Aesthetics (Anthropology)

We can identify two issues which are important with respect to anthropology’s approach to aesthetics in non-Western societies: first, are we obliged to consider the anthropology of art and the anthropology of aesthetics as inseparable? We are first confronted by the problem of those societies which either do not produce material objects of art or do not produce many artefacts at all. The Foi of Papua New Guinea and the Dinka of southern Sudan are good examples of societies that have no artefactual or artistic elaboration whatsoever but which have a highly developed form of verbal art in the form of poetic songs (see Coote 1992; Deng 1973; Weiner 1991). There is also the case of the Papua New Guinea Highlanders, for whom the body is perhaps the only site of aesthetic elaboration (O’Hanlon 1989; Strathern and Stra-thern 1983). This throws into relief our Western commitment to the objet d’art as the focus of aesthetic elaboration, which has been criticized by anthropologists as ethnocentric. We can thus picture an aesthetics without art objects; can we similarly picture an artistic world without an aesthetic?

To consider this problem we turn to the second issue: we must separate at least two distinct, though related, senses of the term ‘aesthetics’. The first pertains to the judgement of taste, of what is beautiful (identified in Kant’s Critique of Judgement). The second is more general, and pertains to the form of our sensible intuition (identified in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason). Most studies of non-Western artistic practices until recently confined aesthetics to the identification of the beautiful in any society, while more recently, anthropologists of art such as Morphy (1991) have defined aesthetics as the effect of sensory stimuli on human perception. But there is no effect of such stimuli by themselves, that is, apart from some prior cognitive schematism that makes such stimuli recognizable in their particular form, and this is exactly the point of Kant’s Critique ofPure Reason. While I think a case can be made that we cannot export our notions of the beautiful to other non-Western cultures, as Overing and Gow have recently argued (Weiner 1994), I think no anthropological theory does not contain within its implicit rationale some idea of how form itself is brought forth in different communal usages. It is this general appeal to the transcendental aesthetic of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason — without which Kant’s notion of schematism (upon which modern anthropology is founded) makes no sense — that anthropologists such as ^Marilyn Strathern invoke in her concern with seeing Melanesian social process as a matter of making the form of social life appear in a proper manner (1988). The question then becomes why art, whether it be graphic, verbal or whatever, should be the method by which attention is drawn to the form-producing process as such.

The answer may lie in an appeal to transcen-dance, without which art would scarcely have the special properties we attribute to it. But our Western world of communal life activity, totally mediated as it is by the image industry, has become so thoroughly aestheticized that the ability of art to achieve this stepping-outside has become attentuated (Baudrillard 1983). Our tendency to aestheticize our subjects’ social world can perhaps be seen in the increasing attention to the phenomenon of ‘poetics’, where the expressive and constitutive role of social discourse is brought into focus (see for example Herzfeld 1985). We thus see our world as well as the world of peoples like the Foi and the Dinka as a total aesthetic fact, because we are both said to inhabit a thoroughly mediated environment upon which a body image has been projected and expanded. But it is in the very different roles that art plays in these two societies that this similarity is revealed as illusory. Dinka cattle songs focus on men, cattle and their embodied relationship and thus reveal in everyday communal discourse the way human production, reproduction and politics are mediated by bovine fertility. They constitute their economy through the body. But such embodying force has been totally appropriated by the symbolic economy in the West — it is advertising that mediates social body image and conceals the transcendant nature of its own construction; we constitute the body through our economy and leave art to the marginal discourse of the academy.

It could thus be argued that to save the aesthetic from collapsing into a new fUnction-alism, a new appeal to the transcendance afforded by the work of art might be necessary. The merit of such an approach is that it sidesteps the productionist appeals that our ordinary social constructivist view of art contains implicitly within it, and allows us to accept once again the complete interdependence of aesthetics and art, as the form-producing regime in any society, and its mode of revelation respectively. But most anthropologists insist on seeing art and aesthetics as the expressive form of social order or cohesion and attribute to them a function in maintaining such order. It is inevitable that under such conditions, either art or aesthetics is seen to be redundant with respect to that functionality. But the relation between the two demands dialectical thinking, opposed to functionalist thinking. It is reasonable to assume that, just as is the case with our own art, the artistic practices of non-Western people might have nothing to do with making society visible and everything to do with outlining the limits of human action and thought.

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