Judging African Art
Leo Segedin   |  1998 |   Print this essay

Some of us will remember that, back in 1961, Northeastern - then Chicago Teachers College North - was established as a teaching institution which, along with education and liberal arts programs, also had a ‘world cultures’ agenda, one of the first such colleges in the country. Our founding Dean Jarvis was given a mandate to develop and implement a curriculum which reflected as equally as possible the major populations and cultures of the world. Such courses as Comparative World Cultures and World Geography were introduced. Efforts were made to teach Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Hindu and even Swahili because these were the among the world’s major languages. We created multi-ethnic student bodies and encouraged student study and work abroad. The art department introduced major art history courses about the art of Africa, of China, Japan and Korea and I developed an introductory art course called Art in Society which presented, along with Western art, the art of non-European societies. These ideas about the teaching of art were radical for their time. The traditional way of approaching such materials was either through Western art masterpiece appreciation courses or through chronological historical surveys which usually began in prehistoric times and ended in contemporary times giving the impression that the history of art was a linear progression culminating in the higher reaches of Western Civilization. Many of us objected to such ethnocentricism. In the visual arts, representations of reality could be accomplished through images other than three-dimensional ones. Images using base lines, schematic contours, hieratic proportions, perspectives with no vanishing points or horizon lines were just as legitimate as Renaissance perspective, chiaroscuro and contrapposto. Such images represented experiences which were just as real as western illusionism. There were many ways of seeing and representing the world and each were equally legitimate.

The issue for most of us was cultural representation, not judgment. Although the established Western canon did include artworks which we thought were great, we felt that it also refused to include many works which should have been considered. The canon included very few artworks by women, African-Americans and other American minorities as well as art from non-Western cultures and, therefore, did not seem to be based on any justifiably broad and teachable criteria by which to make legitimate judgments. At the time, I rejected the concept of art appreciation as demeaning to art. I believed that art courses should have content at least as objective as that of literature and the social sciences. For me, it was a matter primarily of cognition and perception, not aesthetic sensitivity or taste. One did not teach Dostoevsky, American history or politics (or for that matter, science and mathematics) appreciation courses as if it were a matter of improving the taste of students; why teach the visual arts that way? In class, I discussed concepts of art in different cultures, Western definitions of art, how different cultures represented form and space, how an art object was constructed and its historical and social contexts. I thought, let them learn as much as they can and make up their own minds about what was great art.

Although African art had been collected by Westerners for over 150 years, how to judge it did not become a special issue until the decade of the 60's when non-Western cultures first began to be taken seriously by the West. Modern communications and travel made such far-away places accessible to us. This was the time when new places to fight the Cold War were being found. There were new places for curious tourists with new money to visit. There were new sources of raw materials, new markets to satisfy and new exotic products to sell to the West. African-Americans were searching for their roots. Immigrants from the remnants of the old European colonial empires were intruding on Western cultures and wanted their cultures respected. European colonial attitudes of racial superiority were being reformed and economic exploitation was supposed to end. After years of being ignored, belittled and misrepresented, non-Western values and aesthetics were finally recognized by academics as being intellectually significant and, as a result, Western ways of thinking about cultural differences were changing. It became important to understand these peoples we were dealing with on their own terms. Some college and university administrators came to feel that a higher education should broaden a student's understanding of the world. If we were to travel and understand the peoples we met and especially if we were to do business with people from different cultures, we had to recognize that there were other realities and that these were revealed in language, myth, patterns of social behavior - and art. Also, in order to be truly self aware, we had to be able to see one's self from the outside, from the perspective of someone who sees the world differently. We didn’t want to be ‘ugly Americans’ anymore.

But there were other implications of these views. For some, this ‘multiculturalism’ seemed to mean that if we only got to know each other, we would come to like each other; wars would end, there would be world peace and we would solve all the world's problems in some 'Parliament of Man'. We admired books like The Family of Man, which suggested that the experience of birth and death, love, motherhood, childhood and labor was universal and, therefore, the same everywhere. Some Westerners practiced Zen Buddhism. We ate in ethnic restaurants, appreciated non-American films and dance. An American play about Jewish life in a Russian shtetl like Fiddler on the Roof was seen to be universal because the Japanese saw their own cultural values in it. We stopped calling non-Western art 'primitive' and included it in our museums. Art had become universal phenomena and we ‘appreciated’ the arts of all cultures.

