Saturday, December 7, 2013

On the question "do tribal societies have our concept of art?"

Larry Shiner in his article "Western and Non-Western Concepts of Art" (in Arguing About Art:  Contemporary Philosophical Debates ed. Alex Neill and Aaron Ridley,  New York: Routledge, 2002) argues for a greater attention to the history of the Western concept of art when considering whether small-scale traditional societies (henceforth I'll use the shorter term "tribal") could be said to have art in our (western) sense of the term.  The premise of the debate is a bit strange since the non-western is by no means equivalent to the tribal:  Chinese and Indian traditions of art, for example, are in many ways more similar to Western traditions than to tribal ones, and whether Islamic traditions fit more into one category than the other is open to question.  Moreover, there is no one Western idea of art, but rather the Western tradition is one of competing ideas, sometimes radically different ideas, concerning the nature of art.  Another peculiarity of the discussion is the assumption made by Shiner that tribal art is limited to ritual objects and thus the question is whether their ritual objects should be classified as art.  There are many tribally produced objects that were never intended to be used in rituals that nonetheless appear in Western art and anthropology museums.  Denis Dutton has famously argued in his "But they don't have our concept of art" (found also in Arguing About Art) that tribal cultures do have art if art is defined in the cluster concept way Dutton favors.  Dutton also thought that the claim that they do not have art in our sense is based on not looking at all the arts, for example religious and folk art, in our culture, and only looking at what is called "fine art."  Shiner sort of agrees, but, unlike Dutton, doesn't have any problem with people like anthropologist Susan Vogel insisting that the Baule villagers do not have "Art" in our sense, her reason being that the work is used in ritual contexts.

Going back to Shiner, his view is that Dutton fails to give sufficient weight to the historical development of the concept of art in the West. His main point is that since the 18th century we have had two concepts of art, the traditional one that takes "art" to refer to any craft, and includes what we consider the fine arts, e.g. dance and poetry, as crafts, and the modernist concept of Art as fine art, i.e. something that is autonomous, kept in museums or concert halls, is produced by this elevated personage called an "artist," and is perceived in a disinterested fashion.  Shiner is certainly right that "ars" originally referred to any skilled performance.  However, it is very doubtful that people prior to the 18th century always grouped all skilled performances under one category.  There was certainly a long-tradition, for example, of holding poets and poetry in special esteem.  Another story of the origins of the concept of fine art in the West could be that the category of poetry gradually came to be expanded when it was discovered that many of the things we valued in poets could also be valued in painters, sculptors, musicians, architects and dancers.  Indeed, the history of the rise of the concept of fine art could be written as a history in which each of these was successively brought into the fold of fine art, with further chapters covering photography, movies, and perhaps now  video games.  There is a sense, in reading Shiner, that there is something wrong with fine art and that we should dissolve the fine art/crafts distinction and in a sense go back to seeing art simply in terms of skilled making.  But I think this story (whether Shiner would ascribe to it is unclear) has two problems.  First, it may well be throwing the (genius artist) baby out with the bathwater.  An alternative theory could be that the concept of fine art was a marvelous discovery, a discovery that humans (artists) could do what previously was thought only God could do, that humans could really create.  This is Kant's idea of the fine artist, as someone, a genius, who could create his own world using his creative (he called it "productive") imagination, a world that could act as a symbol (he called it "aesthetic idea") which could body forth or at least intimate something spiritual (he called it "the supersensible realm.") (Like Shiner, some feminists have a problem with this, thinking that since Kant was probably just thinking of men as geniuses then the notion of genius itself was suspect, which is deeply problematic since it assumes that a woman cannot be a genius, a very unfeminist view, I would think.) This idea allowed that humans have the very creative powers which, as Ludwig Feuerbach in his great Essence of Christianity, put it, had been projected onto a non-existent God.  There is, of course, an alienation involved in the separation of craft from fine art, and this is something that William Morris, for instance, tried to overcome.  The project of re-enchanting the non-art world of everyday aesthetics is one that I have advocated, perhaps too indirectly, in my book, The Extraordinary in the Ordinary.  But, oddly, Shiner's dichotomy actually encourages the alienation by suggesting that the traditional concept of art is itself denuded of spiritual energy (a mistake that is not made by Vogel, by the way).  So Shiner sets up a dichotomy of Art vs. craft, Artist vs. artisan, Aestehtic vs. utility or sensuality, where the right hand side of the dichotomy is something now to be valued over the left side, utility or sensuality being its defining characteristic.  The baby that is thrown out with the bathwater is the great value of the creation of the concept of "fine art" (i.e. the expansion of the notion of poetry that was already present in western civilization, poetry as something inspired, unlike shoe-making) as allowing a place for a spiritual dimension to experience in a world in which, as Nietzsche wisely put it, God is dead.  What Shiner refers to, almost mockingly, when talking about the fine art work, as "a composition complete in itself, arising out of the artist's free creativity, and aiming at no further end than aesthetic contemplation" fails to recognize the immense importance of the discovery:  the work of art is, yes, a function of the artist's free creativity in the sense that the artist is inspired and, in the moment of inspiration, feels free, and is able to create his or her own world, a world that reflects our own, but transforms and intensifies it, and yes, the end is aesthetic contemplation, but this contemplation is associated by many Western thinkers with many other ends, for example in Hegel with the end of the human spirit coming to its own self-understanding. 

To be fair, Shiner does say that in the Western system "all the nobler aspects of the artisan/artist were ascribed to the artist alone" which could mean that in a new order in which the distinction is deconstructed, such nobler qualities as creativity and genius could be attributed back to (and encouraged in) the crafts traditions, but then they could no longer be seen in terms of mere utility or the merely sensuous.  I would join Shiner in rejecting the narrow conception of "craft" as presented by R. J. Collingwood:  as many craftspersons themselves insist, and I once found as a slogan on a button, "craft is fine art too," which is to say that there are weavings and pots that are also works of genius and not merely useful or sensuously pleasing.  So my problem with Shiner is really just that he assumes that the older sense of "art" indicates that art for pre-modern and tribal peoples was and is just a matter of utility or "a work of human making" as opposed to natural product, as he puts it.  Returning then to tribal art, it is remarkable that Shiner makes a big deal of the idea that they cannot have our notion of art as fine art since we have special places such as art museums and concert halls which are segregated for this from the rest of life and they do not.  It is remarkable given that tribal and pre-modern societies commonly have sacred spots and times that are ritually separated and relatively autonomous as well.  What are temples, after all?  So it may be that the assumption I mentioned in the beginning that tribal art is tribal ritual art has some truth to it in the sense that tribal ritual art acts as a pretty good analogue to fine art in the Western tradition, whereas tribal artifacts that are not parts of ritual practices, fit into the notion of craft as mere useful making.  There are of course in-between objects, as discussed by Octavio Paz when he glorifies the folk art traditions of Mexico...but that is for a later discussion. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great Article, Helped out big time for class, and I learned a lot about Art, thank you