Pacific Arts

Is Aesthetics a Cross-Cultural Category?

in Pacific Arts, 11/12 (1995): 139-141.

Denis Dutton

Aesthetics Is a Cross-cultural Category, edited by James Weiner. Manchester: Group for Debates in Anthropological Theory, 1994, 40 pp., £5.00.

The title of this booklet represents a motion debated at the University of Manchester in October of 1993. Two speakers, Howard Morphy and Jeremy Coote, support the motion, and two others, Joanna Overing and Peter Gow, take the negative.

Morphy insists he and Coote are not trying to establish that there exists a single set of universal aesthetic criteria (I suppose he means critical value criteria) for the works of art in all cultures. Fair enough; what then does the motion mean? Is “aesthetics” just a fancy, polysyllabic way of referring to art, or to a sense of beauty, or is it best considered as a subdivision of philosophy, or is it purely as a technical term coined by Baumgarten in the eighteenth century?

Morphy is not clear on this, saying that aesthetics has an established place in European philosophy (like ethics, apparently); but then in the next breath he calls it a capacity for “aesthetic response.” This latter characterization he then refines as a capacity human beings have to “value the properties of form independently of any particular function.” To this salad he confusingly adds that it “involves” valuing such qualities as hardness, heaviness, softness, sharpness, “and so on.” Finally, and after having said “I will not provide a simple definition of aesthetics, since...I would be in danger of creating my own straw person,” Morphy reverses himself on the same page, with the announcement: “Aesthetics is concerned with the human capacity to assign qualitative values to properties of the material world.”

No one interrogates him on this, but this is not a satisfactory characterization either. Much of art and aesthetic experience is narrative or literary, and deals with human relations and an inner human life: Morphy’s definition will cover delight in the polished surface of a jade adze, but it will hardly fit the Iliad or Sepik mythology, since such narrative constructs are not just about “properties of the material world.” His point here, however, is perhaps more limited: he mentions that you cannot explain the carefully chosen pastel colors and soapy texture of Aurignacian beads without positing some consideration to what we would recognize as aesthetic values in the color and feel of the stones. However, he goes on to insist, understanding the aesthetic notions of any culture requires a grasp of social, semantic content; aesthetics cannot refer simply to the immediate, unsocialized sensory response to any stimulus.

This, however, is precisely the idea of the aesthetic from which the first speaker against the motion, Joanna Overing, begins. Ignoring Morphy’s insistence to the contrary, she claims that aesthetics “is specific to the modernist era” and that it “characterizes a specific consciousness of art.” She describes the concept as peculiarly Western, for the West is the “odd man out” in having a notion of the autonomy of the arts, indeed, in having a notion of fine arts at all. What’s worse, the aesthetic is “a bourgeois and élitist concept.”

These statements came as a surprise to me, as I read them having just put down a classic treatise by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki on Japanese aesthetics. There can be no doubting that the Japanese have a rich and well-developed aesthetic sense and tradition. That it is subtly different from the Western sense is the emphatic point of Tanizaki, but it is also perfectly recognizable as an aesthetic tradition capable of discussing both the autonomy of the arts and their interretationship with daily life. In light of such texts, Overing’s claim that the autonomy of the arts is a unique product of eighteenth-century Europe is embarrassingly naive. Even in the Occident, the question of artistic autonomy was fiercely debated by the Greeks, whose music, and some of whose painting and drama was at least as autonomous from social or ideological content as modern painting, drama, and music.

Overing purports to present an “argument,” as she calls it, but there is no argument here at all, just a series of assertions based on Terry Eagleton’s Ideology of the Aesthetic. In order to support her claims, she provides of parody piece about a tribe called the Borzwázi, who have a cult of beauty, worker artists, and a priesthood of critics, etc. Parodies (for instance, Orwell’s Animal Farm) only work when they reveal in a fresh or funny form implicit structural or semantic features of their intended targets. Let it be said that if there are any potential readers of this debate who actually believe that European art is nothing more than a special, tiny class of glorified objects (painting and sculpture, mostly surviving in fine arts museums) which can only be understood by a privileged élite, then they may well find Overing’s parody either disconcerting or amusing.

But what about the rest of us who view “Western” art and aesthetic experience as something which includes the latest computer generated images, but extends back through the Greeks to Lascaux? What about those of us who see it as encompassing the mass arts (popular forms such as Attic tragedy, Victorian novels, or tonight’s television offerings), who view art as coming to us in European religious or political expression, who consider that it incorporates the whole history of music and dance, and who would include within it the immense variety of design traditions for furniture, practical implements, and architecture? To us, her parody is simply puerile. “Art” in European culture does not refer to a small rarefied class of objects, but to a staggeringly vast range of activities and creative products.

In any event, her presentation is reduced to incoherence when she mentions for anthropologists “the hidden dangers” which the concept of Western aesthetics brings “to the task of understanding and translating other people’s ideas about the beautiful....” Come again? If “other people” also have “ideas about the beautiful,” then that is what cross-cultural aesthetics deals with, and Morphy is right.

