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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Art in the heart

Why do we find joy in things that serve no practical function?

Issue: "Homegrown terror," Dec. 5, 2009

A little before 6 a.m., the horizontally striped sky in the east rolls out a news flash. Up next: spectacular sunrise. Regular early-risers will know to pause for a few minutes; it'll be worth it. If they missed the advance notice, a flaming sky slaps them in the face when passing a window. It always comes with a command: Look! LOOK!

We learned in junior high that certain atmospheric conditions produce the lighting effects, but the phenomenon itself sidesteps science and produces an answering cry in the soul. The heavens declare the glory of God at every hour, but sometimes, in these cracks between day and night, they shout. The sight is so intense it threatens to spill over to ears, nose, fingertips-what we see is a blast, a ringing chord that hangs in the air for a glorious moment and begins to fade so imperceptibly we don't notice at first.

A beautiful sunrise can be explained scientifically, but what explains the leap of our hearts when we see it? That's the real phenomenon: not that the sight can be glorious, but that we recognize it as glorious. Why do we feel compelled to look; why the tug of transcendence? Why exclaim over beauty, a response that seems so primal, yet serves no practical function?

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Dennis Dutton examines that question in The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution. Dutton is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, as well as editor of Arts and Letters Daily, an online compendium of culture for the rushed intellectual. In The Art Instinct he aims to prove that the aesthetic sense is a Darwinian adaptation, the result of "choices" made during the Pleistocene era, when humanoids became human. The reason we thrill to Beethoven or gaze at Rembrandt can be found in our genes.

What primal purpose is served by "the art instinct"? First, it aids natural selection by giving humans an imaginative edge over predators. Suppose, instead of just letting the tiger eat you, you could develop narratives around the campfire with the other hunters, exploring contingencies in story form so you're better able to deal with them in reality? And suppose (advantage No. 2) you missed out in the muscle department, but you're a witty storyteller? That would improve your chances with the ladies who, even then, liked men who could make them laugh. Likewise, an amusing woman had a better chance of keeping her man around.

Art is commonly believed to be a cultural product, but Dutton finds that the "artistic temperament" is the same in both developed and primitive cultures. Aesthetic tastes are remarkably similar as well. For example, he cites a survey of cultures all over the world, at all stages of development, in which individuals were shown a variety of paintings and asked which they preferred. To a remarkable degree, the best-loved pictures were landscapes-a particular kind of landscape, with low-branching trees, enfolding hills, a slice of horizon, and a road or path. Just the kind of scene a hunter-gatherer would want for the cave wall.

Fascinating, but purely speculative. Art is an imaginative exercise that depends on language, and the evolutionary psychologist can't explain where language came from. Even more vexingly, no one can chart that great leap from mindlessness to mind. We're stuck with two basic presuppositions: Either a Creator exists, or He doesn't. If we assume the former, we can also speculate that He made us able to respond to Him so that He can relate to us. That makes at least as much sense as the other assumption, and Art for Procreation's sake.

But presuppositions are not equal: "They have no excuse," says Paul, of those who worship the creature rather than the Creator. "Deep calls to deep" in creation, and in our hearts we know His name. He calls to us in the sunrise, in a beautiful view, in music and dance. Pity the man who does not answer.

If you have a question or comment Janie Cheaney, send it to

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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