An excerpt from

Art Without Borders

A Philosophical Exploration of Art and Humanity

Ben-Ami Scharfstein

Why There Is Art

Food and sex are more necessary than art, but except for bare sustenance, food needs to be made attractive by art, and sex, to go beyond mere coupling or coercion, needs the seductive attractions that evolution and art lend it. Such is the testimony of the songs, displays, and shimmering feathers of birds of paradise no less than that of the fashionable clothing, songs, and dances of human beings. This is because the brain, which interprets the world’s signals for us, is a necessarily curious, susceptible organ. It needs its native curiosity to probe the world, and its curiosity needs imagination to reconnoiter all the world’s interesting possibilities and yet avoid the inconvenience or danger of actually encountering them. Imagination, in turn, needs art, or, rather, takes the form of art, in order to make its imagined possibilities less fugitive, more tangible, and more accessible to exploration. If, lacking art, our imaginations would not cumulate or have art’s tangible bodies to explore and recall, it would be harder for us to keep our interest alive by entertaining ourselves with any of art’s many forms. Then whatever remained of our ways of playing or of entertaining ourselves would be much closer to those of other animals and lack the mark and substance of human culture. In that case, granted that we were still approximately human, it would be harder for us to escape boredom, and boredom would, as always, lapse easily into apathy, and apathy into depression, a disease that, in any case, too often afflicts us. Without art, which is to say, without the imagination that creates, appreciates, and embodies itself in art, human beings would be far sadder, duller approximations of what they in fact are.

In saying all this, I have of course been using my imagination, which is, I admit, a fallible prognosticator. But I am sure that human beings cannot remain human without art. How, otherwise, can we explain why art has existed among them at all times everywhere, why they have expended so much time, effort, and emotion in its pursuit, and why they are, with their senses, brains, and bodies, so often preoccupied with it? If I ask myself why art has existed everywhere among humans, I have a short and a long answer. The short one is: it is because art satisfies the inescapable human hunger for imagined experience in all of its imaginable variations. This hunger is our need to create, contemplate, possess, and repossess at least the shadow of what we do not have fully enough to satisfy us. Art is the instrument we use in order to give virtual presence to everything that interests us but is not effectively present enough to overcome the restlessness of an imagination too idle for its own comfort.

Think of the ways I have listed of responding to this need—first by creating, then by contemplating, and then by possessing and repossessing: We need to create art in order to respond to and exercise our imagination and our senses and by their means make the embodied equivalent, the embodied shadow, as I call it, of what we in any form want to experience, whether or not it has another, more literal existence. From the artist’s standpoint, a person also needs to create art in order to undergo the effort of making something new or, if not new, made with the passion of renewal. The latter passion characterizes the artist-craftsman who is making a new example of something with an old, traditional form, but with a skill that cannot be taken for granted. The exercise of the skill is in itself exhilarating. When especially successful, it can culminate in the maker’s feeling of astonishment and gratitude. How can one explain the birth of this object, this wonderful child, from this much less wonderful parent? As need not be said, except for their interest and ability in art, artists are likely to be more or less ordinary people, whose art depends on their imperfect nature, which they are characteristically hoping to transcend; and so the artist-maker, when bemused and exalted by the act of creation, can hardly escape a feeling of wondering parentage.

Usual as this metaphor of birth may be, I admit having been surprised to find it used by a traditional African carver. He had carved a mask for a ceremony of the women’s secret society, but when he saw the mask emerging from the bush, it was now a proud man spirit, with many women running after it. He said:

It is not possible to see anything more wonderful in this world. His face is shining, he looks this way and that, and all the people wonder about this beautiful and terrible thing. To me, it is like what I see when I am dreaming. I say to myself, this is what my neme [spirit] has brought into my mind. I have made this. How can a man make such a thing? It is a fearful thing that I can do. No other man can do it unless he has the right knowledge. No woman can do it. I feel that I have borne children.

Having, like this carver, become a parent, an artist-maker is emotionally responsible for the object that, regardless of how it looks or sounds, must in some ways be a testimony to its maker’s traits. Even when taken to be the fulfillment of a traditional task, every work of art therefore embodies signs of a more or less definite personality and carries some personal, even if unconscious, message, though its identity may soon grow obscure. But as I will emphasize later, the message is also impersonal, in the sense that it is meant to be delivered to anyone anywhere, a complete stranger no less than an intimate friend, with the same force.

