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Expertise Affects Aesthetic Evolution in the Domain of Art

Evidence from Artistic Fieldwork and Psychological Experiments

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Exploring Transdisciplinarity in Art and Sciences


An unmade bed. A cigarette glued to the wall. A replica of a soup can box. Drippings on a canvas. Can an evolutionary approach help us understand the production and appreciation of, sometimes perplexing, modern and contemporary art? This chapter attempts at this by investigating two hypotheses about the evolution of human aesthetics in the domain of art. The first hypothesis, commonly called evolutionary aesthetics, asserts that aesthetic preferences, such as those for particular faces, body shapes and animals, have evolved in our ancestors because they motivated adaptive behavior. Artworks (e.g., those depicting facial beauty) may exploit these ancestral aesthetic preferences. In contrast, the second hypothesis states that aesthetic preferences continuously coevolve with artworks, and that they are subject to learning from, especially prestigious, other individuals. We called this mechanism prestige-driven coevolutionary aesthetics. Here I report artistic fieldwork and psychological experiments we conducted. We found that while exploitation of ancestral aesthetic preferences prevails among non-experts, prestige-driven coevolutionary aesthetics dominate expert appreciation. I speculate that the latter mechanism can explain modern and contemporary art’s deviations from evolutionary aesthetics as well as the existence and persistence of its elusiveness. I also discuss the potential relevance of our findings to major fields studying aesthetics, that is, empirical aesthetics, and sociological and historical approaches to art.

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  1. 1.

    Modern art includes artistic work produced during the period extending roughly from the 1860s to the 1970s and denotes the style and philosophy of the art produced during that era, while more recent artistic production is often called contemporary art (or postmodern art).

  2. 2.

    To be clear, whether something is aesthetic or not, depends on the concept of the aesthetic, naturally. Does the concept also comprise the possibility of conceptual beauty in addition to the more traditional perceptual beauty? For instance, someone might find an “anti-aesthetic” statement, such as Duchamp’s influential artwork “Fountain” (an ordinary urinal) intellectually quite beautiful, in a similar way as someone might find a mathematical proof beautiful.

  3. 3.

    This is not to say that other aspects might have played a role in the popularity of the bear as well, such as its monumentality.

  4. 4.

    Next to the dual inheritance or “Californian” school, there is a “Paris” school of cultural evolutionists (i.e., cultural attraction theory) (Sterelny 2016). While the focus of the Paris school also lies on explaining the evolution of human behavior and culture, their ideas are closer to standard evolutionary psychology than the Californian school. Here I focus on the Californian school.

  5. 5.

    A theory of art is a cognitive structure or capacity that critically affects the outcome of the evaluation of art (Danto 1964; Prum 2013).

  6. 6.

    Also sometimes referred to as the “global art world,” the international artworld is an intricate international network of artists, dealers, auction houses, collectors, and institutions, predominantly engaged in modern and contemporary art (e.g., Hart 1995).

  7. 7.

    We showed this using mediation analyses. A mediation is a hypothesized causal chain in which one variable affects a second variable that, in turn, affects a third variable. The intervening variable, M, is the mediator. It “mediates” the relationship. In psychology, mediation is commonly used to investigate hypothesized “underlying” mechanisms.

  8. 8.

    The fact that appreciation varies substantially between individuals does not preclude underlying human universals. Evolutionary researchers stress that human universal psychological characteristics are most often plastic, which means that they can change adaptively in response to particular environments.


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I thank Siegfried Dewitte, Julien Renoult, and Jeanne Bovet for their comments. I also thank Julien Renoult for inviting me to contribute to this volume.

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Correspondence to Jan Verpooten .

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Verpooten, J. (2018). Expertise Affects Aesthetic Evolution in the Domain of Art. In: Kapoula, Z., Volle, E., Renoult, J., Andreatta, M. (eds) Exploring Transdisciplinarity in Art and Sciences. Springer, Cham.

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