ROBERT LAYTON In her talk, Joanna Overing spoke of art and of the making of beautiful things among the Piaroa. I wonder by what criteria she would identify things as works of beauty or of art.
JOANNA OVERING I was talking about what the Piaroa themselves said were beautiful—which included almost everything they produced.
ROBERT LAYTON But the Piaroa were not speaking to you in English…
JOANNA OVERING They had a term which they used to express both ‘beauty’ and the potency of ‘thoughts’. It would be interesting to try to identify their criteria for beauty. But this quality pertained to such a wide range of things, including the body and its potency. What I did not do was to talk about their aesthetics in our terms. To do so would mean taking some quality like brilliance and looking to see whether there is any correlation, say, between feather brilliance and pottery designs. In the visual arts of the Piaroa, however, there are no criteria that connect various images such as feather work, paintings, resin figures, or basketry designs. What was most important for them was the fact that the designs themselves were words of the paths of the songs, or words of the paths of the thoughts. It was not the colours but the designs that had potency.
ROBERT LAYTON In his study of Abelam ceremonial house fronts, Anthony Forge noted that for the Abelam, certain designs were considered more potent because people in the villages using those designs grew larger yams. 34 Yet the designs the Abelam thought most potent were also the ones Forge himself found to be most aesthetically pleasing.
OANNA OVERING There is no such concordance in the Piaroa case, nor would I presume to judge what beauty is to the Piaroa within the framework of our own aesthetic standards. Questions that we (Westerners) would consider significant would make little sense to them. For Piaroa standards of judgement are connected to use, which automatically carries with it notions of beauty and potency. Thus Western and Piaroa standards of the aesthetically pleasing cannot be compared. Yet you are asking me to do just that: to impose our own aesthetics on their understanding of the beautiful.
ROBERT LAYTON Of course the problem to which you have drawn our attention, of the historical specificity of the concept of aesthetics, is a perfectly real one. I wonder whether a pre-eighteenth-century concept like ‘grace’ or ‘graciousness’ might better capture Piaroa ideals of beauty. A pre-eighteenth-century anthropologist, employing such a concept, might have been able to grasp the essence of the Piaroa view without being encumbered by all the baggage that attaches to the modern notion of aesthetics. Thus the difference between our view and theirs may lie more in the labels we apply, and the significances that accrue to them, than in the nature of the underlying perceptions.
JOANNA OVERING I would find the concept of grace as difficult to apply to the Piaroa case as the concept of aesthetics. It would be more interesting to consider pre-eighteenth-century ideas about the relationships between art, ethics, community and so on. My concern in the debate, however, was with the category of aesthetics as it emerged in the eighteenth century.
PETER WADE There seems to be a lack of agreement between the two sides to this debate, since they start off from different premisses. On the one hand, for Morphy, aesthetics is founded in a universal human capacity to attribute qualitative meanings to material stimuli. On the other hand, Overing ties aesthetics to a modernist notion of refined, elite, bourgeois art. Clearly in the first case the concept of aesthetics has cross-cultural applicability, whereas in the second case it does not. Perhaps, however, if Morphy had elaborated on the proposition that all human beings have the capacity for aesthetic response, it would have given the other side something to contest. For would not the operation of such a capacity entail a process of decontextualization—a process which Overing identified as an exclusively modernist phenomenon?
HOWARD MORPHY There are currently very few detailed anthropological analyses of systems of qualitative evaluation, of the kind that would enable us to develop a strong challenge to the modernist aesthetic. Jeremy Coote and I were clearly not advocating the universality of such an aesthetic. My claim was a relatively weak one: that certain aspects of what might be called an aesthetic process are universal, and that these have to do with the apprehension of particular stimuli, properties, forms or ideas. I do not claim that there is any thing universal about the way these phenomena are felt and integrated within cultural systems. Our comparative task, then, is to see whether certain properties (for example, the property of ‘brilliance’) evoke similar feelings and responses in different cultural contexts. From there, one could go on to build a comparative anthropology of aesthetics that would be concerned, not necessarily with universal properties, but with properties that are independent of specific cultural contexts. I think we should direct our efforts towards developing this kind of comparative perspective on human feelings.