As well as creating, we need to contemplate art in order to make our lives fuller and more focused. In its contemplation, we learn to demarcate ourselves more clearly and, at the same time, become both more individual and more social. This happens because the arts are like speech, itself an art, in that they help to join persons who regard one another as individuals into a kind of community. Individuals who seriously contemplate the same art weaken the barriers of strangeness that might otherwise separate them from one another. The contemplation of art helps us to respond to its impersonally personal messages by sensing the bond between its other real and possible viewers. Those who contemplate the same kind of art at least begin to enter into the same aesthetic community and, beyond the community, a whole similar aesthetic world. I anticipate that this idea will come to life as I describe the art, the artists, and the ideals of the great worlds of art.

Along with creation and contemplation of art, I have said, there is the need to possess and repossess it, which is the need to keep directly before our eyes whatever nourishes the perceptions we prefer to have. By having the art we prefer visibly before us, we feel we are fulfilling ourselves and, by means of our idiosyncratic choice, are becoming the individuals we have chosen to be. Each time that we take pleasure in or remember the art that we possess, our imagination acts to possess it again. For this reason, the art that we possess asserts, enriches, and extends us: as individuals, we are (also) everything that, by need or hunger, we have made or acquired. Of course, the worth of the art we have assures us of our own worth; but along with the art, we acquire sensitivity to something other than ourselves, the messages that it conveys.

As we know, the messages conveyed by visual (or other nonverbal) art, by which I mean mostly painting and sculpture, cannot be put into words without great loss. Visual messages can be fully conveyed only by means of their colors and shapes, which in turn arouse kinesthetic and synesthetic responses, for which there is hardly any vocabulary—how well can anyone describe the sensation of muscles as they tense or relax and joints as they move, or how well can a synesthetic person describe a color’s sound or a sound’s color or taste, which to the person are (often) absolutely real? Whatever their medium, the messages resonate with often unnamable emotions and half-hidden memories. Even though we may not grasp these messages accurately, the desire to distinguish between them sensitizes us, and we improve at least the ability to discriminate between them. In this way, works of art become an individual form of aesthetic wealth, a resource for enriching our particular lives.

Everything I have said up till now will be developed, qualified, and documented. For the moment, I turn to another, more personal question, which is why I have undertaken to write this book, with its ambition to go beyond the ordinary limits of aesthetics. The answer is that I want to go beyond the extreme variety of art, which everyone notices, and instead to show how art’s variety is qualified by its unity, and vice versa. Free of the weight of the art historian's obligations, it is easier for me to explore significant detail more fully than is possible in a history that takes in the art of the whole world. My aim of course opens me to the charge of rashness. In my defense, I can only say that I have been interested in comparative thought and art for long enough to feel confident that I can carry out my project in an intellectually responsible way. The attempt to go beyond the frontiers of our own time and culture leaves me especially dependent on narrower, more specialized studies. But my own aim, unlike theirs, is to keep both the whole and its details in at least successive views. The great museums of the world now gather art from everywhere in the world, and I want to guide myself and my reader through these testimonies of different cultures without losing either the varying contexts or the panhuman resemblances. Newspapers carry reports of art exhibitions and auctions across the globe, and I want to understand what unites all these examples of art, aside from their physical presence in certain museums and aside from the auction prices they command. That is, I want to create a more than superficial framework of aesthetic and social conceptions that can embrace the art of all cultures. The metaphors that come to mind are those of the airplane and the computer, which allow us to see things as a whole from a great physical or psychological distance and yet to zoom down to examine details at close range and then zoom up again to views at greater distance, shrinking and stretching the distances so that we can catch sight from above of the places we recall and their extraordinary buildings, and even, at a magical extreme, peer through their windows and catch a tantalizingly glimpse of the shrines and works of art inside them. For seeing the individual artists, we need no magic nor any faces but only, if they still exist, their works and their words.

