Key Debates in Anthropology Edited by Tim Ingold General introduction Tim Ingold the nature of anthropological theory

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Part I
The presentations


Let me begin by saying what this debate is not about. We will not be arguing for a universal aesthetic: that there are universal criteria for evaluating the aesthetic properties of works of art that operate cross-culturally—properties such as balance, relative proportion, symmetry and so on. We will not be arguing, as Firth and Forge have argued to some extent, 3 that the criteria for determining what is or is not good art exist independently of culture. We are simply concerned to establish that the concept of aesthetics is a useful one to apply in cross-cultural analysis. Far from commending our aesthetic judgements of other people’s artefacts, we hold that the aesthetics of objects should be analysed in the context of the society that produces them: it is this use of the concept of aesthetics, to develop understanding of ‘other’ people’s cultures, that gives it cross-cultural applicability. We will argue further that in failing to consider the aesthetics of cultures, anthropologists ignore a body of evidence that allows them a unique access to the sensual aspect of human experience: to how people feel in, and respond to, the world. We do not entirely exclude the possibility of certain universal features of human aesthetics, but we do not intend to explore them here.

First, what do we mean by a cross-cultural category? We see anthropology as a discipline that involves the translation of events and behaviours of one culture so that they can be understood by members of another in terms of the value that they have in the context of the originating culture. Anthropology so defined depends on the existence of implicit or explicit cross-cultural categories, which are used in this process of translation. Anthropology originated as a European discipline and the main goal of translation was to satisfy a European audience. The terminology and problematic of anthropology were biased towards European concerns and the categories of European systems of thought. But it became a discipline set up to eliminate its own biases. The history of anthropology has in part been the development of a conceptual vocabulary designed to understand culture in context. This weak form of cultural relativism, with its underlying objectivism, has guided anthropology through most of its history. The idea that there is something out there that can be understood in its own terms better by anthropologists than by non-anthropologists has long been the main justification of the discipline. Although such a perspective can be criticized for being part of the very process of constituting the ‘other’, of reifying culture, and of fixing the fluidity of human systems of meaning, I see such arguments more as cautions than as theoretically valid critiques.

The process of anthropology as cross-cultural translation has resulted in the development of a metalanguage for discourse. This metalanguage includes both substantive terms for institutions, groups, and objects that can be usefully applied across cultures, and certain analytic concepts that can be applied to understand socio-cultural processes. The former are exemplified by concepts such as lineage, moiety, spearthrower and pot; the latter by terms such as segmentation, alliance and symbol. The metalanguage is not as widely shared as those of many other disciplines such as structural linguistics, with its set of precise definitions of terms and its conventional epistemology. The vocabulary is that of a field of discourse which is shifting over time and in which many people disagree on the meaning of terms, often using them in fundamentally different ways without realizing it. Certain terms, such as ‘patriliny’, have a longer duration than others. Who still remembers what complementary filiation is? 4

The vocabulary that develops is not a passive one. The enterprise of anthropology is a dialogue and one that inevitably results in change both in the subjects of its enquiry and in the discipline itself. 5 The terms of anthropological metalanguage become part of the way members of the cultures studied present themselves to the world. Yolngu people in Northeast Arnhem Land readily use the terminology of clans and moieties in talking to Europeans. However, it would be wrong to overemphasize the diffusion of anthropological terms relative to those of other disciplines. Yolngu use the linguistic terminology of verbs, nouns, relative clauses and retroflex consonants with a facility that would delight a Conservative minister of education. And the legalese of contracts and copyright has entered Yolngu everyday discourse: bark paintings are now ‘title deeds’, 6 and people are liable to ask for royalty agreements for the reproduction of photographs. The process, however, is a two-way one and concepts that develop and acquire a specific meaning through anthropological research can affect the way a particular topic is understood in Western society. The impact of anthropological analyses of witchcraft on studies of European history is a case in point: the historians have been freed from a contemporary, Eurocentric concept of witchcraft by Africanist research, enabling them to reach a better understanding of their own past. 7 Words in anthropological metalanguage are gradually distanced from their meaning in everyday language and acquire value from their use in anthropological discourse, which increasingly departs from Eurocentric preconceptions. In applying the terms to new contexts anthropologists must always be aware of the danger of imposing external meanings on the phenomenon in question; concepts must be used flexibly in the process of cultural translation.

Concepts which prove to be overly Eurocentric—such as ‘civilization’ and ‘primitive’—are eventually discarded, while the meaning of others is modified. Certain terms remain, however, and their retention implies that the phenomena from different cultures included within their respective ranges of reference are in some way comparable. This has resulted, on the one hand, in the development of regional vocabularies that apply to such culture areas as Island Polynesia or the East African cattle belt and, on the other hand, in an increasing generality of anthropological language. Because the process of anthropology has been one of acknowledging cultural diversity, there has been a tendency to move towards general concepts such as ‘exchange’, ‘gender’ and ‘identity’. The general concepts that survive say something about the capacities of human beings and the possible characteristics of human societies. It is in this context that we place the anthropological concept of ‘aesthetics’.

Aesthetics has an established place in European philosophy, referring to a particular capacity for response and a form of action in the world that is as integral to our notion of what it takes to be a human being as is the capacity for thought. While anthropologists have learnt to take none of their universal categories for granted, in practice such categories are invaluable for comparative research even if they are eventually rejected. We argue that the proposition ‘human beings have the capacity for aesthetic response’ is no more or less challengeable than the proposition ‘human beings have the capacity for thought’. Both are general propositions that result in a multiplicity of different enquiries.