JOANNA OVERING The definition of aesthetics that Morphy gave us may seem innocent enough, but in fact we are very clearly at cross purposes. For the questions that Morphy considers to be central to understanding aesthetic experience are very much bound up with the modernist project. For example, to ask how people evaluate sensations is to invoke a modernist attitude of judgement. To ask how formal qualities are organized into systems—that, too, is a modernist question about people’s aesthetic understandings. And to ask how people feel about the world—as distinct from what they think about it—is to invoke the dichotomy between emotion and reason, just one of the tremendously potent series of dichotomies underlying modernist thought. These dichotomies blind us to indigenous understanding. They need to be unpacked.
MICHAEL O’HANLON Despite Joanna Overing’s last remark, I rather agree with Peter Wade. It did seem to me that Morphy and Overing were talking past each other, and that neither would disagree fundamentally with the other’s position. Thus Morphy would surely agree with Overing’s view that Western aesthetics is so specifically Western that it cannot be exported. And the examples that Overing presented to us surely lend substance to Morphy’s view that humans have a general capacity to assign qualitative values to properties in the world. However, I would like to enter a couple of caveats. First, I disagree with Overing’s claim that the term ‘aesthetics’ has such a specific lineage that it can have no wider purchase. Every word in our anthropological vocabulary has a specific lineage of one kind or another, and anthropological analysis consists, in a sense, in exploring that lineage so that one can go beyond it. Second, the concept of aesthetics does not have its roots in a single lineage. The term, as Overing noted, was coined by Baumgarten. Now Baumgarten’s definition was concerned with sensible knowledge, with the perceptual world as confluence, convergence and synthesis. This rather integrative notion of aesthetics was subsequently hijacked by Kant and given a transcendental spin which, I think, we may now be moving away from in a return to a sense of the term that is both closer to Baumgarten’s original intention and potentially more appealing to anthropologists.
ALFRED GELL I would like to add to the point that the two sides must inevitably talk past one another since each appeals to a quite different notion of aesthetics. It is worth noting that aesthetics is one of those words ending in -ics, along with economics, politics, and so on, all of which began as denoting a certain kind of academic discourse and ended as purportedly indicating some phenomenon of the real world. For example, politics originally meant the science or philosophy of government and the state. Yet all of us who have taken a degree in anthropology have attended courses on politics which set out from the assumption that politics is something that people everywhere have. It may be pretty difficult to see what the politics of (say) the Mbuti Pygmies are, but we do not doubt that they have politics. Why? Because it’s on the syllabus! What we witness here is the promotion of a word from its original connotation of a philosophical discourse to its use as a label for a class of activities in the real world that apparently existed in advance of the discipline called up to study them, but which was in fact produced by the existence of a certain disciplinary focus bearing a particular name and with a certain scope. In the case of aesthetics, I think we should resist this kind of promotion of the term, for the reasons spelled out by Peter Gow. Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy; it consists in a philosophical discourse, indigenous to the West, primarily about art objects and art traditions, though secondarily also about things like landscapes and flowers, which are not obviously art objects but which may be treated as though they were. But we are on a slippery slope. Once it is accepted that aesthetics should be on the curriculum alongside economics and politics, then its subject matter will inevitably be called forth by virtue of this very promotion process. Now is the time, I believe, to call a halt! All the current difficulties in the anthropology of politics arise from the way politics was promoted from being a kind of philosophical discourse to being a set of beliefs about the real world. In the case of aesthetics, we should draw back from the abyss, rather than being seduced by the convenient etymological relationship of the term with words like economics and politics.
JOANNA OVERING I agree. Let me return to O’Hanlon’s remarks about Baumgarten’s definition. Baumgarten was looking for universals—of poetic thought, and of beautiful thought. But in looking for universals of aesthetics, politics, economics, or any of these things, we take these categories as being natural to the world. For my part, I do not think they are natural to the world, and we should probably be devoting a great deal more effort to throwing them all out—politics and economics included.
HOWARD MORPHY I would be quite content to see the disappearance of the anthropology of politics and the anthropology of economics. But I would argue very strongly in favour of the development of an anthropology of aesthetics. One of the effects of focusing exclusively on the position that the concept of aesthetics has had at a particular stage in the history of Western philosophy is that a whole area of human experience and action is, as it were, subsumed under the Western category, and contaminated through association with it. From there, it is but a short step to the denial that there is anything in the real world to which the category refers. I believe that to limit the scope of aesthetics within the very narrow range afforded by the Western concept is counterproductive, since the association of the concept with particular, set-aside ‘art objects’ leaves the more general dimensions of human experience that we are concerned with almost untouched. I could not agree more with the idea that anthropology should offer ways of criticizing and moving beyond narrowly defined, Western concepts, but I am glad that anthropology ends with -ology and not with -ics!