Here the difficult final question will be, Are the standards of judgment of the different worlds of art irreducibly relative? I already know that I will contend that these standards, although developed in relative isolation in India, China, Europe, and elsewhere, are practically and aesthetically related to one another. As I will show, they are related by everything that is similar in human conception, perception, and action—to put it very simply, by how all human beings see, hear, move, make things, and, generally, live. But they are also related by an empathic kind of communication, which is the irresistible tendency to create and respond to the impersonally personal messages of art. This tendency expresses the communicative nature of all human beings and, for that matter, of all social animals.

The Aesthetic Dimension of Life

The statement I made above, that art exists in order to satisfy the hunger for imagined experience, is not by itself adequate. One shortcoming is that it is easy to assume that I used the word “art” in its relatively new sense, that of “fine art,” which, by excluding the kind of art the European tradition does not value highly, has become too confining for my purpose. A shortcoming that appears to me more serious is the possible implication that art is something that can be accurately separated from non-art, that is, from the less imaginative, more prosaic part of life. I reject this implication because I am sure that all of our consciously experienced life has an aesthetic aspect or dimension and, as such, is the general precursor of art, or, better, the indispensable elementary material of which art is made. I know that you may have good reason to object to my view that we can react to anything and everything as possible art. I therefore want to explain why, even if your view is justifiable, I prefer my own. To explain, I have to, first, make a point about choosing among conceptions of art, and then clarify the idea of the aesthetic aspect or dimension of life.

The dictionary of current English I am holding in my hand has nine definitions of art, some with subdefinitions, none of which it would make sense to dispute. If we aim the question “What is art?” broadly, beyond the Western tradition, we get as many different answers as there are cultures; and if we hope for an answer that is more than a set of successive descriptions, we seem destined to a generalizing superficiality or an honest failure. Failure to me would include any extremely relativistic conclusion. In fact, the difficulty is greater than it may at first seem, because when I say that we would get as many answers are there are cultures, I am oversimplifying—each culture has invented a variety of conceptions; and if I wanted to go on, still decently but with a subversive stubbornness, I would add that in all the great art cultures there have been many persons with individual conceptions of art, of which detailed histories of art have the obligation to take notice. Yet I am committed to formulating a view of aesthetics that is in principle relevant to all cultures.

It is because of this commitment that in the penultimate chapter I try to find common ground among the most characteristic aesthetic conceptions of many of the art cultures with which I deal. These cultures include Europe, whose aesthetic is suffused with intimations of Neoplatonism; Africa, in which one of the two peoples I take up in detail require their art to show “goodness” and “clarity”; India, whose art theory, based on poetry and poetic drama, asks for aestheticized, depersonalized emotions; China, whose aesthetic is based on “reverberation of the life-breath,” the force that animates everything; and Japan, where sensitivity to aesthetic beauty is tempered with regret for beauty’s imminent end. I try, seriously, to find what all these forms have in common but, I must admit, with only very partial success, tempered with the idea that, despite their differences, they share a common universe of discourse. Obviously, then, any aesthetic theory I construct has to apply to all these different and, in some respects incompatible, aesthetic theories without denaturing any of them and without surrendering to empty platitudes.

The way out is to recognize that an aesthetic view or theory is not a truth that can be denied only by spurning the revered tradition that discovered it, blinding oneself to the light of its self-evidence, or attacking the barricades that philosophers have built up to defend it. The way out is to regard a proposed aesthetic theory as neither more nor less than a tool meant to solve the problems that its author has set, for whatever reason. The problems I have set myself and my readers encompass an irreducible variety of cultures, so different from one another that even their broad similarities, when examined closely, show notable differences. For example, among the cultures I have enumerated, it is fairly usual to distinguish between artisans, who are ordinary workers, and artists, who, if successful, are regarded as inspired and are dignified with the highest praises. In pre-Hellenistic Greece, potters, painters, and sculptors might be admired or admire themselves for their skill, but they were, socially speaking, workers; only poets and their like could be honored as inspired creators. In ancient China, potters and sculptors were ordinary workers; true artists, as we would call them, had to be poets or calligraphers, or by relation at first to calligraphy, painters (but for a long time, not professional ones). In India, the inspired artists were the poets and poetic dramatists. In Africa, the notion of “artist” is sometimes applicable and sometimes not; and the position of sculptors might be either high or low. Japan may be unique in that it granted great dignity to artisans it recognized as superior transmitters of precious traditions. Today in the West, it is still usually true that the artistic status of a potter falls well below that of a sculptor, and the status of a weaver, textile designer, or graphic artist below that of a painter. A theory meant to encompass all these differences in status cannot commit itself to favoring any one of them. It must be flexible enough to be applied to all the arts and crafts that are essential to the great dance-dramas of Africa or Polynesia and Melanesia, even when the peoples involved distinguish mostly between what is well-made and ill-made and not between artisanship and art. Briefly, I do not contend that my conception of aesthetics is truer than any other, but only that it is the most useful I know for an aesthetics that means to be equally open to all the artistic traditions.