I will not provide a simple definition of aesthetics, since it would be as difficult as trying to provide a one-line definition of human thought, and I would be in danger of creating my own straw person. Rather, I will indicate the range of issues with which cross-cultural research into aesthetics is concerned. 8 Aesthetics is concerned with the qualitative effect of stimuli on the senses. The stimuli may be material in form, stemming from properties of the world that can be seen, felt or heard, or they may result from the apprehension of an idea. Such stimuli are integrated in many different ways with human cultural and behavioural systems, and can be interpreted on many different levels: a sound can be a component of speech, a light can be a warning, a pin prick can be medical therapy. An aesthetic response reflects the human capacity to value the properties of form independently of any particular function. Aesthetics involves the valuation of qualities along a range of dimensions including softness, hardness, lightness, heaviness, brightness, sharpness and so on. 9

We do not argue that the stimuli are experienced quite independently of culture, and certainly the valuations are relative to cultural context. The stimuli have a relative autonomy in that an electric shock, a flashing light, a heavy object falling on the foot, or the smell of rotten eggs may have similar neurophysiological effects for everybody. But even so, pain thresholds vary individually and according to socialization, and at the extremes sensations often merge. People are socialized into a world of sensation which in turn affects the quality of an experience or the way an object is experienced; what some people find pleasurable others find repellent.

Aesthetics is concerned with the human capacity to assign qualitative values to properties of the material world. We do not assert that the particular attributions made are universal. The physical properties in themselves are not qualities but differences which form the basis for the distinctions that underlie the system of valuation. The physical properties have an effect on the senses, but it is the process of aesthetic transformation that gives a value to a property, a value which often becomes associated with an emotional response. We argue that the human capacity to transform physical properties into aesthetic valuations is integral to understanding human action and choice in both contemporary and evolutionary contexts. Without taking aesthetic factors into consideration, it is difficult to explain why in the Aurignacian period in Europe, some 30,000 years ago, beads were made from such a limited range of raw materials, all of which shared the characteristics of pastel colours and a soft soapy texture. 10

Aesthetics is concerned with the whole process of socialization of the senses with the evaluation of the properties of things. However, such socialization takes place in the context of the process whereby qualities acquire connotations and are incorporated within systems of meaning.

This can happen at the general level of the qualities themselves, as Munn has shown in the case of heaviness and lightness in the Massim region of Papua New Guinea. 11 More specifically, qualities are organized in formal systems of art, music or design, to create forms which can be used for particular purposes or to create contexts for certain events. Thus music or sculpture may be intended for contemplation or to mark a royal celebration.

It is this interrelationship between the sensual and the semantic that makes aesthetics such an important focus for anthropological research, for just as the quality of a sensation can be interpreted as a meaningful sign, so too can an idea evoke an aesthetic response. Ideas can calm and excite the senses as much as objects can. The vocabulary of the senses provides a unique resource to approach the way in which people feel themselves to be in the world. Aesthetics gives access to the experience of spiritual power, to the feeling of being in the presence of authority, as well as, more mundanely, an understanding of why some people buy a particular brand of soap.

Anthropology has recently begun to emphasize the way in which social processes and values are objectified in a variety of forms ranging from the human body, through the house and basketry types, to the form of mortuary rituals. Such objectifications 12 become the locus for social and cultural reproduction, for socializing people into the routines and taken-for-granted dispositions that help sustain the familiar world in which they live. We would argue that in most cases these mediating forms are better approached through a broader perspective concerned with qualities of forms that transcend the particular and operate across contexts. 13 The anthropology of the body must be an anthropology of clothing and bodily adornment just as much as the anthropology of clothing requires an exploration of bodily concepts and cognitive constructions of the body. And the anthropology of clothing must be integrated within an anthropology of aesthetics which places the particular meanings, connotations and sensual effects of bodily appearance within a more general framework of qualities, their valuations and their cultural construction. We do not of course posit a uniform cultural aesthetic, nor do we intend to remove aesthetics from the arena of practice. Rather, we see aesthetics as a field of discourse that operates generally in human cultural systems, since like cognitive processes it can be applied to all aspects of human action.

It is partly through the transformation of physical properties into aesthetic qualities that people feel or sense their existence in the world. These qualities are important in influencing the kind of environment people create for themselves, the contexts in which they feel happy or anxious, the choices they make as to what to wear or which soap powder to buy. Aesthetics is thus integral to the study of consumption, of religious experience and of political authority, as well as more obviously in the areas of the anthropology of art and material culture.


The proposition that aesthetics is a cross-cultural category can be contested for one very good reason: the category of aesthetics is specific to the modernist era. As such, it characterizes a specific consciousness of art. Technically, aesthetics refers to the philosophical study of art which had its origins in the late eighteenth century—it was Baumgarten who coined the term, in his Reflections on poetry of 1735. 14 Thus far from having universal appeal, the meaning of aesthetics is intrinsically historical. As Eagleton remarks, 15 the ‘aesthetic’ is a bourgeois and elitist concept in the most literal historical sense, hatched and nurtured in the rationalist Enlightenment.

