Thursday, May 25, 2017

Comparative Aesthetics, Syllabus for a World Aesthetics

I just finished teaching a class on the Philosophy of Art in which I tried to take a world perspective.   My typical previous way of teaching this class was to follow the history of Western aesthetics from Plato to Danto and feminist aesthetics with some side trips to Eastern traditions.   As a randomizing strategy to avoid ethnocentrism I organized the course in a roughly alphabetical way by culture.   We started with African aesthetics, then Aztec aesthetics, and so on.  In each case I tried to pair an account of traditional aesthetics within the culture with something more contemporary, as for example pairing Aztec Aesthetics with Chicano Aesthetics.  My key texts were encyclopedia articles on various traditions in The Encyclopedia of Aesthetics,  Calliope's Sisters by anthropologist Richard Anderson, Crispin Sartwell's Six Names of Beauty, and Kathleen Higgins' "Comparative Aesthetics." 

Traditionally, what I was doing is called “Comparative Aesthetics.” But what is Comparative Aesthetics?  How is it different from Aesthetics proper?  What is being compared exactly?   For countries where there is not a long written tradition, Comparative Aesthetics usually involves reading some anthropology-based or art-history-based work and comparing what we see with Western aesthetics.  For countries with long written traditions, like China, Japan and India, it is more a matter of close reading of very old texts on the arts in conjunction, of course, with analysis of actual art forms.

Before going on, I would like to distinguish what I was doing from Comparative Aesthetics.  I was doing something more like "Aesthetics from a World Perspective."  Comparative Aesthetics is part of that, but I think we need to experiment with treating Western aesthetics as just part of a much larger mix.  So I began the class with discussions of Comparative Aesthetics, and then moved on to specific Non-Western traditions, specifically African Aesthetics, and then more specifically with Yoruba Aesthetics. Yet, since comparison is inevitable, as is the issue of application of Western aesthetic theories to other cultures, I followed this up with a lecture on Clive Bell's aesthetic theory.   And to avoid an essentialist approach to the aesthetics of the West, I balanced this with material on John Dewey.   Looking back on the class I probably should have also had the students read a selection from Tolstoy or Collingwood to get something of the emotionalist or art as expression tradition in Western aesthetics.   Reading Hume's essay "On the Standard of Taste" was essential to any account of aesthetics.  I  also had them read Plato's Symposium, but that was partly in order to help them understand how Western works can sometimes be surprisingly close to Easter.  Although I assigned a selection from Kant's Critique of Judgment, there just was not enough time to do it justice.   Back to the course reading line-up, we spent a week on Chinese aesthetics, a week on Indian aesthetics, a week on Japanese aesthetics, and a day on Indigenous Aesthetics.  (See the schedule at the end.)

A lot can be learned from Comparative Aesthetics, and yet there is often something almost Euro-centric about it, despite the authors' best intentions to avoid ethnocentrism.  For what is being compared almost always seems to be something Western as against something Non-western.  Moreover, the almost inescapable reality is that aesthetic texts, especially on African and Pre-Columbian aesthetics, tend to start with or center on the evolution of Western perception of these non-Western art traditions, and of attempts by writers in formerly colonial countries to establish an independent aesthetic theory.  

A typical narrative of Comparative Aesthetics takes the following form: first, the art of X was treated as a collection of curiosities; then it was seen as art paradoxically created by people without any aesthetic sensitivity; then it was treated as art which has formal qualities strangely similar to those of Western masterpieces; then it was treated as art, but only when it is "authentic," which is to say, precolonial; then it was treated as art, but only properly so when seen in its actual historical and performance context (for example the tribal mask in the context of ritual practice); then it was treated as art best seen in terms of aesthetic concepts coming out of the culture in which it was produced.  This kind of narrative may be inescapable, but it does tend to look at things from the perspective of the West, although gradually pointing towards an evolution that will finally privilege the culture of origin itself.  For a theorist from the country in question, however, the narrative is often situated within the larger narrative of trying to achieve freedom from colonialism and neo-colonialism, which is connected with the quest for dignity and respect. 

One problem I have noticed in Comparative Aesthetics writings is that Western aesthetics is commonly seen in an essentialist way.  The idea proposed (falsely) is that the essential Western aesthetics is the formalism of Clive Bell and Roger Fry.  More broadly, the essentialist claim is often that Western aesthetics is wedded to the ideas of passive contemplation, disinterestedness, and connoisseurship.  This happened for a number of reasons that are perfectly understandable.  First, Comparative Aesthetics in the visual arts seems to go back to the moment when Picasso and friends started relating to African artifacts more as art than as curiosities.  The ur-moment was Picasso coming back to his studio with an African mask and incorporating it into his Demoiselles D'Avignon ) (1907).  Second, Formalism is associated with this moment.  Formalism seemed especially well-suited to appreciation not only of Post-Impressionist Art and the Abstract Art that followed in the Western Modern Art period, but also to understanding and appreciation of non-Western traditions.  An important moment in Formalism was Bell's famous book Art, written in 1914.  It is noteworthy that Art had as its frontispiece a non-Western work, a Chinese statue.  Bell's openness to other cultures, and also to objects often seen as craft objects, came as a radical change from the time of Hegel in which Non-western art was generally regarded as inferior. 

