Judging the Art of Others: How Do You Know
Leo Segedin   |   June 11, 2008 |   Print this essay


Although the problem of judging the art of other cultures is not as important in the college art curricula today as it was several years ago, it still raises provocative issues in the teaching of art. There is still no consistent approach to this problem. For many years, anthropologists and art historians have been telling us that the cultures of the West and, say, Africa are incommensurate, that Africans have their own aesthetics and that, therefore, their art should not be judged by Western standards. We must recognize, they say, that theirs is an art based on different assumptions, different functions and different values than ours and both are equally valid. It follows, therefore, that it is inappropriate to compare the quality of Western art with that of the Africans; it is a matter of apples and bananas. In the past, Westerners have been biased and, as a result, our way of looking have made us oblivious to what has made African art so meaningful and powerful. We are told that in order to respond to African art properly, we must experience it as an African would. On the other hand, we are also told that we should become sensitive to the beautiful, aesthetic forms of African sculpture. Most major museums now have sections devoted entirely to the work of non-Western cultures. The Smithsonian has established a museum which is devoted entirely to African art. In the market driven economy of the Western artworld, both Western and African art, no matter how they are seen, are equally saleable. Even if we are incapable of understanding such objects, we can develop a taste for them and we can buy them as we would a Warhol or a Leroy Nieman.

About 50 years ago, when the concept of multiculturalism first entered the academic world, this question of how the West perceives non-European cultural values became a vital issue in the designing of college art curricula. 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 programs in the country. Our founding dean, Roy 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 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, 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 Eurocentricism. In the visual arts, representations of reality could be accomplished through images other than three-dimensional ones. We believed that images using base lines, schematic contours, hieratic proportions, perspectives with no vanishing points or horizon lines should be just as acceptable as Renaissance perspective, chiaroscuro and contrapposto. Such images often represented non-visual experiences which were just as real to non-Westerners as Western illusionism was to us. There were many ways of making images and each was 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, by 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 valid 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 literature, history or sociology (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 the functions of art in different cultures, how different cultures represented form and space, Western definitions of art and their historical and social contexts. Art was a sort of non-verbal language which gave form to its meanings. I thought, let them learn as much as they can and make up their own minds about what was great art.

For many people at this time, this 'multiculturalism' seemed to mean that if we only got to know each other, we would come to like each other and we would solve all the world's problems in some kind of 'Parliament of Man'. I remember, back in 1965, at a conference in Carbondale, Buckminster Fuller telling us that when the countries of the world all had computers, they would realize how economically dependent they were on each other and there would be world peace - and Marshall MacLuhan saying that the new, technological media would create a universal culture. Western poets like Carl Sandberg, artists such as Edward Steichen and anthropologists like Margaret Mead presented the idea that our likenesses, (need for love, food, clothing, work, speech, worship, sleep, games, dancing, fun ...) were more important than our differences. We admired books like The Family of Man, which suggested that the experiences of birth and death, love, motherhood, childhood and labor was universal and, therefore, the same everywhere. We traveled and read to learn about different cultures. Some Westerners practiced Zen Buddhism. We ate in ethnic restaurants, appreciated non-American music, 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 African sculpture 'primitive' and included it in our museums. Art had become a universal phenomenon and we 'appreciated' the arts of all cultures.

Although some of these notions now seem naive, they are still appealing, but most of us, I think, will now accept some qualified form of the idea that, in spite of their commonalities, many cultures are really incommensurate. We can accept that, along with the values we share, cultural plurality means that each culture has its own different, but equally legitimate way of doing things - like making art - and that other peoples are not uncivilized savages simply because they do not behave as we do. But does the assumption that there are many ways of representing our experiences, that multicultural experiences are enlightening, entertaining and pleasurable really imply that all cultures are 'equal'? Do we really believe that the greatest artworks produced in Africa are equal to the greatest works produced in Europe or China? Are the differences in our judgments simply a matter of ignorance or bias? Or have we simply been afraid to challenge this view in our universities?

During the last several years, this idea of equal cultural and artistic validity has been pushed to such an extreme politics of gender, race, and ethnicity, of philosophic and aesthetic theory, that, in compensating for past bias, ignorance and misrepresentation, not only does the Western canon now include the art of women, African-Americans and non-Westerners; for some people, it has become 'imprudent' to criticize or compare such different kinds of art at all. Since sociologists, anthropologists, ethnologists and post-structuralists treat all art objects as reflections of culture, 'objectively' the Mona Lisa, a Baule sculpture - and Alfred E. Newman -are supposed to be equally significant. (This attitude was very evident to anyone who ever took a course in Pop Culture) Also, psychoanalysts tell us that art objects, no matter what their cultural origins, are all symbolic reflections of our subconscious and, therefore, offer no means for comparing and evaluating their qualities. Skillfully made, functional or decorative objects of fabric, metal, clay and other similar materials produced by these previously underrepresented artists are now assumed to be as significant as the Leonardos and Rubens in the Louvre because they all reflect cultural values. Any claim for the greater value of the Mona Lisa would be seen as elitist.