I return to the idea of the aesthetic aspect or dimension of life. As I use the term, the aesthetic is anything in experience that is other than the merely literal or practical. But the aesthetic and literal or practical I distinguish are inseparable, except verbally or imaginatively, from the acts, events, objects, or persons of which they are, in the terminology I suggest, aspects or dimensions. How, then, can the aesthetic dimension be distinguished in words or imagination? The aesthetic dimension of experience is the free interest we take in our acts, our thoughts, and the functioning of our senses. It is in the mode of conscious experience, even when the consciousness is evasive and marginal; and it is in the mode of the consciousness of this consciousness; and in the mode of the imaginative response and the associative tie. It includes the small perceptual pleasures and exaltations of everyday life. It is the blueness we see as blue (and not just the sign of something else, maybe a bruise); it is the pain we feel, from a perceptual distance, as pain; the perception of another’s smile as a smile; the changing geometrical relationships of the buildings as we pass them and the spatiality of the street and the sky; the stance of the neighbor’s body standing before us; the wind as the wind-emotion’s blowing; the sun as the imagination’s response to its heat, light, motion, distance, and remote rule over the sky it lights. The feeling of the wind and seeing of the sun are touched with emotions and tinged with remnants of old memories. The seeing is most evidently aesthetic when it is colored with some exaltation, and when the feeling and seeing seem to be entering into us as if we were taking them in from our surroundings. This experience comes with the feeling that the world is in some way alive and full of vision. This, then, is an aesthetic aspect of the visible world taken in all at once by the simple act of opening our eyes.

The aesthetic aspect of ordinary experience plays a traditionally and, I think, emotionally fundamental role in each of the crafts and arts. The emotion is already there in the early love we all have for the feeling of our hands and mind when they work together to feel or change some object, as when they plunge together into water, mud, or sand, or together move, mark, bend, shape, cut, tear, or break anything. I say this out of experience that is common to us all, but the working together of hands and mind has an effect on the brain that can be roughly measured. In the crafts, this pleasure is refined into the cutting, gouging, smoothing, and decorating of a useful object, and into the pleasure taken in the object’s shape, touch, and decorativeness. This pleasure emphasizes and is emphasized by the use to which the object is put, the affection in which it is held, and the value that is attributed to it.

The link between use, affection, and value is self-evident. I myself take pleasure in and even love the materials I hoard for use in drawing. The many pens I keep on my desk illustrate the value that accrues to anything I can write with. I used to attribute such value to a typewriter, which is now replaced by a computer. But the most striking examples of love derived from use are those of musicians’ love for their instruments. Yehudi Menuhin describes his violin, part by part, as if it were a beloved woman and says, “I have always kissed the head of my violin before putting it back to sleep, as it were, in its case.” The musicologist and pianist Charles Rosen says, “Pianists do not devote their lives to their instrument simply because they like music.” They have to have a love for

the mechanics and difficulties of playing, a physical need for the contact with the keyboard, a love and a need which may be connected with a love of music but are not by any means totally coincident with it. This inexplicable and almost fetishistic need for physical contact with the combination of metal, wood, and ivory (now often plastic) that make up the dinosaur that the concert piano has become is, indeed, conveyed to the audience and becomes necessarily part of the music. . . . The danger of the piano, and its glory, is that the pianist can feel the music with his whole body without having to listen to it.