Peter Gow and I will address two issues. First, we shall stress the peculiarity of the category, for the West is the odd man out in its consideration of beauty and artistic activity. Most peculiar is the idea of the autonomy of the arts, of something called the ‘fine arts’ as a distinctive area of activity separated out from all other domains of experience. For this we can thank the influence of Kant, who decreed aesthetic judgement to be essentially different from judgements of moral and scientific kinds. We have disengaged ‘the arts’ from the social, the practical, the moral, the cosmological, and have made artistic activity especially distinct from the technological, the everyday, and the productive. Second, our concern is to reveal the incongruity of such a cleansed notion of the art object, with its emphasis upon formality, unsullied by use or even desire, when set against other people’s conceptualizations of the beautiful and of the production of it. Art and beauty are not so decontextualized in other societies. In Greek and Roman thought, for instance, art’s value was tied to its perceived productive and social utility.

The argument, then, is that the category of aesthetics, which is inconceivable apart from modernist concerns, is one that more than anything else anthropologists must overcome. It brings hidden dangers to the task of understanding and translating other people’s ideas about the beautiful because deeply embedded within it are categories peculiar to modernist thought.

To help elucidate the particularity of the category, I shall present ethnographic data first on the well-known Zwázibo peoples and their Cult of the Art Object, and then on the Piaroa of the Amazon. The aim is to contrast two peoples who are respectively exotic to each other on matters of art.

About three centuries ago, Zwázibo wise men of Naeporúe culture rebelled against their priests: they accused the priests of ignorance, and of proclaiming untruths about the cosmos. These wise men then declared themselves to have possession of the true secrets of the universe, because they had discovered the magic and potency of numbers: this they had done through the power of their own thought. It was through the contemplation of these numbers that the universe could be known and controlled, and all things materially good attained. It appeared that this was true, for their new magic turned out to be spectacularly successful. It was especially beneficial for the Zwázibo people, who became the most powerful and wealthy people of the Naeporúe. The priests were proven wrong, and their outmoded beliefs were discarded.

However, without gods, priests and cosmology, life became very drab. Life needed more than material plenty; it required beauty and something to please the soul. Thus the Zwázibo wise men decided to create a new religion, but one without new gods and their power: they wanted to experience the sublime without the gods. Their solution was to create the Cult of the Art Object. They began their quest for the universal truth of beauty, just as they once had done for the truth of thought and numbers. They began to formulate laws for the judgement of beauty, which became the laws of the new religion. Through their formal rules, the wise men became the ‘aesthetic police’ of the universe, to balance out their role as its ‘thought police’.

The Cult of the Art Object was an interesting one. It revolved around a sacred triad comprised of the individual artist, the art object, and the individual contemplator of the object. The Zwázibo wise men decreed that all three were to leave what they called the real world. They were to exist instead in a sacred domain separate from the domain of prosaic activities in which people were involved in making artefacts, and in trading and using them. The wise men thereby sacralized the Object of Art, by proclaiming it to be separate from the world of utilitarian objects. They decreed that artefacts used in everyday life could not be beautiful: it was only when an object had no use that it could be beautiful, only when created for the contemplation of its beauty alone could it thereby become Art. As one devotee of the cult pronounced: ‘the beautiful cannot be the way to what is useful, or to what is good, or to what is holy; it leads only to itself (Victor Cousin). Or, as another remarked more succinctly, ‘art never expresses anything but itself’ (Oscar Wilde). The objects of the cult were to function by producing in the individual cult members what the wise men called an ‘aesthetic consciousness’, and not in any other way. (It seems now fair to mention the fact that with the development of this Cult of the Self, the Zwázibo celebrated by changing their name, and it was universally approved that they henceforth should no longer be called the Zwázibo, but the Borzwázi.)

The Cult of the Art Object was highly elitist, and for the most part its membership consisted of the Borzwázi. In the codification of the laws of the cult, the wise men had dwelt particularly upon the rules for judging, experiencing and enjoying beauty. Such rules were difficult to learn, and knowing and following them became a strong marker of Borzwázi status. Thus each Borzwázi family trained its children at an early age in these rules for contemplating beauty correctly. When the child was first shown a great Object of Art, he or she was instructed to focus completely upon it, and not to think of everyday, ordinary concerns. In this way, children were taught to appreciate the Art Object in a disinterested way—just as the wise men had decreed—so that they could understand the internal relations of the Object through what the wise men called the detached and ‘free play of the imagination’ (Immanuel Kant). If done well, they could understand the truth of the object, and ‘burn with a hard gemlike flame’ (Walter Peter), thereby attaining the sublime. Only a privileged few could experience the universal truth of the object as a piece of pure beauty, and thus gain true freedom from the crassness of everyday life.

In great Borzwázi families, one—but not more—male children were sacrificed to the cult to become creators of art objects. To do this a boy had to separate himself from all everyday practical affairs in order to devote himself to a life of artistic creativity. His role, however, was a paradoxical one. Borzwázi children were taught not to use their hands in labour, and the value was instilled in them that it was unbecoming to their status to make objects, for such labour was the job of workers. It was only in the area of art, where prosaic utility was not in question, that they could participate in the making of objects, which was then regarded not as work but as an act of creation. The Objects of Art made by the artist that were judged to be beautiful were not understood as mere replicas (as in ordinary making), but each as something exemplary and unprecedented, and therefore as products of a creative impulse. The artist’s creation of a ‘perfect object’ became the great signifier of Borzwázi selfhood, indicative of their unique ability to attain the sublime. As one famous Borzwázi proclaimed: ‘I believe in Michelangelo, Rembrandt; in the might of design, the mystery of colour, the redemption of all things by Beauty everlasting, and the message of Art that has made these hands blessed’ (George Bernard Shaw).