MARCUS BANKS To demonstrate that aesthetics is a cross-cultural category, Morphy and Coote would only have to show that there are at least two societies in the world that have a concept of aesthetics, and that they can be compared. And that would be hard to deny. Moreover, Overing’s observation that the Piaroa have no category of art object or of the professional artist squares very well with Morphy’s point that aesthetics is about the sensible qualities of objects and the valuation of these qualities. What I want to stress, however, is that all four participants in this debate are known for their work in non-state societies. No one has put forward the view of a non-European, high art culture. Overing’s Borzwázi are natives of western Europe, not of the great civilizations of Asia. Yet one cannot deny the existence of categories of the aesthetic in these civilizations, or of native scholars who have devoted themselves to the explication of aesthetic practices and feelings. The fact that the arts of India, for example, are fully aestheticized within their regional context, quite independently of European contact, surely exemplifies the separate development of a category of aesthetics. Thus we already have two categories, one here (Europe), one there (India). There are parallel examples in China, Japan and elsewhere. So to my mind, the outcome of the debate is a foregone conclusion.
SONIA GREGER The case for the opposition seems to hinge on a modern concept of aesthetics which we are already beginning to question to some extent. But we should recognize that aesthetic discourse, whether or not called by that name, goes back at least to Plato and Aristotle, and that the dialogues and arguments initiated by these classical thinkers still inform contemporary art. Even for modern aesthetics, the concept of art as a form of discrimination is an extremely narrow one. For example, when Kant stressed the autonomy of the aesthetic object, his point was to show that we do not judge it in the way in which judgement is normally exercised. That is why he spoke of the art object’s having purposivity without particular purpose. His aim was to discover in what sense each aesthetic object is unique and not an object of judgement in the normal sense.
If I could go back to the ethnographic examples presented by Joanna Overing, I believe that all the contrasts she drew between Borzwázi and Piaroa attitudes may equally be found within the history of the Western aesthetic itself. On the one hand, there is the attitude of ‘aestheticism’; on the other hand, we find an aesthetic much closer to feeling, and to the rootedness of everyday life. What were Wordsworth and Coleridge doing in their lyrical ballads? What was happening in the art and craft movement (which was virtually the opposite of aestheticism)? Or consider the tension, in modern aesthetics, between Keats and Gerard Manley Hopkins. What was Keats doing? He was going back over the history of Europe, back to linguistic usages from Italy and Greece, back—by way of Milton—to classicism. That was his kind of aesthetic. And
what was Gerard Manley Hopkins doing? He was going back to Anglo-Saxon linguistic roots, searching for a kind of earthiness.
PETER GOW I could reply to that by way of another ethnographic example: Bourdieu’s study of modern French society. When you talk about Western aesthetics, it is very easy to be selective, choosing the parts you happen to like. But in an ethnographic analysis of Western aesthetic judgement, you are not at liberty to choose the parts you like and to leave aside the parts you dislike. You have to address the fact that people use these things to make radical social discriminations. Following Bourdieu’s study, I argued that this is what modern French people are doing, and I am fairly certain that the same is true of modern English people and indeed of people throughout the Western world.
GEORGINA BORN But what is Bourdieu’s work, if not a contribution to an anthropology of aesthetics? If, following Gell’s polemic, we do not develop this branch of anthropology, then how are we to address areas of human activity of the kind with which Bourdieu deals? Peter Gow argued that we should be interested in the Yolngu as people, and not just for their artistic practices, paintings, and so on. But if Morphy engages in his work with these practices, it is surely because they occupy such an important place in the lives of the Yolngu themselves. He resists formalism by constantly emphasizing how artistic practices are embedded in the rituals of everyday (and non-everyday) life.
Take the case of the anthropology of politics. This has served a useful purpose in providing us with the analytic tools by which to compare, say, the Asante and the Mbuti. We are able to conclude that for the Asante politics is a significant focus of social life, whereas for the Mbuti it is not. Likewise, we need terms to distinguish between societies where objectified sources of pleasure and stimulus are recognized, and those where they are not, or where they play only a minor role. Without appropriate terms, how can we grasp this variability? The terms we use may have been reified in the history of anthropology, but we still have need of them. Only then can we achieve what Joanna Overing did in her parody: develop a reflexive anthropology of Western aesthetic discourse that would allow us to become better attuned to its ethnocentricity. It would require us, too, to be much more sensitive to the historical variability of this discourse.