In sculpture, the pleasure of working includes the resistance and compliance of the clay to the fingers, the yielding of a particular piece of marble to a hand moving a specific chisel, and the flow of a certain metal into a particular mold—and so on, always in particular aesthetic responses. In painting, pleasure comes from the sticky thickness of the paint and the speed with which it goes on as it follows the motion of the arm that moves to the purpose that is set and reset by the mind. Arm and mind go into one another and become the same purpose and pleasure. In his poem, “To the Hand,” Rafael Alberti says it this way:

To you, tremor & steadiness, guide
of the eyes’ thread, mysterious line of sight
which flows thence to the brush’s underside?
and sets it in a germinative light.

The mere ability to work has made a painter cry with pleasure. Disabled by the collapse of a spinal artery, Chuck Close had to learn how to paint again. When he looked at the paintings by Petrus Christus and Hans Holbein in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he realized, he says, that all that he loved in the history of painting, especially portrait painting, is small and tight and the product of fine motor control, which he had lost. “I was depressed for days,” he recalls, “but then I ended up with a cathartic experience because I found myself in my studio feeling so happy just to be working again that I was literally whistling while I painted and at the same time tears were streaming down my cheeks.” What brought him to that place was a rare kind of event, but in his struggle to create again, in any way, he touches on something true for all artist-makers.

I don’t mean to imply that the work of arm and mind is either jointly or separately always and in every way a pleasure. It’s dirty, the materials get perversely resistant, the mind goes numb. Each morning, as James Elkins tells us, the painter faces

going into a room suffused with the penetrating sharp odor of turpentine and oil, standing at the same table, so covered with clotted paints that it no longer has a level spot for a coffee cup, looking at the same creaking easel spattered with all the same colors—that is the daily experience of all serious painters, and it is what tempts insanity.

But sensuous and spattered materials apart, all of us are unknowingly artists. This conclusion emerges from the fact, to which almost no one pays attention, that we all spend a great deal of time every day in practicing what ought to be recognized as a complex and extraordinarily subtle art. I am referring to the art of speech. To begin to make the point, I quote the poet Robert Pinsky, who is struck by our surprising ability to identify poetry by the sound it makes:

Because we have learned to deal with the sound patterns organically, for practical goals, from before we can remember, without reflection or instruction or conscious analysis, we all produce the sounds, and understand them, with great efficiency and subtle nuance. Because of that skill, acquired like the ability to walk or run, we already have finely developed powers that let us appreciate the sound of even an isolated single line of poetry—even if we have very little idea of the meaning —that someone might quote with appreciation.

Speech is the most intensively learned, widely practiced, and sensitively employed of all the human arts. True, its instruments are parts of our bodies, but so are the singer’s vocal cords and the artist’s hand, while the dancer’s instrument is the body as a whole. An ordinary person’s control over the organs of speech is as delicate and nuanced as that of a musical instrument by a good musician—it involves the coordination of about a hundred muscles. The control of the speaking voice must be as deeply inbred as the bowing, finger work, or breathing patterns of a musician who began to practice in early childhood.

The voice, the vehicle of speech, is probably the musical instrument—percussive instruments excepted—in relation to which all other musical instruments are innately measured. Every kind of emotional response elicits its own half-instinctive vocal contour, and every person has a vocal contour and quality that are characteristic of only that individual but that, all the same, do not obscure the meaning of the spoken words. The inherent musicality with which the voice composes speech is evidently necessary for human relations. The musicality of the voice also causes music of every other kind to carry intimations of speech. This makes it impossible for us to divide ourselves into purely musical and purely verbal, or purely aesthetic and purely utilitarian creatures. The utilitarian aspect of speech is as a rule so hard to divide from its aesthetic aspect because speech is the constantly improvised art by whose means we react to and control our everyday life. When its expressiveness is heightened by the motion of the arms, shifting of the body, and changing expressions of the face, speech has much of the quality of a contained but spontaneous dance. In using the art of speech as its instrument, poetry, especially formal poetry, transforms one art into what is almost another; in sung music, the transformation goes further, though it leaves the words something of their word-nature.

