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Teaching Non-Western Aesthetics, Teaching Popular Art
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Crispin Sartwell

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.

I’ve come to think that’s not the students’ fault. Art and philosophy as those things are often thought of in our culture are irrelevant to their lives, and that’s okay. In fact, I would say that western philosophy and western fine art are designed to be irrelevant to the lives of most folks. They are supposed to be incomprehensible to people like most of the students I have taught. We aestheticians and our discipline are one little node of this exclusion; we’re the location at which people can be excluded simultaneously from art and from philosophy. And then we’re liable to whine that no one’s interested. In my opinion, most people shouldn’t be interested in what we do; it’s fundamentally boring and irrelevant. If people were interested in what we do, if they could actually find a place for it in their lives, we’d move on to something else, something more complicated, something concerning even less accessible objects; we’d develop an even duller jargon, if such a thing is possible.

We’re working with a conception of art in which most art is isolated in little cultural zones like the museum, the concert hall, the poetry reading, where art is supposed to function by sweeping us from our grubby little world and into the exalted realm of the aesthetic. When a student finds art in that sense irrelevant to her grubby little life, we congratulate ourselves on the success of our ideology. Take a gander at modernism, with its systematic purgation of extra-artistic content, with its formalism and its attack on pleasure and interest and desire, with its abstraction, atonality, self-reference and so forth: the only surprising thing would be if people were ready to bring it into their day-to-day lives. The stuff is defined by its exclusions. And we philosophers have, precisely, defined it by its exclusions: think of “significant form” or the institutional theory or psychical distance. We’ve tried to make a little zone of purity, and we’d be disappointed if a bunch of people like our students actually wanted access to it; we’d feel polluted. I want you to contemplate for a moment just how much fear and hatred of the world and of the people in it is inscribed in our practice.

All right, that’s the Cliff Note version of my diatribe. But I’ll give you the cure as well. First of all, if you take a decently broad and respectful notion of art, art already plays an important role in the life of every student. Second, the western tradition is the only tradition that performs this particular set of exclusions, that expresses its fears and hatreds of the world and of the great unwashed in this particular ideology.

Here’s what I do. First, I try to take a very broad notion of art: one that, among other things, counts crafts as arts, counts popular arts as arts: one that makes art a way of making or experiencing things rather than a set of objects or genres or geniuses or institutions. That’s close to the pre-modern western conception of art, and it’s part of the artistic and spiritual traditions of most cultures. Thus I use non-western texts to elucidate (stuff I count as) western art. Many of these texts are actually much closer to my students’ and my own experience of art than the Third Critique or The World as Will and Idea or “The Intentional Fallacy” or “The Artworld.” That’s not even paradoxical because, as I say, those works are meant as attacks on the experiences of people like most of my students. Chinese or African or African-American or Native American aesthetics are much more accessible to my students than the works of “their own” tradition (whatever that means; my students have multiple origins, and the “western tradition” is a fiction anyway).

A very good place to start is popular music. Most students listen to it every day; many are extremely passionate about their preferences; many of them have compendious knowledge about hip hop or punk or country; many of them have elaborate standards of evaluation. With some exceptions (maybe Dewey, for instance), western aesthetics polices a border here, doesn’t think that’s art, because its (supposedly) not formally interesting enough, not hard enough, not enfranchised in the art institution and so forth.

Just a few bald assertions: what western aesthetics hates about popular musics is that people actually listen to them, that they’re accessible. It hates that they’re alive as traditions, that country music defines itself, for example, by continuities with the past rather than radical avant-gardes. It hates that they’re useful (for dancing, say, or singing along with in the car). And it can’t deal with American popular musics in particular because their structures and performance modes and uses are fundamentally non-western; in fact, they’re fundamentally African. The blues is formally basic to all American popular musics, except maybe Sousa marches or something. And much more deeply, the African festive or ceremonial contexts are basic to the ways music gets used in our culture; consider the modes of participation engaged in at bars or concerts where The Presidents of the United States of America or Alan Jackson or the Fugees are performing. We celebrate this music with our bodies: drink to it, dance to it, howl to it. Perhaps the greatest example of this is the African-American gospel tradition, which breaks apart distance in a total physical participation in religious ceremony. Many of my students at the University of Alabama have participated in that tradition since before they could speak. And figures such as Aretha Franklin, James Brown, and Otis Redding emerge directly from gospel, and emerge in turn in samples on hip hop records. These are the authentic living arts of our cultures, and if my students would rather see Hole than sit still and silent to contemplate twelve-tone row constructions, I can understand that; so would I.

Here’s a passage on music from the ancient Confucian philosopher Hsun Tzu:

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.1
Now 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.2
A 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.3
It 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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