"Ask the Artist" Project (Introduction)

"Ask the Artist" Project (Introduction)

"Ask the Artist" Project (Introduction)

Questioning artists about art-theory: Denis Dutton’s “cluster criteria” at work.

In loving memory of Professor Dennis Dutton

When I first read The Art Instinct by Denis Dutton I said to myself: finally somebody has the courage to speak out loud about the obvious shortcomings in modern art theory. I hoped that his book would jolt the industry of art-criticism like a hot cup of coffee. Later, when I had a chance to cooperate with Dennis we talked a lot about the basic premise of the book. He explained that he actually asks questions more than he attempts to provide definite answers, that his ultimate goal is to reinvigorate the discussion about art and creativity in a wider, interdisciplinary manner. 

The current discourse about art is strangely polarized. Many so-called “humanistic theoreticians” relentlessly ignore the facts of neuroscience, findings of the psychology of perception and value building dynamics, etc.  Surprisingly enough, discussion about art is picking up in the sciences.  We live in a time of great advancements in neuroaesthetics. Scientists closely investigate the experience of a metaphor as a “contrast enhancement”. We know more about the relationship between language and music (and music perception itself) thanks to Isabelle Peretz and Daniel J. Levintin. In visual arts, Margaret Livingstone and Semir Zeki try to detail the neurological processes by which we respond to colors, luminance, surface and depth, edges and straight lines, etc.  A lot of scientists have looked into the notion of “mirror neurons” as a source of the depth of the aesthetical experience. But, as much as I hope that we will acquire solid scientific knowledge about how our senses operate and that we will soon uncover universal rules of artistic perception, I’m afraid that some questions of art definition or its meaning and influence will remain open. We might discover “how” we perceive art but we will still lack the answers to the most important question in philosophy: “why?” A paradigm shift is needed to make our discussion more fruitful.

Dean Keith Simonton extensively studies the phenomenon of creativity. In his findings, he doesn’t separate creativity in science from creativity in art. He distinguishes between high and low creativity in general, but treats creativity as a universal trait, which should be understood in light of Darwinian theory.  Selection does not constitute the sole process in Darwin’s theory. On the contrary, selection depends on variation. Organisms vary on numerous inheritable traits and these traits confer differential levels of adaptation.

Art and creativity in general might have something to do with the process.  We differ, and we have to be different to survive. Nature depends on our ability to be unique. The way we experience the world, the patterns of our perception and the highways and little trails of our cognition as well as our emotional responsiveness make us different. Art exuberates perceptions, but also stabilizes the effect of coherence of our self.

In light of those findings, how do we proceed as philosophers of art? Where is the new starting point? I believe that first we should look closer into the very definition of art and loosen the grip of “the art definition” as well as try to recognize the phenomenon of art in the full spectrum of its influence.  

Defining Art: the cluster criteria

To move things forward we should attempt a reformulation of the definition of art. The “hybrid formulation” also known as the “cluster concept” of art was proposed by Denis Dutton in The Art Instinct: “Characteristic features found cross-culturally in the arts can be reduced to a list of core items, twelve in the version given below, which define art in terms of a set of cluster criteria.  Some of the items single out features of works of art; other items the qualities of the experience of art. The items on the list are not chosen to suit a preconceived theoretical purpose; to the contrary, these criteria purport to offer a neutral basis for theoretical speculation” (2009, p. 51).

Here is Dutton’s list:

direct pleasure

skill and virtuosity


novelty and creativity



special focus

expressive individuality

emotional saturation

intellectual challenge

art traditions and institutions

imaginative experience

Dutton has acknowledged that these criteria need to be revisited, but they are a fantastic starting point.  I’ve decided to follow Jeff Hawkins’advice: “If you are stuck (…) try taking parts of your problem and rearranging them in different ways – literally and figuratively.”

I decided to start from an unusual, yet intuitive place.  For far too long, we have ignored artists’ voices in the discussion of art. But when you think about it, they might have a few important things to say about art.  We just have to ask right questions and learn how to listen before we impose on them another “art theory.”

I created the “Ask the Artist” project, which is a series of talks with artists representing different genres of art. I asked all of them the same set of questions based on Dutton’s criteria listed above. The general concept tries to marry the magic of Socratic maieutics with a “Proust questionnaire.”  I tried to avoid the slightest suggestion of what “the right answers” should be; I refused to bring too much philosophical baggage into our discussion. The questions were presented in the form of separate words on a set of cards – I didn’t want to spoil the artist’s basic associations with the subjects.  So, if you are looking for heavy-duty philosophical arguments, you will be disappointed by “Ask the Artist.” My intention was different; I wanted to listen to the artist’s voice first, learn how they associate a certain philosophical thesis with their concepts. I don’t expect artists to produce a new art theory; they have better things to do. But I want us all to listen to and learn from their experience. It might prepare us better to formulate a proper, updated definition of art.

I was lucky enough to talk to a group of amazing people, all first class artists, intelligent and perceptive interlocutors and masters of their trade. I’ve already interviewed six of them, representing six basic genres of art:  Abelardo Morell (photographer); Avner Dorman (classical music composer), Susanna Coffey (painter), Isidro Blasco (sculptor); Nikki Giovanni (poet); Alonzo King (choreographer).  I will present the interviews in subsequent editions of The Creativity Post.

My work will be continued, but I already find it extremely intriguing that artists’ intuitions about art are more in concert with the findings of modern science than many academically advanced aesthetic theories.

Art has real power. Berys Gaut put it aptly: “It is a core part of culture, through which we articulate and develop our self-conceptions both as individuals and as members of society, and which through its emotional charge can imprint that self-conception deeply on us … The arts, high and low, can express and develop our understanding of who we are and what matters to us, a thought that Hegel developed in his idea of art as the articulation of a culture’s self-understanding.”

Every inquiry is a process in which we need to creatively incorporate new facts and information. In that context it is good to remember Dutton’s words of wisdom: “The arts remain what they are, and will be. Aesthetic theory is merely their handmaiden. It is she who must perfect her tune” (The Art Instinct, p.63). We have to learn how to incorporate new information about artistic perception, we need to open our heads and develop a new, simple language, which will help us to communicate different disciplines. Then we will be able to talk about art in a more advanced, up-to-date manner.

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