There can be doubts. It is easy to define art so as to exclude ordinary speech. Ordinary speech is neither bought nor sold nor put on exhibition, and when recorded, loses its improvisatory quality. Besides, ordinary speech is not the defining activity of the specially trained persons who are designated as artists, likely to live in the company of other artists, to read art periodicals, to wear identifying artist clothing, and to hope that their work will be recognized enough to make them famous and rich. Here one and there another artist is great by any human standard. Ordinary speech is too usual for all that. If we sang our speech like the characters in an opera, talking would be much louder and take much longer, but it would still be too usual. We don’t notice that speech is such a great skill because we all use it all the time. Like the air we breathe, we pay attention to it mainly when we lack it, when, for instance, we are in a country whose language we cannot speak.

The skill that speech requires and the natural pleasure that we take in using it are in themselves enough from my standpoint to justify calling it art. As I’ve said, considered along with facial expression and gesture, it is also a highly subtle medium for expressing emotion and for relating persons in act and in emotion. If the measure of an art is the difficulty in putting its success into words, then, for me, speech is an art, and I would fail if I tried to write an accurate description of its shifting momentary nuances. The spoken moments that go by are indescribable and irrecoverable, except in memory, which keeps but also reshapes them.

Like every art, speech is unique, with its own inherent effects. Sometimes, at rare moments, like a large wave rising above smaller ones, speech can excite us with its spontaneity, inventiveness, and eloquence. As with the other arts, this sense of fulfillment arises out of our own skills, concerns, and pleasures. The philosopher Roman Ingarden (1893–1970) is said to have been a poet of objects and would talk about the role of everyday things in our lives with an extraordinarily infectious interest. One of his students remembers that

one day, after he’d given one of his most inspired lectures on the life of objects (and when he talked he was really talking about our world), he took a fountain pen from his jacket’s inner pocket, probably to jot down a few words, one of the little discoveries he’d made for us in the course of that unforgettable, endlessly generous hour. But we couldn’t suppress a muffled sigh of rapture: that beautiful fountain pen, black and shining, suddenly struck us as an object from legend, from another species of beings, from a family in which its brother was the unicorn and its sister was the nymph Calpyso.

Here I must add a word on the relation between ordinary speech and poetry. Although poetry can be regarded as an art that uses speech as its raw material, speech has certain advantages over poetry as we usually read it. The reason is that poetry in its printed form has been stilled, while speech—living speech—retains the charm of its unpredictability and the emotional warmth with which it connects us. Maybe that’s why so many of us spend so much more time talking with one another than reading poetry. When I say this, I may be almost joking, for the flow of conversational intimacy is surely essential to our being. Does it follow, then, that the person who achieves conversational eloquence is equal to the poet? I think the question is interesting, but it makes sense not to answer it, because, for the imagination, conversation and poetry contain one another. They contain one another, all my argument has been saying, because imagination, which is poetic in a more than technical sense, is present everywhere, sometimes even in what may seem to be its absence or its opposite.

Having said this, I cannot find either in myself or in anyone else just what poetry is because poetry has as many aspiring essences as there are poets and occasions for poetry. To avoid this hesitation, I quote Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens, both thoughtful poets, on the nature of poetry. Frost, venturing a few definitions, begins, “All poetry is a reproduction of the tones of actual speech.” He ends his group of definitions by saying that a poem, which starts in a homesickness or a lovesickness, “is a reaching out toward expression; an effort to find fulfillment. A complete poem is one where an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found the words.”

Speaking in a quite different voice, Wallace Stevens notes that reality has come to press on us so heavily that it is the poet’s duty to press back. Therefore poetry now is “a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality. It seems, in the last analysis, to have something do with our self-preservation; and that, no doubt, is why the expression of it, the sound of its words, helps us to live our lives.”

That life always has an aesthetic dimension is something, as I have said, that can only be suggested, not proved. Even to call it a dimension is to divide it from its matrix, life as a whole, and give it a too separate existence. But there are advantages in thinking of life as always having an aesthetic dimension. If life is always also aesthetic, art can plausibly be explained as a heightened, more highly focused embodiment of ordinary pleasures and perceptions.

