|Teaching Non-Western Aesthetics, Teaching Popular Art|
Aesthetics is not that easy to teach. I’m often faced with students who have very little interest in philosophy or who have very little interest in fine art or who have very little interest in either. I find that in a standard aesthetics course, a course in which, say, I work through an anthology of basic readings in western aesthetics, I can overcome one of these problems, but not both. If I’ve got a student who’s interested in philosophy, I can motivate questions about art through that interest; for example, I can work on the notion of definition, family resemblances and so on in a way that the student can then apply to other areas. I’ve actually had the best success teaching aesthetics to art students. Often they’re resistant to this sort of reflection on what they do; there’s an initial sense that it’s irrelevant, and then, I think, a fear that too much reflection might mess up their art. But once they get going, they’re very excited, and have actual experience that they can feed into the conceptualities. However, when I’m dealing with engineering students or business students or nursing students or sociology students, an aesthetics class can be a horror of blank stares.
When it is performed within the household, and father and sons, elder and younger brothers listen to it together, there are none who are not filled with a spirit of harmonious kinship. And when it is performed in the community, and old people and young people listen to it, there are none who are not filled with its spirit of harmonious obedience. Hence music brings about complete unity and induces harmony.1Now this sounds kind of bizarre or even magical to western aestheticians because it actually asserts that music is for something, instead of being some sort of pure form. But this description is actually truer to the functions of music in the west than any recent treatment of music within mainstream aesthetics. Think of the function within the community of African-American gospel, for instance, or of bluegrass in Appalachia: these things are primary agents of social cohesion. And in fact, music is absolutely central to social identifications in the United States. To say you like rap, or classical music, or grunge, or classic rock is to identify yourself with a certain race, a certain generation, a certain region, and so on. It is liable to imply a style of dress and a location in a social scene. Music actually serves for us precisely the functions Hsun Tzu says it did in ancient China, and actually for the most part fails to serve the purposes ascribed to it in western aesthetics.
And the fact that music is central to cultural identifications is an explicit theme of many popular musics. So I might teach Hsun Tzu’s essay on music, and then play Ice-T’s “Straight Up Nigger,” in which he constructs an incredibly elaborate cultural identification with astonishing verbal agility, or David Alan Coe’s “If that Ain’t Country (I’ll Kiss Your Ass),” a white trash anthem for the ages. And then I’ll ask my students about how their choice of music helps them place themselves culturally. That shows them one way in which art is extremely important to them already, which they would already know except they’ve been told that anything they actually care about, or that is integrated into their everyday lives, doesn’t count as art. Music is useful, all right? Get over it. And much more widely, every art is useful in more or less every culture except western culture. (And even that is a crock: the uselessness of western art gets used, precisely for a series of exclusions that constitutes a cultural construction. That is, the purity and transcendence that the western arts supposedly provide is itself deployed for the sake of cultural identifications; the suspension of teleology is itself teleological politically.)
Most cultures do not deploy a distinction between art and religion or between art and craft. The stuff we think of as their art or their adornment gets used for healing or for worship or for festival. As soon as we see that the western separation of the fine arts from the arts of healing and devotion and craft is an ideological fiction, we open ourselves to a much wider sensitivity to the arts of our own culture. That’s what I think is most useful about going afield from the western tradition: it lets us see ourselves much more clearly, and lets my students see that art is already central to their lives. In the west we get a separation of ornament from utility that mutates into an art of abstraction, that is, an art trying to float free of the mundane, the real. But ornament has a function, in our culture as in every other. Ananda Coomaraswamy says that such words as “adornment,” “ornament,” or “decoration,”
which imply for us the notion of something adventitious or luxurious, added to their utilities but not essential to their efficacy, originally implied a completion or fulfillment of the artifact or other object in question; that to ‘decorate’ an object or person originally meant to endow the object or person with its or his ‘necessary accidents,’ with a view to proper operation; and that the aesthetic senses of the words are secondary to their practical connotation: whatever was originally necessary for the completion of anything, and thus proper to it, naturally giving pleasure to the user.2A passage like that can lead naturally into a discussion of how I and my students ornament our spaces and ourselves: what posters we’ve got up, how our furniture is arranged, what jewelry we wear, our tattoos and piercings (I dramatically start unveiling mine at this point), our makeup. We start talking about how we want to present ourselves to others, and how our ornaments, the clothing we wear, the way we arrange objects and so on performs that function. These things are not adventitious abstract decorations that we stick on ourselves; they are ways we construct our own identities by re-making our bodies and they are ways that the bodies of others become comprehensible. Every culture in the world makes body decoration, scarring, body painting, tattooing, dressing central to self-construction and spiritual life, and when we go to those cultures as anthropologists we more or less count those things as arts. In my view they’re arts in our culture too, arts we all practice, and arts central to our self-constructions and spiritual lives.
In Zora Neale Hurston’s amazing essays and books of folklore, things such as flirting, fighting, and preaching, as well as blues and gospel musics and dancing are treated explicitly as arts. Hurston asserts that their practitioners think of them as arts: “all religious expression among Negroes is regarded as art, and ability is recognized as definitely as in any other art…. It is merely a form of expression which people generally are not accustomed to think of as art.” And she also says,
Negro singing and formal speech are breathy. The audible breathing is part of the performance and various devices are resorted to to adorn the breath taking. Even the lack of breath is embellished with syllables. This is, of course, the very antithesis of white vocal art. European singing is considered good when each syllable floats out on a column of air, seeming not to have mechanics at all.3It is possible to read an entire African-American aesthetic in such passages, one that Hurston relates directly to an African heritage. Notice that the “formalization” of western art consists not only in an artificial isolation of some arts as the fine arts, and not only in an isolation of the latter as the zone of the aesthetic, but also in an isolation (hallucinatory, to be sure) of the arts from the bodies of the people that make them and receive them, and from the body of the earth. (This last isolation can be collapsed by considering Native American arts.4 Again, this is for my money a symptom of fear and hatred for the world: consider the way bodies are tortured (“trained”) in fine art dance and vocal music.
But even more important is the conception, explicit in Hurston, that art is a way of doing and making, and that it is central to forms of sociality. If flirting is an art, for example, it is because it can be absorbing, because it can be done with great skill, and because it is an act (ritualized, in some sense) of making and re-making human relationships. Art on my view is a way of doing things that we might do every day, a skilled and immersed way of living.5 And that’s something that my students and I need, and that we can already find in our lives, and that we can teach to and learn from one another. And the amazing thing is that we can actually enjoy ourselves while we do so.
1. Hsun Tzu: Basic Writings, trans. Burton Watson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1963), 113.
2. Ananda Coomaraswamy, “Ornament,” Traditional Art and Symbolism (Princeton: Bollingen Press, 1973), 242.
3. Zora Neale Hurston, “Spirituals and Neo-Spirituals,” Folklore, Memoirs, and Other Writings (Library of America, 1995), 873, 871.
4. See Gary Witherspoon, Language and Art in the Navajo Universe (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1977), chapter 4. Also Black Elk’s The Sacred Pipe, recorded and edited by Joseph Epes Brown (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1953).
5. For a beautiful treatment of this theme, see Kakuzo Okakura, The Book of Tea (New York: Dover, 1964). For a more elaborate treatment of all these themes, see my Art of Living: Aesthetics of the Ordinary in World Spiritual Traditions (Albany: SUNY Press, 1995).
1996 © Crispin Sartwell
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ASA 74th Annual Meeting
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Black Aesthetics: Questioning Aesthetics Symposium