Yet the artist was still a sort of labourer, a worker, a maker of objects, and as a consequence his status within Borzwázi society was not a high one. The wise men had been shrewd; for in codifying the laws of the cult their emphasis had been upon the aesthetic consciousness of the contemplator of beauty rather than upon that of its creator. Thus they had managed to keep power in their own hands; they decreed that a piece of art became art only when viewed as such by the contemplators. In the end it was the judges who, through their own (and not the artist’s) aesthetic consciousness, legitimized, and thus created, an object as sacred (and therefore ‘fine’) art. Salvation came not so much to the artist, the creator of the object—who could, as often as not, live a life of the damned by the canons of this new religion. Although the cult had many members, salvation could be achieved only by the few: those who discovered its secrets by stringently following the rules formulated by the wise men for the judgement and the experiencing of the beauty of the object.

Now I turn to my Amazonian example. The basic elements of our notion of ‘aesthetic consciousness’ do not apply to an Amazonian understanding of beautiful production. Among the Piaroa, there do not exist the ‘artist’, the ‘art object’ and ‘the aesthetically astute subject’—each functioning in sovereign manner. This is not to say that the Piaroa do not have a highly developed tradition of artistic production, for they do. It ranges through what we would call the verbal and poetic, the visual, the musical and the performative arts. But our aesthetics will not help us understand what these ‘arts’ are for the Piaroa.

I wish to emphasize two related points. First, each of these ‘forms of art’ is ‘technological’, and is considered as such by the Piaroa. Because they play an essential role within the productive process, their meaning is socially, politically and cosmologically contextualized. For the Piaroa ‘art’ is not something that stands alone, outside the context of life. Second, most of these modes of artistic production, the exceptions being ceremonial masks and music, belong to the domain of the everyday, and thus to daily productive activities. Beautification plays a part, first and foremost, in a process of everyday empowerment that enables both a person and an object to act productively. When it comes to beautification, people and objects are not so different.

Most of the everyday objects (and not just ceremonial items) that are indigenously made are beautified. Tools are beautiful: they are carefully designed in form, and many carry distinctive patterns. The form and especially the design are understood to be both displays and manifestations of their beauty and their potency—that is, their capacity to deliver effects on the world. Cassava boards carry the design of their potency painted in dark red resin; as do canoe paddles and blow guns. Quivers and basketry carry their distinct and woven designs. And so on. Because everyone has the skills, in accordance with gender capacity, to make the objects, the Piaroa have no category through which to specify a person as an artist or craftsman. 16 How are the objects conceived? For it is certain that they are not ‘objects’ as we conceive them to be. Most objects, the Piaroa explain, are products or manifestations of the ‘life of thoughts’ (ta’kwarü) of the person who makes them. Each person receives his or her ‘thoughts’ from the crystal boxes of the gods, and it is the forces of the ‘life of thoughts’ that play an essential part in that person’s capabilities to have an effect upon the world: to create tools, to have babies, to hunt, and to cure. Indeed, all creation for which a person is responsible is said to be a manifestation of his or her thoughts. Thus, each such creation is said to be a ‘thought’ (a’kwa) of that person. Each created ‘object’, whether a child, a cassava grater, a garden, or a cure, is also considered to be a product of its creator’s fertility. As a thought of a person, the ‘object’ (as child, cure or tool) contains the potency of its creator. Thus, object, creator and use are not separated from each other. What is more, the object has an agency of its own: this is why pots can cook, blowguns kill, cassava graters grate.We may ask what is the relation of the object to its beauty? The Piaroa answer is that both objects and people are beautiful because of what they do. A person’s ‘life of thoughts’ confers beauty on both self and object. Beauty, thoughts and the products of work are conceptually linked, and they also have the same linguistic root—a’kwa. The body is beautified by its ‘life of thoughts’. The productive, but dangerous, forces of the ‘life of thoughts’ are safely stored within the body: there, they design the internal self with their beauty. In turn, Piaroa ornamentation (their necklaces, leg and arm bands, their face and body painting) makes manifest on the surface of the body the beauty—and thus the potency—of the productive capacities within. Similarly, the designs and forms of the cassava grater, and of the basket, make manifest their beauty, and hence the potency or the productive capacities of these objects.In sum, the principles of the Piaroa understanding of artistic production that clearly separate it from Borzwázi aesthetics are the following:

(a) The Piaroa notion of beauty cannot be removed from contexts of productive use. Both objects and people are beautiful because of what they can do. Thus, in the Piaroa exegesis of the beautiful and its place in their life, work is not detached from art. This is because

(whether speaking of objects or people) beautification empowers, and is enabling of the technological process itself.

(b) The corollary of the above is that in the Piaroa conception, beauty and its creation are not separable from everyday life.

(c) There is no such thing as the ‘object’ standing alone, over and above the everyday, to be contemplated as such. And there is no spectator. One does not acquire power from the mere viewing of beauty. It is its capacity for use, and not its truth or formal attributes, that makes an object or person beautiful. In Amazonia, it is clear that the technical and the productive, the beautiful and the artistic, the designs giving potency to both tools and the human body, are all considered to be aspects of one and the same process. Without artistic production there could be neither food nor babies.