But the main problem, it seems to me, lies in something that Jeremy Coote mentioned early on in his presentation. He listed a series of monographs that had the words ‘aesthetic’ and ‘poetic’ in their titles. The ever increasing use of these terms carries the risk of their debasement through over-generalization. Anthropologists and others are now using ‘aesthetics’ as a cover for discussions of social life, religious practices, and a host of other things which are only loosely aggregated under the one encompassing rubric. Thus we are faced with the urgent question of how we might draw boundaries around aesthetics, whether as a concept of analysis or as a category of empirical experience. Unless or until we address this question, we shall not know where to draw the line between an anthropology of aesthetics and an anthropology of the emotions, or of the body.
PETER GOW I should like to make two points in response to Georgina Born’s comment. First, when I said that Yolngu are interesting because they are people, obviously I meant that they are interesting as people because of the things they do. They are not interesting just because I happen to judge that they can paint well. That is the difference between our ethnographic interest in the Yolngu and our aesthetic interest in Bridget Riley. When you discuss Bridget Riley’s work (unless you are an art historian) you do actually have to make a decision beforehand concerning her merits as a painter, since that is what she is.
Second, Georgina Born suggested that Bourdieu’s Distinction constitutes proof that aesthetics is a cross-cultural category. If so, I should like to ask why his work on the Kabyle of Algeria does not address aesthetics as a core issue. You could not, I suspect, carry out the exercise which Bourdieu described in Distinction for the Kabyle. That is because the discriminatory activities in which French people manifestly engage are much less important to people like the Kabyle. Indeed, I would suggest that the evidence from Bourdieu’s work points to the conclusion that aesthetics is not a useful cross-cultural category.
FELICIA HUGHES-FREELAND There are two areas of uncertainty surrounding the interpretation of the motion before us. First, it is not clear whether the discussion is to be about categories or about aesthetics. Second, the notion of ‘cross-culture’, with its connotations of jumping over very high fences into mutually exclusive social domains, has already become highly problematic. I should like, however, to raise a further issue that arises from my own work on dance.
I have long reflected on Nelson Goodman’s question: not what is art but when is art? These reflections lead me to sympathize to some extent with the opposition to the motion. While we might find that evaluative ascriptions such as dullness and brilliance (or in relation to dance, coarseness and refinement) are very widely used, little has been said about how people actually classify these ascriptions. Working in Java, I found my own research on dance being drawn into a wider cultural, political and ideological debate about what kinds of ascriptions could or could not be counted as aesthetic ascriptions. In other words, whether or not an evaluation qualified as aesthetic was a politically sensitive and hotly contested issue.
This leads me to my question. We have heard how the concept of aesthetics was coined in the eighteenth century, but no one has spoken of what is happening now and why we might be thinking about aesthetics in an era of commoditization, tourism and so forth. What is the connection between our current use of the term and the wider historical situation in which we find ourselves?
HOWARD MORPHY One of the reasons why I feel so strongly about the need for an anthropology of aesthetics is that it should serve to direct our attention towards the products and activities of people in non-European cultures which—given the restricted purview of the concept of aesthetics endorsed by many Western commentators—would otherwise be excluded. I agree, however, that the field of aesthetics, even as it has developed in Europe, is much more complex and varied than this restricted concept would suggest.