Although some of these notions now seem naive, they are still appealing. Most of us, I think, still accept some qualified form of the idea that cultures are incommensurate, call it a sort of to each his (or her) own attitude. We can accept that cultural plurality means that each culture has its own way of doing things which makes inherent sense, that other peoples are not uncivilized savages simply because they do not behave as we do; that is probably the ultimate implication of the studies of Boas, Levi-Strauss, Benedict, Mead and Linton. Every people, we believe, has a right to its own forms of behavior no matter how bizarre they seem to us. We travel and read to learn about such cultures and find such experiences provocative. No culture can claim moral or ethical superiority; atrocities have been committed by all. And certainly, most cultures have produced visual art (as well as food, music and dance) which has given us Westerners much pleasure. But what does that mean for us as educated, artistically aware individuals in our society today? In the last few years, this entire acceptance has been pushed to such an extreme politics of gender, race, and ethnicity, of philosophic and aesthetic theory, that there is a need to reconsider what these assumptions lead to.

The implication of artistic relativity and acceptance becomes evident when we look at what is going on in the contemporary artworld. In compensating for past misrepresentation, Western bias against the art of the ‘Other’ has reversed itself to such an extent that not only does the Western canon now include the art of women, African-Americans and non-Westerners; for some people, it has become ’imprudent’ or inappropriate to criticize any such art at all. Over the last several years, the impulse to equate the art of all cultures has gone so far that any suggestion that a Western artwork might in any way be ‘better’ than an African tribal artwork is still routinely assumed to be the result of cultural bias or ignorance. If, for example, I say that I think that Michelangelo’s David is ‘better’ than a Baule sculpture, I might be told either that, as a Westerner, I have no right to make such a judgment or that such a judgment may be true for me, but is just my personal opinion, a product of my Western background. This last may be true, but it also seems to imply that all personal opinions are of equal value and that all people with the same background will have the same opinions, which is not only untrue, but probably contradictory. Such statements also imply that such judgments would not be true for a Baule and that a Baule might perceive his sculpture as superior to the Western artwork. Also, I might be told that if I were to perceive the subtleties and complexities of the sculpture, to understand its function in Baule society, as would a Baule, I would appreciate it as I would Michelangelo’s. How a Baule would judge a Michelangelo if he understood Western art is never considered. Also, since sociologists, anthropologists, ethnologists and post-structuralists treat all art objects as reflections of culture, ‘objectively’ the Mona Lisa and Alfred E. Newman - and a Baule sculpture - are equally significant. For many, any claim for the greater value of the Mona Lisa is seen as elitist.

There are also those who claim that the art of African culture is not only superior to - and the source of - what is significant in Western art, but also that it is not accessible to non-Africans. They maintain that only people from their own culture, people who can trace their ancestry back to the same African roots, have the capacity to experience African art and culture. This attitude assumes, for example, that African-Americans and Africans have a common culture, that Africans have a single culture or that culture is genetic or racial; thus only African-Americans can teach about or judge African or African-American art. (Of course, this would also mean that African-Americans could not teach about Western art and that nobody could teach about Michelangelo.). Any suggestion that Western values might be superior to African values is, of course, an indication of Western eurocentricism and racism.

Perhaps the quality of most art objects is not worth rating; perhaps the differences are a matter of apples and pears. We can maintain that all judgments are still primarily a matter of our personal taste which is a product of our cultural and personal experiences; we have a right to like or dislike something for any reason regardless of how little we know about the object. We can argue as the ancient Romans did that, “De gustibus non est disputandum”. There can be no disputing about taste. Or as Rabelais wrote in Pantegruel, “Every one to his own taste, as the woman said as she kissed the cow.” According to the assumptions underlying this point of view, the purpose of art is pleasure and entertainment not insight, edification or uplift. Of course, ultimately the bottom line is that we either like something or not, but taste is too superficial a concept to apply to art. We may have a right say that we don’t like Michelangelo’s murals in the Sistine Chapel or the sculptural program at Chartres, but it would still be hard to deny their greatness. ‘Appreciating’ art is not like getting pleasure from a good Merlot or a Porterhouse steak. It is not like grading the quality of single malt vs. blended scotch or Absolute vs Stoltynaya vodka, the better costing more. Also, a problem with taste is that we can develop a taste for any perceptual experience. We can even have the same perceptual experience and either like or dislike it. We can admire and grade a work for its craft, color, detail, form and appropriateness to its function. Or not. We can be sympathetic to or despise its subject matter and can be moved or revolted by its expressive qualities. All these responses may be honest, but however we explain or try to justify them, we do little to explain or justify the artwork. They are as significant as our description of our feelings in having a hot bath or a cold Coke. At best, they may encourage someone to try one, but in so far as they are based on ignorance, in so far as they are oblivious to all that might be in the artwork, they are of little value to others.

Isaiah Berlin also believed in the incommensurability of cultures and that we lack criteria by which one culture can be rated as superior to another. He believed that there is a finite number of different values which are understandable even when we disagree with them, that these values are objective and not relative. He also believed that we have the right to judge the values of other cultures and act accordingly. I think that this approach is applicable to the judgment of art.