Yet Bell’s Formalism also was closely related to Rober Fry’s, and Fry later became notorious for his comments about how African sculptures could be masterpieces and yet come from a people who have no aesthetic sensitivity.  (How Fry could had said this and not tremble at his own self-contradiction is hard to see.) 

Looking specifically at African aesthetics we can see that the Western is not quite as monolithic as it is often made out to be.  First, even Bell’s theory had its good side:  it opened us up to the possibility of seeing African art positively while at the same time calling on us to ignore context.

I can see the temptation of identifying Bell with ethnocentrism, and colonialism as well as cultural appropriation.  One has the famous Primitivism show which seemed to show that Western curators were stuck with the formalist model.  But the problem here is in part one of a misreading of what Picasso was trying to do with Les Demoiselles.  

In his otherwise excellent Encyclopedia of Aesthetics essay “African Aesthetics” (2014) Barry Hallen raises some interesting questions when it comes to Picasso.  He usefully quotes Andre Malraux saying that Picasso did not see African sculptures as simply good sculptures but saw them as magical things, and then he quotes Rubin on Picasso.  But Rubin sees Picasso’s achievement in purely formalist terms, and therefore sees only an “elective affinity” and a form of cannibalizing.  

Halley then essentializes the Western by saying that it sees the African as “incapable of aesthetic sensitivity” which is surely not only for Fry and the typical colonialist and not even for all formalists.   Moreover, as much as Hallen has a problem with Western connoisseurs’ there is no reason, given the work of Robert Ferris Thompson, to not see connoisseurs in African contexts as well. 

Kathleen Higgins has written one of the nicest pieces on the topic "Comparative Aesthetics." In Jerrold Levinson (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics. Oxford University Press (2005 Like other writers she tends to essentialize Western aesthetics, saying that for the West, "art is understood to be designed primarily for contemplation."  Surely this would not be seen as true for Plato or Aristotle, for example, nor for Dewey, as I already mentioned. Collingwood also would not have ascribed to this theory, even though he was in fact a proponent of the view that fine art was distinct from everyday craft. Higgins stresses that many other societies make art "for purposes other than engaging contemplation; they do not distinguish between fine arts and crafts, judge artworks for their performance of practical functions, and integrate art into everyday life."  (679)

For me, a central interest of Comparative Aesthetics is the stress it places on everyday life.  Indeed, it was Higgins textbook Perspectives on Aesthetics was one of the first works to direct me towards everyday aesthetics.  Yuriko Saito's seminar work Everyday Aesthetics  draws frequently on Comparative Aesthetics, particularly on Japanese Aesthetics, for which she also wrote one of the two entries in the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics.  

At the end of the class I asked students to imagine a book on World Aesthetics.  What would be the main problems covered?  What specific cultures would be studied and how would their study be arranged?  Unlike any of the other efforts I have seen I included a section on Rasquachismo, a significant aesthetic theory for Chicano culture.  Several of my students were of Hispanic heritage and found this tradition to be particularly useful in thinking about World Aesthetics.  

One aspect of approaching aesthetics from a world perspective is that the concept of Beauty takes more prominence than it does in other Philosophy of Art classes.  Partly this is due to my choice of Six Names of Beauty by Crispin Sartwell as a key textbook. Sartwell was an early proponent both of everyday aesthetics and of Comparative Aesthetics.  Beauty becomes more prominent just as fine art becomes less so, since beauty is an attribute that fine art, nature, and everyday aesthetics share in common.  

Syllabus on World Aesthetics:  [using this approach depends on having access to The Encyclopedia of Aesthetics online through our library.]

African Aesthetics: 
1.  “African Aesthetics”  Barry Hallen Encyclopedia of Aesthetics 
2.  Appiah, K.  “Is the Post in Postmodern the Post in Postcolonial?” 
Behind the Mask  Tribal Eye  1975  David Attenborough
See  The Wikipedia article for background information on “The Tribal Eye” TV series.

African Aesthetics continued   Yoruba Aesthetics
1.      “African Aesthetics,” Rowland Abiodun The Journal of Aesthetic Education” Vol. 35, No. 4 (Winter, 2001), pp. 15-23 2.
Richard L. Anderson  Calliope’s Sisters “Yoruba Aesthetics”
Supplement ”Abiodun Understanding Yoruba Art and Aesthetics  

Lecture on Clive Bell "Art" [needed to contextualize the European reception of African and other non-Western art traditions]

American Aesthetics: 
See also my own article on Dewey in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy  

Aztec and other Pre-Columbian Aesthetics
1.  Leon-Portilla, Miguel. Aztec Thought and Culture.  [handout]
2.  Richard L. Anderson   “Aztec Aesthetics ”  Calliope’s Sisters 
3.  James Maffie  “Aztec Philosophy”  Encyclopedia of Philosophy
James Maffie    Aztec Philosophy [eBook] University Press of Colorado 2013  Available through Clark Library.
“Pre-Columbian Aesthetics”  Esther Pasztory in Encyclopedia of Aesthetics 

British Aesthetics and “Beauty”
David Hume    “On the Standard of Taste”
Roger Scruton   video on Beauty  “Why Beauty Matters”
Crispin Sartwell    Six Names of Beauty   Forward and Chapter 1 “Beauty” xi-25. 