It is especially the question of everyday utility that is offensive to our aesthetic sensibility; moreover, it opens up an anthropological can of worms. It does so because anthropology itself has not escaped the Borzwázi paradigm of aesthetics. The idea of the everyday utility of objects of art is odious to anthropological sensibility because it goes against our conventional wisdom that art is a sphere of activity distinct from the everyday. Art, it is said, belongs to the domain of ritual, and not to everyday life. By contrast, the idea of contextualization is not so problematic. For instance, Alfred Gell, in a recent article where he argues against the universals of aesthetics, contextualizes Trobriand art within what he calls the ‘technology of enchantment’. Similarly, Anthony Shelton elegantly places Huichol artistic activity within its cosmological and ethical context, and concludes by demonstrating its productive value. 17 However, both authors assume that artistic endeavours are restricted to ritual occasions, and thereby implicitly separate them from the more mundane and everyday matters of work. In this regard they are following Leach, who argued that art (which he understood to be always on the side of the mysterious, the sacred and the dangerous) is generally reserved for ritual activity. 18 For Gell, art becomes an ‘idealized form of production’—it is not the truly true, and therefore is not of the everyday and the real. The idea that art transcends an everyday reality remains central to anthropological sensibility.

One thing becomes clear: the Piaroa view of beauty and its relation to everyday production cannot be understood within our category of aesthetics. Ours is a modernist vision, as the Amazonians’ view most definitely is not. The argument is that to overcome our aesthetic consciousness, we must also overcome the modernist vision upon which it rests. This is because the type of detachment prescribed by modernist dogma for the accomplishment of successful science is much akin to the detachment prescribed for the successful development of an aesthetic consciousness within our own ‘religion of art’, or Cult of the Art Object. Thus the wider issue that this debate raises is the question of the degree to which we can successfully accomplish anthropology (that is, attend to indigenous categories of experience and thought) through any modernist programme and set of beliefs about the world.



If this were an open discussion about aesthetics, unconstrained by the particular wording of the motion, I should devote my time to supporting and illustrating the line taken by Howard Morphy in the opening contribution to the debate. Our views of aesthetics and of the anthropology of aesthetics, while not matching completely, are not very different. But given the wording of the motion before us, I want to take another tack.

There seem to be at least two senses in which a category may be said to be cross-cultural, these two senses perhaps being at the two poles of a continuum. In the first, that taken by Morphy in his contribution, a category is cross-cultural if it is useful in cross-cultural analysis. The more useful it is, perhaps the more cross-cultural it is. While this might be regarded as a weak sense of the phrase ‘cross-cultural category’, this does not mean it is a weak argument. Far from it. As Morphy has argued, aesthetics is an essential aspect of our being in the world. It should receive far more attention from anthropologists than it has done in the past. If we neglect it, we neglect much of what it is to be human.

Such an understanding of aesthetics seems to be becoming more and more widespread in anthropology. (As usual, one thinks one is saying something new, only to find that one is part of a trend that one did not know existed.) There probably are some anthropological monographs from before the 1970s with the word ‘aesthetics’ in their titles, but none comes immediately to mind. If there were any, they were few and far between. In the last few years, however, there have been an increasing number. On my own shelves, for example, I find John Forrest’s Lord I’m coming home: everyday aesthetics in Tidewater North Carolina, published in 1988. In this original work, according to the publisher’s synopsis, Forrest ‘seeks to document the entire aesthetic experience of a group of people, showing the aesthetic to be an “everyday experience and not some rarefied and pure behavior reserved for an artistic elite”.’ Among other recent titles are Robert R. Desjarlais’ Body and emotion: the aesthetics of illness and healing in the Nepal Himalayas (1992); Carol Laderman’s Taming the wind of desire: psychology, medicine, and aesthetics in Malay shamanistic performance (1991); and, just to show that it is possible to get ‘aesthetics’ into the title before the colon, Kris L. Hardin’s The aesthetics of action: continuity and change in a West African town (1993). None of these ethnographies is concerned with art as conventionally understood, nor even with art as unconventionally understood. They are not art books, they are not even anthropology-of-art books. They are all, however, concerned with the aesthetics of other cultures, with aesthetic experience, behaviour and action in all areas of life. For these authors, as for an increasing number of other scholars, ‘aesthetics’ is clearly a useful cross-cultural category. That is, it is useful in cross-cultural analysis.

Even where authors are not directly concerned with aesthetics, where it does not occur in the titles of their works, they may still find themselves touching on the category and applying it cross-culturally. For example, in her account of religion and healing among the Nilotic-speaking cattle-keeping Mandari of Southern Sudan, Jean Buxton wrote of how ‘marking and patterning are very highly estimated in the Mandari visual aesthetic’. 19 In my own work I have tried to amplify this statement for the Mandari and for their Dinka, Nuer and Atuot neighbours. I have tried to show how it is meaningful to talk of Dinka, Nuer, Atuot and Mandari aesthetics and, at another level of abstraction, even of ‘Nilotic aesthetics’. 20

It could be argued, however, that such talk is just that, abstraction. It may be useful, even meaningful, but it is far removed from indigenous discourse where the category of aesthetics does not in fact exist. In another, harder sense of what a cross-cultural category is, the recognition of what we take to be aesthetic experience and behaviour in other cultures would count for little. In this harder sense of the phrase, a category must be explicitly recognized in other cultures for it to be cross-cultural.