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 'superior' to an African tribal artwork is assumed to be the result of cultural insensitivity. If I would say that I think that Michelangelo's David is in some way 'better' or more important than a Baule fertility 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 reflection of my Western background. Such statements also imply that my judgment would not be true for a Baule and that a Baule might perceive his sculpture as superior to the Western artwork. I might be told by contemporary aestheticians that if I were to perceive the subtleties and complexities of their sculpture, as would a Baule, I would appreciate it as I would Michelangelo's.

There were even those who claimed 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 maintained 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 and 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 was, of course, an indication of Western racism.

Western cultural art values have varied considerably over the years. Often, the fact that the Western canon has constantly changed, that critics have been wrong, that there are no masterpieces which have stood the test of time is used as an argument that there can be no objective standards for making judgments. Many artworks of non-Western cultures which we now call masterpieces were ignored or denigrated before they were accepted. History is full of examples of our cultures inability to recognize any quality in the art of other cultures. 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 curiosities or artifacts of savages in exotic, far away places. Anthropologists and ethnologists saw such artifacts as objects produced for religious purposes and having no aesthetic qualities. On the other hand, French artists saw them as expressions of feelings with strong formal characteristics. Roger Fry wrote that "Some of these things are great sculpture Ð greater, I think, than anything we have produced even in the Middle Ages." To the Surrealists, they were projections of fantasy, dreams and imagination. Considering the fact that so many original judgments of Western art have been overturned, that we were wrong about Rembrandt, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Monet, Picasso and Matisse, how can we have confidence in any judgments?


We can, of, course, maintain that all judgments are a matter of our personal taste; 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." Although ultimately the bottom line may be that we either like something or not, taste is too superficial a concept to apply to the judgment of art. According to the assumptions underlying this point of view, the purpose of art is pleasure and entertainment. As gratifying as this assumption might be, it is inadequate. I believe that the purpose of art - at least, great art - should be insight, edification or uplift; it should expand and explore our ability to perceive our world. 'Appreciating' art should be more meaningful than getting pleasure from a good Merlot or grading the different qualities of Absolute and Stoltynaya vodka, the better costing more. Also, a problem with taste is that we can develop a taste for almost any perceptual experience. However we describe our taste, we do little to explain or justify the artwork.


Although the anthropologist, Franz Boas, before the turn of the last 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. In his structuralism, he emphasized what he called the "difference" and the "Other" and neutrally considered 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, in fact, any hierarchy of values. Most instrumental in this equalization in the judgments of the arts of all cultures - first introduced by Roger Fry and developed by art historians and aestheticians such as Herbert Read - was the presumption that underlying differences between Western and non-Western art, there is a common, universal aesthetic sensibility and that insensibility in perceiving, say, African art could be overcome by familiarity and education. According to this interpretation, what all art had in common was the expressive qualities of line, form and color. Expanding on this idea, Clive Bell talked about "Significant Form", but was vague in explaining what it was significant of. From this point of view, content and function were irrelevant. We did not have to know the ideas or values underlying an art object.

This point of view, however, although it may lead to some kind of universal art appreciation, does not account for judgments within a culture or even allow for the possibility that the art objects of one culture may, in any sense, be superior to those of others. Although it may attempt to explain art forms as a result of different physical and cultural environments, it does not judge the differences between cultural values and offers no means of doing so. It assumes that all people should respond to the same qualities in an art object, but there is an incongruity between the idea of universal sensibility and individual cultural identity and representation.

Some thinkers, like Isaiah Berlin, believed in the incommensurability of cultures and that we lack criteria by which one culture can be rated as superior to another. But Berlin also believed that there are 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 way of representing its experiences, does not mean that all representations have the same capacity to express experiences or that all experiences are equally significant. The significance of cultural insights for us today may be that we understand more and can now include more in what we can judge. We now have more options in making judgments. As a result, we may qualify our own values; but we still have to make judgments in their terms. It is one thing to be inclusive in what one judges; it is something else to avoid or prevent judgments altogether.


To maintain for whatever reasons that all art objects are of equal value may be politically safe, but it is also to trivialize art. I believe that great art, no matter what its cultural origin, should convey something important, its greatness being in the magnitude and transformational power of the objects in which such values result. Although important subject matter does not in itself make for great art, as with literature and theater, great art represents significant human values even if they are not ours. Great art is often revelatory, transforming the way we see and interpret nature. It may include images of birth and death, fertility, the relationships between mothers and children, between men and women, of heroes, the achieving of manhood, marriage, cultural myths, cosmologies, and also, religious dogma, political power, military victories, social conflicts and so forth. Think of Michelangelo's paintings in the Sistine Chapel, those of Tintoretto in Scola de San Rocco and the sculptural programs or the stained glass windows on Chartres Cathedral, the sculptural programs at Angkor Watt, on Indian temples and monasteries, such as those at Ajanta and other similar works. We no longer think that we have to accept the values underlying such works in order to recognize their greatness.