Early Chinese Aesthetics:  
1.  Liu Hsieh.  Wen-hsin tiao-lung   Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons.  522 A.D. 
Read Introduction and pp. 1-8.
Another easy to print version is here: 

Optional:  Vincent Y. C. Shih “Classicism in in Liu Hsieh's "Wen-hsin tiao-lung"”  - E-Periodica  Asiatische Studien : Zeitschrift der Schweizerischen Asiengesellschaft = Études asiatiques : revue de la Société Suisse - Asie Band (Jahr): 7 (1953)  I found this by doing this google search:*

Modern Chinese Aesthetics
1.  Li Zehou  The Path of Beauty  trans.  G. Lizeng, New York   Oxford U. Press, 1994.         Selection  from first chapter.
2.  Ban Wang  “Aesthetics in Contemporary China”  Encyclopedia of Aesthetics

Chicano Aesthetics
1,  Thomas Ybarra-Frausto “The Chicano Movement/The Movement of Chicano Art.”  handout
2. Maria Anderson “A lesson in “rasquachismo” art: Chicano aesthetics & the “sensibilities of the barrio” Art, History & Culture / 31 January 2017
3. Amalia Mesa-Bains "Domesticana": The Sensibility of Chicana Rascuache”
Mesa Bains and Ybarra-Fausto

Also see Roberto Bedoya, “Spatial Justice: Rasquachification, Race and the City” Creative Time Reports, September 15, 2014,

German Aesthetics, 18th century: 
1.  Kant  Critique of Judgment   Bernard translation    We will be readings selections of this.  You may also use one of the other translations if you wish:  the Meridith and Pluhar translations are both good.
Please read The Analytic of the Beautiful which goes from Paragraph 1 to 23.  Please print out these sections so that we can discuss in class.  If you do a "search on page" and go to "The judgment of taste is aesthetical,"  that is where you start.

Greek  Aesthetics 
1. Sartwell  Ch. 4  To Kalon   Greek idea, ideal

2.  Plato     Symposium  selection on Diotima’s theory of beauty. 
Search on the page for “Diotima” and read from “And now, taking my leave of you, I would rehearse a tale of love which I heard from Diotima of Mantineia,” to the point at which Socrates concludes his story of Diotima.

Hebrew Aesthetics,  
1. Sartwell Ch. 2  Yapha This material by Sartwell is partly on Hebrew Aesthetics but mainly about such things as the beauty of flowers and jewelry.

Indian Aesthetics  
1.  Sartwell, Ch. 3  Sundara  Sanscrit  Holiness
2.  David I Gitomer  “Indian Aesthetics: Overview.”  Encyclopedia of Aesthetics
Bharata Natyasastra  200-500 CE
Read some of the first chapter.
Rasa theory of Bharata: a lecture by an Indian philosopher with good powerpoint outlines.
Classical Indian Music  Ravi Shankar & Anoushka Shankar Live: Raag Khamaj (1997)

Bharata Natyasastra  a short video
Bharata Muni’s Natyashastra Navrasa by Shiva Chopra   a short video showing standardized facial expressions for drama

Indian Aesthetics continued

1.  “Rasa”  Alan Goldman in Encyclopedia of Aesthetics
2.  “Abinavagupta”  by V.K Chari:in Encyclopedia of Aesthetics 

Indigenous Aesthetics 
1.  “Indigenous Aesthetics”  Dylan A. T. Miner  Encyclopedia of Aesthetics.

Islamic Aesthetics
1.  "Islamic Aesthetics,"  Encyclopedia of Aesthetics. Oleg Grabar, Fadlou Shehadi, Priscilla Soucek, Esra Akcan, and Jonathan M. Bloom

Japanese Aesthetics
1. Sartwell  Ch. 5  “Wabi Sabi”
2.  Saito, Yuriko  “Japanese Aesthetics,”  The Encyclopedia of Aesthetics
Latin American Aesthetics”   Encyclopedia of Aesthetics 

Navajo Aesthetics
1. Sartwell Ch. 6   Hozho
3.  Kathy M’Closkey “Towards an Understanding of Navajo Aesthetics”
4.  Berlo, Janet Catherine. 2014. "Navajo Sandpainting in the Age of Cross-Cultural Replication." Art History 37, no. 4: 688-707.

Anderson’s conclusions about aesthetics and his definition of art based on his study of Comparative Aesthetics:
Anderson  Calliope’s Sisters   Chapters 12-13

No comments: