it is assumed that ‘cave-men’ would do this. The description above accurately describes what women do all the time. I have always posited cave-women where trying to attract the alpha-male and decorated their homes.

“The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.” Carl Jung (1875 – 1961)

From: CtCummins — Feb 23, 2009
From: Comments moderator — Feb 23, 2009
From: Karen R. Phinney — Feb 24, 2009

With regards to Anitta’s comments on being told “not to waste an art teacher’s time”, I think it is criminal that anyone would tell a child that! I had a well-known artist tell me once that she had been told that in art school, and her mother said, “you’re sticking with it, we’ve paid for the year!” And she did, and went on to become a war artist, and one of Canada’s best known artists. We may not always see where the Muse will take an individual, they have to unfold into their vision as they mature, and experience what it is they want to express. And with further regard to Pollock, he wasn’t very good at drawing, but was innovative with colour and “line”, the drips and splashes he made with such success. The teacher may not see the potential there, so shouldn’t judge too hastily. To destroy someone’s passion is ruthless!

From: Caveman — Feb 24, 2009

Am I the only guy wondering why our ancestors didn’t draw each other on those walls ??? Where are the cave pinups? Where is Gary Larson when we need him ??

From: Peter Brown — Feb 24, 2009
From: Peter Brown — Feb 24, 2009

Thank you, moderater, for posting my letter. PWB

From: Ben Novak — Feb 26, 2009

How true. But I found that one’s orientation and “talent” for drawing tends to spread to everyday actions, such as making lovely studied balanced calligraphic notes to friends, or designing one’s own greetings cards. Many of mine are “expected” each year and collected and sometimes framed by recipients. For those of us who either did not have the courage or the urge or the conviction to make art our career, this talent serves to widen our social capital, as so aptly reflected in the letter.

From: Doreen Flanagan — Feb 26, 2009

I would be pleased to have the website address of Denis Dutton’s Art and Letters Daily. Thank you very much. Here in South Africa the art scene has also become very quiet but I am taking the opportunity to read and study more on my weak points, and there are many, and looking to improve on work I have already done. As you say, we must keep working.

From: Comments moderator — Feb 26, 2009
From: Mark Hofreiter — Feb 27, 2009

My wife, Brenda, is a plein air painter and shows at festivals and galleries here in Central Florida and elsewhere. I sometimes sit with her at the tedious festivals and we have noticed, manly-type, men with hunting caps, say, or pro-bass tournament shirts on who will enter Brenda’s booth and stare and stare at a certain landscape before the woman who owns that particular man, comes and extracts him. (As an aside, we’ve noticed also, it seems to be the women who will decide which art will be bought and which won’t.)

I used to joke to Brenda, mimicking this every-man’s thinking; “(grunt), much good fishing this spot…” or “(grunt) me kill last winters deer that far hill…”

Brenda does capture a likeness of our Central Florida wilderness like no other. And there was no other explanation for why these men were transfixed by her images. And then your Dutton piece came along and we were thrilled to read his words confirming the ideas surrounding the very practical reasons art has existed at all much less thrived. Which brings me to prospective mates; Brenda has said that 35 years ago, when she walked into my studio apartment, she knew I was a good candidate as mating material. Among other things, an oil painting was started on an easel it my dinning area, with tubes of paint and dirty brushes spread about.



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