TIM INGOLD I should like to raise three related problems. First, if-as Morphy says—aesthetics is concerned with the qualitative effects of stimuli upon the senses, and if—as presumably they are—non-human animals are affected by stimuli, can there be an aesthetics of non-human animals? In other words, is aesthetics a cross-species category? You might immediately answer: ‘No, not at all, because what distinguishes human beings from animals of other species is that we attach values of one sort or another to what we feel.’ But that leads to my second problem. In his presentation, Morphy argued that aesthetics really deals with the interrelation between the sensual and the semantic—that is, between what we feel and the values we attach to these feelings. I wonder, however, in what way these are to be separated. I fear that the separation can only be made in terms of a mind-body dualism of some kind. The argument would run as follows: as organisms with certain innate bodily capacities, human beings sense things in certain general ways. Then, depending on the cultural context in which they are brought up, they proceed to attach particular, culturally specific values to these sensations. I am very suspicious, however, of the idea that there are universal human capacities, to which cultural particulars have subsequently been attached, and this is my third problem. I do not believe that there are any human capacities that do not themselves emerge in and through the process of development of human beings in particular environmental contexts. When we separate out a general human ‘capacity for aesthetic response’ from people’s specific tendency to respond in this way rather than that (just as when we separate the ‘capacity for language’ from people’s practised ability to speak some languages rather than others), we are reifying what is, at best, a convenient abstraction. We are separating out what seem to be the general aspects of human perception from what seem to be the particular ones and putting the former into the pot labelled ‘human universals’ and the latter into the pot labelled ‘cultural differences’. The same procedure, it seems to me, underlies the separation of the sensual and the semantic. Now, if that is how aesthetics is constituted—as the relation between the sensual and the semantic—then to dissolve that dichotomy is also to dissolve the category of the aesthetic. What we are left with is an anthropology of perception.
CHRISTINA TOREN From what Alfred Gell and Tim Ingold have said, it is clear that we are in a position where we should actually be trying to get rid of terms like aesthetics. The time is surely long past when we would have demarcated these neat domains and then gone out to check whether people do or do not have them. Ingold has brought us back to basics in drawing attention to the fact that each side to the debate has an implicit theory of cognition. Morphy and Coote adhere to the time-honoured notion that we are first born with certain cognitive universals, and then culture comes along and puts differences on top. My own view, to the contrary, is that cognition is, from the very beginning, a historical process. What interests me as an anthropologist is the question of how people become who they are. I would want to look at their concerns about the nature of their lives, and to focus on what they feel to be most interesting. To do this does not require that life should be parcelled up into neat domains. Of course we need words, so that we can communicate with one another. We need terms of analysis. But aesthetics is not an analytical category, nor will it ever become one. It is entirely unnecessary. We do not need it in order to study Abelam masks, or Yolngu paintings, or anything else.
HOWARD MORPHY I disagree fundamentally with almost every word Christina Toren has said. I disagree in part because she seems to set up a theoretical framework of her own which gives exclusive and idiosyncratic meanings to terms such as history, so that it becomes virtually impossible to integrate them into the theoretical frameworks with which, as anthropologists, we are accustomed to deal—frameworks that accord a central place to such concepts as culture and cultural structure. Now of course, I do not hold that aesthetic systems are independent of historical processes. Indeed, one of the reasons why I object to the arguments of the opponents to the motion is that they stick rigidly to a particular, historically based concept of aesthetics—a concept that has played its part in establishing the hegemony of Western academic discourse over the ways in which other cultures are conceived and understood.
In relation to Tim Ingold’s first problem, I would not necessarily limit the applicability of the concept of aesthetics to human beings. In fact, from my point of view, the exploration of the aesthetic aspects of perception in non-human populations would form a fundamental part of the general science of aesthetics. It is perhaps harder to carry out cognitive studies that cross the boundaries of species rather than culture, but I would not rule out the possibility. Moreover, I believe it is analytically useful, despite Ingold’s objections, to distinguish the semantic from the sensual. The relationship between the two is often very strong, as shown for example in Nancy Munn’s The fame of Gawa. 35 I do think, however, that the distinction is more than an analytic convenience, and that the sensual and the semantic refer to quite different dimensions of human experience and action. Both are relevant to the understanding of what I would be quite happy to call cultural processes.
PENELOPE HARVEY I should like to undertake the dangerous task of challenging the status of Jeremy Coote’s evidence. He referred us to the work of scholars from non-Western backgrounds such as Yoruba, who have written about the aesthetics of the cultures to which they belong. Such scholars are perfect informants, since they speak the languages both of their cultures of origin and of Western academia. They are of course very complexly positioned in relation to Western academic discourses. In the light of Alfred Gell’s remarks, I wonder whether these people also write about politics and economics. And if they do, what are the implications for what they write about aesthetics? I was interested to note that while Morphy wants to broaden the concept of aesthetics so as not to exclude non-Western cultures, he is quite content to see politics and economics disappear as domains of anthropological inquiry. Does that not entail precisely the kind of exclusionary strategy to which Morphy otherwise declares himself opposed?
HOWARD MORPHY When I referred to the exclusion of politics and economics, I meant that I was not especially concerned with them at that moment in the debate!