Although it is sometimes difficult or impossible to know the values underlying a work of art, in so far as possible, such knowledge should be an aspect of our perception. We don't have to be Catholic, a Neo-Platonist, a believer in classical values or a religious reformer to gaze in awe in the Sistine Chapel, although our understanding of Neo-Platonism, classicism, and the Reformation would expand our response. We don't have to be Buddhist to recognize the greatness of Indian temple sculpture or Chinese landscape painting, although understanding Buddhist philosophy would certainly enrich our experience.


Such issues are especially evident in Western perception and judgment of African art. African art was transformative and revelatory to European artists at the beginning of the last century because it opened up new ways of seeing and representing, but it made no difference whether the sculpture which they saw was 'good' or successful to an African. European artists were ignorant of its function and saw its forms as the powerful expressions of artists unrestricted by Western art conventions. Its discovery by Picasso in 1907 led to a major tradition in Western art that lasted for over 50 years. But, in this sense, African art was not revelatory to Africans. Although they judged the quality of their art and recognized the skill with which it was made, its significance to the artists who made it was primarily its usefulness as a spiritual force, not revelation or expression. Some of the objects they made were too sacred or awesome to be even scrutinized, objects for personal shrines kept in private rooms. They made objects which achieved their meaning only when certain rituals were performed or retain their meaning and power only when used, but became inert when placed in storage. In some tribes, masks were discarded when the ritual in which they were used was over. These masks are now sold to tourists.

Although Baule artists had some room for personal variation and made some objects for display of talent and for pleasure, until recently, there was no such thing as what we might call an art object. Without in any way minimizing what to Western eyes are the special aesthetic and expressive qualities of African sculpture, we have to recognize that they made no art primarily with such functions. They were not trying to do what Western artists were expected to do. The concept of artistic expression does not exist in African cultures. 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. According to anthropologist, Susan Vogel, Baules:

Do not recognize a category of object that correspond to "art" and do not identify an "art experience". They do not appreciate and discuss the aesthetic qualities that distinguish certain things from ordinary objects Ð they discuss them by their own system of attributesÉ "Art" cannot be discussed from a Baule point of view at all, simply because their view does not include "art" in the Western sense of the word.

This, of course, is no different than what we have done with traditional, historical Western art. The idea of 'art' - of an 'art experience' - did not exist in any important sense in Western culture until the 19th century. Michelangelo was not trying to create an "art experience" when he carved his Pieta any more than a Baule sculptor did when making a fertility figure. In this sense, in so far as we ignore the content - the meaning - of the Pieta, we have also converted its perception from a religious into an "art experience". Not only can we not use or see a Baule fertility sculpture as a Baule would; there is no way we can respond to it - as art - without converting it into a kind of unintended Western aesthetic and expressive art object. However, if we acknowledge the significance of their intended underlying meanings and accept the idea that systems of belief based on print cultures have the capacity for more profound and articulated philosophical structures than that of oral cultures, then we must also recognize that Michelangelo's Catholicism involves the greater range and depth of meaning than African beliefs. If we include and compare such systems in our judgments, there is no question as to which is superior.

The same is true when we consider the technical as well as the aesthetic sophistication with which these meanings are given form. Compared to most Western sculptures, African sculptures are primarily ritual objects; they are more conventional in design, repeating formal themes with relatively minor variations. They were intended to be used, not to express personal feelings or communicate ideas. Western and African values, as with those of many other cultures - the intended meanings of the objects such artists make Ð may be incommensurate, but, with Berlin, we can judge the differences. On this basis, African tribal cultures, no matter how powerful and technically skilled we find their images, have produced nothing of a magnitude that can compare with that of the major Western and Eastern cultures.

I would also maintain that great works of art are great because they are renewable in the sense that they remain rich in perceptual possibilities. We can go back to the Sistine Chapel again and again without exhausting its impact. Although any object can be reinterpreted within any new context - sociological, philosophical or political - objects designed to be meaningful art objects have more significance, more value, for this purpose. Although new interpretations can be found for great works, their significance does not lie essentially in their underlying function, theory, their stories and myths, history and provenances, commercial value, popularity or the biography, psychology or status of the artist. It lies in the profundity of the content a work is capable of communicating - in what is intrinsically potential in the work.

With all this in mind, it would be hard for me to maintain a neutral attitude toward the comparative values of cultural arts as I did 47 years ago. I still believe that we should be knowledgeable about the cultural values that underlie the making of art objects, that the initial approach to the teaching of art should be cognitive and perceptual rather than the development of taste. I, of course, also believe that we should be sensitive to the aesthetic qualities of the arts of all cultures. But, if we are to consider the visual arts with the same seriousness that we do literature, film and theater, its content, as well as its 'language' - its formal, aesthetic structure - has to be given its proper importance. On this basis, then, I not only acknowledge the unique qualities of non-Western artworks, but also claim the superiority of some Western and Eastern artworks and would teach the reasons why we should 'appreciate' all of them.