I’m sure that common and uncommon experience bear out what I’m saying, but let me confirm the relation between the impulses of ordinary life and devotion to art with the help of a psychological study of museum professionals—curators, educators, directors of major collections of art, and the like. The psychologists who conducted the study, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi and Rick Robinson, summarize “a possible basic definition of the aesthetic experience” from their study of the museum professionals:

On the analysis of what we have learned, we can define it as an intense involvement of attention in response to a visual stimulus, for no other reason than to sustain the interaction. The experiential consequences of such a deep and autotelic involvement [an involvement that has its end in itself] are an intense enjoyment characterized by feelings of personal wholeness, a sense of discovery, and a sense of human connectedness.

If we take life in all its manifestations to be almost always also aesthetic, it is easier to explain why the arts have taken so many different forms and have nevertheless seemed to us to be so much alike, identifiable emotionally or imaginatively as art in spite of their variety. And if we grant that all experience has an aesthetic dimension, it becomes easier to understand why contemporary art has no clear boundaries at all, not even academic or institutional ones. I think that in becoming open to all the varieties of experience, contemporary art shows that it has tacitly adopted for itself the view for which I am arguing. That’s why art today so often seems to be just an accentuation of some episode or characteristic of everyday life.

There is one more advantage to this idea of the aesthetic dimension. It has to do with the very concept of art. As I have said, what we now call art might not be singled out as such in other cultures. Does the ritual use of an object, which is shaped, decorated, and consecrated only to make it ritually effective, allow us to consider the object to be a work of art? The idea of the aesthetic dimension of normal human perceiving makes it possible to answer this question with a yes. The creators of such a ritual object took its artfulness for granted, or felt the artfulness to be only a way of marking the object to show how important or precious its use made it.

Of course, there are many possible relations between the use of an object and its character as art. For this variety, anthropologists are especially good witnesses. Thus, for example, Howard Morphy writes, “A Marquesan club … possesses many of the attributes of art—fine craftsmanship, aesthetic appeal, signs of status and religious symbolism—but it could also be used to crack someone’s skull. Its functional attributes as a weapon have no necessary connection with its attributes as art.” However, “its capacity to destroy may interact with aesthetic aspects of its form to give it particular connotations as an art object that it may not otherwise have had”—like bows, swords, lances, and armor, and like lovingly crafted guns.

David Maybury-Lewis, another anthropologist, reads art into the whole life of the villagers he is observing, the Xavante, of the Mato Groso in Brazil. The Xavante, he explains, climax their important ceremonies with relay log-rolling races, which have an electrifying effect on everybody. Strangely from our standpoint, members of the side that is winning, maybe because they are rolling a lighter log or have more and therefore fresher runners, drop back to help the losing side and make the race more even. As the surprised anthropologist reports on the end of a log-race in which he has taken part:

The two logs arrived in a virtual dead heat. Pandemonium. Everybody seemed to be speechifying or shouting or just yelling with glee. It was by common consent the most beautiful log race that had been celebrated for a long time. It was then that I understood. It was not a race at all, at least not in our sense. It was a ceremony, an aesthetic event. Xavante meant it when they asked if it was beautiful. They were as nonplussed by notions of winning and losing as we might if a Xavante turned to us at the ballet, after watching the principal dancers leap athletically off the stage, and asked, “Who won?”

… The running of the logs expresses the dynamic tension between opposing principles. The purpose of the ceremony is to stress that these antitheses need not tear the world apart.… And what better symbol of equilibrium than two teams that exert themselves to the utmost and finish in a dead heat? At last I understood that this was the ideal, the most perfect outcome of a log-running, for it established the perfect synthesis.

Maybury-Lewis says that all Xavante activities of any importance are carried out by opposite social groups, moieties, which interact and reflect the search for harmony by alternation, interaction, and reconciliation, weaving every individual into the mesh of village relationships. He thinks of Xavante aesthetics as “concerned with this whole pattern of living. The beautiful things they produce—the mats, the baskets, the songs and dances—are merely contributions to their major art form, which is life itself.”

Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 1–17 of Art Without Borders: A Philosophical Exploration of Art and Humanity by Ben-Ami Scharfstein, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2009 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)

Ben-Ami Scharfstein
Art Without Borders: A Philosophical Exploration of Art and Humanity
©2009, 560 pages, 9 halftones
Cloth $35.00 ISBN: 9780226736099

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for Art Without Borders.

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