Categories are not always explicitly recognized in vocabulary, at least not in a simple way. In looking for indigenous categories, however, vocabularies do at least provide a place to start. So far as I know ‘aesthetics’ does not appear in any Dinka dictionary, though I should argue that this has as much, if not more, to do with the presuppositions of the compilers of Dinka dictionaries as it does with the limitations of Dinka categories. The word ‘beautiful’ does appear though, with the Dinka term dheng (or dheeng) proffered as the Dinka equivalent. 21 Fortunately for our purposes this term has been glossed at length by the Dinka scholar and statesman Francis Mading Deng. His ten-page account of the Dinka conception of ‘human dignity’ focuses on the term dheeng and its adjectival form adheng and their various meanings and uses. 22 This is a short extract from Deng’s account:

Dheeng…is a word of multiple meanings—all positive. As a noun, it means nobility, beauty, handsomeness, elegance, charm, grace, gentleness, hospitality, generosity, good manners, discretion, and kindness Except in prayer or on certain religious occasions, singing and dancing are dheeng. Personal decoration, initiation ceremonies, celebration of marriages, the display of ‘personality-oxen’, indeed, any demonstration of an aesthetic value, is considered dheeng. The social background of a man, his physical appearance, the way he walks, talks, eats, or dresses, and the way he behaves towards his fellow men are all factors in determining his dheeng. 23 I need hardly elaborate here on how this Dinka category overlaps in great measure with Western understandings of aesthetics.

Let me turn to another African example, this time from a people with much richer traditions of visual art than those of the Dinka. Over the last twenty years or so a large literature has been created on African aesthetics. For our purposes, the most interesting studies are those that present an explicit indigenous category. And most significant, I think, are those that are written by scholars, like Francis Mading Deng, who can be regarded as members of the cultures about which they write. For this debate, these scholars are my cross-cultural witnesses, for who better to give evidence about the cross-cultural nature of a category than cross-cultural scholars, products of the culture about which they write but also fluent in the culture of Euro-American academe?

More has been written about Yoruba aesthetics than about that of any other African people. Personally I find much of this literature indigestible, littered as it is with hundreds of Yoruba terms with a full panoply of diacritics. Taken as a whole, however, it would seem to establish beyond reasonable doubt the existence of a Yoruba category of aesthetics. This is especially evident when one considers the contribution to this literature of Yoruba authors. For instance, Babatunde Lawal drew not only on fieldwork but on his ‘own experience as a Yoruba’ in presenting ‘some aspects of Yoruba aesthetics’ in a contribution to the British Journal of Aesthetics. 24 (One is tempted to say that if this journal publishes an essay on Yoruba aesthetics then Yoruba aesthetics must exist.) Another Yoruba scholar, Rowland Abiodun, has made major contributions to the scholarly presentation of Yoruba aesthetics in a number of his own essays and in collaborative projects. 25 As presented by him, Yoruba aesthetics has its foundation in the phrase iwal’ewa, ‘character is beauty’, and a full understanding of it requires an exploration of the range of meanings of these and related terms. Unsurprisingly perhaps, such an exploration eventually takes in the whole of Yoruba life, culture, morality, religion and politics. Yoruba aesthetics, which can be presented as a set of criteria for the evaluation of art objects, proves to be an aspect of all areas of Yoruba life and culture. Such scholarly writings on Yoruba aesthetics are only the tip of a very large iceberg. They draw on and reflect an extensive discourse on art and life that in turn draws on the Ifa corpus of Yoruba literature. I do not know if there is a term in Yoruba equivalent to ‘aesthetics’ in English, but there is undoubtedly a discourse that overlaps to a great extent with what is understood as ‘aesthetics’ in the West. If we are going to call this anything, we are going to have to call it Yoruba aesthetics. Similar accounts have been provided for other West African peoples, for the Igbo of Nigeria for example, and for such Akanspeaking peoples as the Asante of Ghana. Here again there is a substantial literature, much of it by scholars who know the cultures about which they write from the inside. 26 In these cases, at least, there does seem to be explicit indigenous categories of aesthetics, categories that overlap with the Western category sufficiently to warrant the assertion that ‘aesthetics is a cross-cultural category’.

There is a paradox here, however, to which I wish to draw attention. The explicit categories that we find in other cultures do, I think, overlap sufficiently with the Western category to warrant the label ‘aesthetics’. They are, however, far removed from the sort of definition of aesthetics with which both Morphy and I work, and which we should regard as necessary for cross-cultural analysis. I am not yet able to resolve this apparent paradox to my own satisfaction, but let me finish with a few points that seem to me relevant to its resolution.

First, it would be a great surprise if the categories of the analyst turned out to match the categories of the analysed. The former are conceptual tools refined for particular analytical purposes, the latter are ideological categories that must perform such tasks as legitimation and mystification. If the two categories were perfectly congruent there would be little point in analysis and little point in anthropology. (This is, of course, a difference of degree, rather than an absolute one. Anthropological categories are themselves ideological, and indigenous categories are tools for communicating and for negotiating cultural life. The difference is significant, however.)

Second, the paradox is perhaps not actually a significant one, but only emerges because of the artificiality of the terms of the motion before us. Whichever sense is given to ‘cross-cultural category’, however, the motion must surely be carried. The two approaches may take rather different paths, but they both come to the same conclusion: aesthetics is a cross-cultural category.

