S. Davies on Non-Western Art
In Stecker and Gracyk, Aesthetics Today (2010)
Although every society appears to have art, not every society has an artworld. So the institutional definition of art does not appear to define art in non-Western cases.
This issue of institutions is related to conscious use of a concept of art. Some anthropologists reason as follows:
(1) Our concept of art says that, in order to distinguish art from craft, art lacks ordinary utility. (Collingwood is an example of this view.)
(2) Many traditional non-Western societies do not make any conceptual distinction between art and craft. Or they are unconscious about what they are doing.
Therefore, many non-Western societies do not have art.
At most, this use of "art" is restricted to FINE or HIGH art, which is a recent historical development.
This fact poses a problem. Either Shakespeare's plays are not art, or they became art retrospectively. But based on what? There must be a way to pick out art in "our" own past, and that will be a way that we identify art in societies lacking the concept.
Against the "unconscious" point, something can be unthinkingly done, but it does not mean that people are unable to think about it at other times, such as when confronted with alternatives. When a society confronts new alternatives, they often become very concerned about their cultural history and identitiy. (I don't consciously think about using my turn signal when I drive. It doesn't follow that I don't have any conscious control over what I'm doing. Nor does it follow that I do it unintentionally.)
So , what concept of art captures the art of non-Western, traditional societies?
The institutional account, as described by Arthur Danto, fails miserably. Danto asks us to imagine two groups, one of which has a theoretically complex respect for baskets, while the second group has the same, but for pots. Both make both pots and baskets, and outsiders can't tell them apart. (Think of Duchamp's readymades here!) Dutton thinks that this argument is not plausible, because the two groups would value the two kinds of things very differently. No group would invest the same effort in the trivial objects. The making and design of the more important objects will display a higher level of aesthetic achievement.
Dutton's answer to Danto gives us the key.
If the objects made by non-Western societies display "humanly produced aesthetic features," we tend to recognize them as art. (We are not talking about trivial amounts of finishing or decoration. We are talking about cases where the total object is meant to be evaluated while taking account of its aesthetic dimension. The objects are art when they are non-incidentally aesthetic.) And we do this even if the group does not have a concept that distinguishes things in this way.
Does this strategy require an aesthetic definition of art? NO. Aesthetic excellence is historically necessary for the presence of art, but societies can become theoretically complex in a way that prevents outsider recognition of aesthetic merit, or aesthetic merit can be tossed aside as a goal. So aesthetic excellence is not part of art's definition.
This strategy allows us to identify some art in non-Western cultures. We can recognize a universal human intention without having to explore the detailed intentions of "artists," or learning about the cultural organization of the group (in order to see if there is an "artworld" system in place).
Last updated Feb.23, 2011 ~ All text © 2011 Theodore Gracyk