MARCUS BANKS I would share Penelope Harvey’s scepticism about Yoruba scholars. We should not be deceived by the counterfeit authenticity that comes when a native person articulates the point of view we want to hear—as though it conferred a seal of approval. But it is still the case that there are indigenous aesthetic traditions that have nothing whatsoever to do with European culture and history. People from these traditions resemble Overing’s Borzwázi in every critical respect. They reify art objects, they mystify art, they talk about non-verbal qualities that only the true aesthete can appreciate—in everything from paintings and poetry to natural landscapes. The Moghuls were great instigators of this kind of discourse in India. My concern is simply that there are other examples of self-contained aesthetic systems, besides the Western one, which need to be unpacked, following the normal procedures of anthropological analysis. To assume that aesthetics was suddenly invented in Western Europe in the eighteenth century is blatantly ethnocentric. If Ingold can make his plea about animals, I make my plea about high cultures. Anthropologists consistently fail to recognize that there are other cultures in the world that cannot be called savage, primitive, simple, or whatever the current, politically correct term may be. Yet these cultures have their own traditions. In continuing to take stateless, acephalous societies as our prototype for the non-Western ‘other’, we fail to account for indigenous philosophies of highly reified, articulate and literate forms, such as are found in the great civilizations of Asia. But as for the Yoruba, I would not be surprised if the scholars whom Coote mentioned had been following art classes!
JOANNA OVERING It so happens that my ethnographic work has been in Amazonia, so that is the example I gave. I am no expert on India. I do not deny that other peoples have extraordinarily interesting philosophies and understandings of the world. So too, by the way, do the people of the Amazon. What I am concerned with is the emergence of aesthetics as a metalanguage. I dare say that Indian discourse on art would be much more recognizable to us because it is situated in a society which, like ours, is stratified, hierarchical and elitist. But this discourse is not, in itself, equivalent to an aesthetics. I do not think that the ancient Greeks, for example, had an aesthetic—certainly not in the sense that we do. They were concerned with beauty as it fitted in with the whole—that is to say, it was contextualized. It had to do with use; thus art was placed in the same category alongside skilled crafting. In India, likewise, I am sure that discussions about beauty and artistic activity are situated within social contexts of practical application. To me, what was significant about the birth of the concept of aesthetics was that it signalled the decontextualization of art from social life, its separation and detachment from ordinary domains of human experience.
PNINA WERBNER I would like to respond to Alfred Gell’s statement that we have no need for a separate anthropology of aesthetics. If I thought that people’s passionate reactions to attacks on what we would take to be their culture were based on utilitarian grounds, as a neo-Marxist interpretation might have it, then I would agree. In other words, if you could understand people’s attempts to defend and protect their culture, in the face of external threat, simply in terms of their economic and political interests, then we could indeed do without aesthetics. But if one believes, as I do, that people respond passionately to these kinds of threats in ways that go beyond economics and politics, and equally beyond moral dogma and religious fanaticism, then I think we have to recognize something which we can only call their aesthetics.
PETER GOW There is nothing wrong with an observer or analyst describing that reaction as an aesthetic reaction. The problem arises when you try to set up aesthetics as a cross-cultural category. For many people aesthetic experience has nothing to do with passion—indeed, the passionate response may be explicitly excluded from aesthetic experience. My point was that we have no common language with which to describe our aesthetic judgements because they are intrinsically discriminatory. I have no objection to your adopting an aesthetic perspective, drawn from your own experience, in order to characterize a particular reaction as more than simply material and moral. I can read what you say and decide for myself what to think about it. But I do not want this perspective imposed from the outset.
JAMES WEINER I should like to make one observation, which has to do with the ways in which the aesthetic figures in the writings of Kant. On the one hand, we have the pure aesthetics of the Critique of judgement, which seems to have been at issue here. On the other hand, we have the transcendental aesthetic of the Critique of pure reason, in which Kant identifies how our perceptual mechanism enables us to recognize form as such—what it is in the way our perceptual framework is structured that allows us to draw forth the forms though which we recognize the world. These are the categories of intuition. Now this latter understanding of the aesthetic is a much more general one. There is no doubt that people everywhere have to deal with the problem of drawing forth an appearance of the world that they can accept as real and can make their way through. This premiss is at the heart of Marilyn Strathern’s work, 36 where she undertakes to look at the Melanesian way of life in aesthetic terms—that is, as the manner in which people draw forth the proper forms of their sociality. The difference between these two senses of the aesthetic is apparent from the remarks by Jeremy Coote and Howard Morphy. They seem to envision a mentalistic process which ultimately involves acts of contemplation and attribution. And I think this is what is being rejected in part by the opposers, especially Peter Gow. It is not that aesthetic considerations are not important everywhere. Rather, the ways in which people draw forth their forms might be very different, might have nothing to do with mentation, might have everything to do with the body and intersubjectivity—such that they might be unrecognizable to us as aesthetic procedures.