Finally, let me conclude with a comparison between two pieces of English poetry, which seems to me to throw light on the problem. In looking for comparisons, say, between English and Dinka aesthetics, one might be led by Deng’s presentation of the Dinka concept of dheeng to such popular and unsatisfactory statements of aesthetic philosophy as the oft-quoted lines of Keats: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’ But as anyone familiar with the Dinka ethnography will readily recognize, a much more powerful comparison is provided by Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem ‘Pied Beauty’:

Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal, chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

The lines from Keats constitute a piece of aesthetic ideology that gives you no idea of what beauty consists in for the writer—that is, it tells you nothing about the visual qualities that make a Grecian urn, for example, beautiful. Hopkins’s poem, by contrast, is brimful of references that evoke the rich aesthetic experience presented by pied beauty in everyday life. The Dinka might agree with the sentiments expressed by Keats (actually I’m not sure they would agree with quite that sentiment, but Yoruba might; indeed, the words of Keats are referred to implicitly, if not explicitly, in one account of Yoruba aesthetics 27 ), but they wouldn’t think much of his poems. Hopkins, however, would provide stiff competition for Dinka songsters.

The anthropologist’s job is twofold. The indigenous ideological discourse has to be recorded, analysed, understood and perhaps explained, but so must the aesthetic aspects of the way people live in, experience and create the world they inhabit. The anthropologist must try to see the world as the people he or she studies see it, both ideologically and perceptually. In both pursuits, however, the anthropologist will be applying categories of aesthetics cross-culturally.



In Distinction, Pierre Bourdieu paints, with his characteristic sharp eye and steady hand, a terrifying portrait of aesthetic experience in a Western society. 28 His French informants distinguish. They compare, contrast and judge all things, and especially each other. And they judge each other by how well or badly they compare, contrast and judge. I defy any Western person to read this book without wincing in self-recognition, which even the defensive judgement, ‘Oh, but then the French are like that!’, cannot quite mask. Bourdieu shows us that our deeply personal feeling for the beautiful, our carefully guarded refuge from all the discriminatory horrors of late capitalist society, is the primary form of discrimination—it is the horror of that society.

Bourdieu tells us nothing that we did not already know, for we have all experienced expressions of taste as discrimination, whether against ourselves or against others. This is how we win friends and influence people. But Bourdieu presents us with this knowledge in a new way. He shows us how our aesthetic acts of comparing, contrasting and judging are intrinsically discriminatory in class terms, something we would rather not have known. If capitalism is narcissism with respect to minor differences, it has reached its apotheosis in Western aesthetic discourse. Our aesthetics, our ‘possessiveness with regard to the object’, as Lévi-Strauss termed it, is the supreme fetishization of our economic system.

‘Comparing and contrasting’, but not judgement, are one of the central concerns of anthropology. As a method, anthropology seeks the answers to its questions by way of the comparison and contrast between cultures, and since anthropology has been a largely Western project, the comparison and contrast are largely with Western culture. It is this, I assume, that lies behind the desire to treat aesthetics as a cross-cultural category. Aesthetics is a problem, so as anthropologists, we should address it comparatively. This is what we do, what do they do?’ This is in the time-honoured tradition of anthropology, and I have no quarrel with it. But it won’t work with aesthetics. It won’t work because Western aesthetics will always outrun us. When we set off to find the answer in comparison and contrast, the Western aesthetic will have got there first, because that is what it is.

The Western aesthetic is primarily discriminatory, with regard to both the object and the subject of aesthetic experience. Because of this, we can never say what it is other than discrimination. We can never tie it to any concrete experience for the purposes of comparison, because as soon as we do so, we want to judge that judgement. An example may help here. An anthropologist, Paul Stoller in this case, seeking to elucidate the role of vision in his fieldwork experience, likens himself to Cézanne. 29 He thereby elicits our empathy, our derision or our confusion: we respond variously, ‘Oh, yes, I know what you mean!’, or ‘Hang on, Cézanne was a genius, you’re not!’, or ‘What has a late nineteenth-century French painter got to do with the Songhay?’ The Western aesthetic compares, contrasts and judges everything, and you appeal to it at your own risk.

This problem is exacerbated when we attempt to compare aesthetic systems as such. As soon as we hold Western aesthetics still, in order to compare it to some other concrete human aesthetics, we have to exemplify the Western aesthetic. We have to provide an example which we would all agree about. But this is impossible, since the whole movement of the modern Western aesthetic is about disagreement, about personal discrimination. Take Morphy’s justly celebrated article, ‘From dull to brilliant’. 30 Morphy is here analysing a specific visual effect in Yolngu painting which is thought of as a shimmering quality of light which represents the manifestation of ancestral power. So far, so good. But Morphy then goes on to suggest that this specific visual effect transcends particular contexts, and identifies it also in the work of the British artist Bridget Riley. 31 Here comes the problem. Morphy’s analytic claim about the nature of Yolngu painting now becomes a claim about Riley’s work. I think that Riley is a charlatan, I think that she can’t paint, and I have long wondered about her relative success. That is my aesthetic judgement, my opinion, and it presumably differs from Morphy’s. But that is also my point: the Western aesthetic simply discriminates, and any appeal to it invites judgement.

