Art suffuses our lives. Whether it's bluegrass, heavy metal, Frank Sinatra or Mozart, music moves us all. On a trip to a foreign city, visiting an art museum is a mandatory exercise. Imaginative writing affects many of us, though—alas—with decreasing frequency.
Why should art be important? Being seen as an "art lover" may increase our status, but otherwise art is not useful. Yet art has been part of the human experience since Paleolithic man painted on the walls of caves in Lascaux, France, and Altamira, Spain, more than 30,000 years ago. Art preceded cities, agriculture and writing.
Denis Dutton, an art professor in New Zealand, has proposed a bold new explanation. He argues that humankind's universal interest in art is the result of human evolution. We enjoy sex, grasp facial expressions, understand logic and spontaneously acquire language—all of which make it easier for us to survive and produce children. In "The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution," Dutton contends that an interest in art belongs on this list of evolutionary adaptations.
Drawing on Charles Darwin's second great book, "The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex," Dutton argues that art, like broad shoulders in a man and a narrow waist in a woman, facilitates seduction. We tell stories, sing songs, invent tales, recount jokes and draw pictures in order to find a mate and, having found one, produce children. We value art because, Dutton claims, it may be made of rare and valuable materials and require much skill to produce. People value wealth and skill in choosing a mate. We can add to Dutton's argument the fact that when 3-month-old infants are shown pictures of women who had been rated by adults as either attractive or unattractive, the babies looked much longer at the attractive ones