The fact that each culture has its own values, its own way of representing its experiences does not mean that we must see all cultural values as being equal, that all representations have the same capacity to express all our experiences. Let us assume that, in so far as possible, we are knowledgeable about and sensitive to the values and aesthetics of Africans. The significance of such cultural insights for us today may be that we understand more, but understanding is not necessarily acceptance. Understanding means that we don’t reject because of ignorance, not that anything anyone does is acceptable simply because it coincides with some culture's mores or aesthetics. Understanding means that we now have more options in making judgments. We may include more in what we can judge; we may qualify our own values, but we don’t have to give them up. We still have to make judgments in terms of our own values. It certainly should not mean tolerance for genocide or mutilation regardless of who practices it. Is this cultural imperialism? No more than the Declaration of Independence was for the French in 1789. I still believe that understanding is more important than judgment, but I feel that we have to come to grips with the recognition that there are some artworks which are superior to others regardless of what their gender, racial or cultural origins are. It is one thing to be inclusive in what one judges; it is something else to avoid or prevent judgments altogether. Most art teachers, historians and critics seemed very reluctant to confront this issue. It seems to me that it is time to do so.

I believe that there are for the artworld significant traditional Western values which, with some revision, are still applicable.. Some of these values are perhaps still more preached than practiced, but nevertheless, without them, I feel that there really is little reason for us to make or look at art. To maintain for whatever reasons that all art objects are of equal value may be politically safe or make an obvious philosophical point about the unfairness of the museum system in this country, but it is also to trivialize art. For over two thousand years of judging art in the West. one major tradition has maintained that great art should convey something important and serious - ‘factual truth, religious belief, moral, social and political rightness’ - and its greatness would be in how well it succeeds. Think of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, Chartres Cathedral, Tintoretto’s Scola de San Rocco, Ankor Wat. We no longer think that we have to accept the values underlying such works in order to recognize their greatness. We don’t have to be Catholic, a Neo-Platonist, a believer in classical values or a religious reformer to gaze around in awe in the Sistine Chapel, although our understanding of Neo-Platonism, classicism, and the Reformation enhances our response. In the same way, we can understand African social structures, religions and rituals without accepting or practicing them. We can also understand why Hitler and the Nazis succeeded in Germany, but be horrified by the Holocaust and we can also believe that ‘Triumph of the Will’ is a great movie, while finding its content revolting.

We no longer expect art to affect our ethics or morality (although recent art has attempted to do so) - as always and regardless of who made it - regardless of gender, race and ethnicity - some great art is still art which represents human values, must be about issues that matter to people even if we disagree about them. It must be more than something we hang on our wall simply because we like it. Great art can give us insight into reality, into ourselves and others, into culture and nature. Great art makes us see for the first time, is revelatory. Rembrandt transformed our way of seeing people, Vermeer, everything with greater clarity. Monet transformed our way of seeing light; nature never looked the same after we see and understand his work. Cezanne made us see space in a way which leads through Cubism and abstraction all the way to what we see in TV commercials.

Granted that all art is potentially revelatory if we are unfamiliar with it. If we are ignorant of what underlies, say, impressionism, second rate impressionist art can at first seem like a mess of paint, or ‘putrescent flesh in various states of decay’, but once you learn to ‘see’ it, its color becomes a revelation of light and air; you will understand why Monet is a better painter than all the thousands of his followers, why his late paintings are better than his early ones; you will be able to tell a good Monet from a lesser one; you will know why Monet is generally a better painter than Renoir even though Renoir is probably easier to like.

African art was revelatory to European artists at the beginning of this century because it was unfamiliar and opened up all kinds of new ways of seeing and representing, but it made no difference whether the sculpture which they saw was good or not. They were ignorant of its function and didn’t care. The art of children and the insane was also revelatory to these artists for the same reason. In this sense, African art was not revelatory to Africans. Although they judged the quality of their art, its significance was functional, not revelation or originality. Such art was the source of originality in the West, but was not for the artists who made it. Originality was not a major value in Africa as it was in the West. If we are familiar with what has gone on before, we can see which works initiate ideas and which are derivative. For example, we can see one reason why Picasso is a greater artist than Gris..

Social functions alone cannot be the basis for an aesthetic or criteria. We cannot judge a ritual object on whether or not it achieves its goal. Fetish objects may be effective, but of little or no artistic significance. A Western plastic object may successfully serve a ritual function. An African might discard a ‘failed’ object; a Westerner might collect and display it. Knowledge of such function can add to our understanding of the object, but not its artistic value.

Significant subject matter does not in itself make for great art. Images about birth and death, fertility, mothers and children, men and women, heroes, the achieving of manhood, marriage, cultural myths, cosmologies, etc., may be necessary but not sufficient for the creation of important art

The same goes for ideas about subconscious projections and catharsis. Even if Jungian descriptions of the unconscious are valid, they do not distinguish artistic behavior from all other kinds of behavior. The neurotic and insane can give symbolic expression to their unconscious. Successful objectification may be necessary but not sufficient behavior and does not determine artistic success.