HOWARD MORPHY I feel that the opposers of the motion were unable to escape from a limited concept of aesthetics that is judgemental, that is specific to a particular political structure and a particular segment of their own society. On no occasion did Jeremy Coote or I adopt a contemplative perspective on the aesthetics of form. Indeed, we studiously avoided the temptation to locate aesthetics in the contemplation of objects reified as art. It was because of their adherence to a peculiar Western definition that the opposers found it necessary to hang their critique on a particular moment in the history of Western philosophy and to call upon the authority of an Oxford professor of English literature. Their approach serves to exemplify the ways in which the discourse of anthropology is allowing itself to be appropriated by narrow Western concerns. Indeed, the very lessons that Peter Gow showed we could learn from Lévi-Strauss’s reflections on Western aesthetics are almost denied by the perspective they adopt. I felt that the opposers were trying to force our position into line with a concept of aesthetics that neither Coote nor I hold—for example, in their attempt to associate the concept with a ‘set aside’ category of art objects. It was significant that in her references to the recent volume edited by Coote and Shelton, 37 Overing cited the articles by Shelton and Gell, both of which deal with cases—among the Trobriand Islanders and the Huichol respectively—where aesthetics is rooted in the areas of religion and ritual and not integrated within everyday life. But in other contributions to the volume (my own and Coote’s included), the very opposite perspective is adopted.
JOANNA OVERING Our opponents did indeed give us a more general definition of aesthetics, but in doing so they did not escape the modernist paradigm. Their concern is to develop a metalanguage of aesthetics for the purposes of cross-cultural translation. It is dangerous, however, to assume that one can separate out analytic terms through which to assess the values of other peoples. The imposition of our categories and our understandings will work against the contextualization of their notions of beauty and the place of it in their lives. No matter how you define aesthetics to begin with, more and more of the modernist value system tends to seep in as the discussion unfolds. We really need to pay attention to this seepage. I have nothing against the use of the term aesthetics, but I do object to its use as a means of translation, or as a means of developing analytic categories that purport to explain, on some separate, deeper level, what is going on in indigenous minds, feelings and culture.
JEREMY COOTE I shall make just one brief comment. Our opponents seem to want to choose the most ethnocentric definition of aesthetics they can find, so that they can then claim that it cannot apply cross-culturally. This seems to me perverse. What we should be doing is to use our studies of the aesthetics and aesthetic categories of other cultures to reflect on our own categories. Rather than giving up aesthetics because it has been appropriated by the bourgeoisie, or by philosophers, we should be drawing on our own ethnographic experience to criticize the categories of bourgeois philosophy. And in this way we can perhaps try to overcome our modernist assumptions.
PETER GOW 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. It is too intrinsically personal.
Howard Morphy spoke of the establishment of a metalanguage of discourse for translation by which we could compare aesthetic systems, ours being one of them. This approach strikes me as problematic since that very metalanguage remains that of the Western aesthetic. Comparing, contrasting and judging are of the essence of this aesthetic, and you cannot simply step outside of it. We stand accused, by Morphy, of adhering to a very rigid notion of aesthetics. Yet Morphy’s entire framework—according to which received sensory stimuli are attributed with qualitative semantic values—is none other than the modernist aesthetic itself. It is the aesthetic of the educated eye. There are of course other critiques of this framework within the Western tradition, such as the Marxist critique to which Overing referred. Let me conclude, however, with a small observation. It is surely far from fortuitous that Coote’s best example of an elaborated, non-Western aesthetic comes from the Yoruba. As he was speaking, I wondered to myself, why does the British Journal of Aesthetics carry an article by a Yoruba author, about Yoruba aesthetics? The answer, surely, is that Yoruba art is the very prototype for ‘primitive art’ on the international market. There is an intrinsic desire, on the part of the modern aesthetic, that the Yoruba should have aesthetics. So a Yoruba scholar is invited to write this article, to invent a Yoruba aesthetic. And that’s my point.