Perhaps there are anthropologists who think art / beauty / aesthetics are concepts which derive from paintings that have hung in European museums or rich houses since the eighteenth century. Presumably we can all agree that they should leave ethnographic aesthetic issues alone, at least until they have acquired some further education. But do such anthropologists exist? Would Overing care to name one?

Piaroa man
Overing does discuss the Piaroa of the Amazon. From the description she gives they probably have a sense of beauty as different from ours as the Victorian sense is from that of the Sung Dynasty. But either it is a recognisable kind of (distinctly Piaroa) beauty, or it is not. If it is not, then Overing is talking nonsense by calling it beauty in the first place. If it is, then aesthetics — the theory of beauty — is a cross-cultural category, and the motion carries. You can’t have it both ways.

Overing’s ally, Peter Gow, begins his opposition to the motion by referring to Pierre Bourdieu’s claim that the Western aesthetic sense is fundamentally discriminatory: “This is how we win friends and influence people....the whole movement of the modern Western aesthetic is about disagreement, about personal discrimination.” Gow’s repeated use of the word “discriminatory” leaves the reader with the queasy feeling that aesthetics ought to be a punishable offense under anti-discrimination laws (I doubt if this is inadvertent on Gow’s part). However, he never faces the question raised by his appeals to Bourdieu: supposing that Bourdieu is right about the gamesmanship and élitist powers-plays which he claims are intrinsic to the Western aesthetic tradition — do other cultures engage in the same power games in their aesthetic traditions? Is it only bourgeois, class-conscious Europeans who are prone to this ugly behavior? Both Overing and Gow portray the Western experience of art as so narrow, or corrupted, that frankly I’d be glad not to find it in other cultures.

Gow quotes Gary Witherspoon on a sense of elemental force shared, Witherspoon believes, by Navaho sandpaintings and the work of Jackson Pollock. If people Gow describes as “devotees of the Primitivist Modern Aesthetic project” want to study why they think sandpainting is beautiful, Gow has no objection to that. “But,” he goes on to say, “I suspect few will, for that would require spending far too long away from the metropolitan capitals of modernist culture, and doing tedious things like learning Navajo and getting to know Navajo people on their terms.” I gasped at this point, for that is exactly what Professor Witherspoon, an extremely thorough and sensitive ethnographer, has done. Gow may be right that few ever cross a cultural divide in aesthetics; the question for the debate, however, is not whether many will, but whether any can. That is what the motion is about, and simply abusing a fantasized Western philistinism with inept parodies and uninformed accusations begs the question.

Jeremy Coote’s contribution in favor of the motion suffers again from an ambiguous construal of “aesthetics,” which diverts him toward asking whether the concept in the sense of “art theory” has a place in Dinka culture. Whether the Dinka or any other non-Western culture has a theory of art is beside the essential point, which is: Do they have an indigenous standard and canon of beauty? The Dinka most definitely have such a standard, which reveals itself among other things in their obsession with cattle markings. All of this has been so well described by Coote that it would seem nugatory to continue the debate, but continue it does, in an open discussion which follows the main presentations. If the four main speakers had been frequently at cross purposes, the conversation now goes in every possible direction.

Sonia Gregor points out, first, that the art theory of the Greek philosophers informs contemporary thinking on the arts, second, that Kant’s idea of aesthetic judgment is far removed from the sense of discriminatory judgment Gow derives from Bourdieu, and, third, that Overing’s contrast between Borzwázi and Piaroa aesthetic values represents not a strange cross-cultural gulf, but a tension of different values already present in Western culture itself. These valuable and pertinent observations are not discussed or developed. It comes finally as a relief when Marcus Banks bluntly declares, “To assume that aesthetics was suddenly invented in Western Europe in the eighteenth century is blatantly ethnocentric.” The great civilizations of Asia, he reminds the audience, have aesthetic traditions that “resemble Overing’s Borzwázi in every critical respect.” If so, not only is aesthetics a cross-cultural category, but even the shallow conception of aesthetics Overing tries to force on the debate is a cross-cultural category.

Alas, Banks’s insights only serve highlight the depressingly narrow, unsophisticated character of much of the debate. Coote finally delivers a direct hit on the last page when he says, “Our opponents seem to want to choose the most ethnocentric definition of aesthetics they can find, so they can claim it cannot apply cross-culturally.” What we should be doing, he goes on to suggest, is to study the arts of other cultures in order to reflect on and broaden our own ideas and assumptions about what is possible for aesthetic experience.
Gow’s immediate response is merely dogmatic: “But we cannot do that. We cannot idly step outside of the Western aesthetic as though it were a set of clothes we could discard.” As if anyone present had claimed that it is possible “idly” to penetrate the aesthetic traditions of a foreign culture. (And leave foreign cultures aside: I don’t know what it’s like in Manchester, but I have students from whom major artistic traditions of the West are virtually as remote and mysterious as the traditions of New Guinea or the Congo.) Gow’s position, like Overing’s, reduces in the end to the claim that it is difficult to understand art cross-culturally, and that therefore it must be impossible — at any rate by bourgeois, élitist Westerners such as ourselves. It’s a popular non sequitur: by a vote of the audience, Overing and Gow carry the debate, with the motion defeated, 42 against to 22 for.