While Riley is right in there in the Western aesthetic project, soliciting our discriminatory opinions, and hence deserves all she gets, the Yolngu ritual painters are not. I am intrigued by Morphy’s argument, but I don’t want to have to change my opinion of Riley’s work in order to follow it. Still less do I want to be invited to make the parallel judgement: do I like Yolngu paintings? The Yolngu are interesting because they are people, not because we think they are good painters. In the Western aesthetic, comparison invites discrimination. Anthropology compares and contrasts but does not judge. It abjures, I hope, discrimination in the sense of aesthetic judgements about the cultures studied, even when these might be favourable.

It is this feature of anthropology, its refusal to judge the cultures it compares and contrasts, which sets it most firmly against the modern Western aesthetic project. Indeed, I would argue that the desire for a comparative aesthetics does not come from within anthropology at all, but is an import from outside. It is non-anthropologists who want answers to issues of comparative aesthetics from anthropologists. Who are these people?

The project of ‘comparing and contrasting’ Western aesthetics and the aesthetics of other cultures already has a long history in Western culture, one in which anthropology has played virtually no part. This is the project of ‘primitive art’. Since the late nineteenth century, the ‘primitive’ has always been a talisman of authenticity at the heart of the Western aesthetic project. Modernism’s radical break with sterile academic tradition, its project of unmediated contact with primordial reality, elevated the primitive to a supreme place. Whenever artists working within the modernist Western aesthetic project have felt a serious gap developing between what they are doing and their intended effect, they have called upon the shamanic powers of ‘primitive art’ to help them. As Picasso said of the African masks which decorated his studio, ‘They are not here as models, but as witnesses to the act of creation.’

Whatever anthropologists might like to imagine, their discipline played virtually no part in this interest in the ‘primitive’. Indeed, modernist artists, dealers, collectors and critics were simply irritated by anthropologists’ desire to explain these objects, to put them back into their cultural context. Anthropology renders the exotic as the everyday, to borrow Condominas’ phrase. Modernist aesthetics did not want that explanation, it wanted these things to be exotic, and the more exotic the better.

Moreover, the specific modernist aesthetic of Primitivism does not want anthropologists’ explanations of ‘primitive art’; it wants anthropologists to sign up for the project; it wants their agreement. The complaints from the devotees of this project go something like this: The Navajo (or whoever) produce these stunningly beautiful works of art, which embody the same elemental energy and primordial quality as do Pollock’s drip paintings. Anthropologists explain the Navajo sand paintings by putting them into context, showing how they function in rituals. But they never explain why they are so beautiful, why they have this aesthetic power.’ 32

The question is real, and deserves an answer, but it is not an anthropological problem. An ethnographic account of Navajo sand painting would address Navajo people’s experience and actions. It would not have to explain why Navajo sand paintings remind certain non-Navajo of Pollock’s work. Unless proven otherwise by fieldwork, we may presume that Pollock plays no role in the network of action and meaning of Navajo culture, which is what ethnographers would take as their object. I have no objection to devotees of the Primitivist Modern Aesthetic project setting off to discover why Navajo culture is so beautiful, and I would be fascinated by their results. But 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 have argued that to treat aesthetics as a cross-cultural category is impossible, and that it is not an anthropological problem. What, then, can anthropologists do with aesthetics?

Of all anthropologists, Lévi-Strauss has most consistently engaged with modern Western aesthetics, whether directly in his art criticism or more indirectly in his anthropological work. There is no question that Lévi-Strauss is an aesthete, with strongly discriminatory opinions. But what is important in his work is that he uses his aesthetic not for comparison with the aesthetics of other cultures, but as a perspective on other cultures.

Consider The way of the masks. 33 He starts with an aesthetic problem: the stylistic dissonance of the Salish swaihwe masks within American Northwest Coast traditions. He then goes on to place these masks within a system of transformations of masks and of myths in the cultural history of Northwestern America. But nowhere does he suggest that this aesthetic problem is shared by the indigenous people of that area, quite the opposite. He shows that Northwest Coast people thought Salish swaihwe and the apparently quite different Kwakiutl xwexwe were the same mask. The aesthetic problem is Lévi-Strauss’s own problem, and he locates it where it belongs: in his own experience of the Northwest Coast Indian Gallery of the American Museum of Natural History. The solution, which is also his, is located far outside that gallery, in the ceaseless transformational creativity of innumerable anonymous artists who simply tried to follow the paths of tradition.

By making his own aesthetic explicit, Lévi-Strauss is able to escape its constrictions and to use it as a perspective. When he compares indigenous Amazonian myths to the music of Wagner, only the naïve imagine that he is proposing some sort of substantive relationship between the two ‘out there in the real world’. The connection is in his own thought, which for Western people is the locus of aesthetic discrimination. But once that linkage is made obvious, it becomes possible to think about these Amazonian myths with the sort of intensity usually reserved by Western people for ‘Great Art’. By starting out explicitly as an aesthete, and by making his discriminatory judgements overt, Lévi-Strauss finishes as an anthropologist whose objective is not to engage in the work of non-discriminatory aesthetics, which I have argued is both impossible for anthropology and alien to it, but to gain a perspective on aesthetics itself, which is a quite different thing.

Lévi-Strauss compares, contrasts, and finally judges. But what he judges is the Western aesthetic tradition itself. He judges it and finds it wanting. He turns the Western aesthetic back on itself. That is what anthropology seeks to do, I suggest, and it is what Bourdieu, with impeccable anthropological credentials, is doing in Distinction. We will further the anthropological project not by trying to establish aesthetics as a cross-cultural category, but by critical reflection on our own aesthetic projects, upon which anthropology provides us with a perspective.

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