Some great art takes ideas which were already accepted and develops them to its fullest possibilities. We can see why Cimabue is a great artist. We can see why Michelangelo is a better artist than Ghirlandaio when we realize that their options were similar. What options does an African sculptor have and what can he do with them?

Great art must have adequate formal means .Good intentions are not enough. Some ideas are better presented than others. A great work of art develops the potentialities of its formal structure and materials. Knowledge about an art form gives us some idea about what its possibilities are. We can ask ourselves, what are the possibilities of an art form? What are its limitations? Do cultural requirements limit its possibilities? Some art forms merely repeat themes with minor variations. After we become familiar with an art form, we find some forms ultimately obvious, boring and predictable while others are more interesting, develop more original variations. In this respect, art about life is more important, ‘better’ than conceptual art about art because in this kind of art, once you get the idea, there little else to look at.

On the other hand, an aesthetic based on notions primarily of form, beauty or taste, even craft, trivializes art. Art that is about life, about the 'human condition', is more important than art about form or beauty.

Great art is renewable, can be seen again and again and remains rich in perpetual possibilities. Although any object can be reinterpreted within any new context - sociological, philosophical or political - objects designed to be meaningful art objects, have more potential, more significance, more value, for this purpose. Although new meanings can be found for great works, their significance does not lie essentially in the stories and myths, history and provenances, commercial value, popularity or the biography, psychology or status of the artist, but rather in what is intrinsic to the work.

Scale is important. This does not mean that we might respond more deeply to a Rembrandt self portrait or a Vermeer cityscape or interior, a small watercolor or manuscript illustration, but rather that all other things being equal, larger works like the Sistine Chapel or Ankor Wat will be more important than smaller works.

Both Western and African art are often described as ‘creative’ or ‘expressive’ in a positive evaluative sense, but at best these terms are descriptive. Murders can be creative and expressive, but are not positive behavior. Children can be creative and expressive, but their art is childish. Such terms may describe necessary but not sufficient behavior. A word which means ‘creative’, referring to both the creation of the universe and the making of a sculpture, is found in some African languages; the word ‘expressive’ is not.

Expression, originality, authenticity or correct attribution, even rarity of an art object do not in themselves indicate its value or quality.

Both have amateur as well as professional artists. Some African artists work in many styles; their products commissioned by different tribes and different groups within tribes. The same style or form can be used by different groups for different functions, much like Western advertising art. What we call Western art values and biases really belong to a very small group of collectors, curators, critics and spectators. The West has high brow, middle brow and low brow taste, stylistic or taste centers in New York, Chicago, L.A., Paris, London, etc.

To European Expressionist artists at the beginning of this century, such objects were expressions of raw emotion; to the cubists a few years later, they were the realizations of a strong formal sense and to the surrealists, such artworks were the projections of fantasy, dreams and imagination. Until after WW II, Western cultural values - social, political and aesthetic - were assumed in the West to be universal truths, superior to those of other cultures and were promulgated around the world. But by the ‘50's, these values were seen by many as a cover for ethnocentricism, colonialism and genocide. Although the anthropologist, Franz Boas, before the turn of the century, first presented the idea that all cultural values were equally valid, it was primarily the work of Claude Levi-Strauss which made the idea politically significant. His structuralism was concerned with, among many other issues, what he referred to as the “difference” and the “Other”, the way the West perceived non-Western cultures and visa versa. Since then, post-structuralists and deconstructionists have further attacked any idea of a hierarchy of cultures. At the same time, Western poets like Carl Sandberg, artists such as Edward Steichen, anthropologists like Margaret Mead presented the idea of a ‘Family of Man’ in which our likenesses, (need for love, food, clothing, work, speech, worship, sleep, games, dancing, fun, ...) were more important than our differences. Some art historians and aestheticians such as Herbert Read presumed that underlying differences between Western and non-Western art, there is a common, universal aesthetic sensibility and that insensibility in perceiving African art could be overcome by familiarity and education. This universality was to an extent derived not only from democratic notions of human equality,

It is apparent that Western cultural values have varied considerably over the years. Many artworks of non-Western cultures which Westerners now call masterpieces were ignored or denigrated before they were accepted. History is full of examples of our culture’s inability to recognize any quality in the art of other cultures. as objects produced for religious or magical purposes having no aesthetic qualities The sacred arts of the Africans were destroyed as ‘abominations’, the idols of heathen, uncivilized peoples. When they were collected by missionaries and soldiers, it was as curiosities or artifacts of savages in foreign, exotic places. Anthropologists and ethnologists saw such artifacts. On the other hand, French artists at the end of the 19th century saw such objects as powerful, expressive forms, as free expressions of peoples uninhibited by the stifling restrictions of a corrupt western academy

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