Art as Culture: An Introduction to the Anthropology of Art

By Evelyn Payne Hatcher | Go to book overview
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Chapter 8
The Esthetic Mystery

Esthetic quality, the most essential ingredient of art, has been left until the last. The esthetic response is a very personal thing, yet there are cultural standards. Some people have thrown in the sponge and said that matters of esthetics are completely relative, yet they discuss art with the implicit assumption of universal esthetic values.

One of the reasons for leaving the consideration of esthetics until the last is that I consider that the study of art from the anthropoligical point of view calls for doing just that, putting aside considerations of esthetic excellence until one has looked at a work or a style from every other point of view. Even if one's concern is primarily appreciation, one does not come to it by being told "You ought to like that," but by withholding judgment, or to be more accurate, setting aside one's inevitable initial reaction, and first considering the work from a number of viewpoints. By defining art so very broadly in the beginning, I have opened up the possibilities of regarding perhaps the great majority of human things as art, and by this very inclusiveness forced a kind of relativism as each person is forced to select from this vast mass of material what he considers worthy of artistic contemplation. The alternative is to abdicate and only accept what the Tastemakers decree is art by placing on display objects so labeled.

This broad view, considering the esthetic dimension of many activities and many kinds of artifacts is part of the present openness, part of the rejection of ethnocentric and snobbish ideas about fine arts (d'Azevedo 1958). Carried to extremes such a view can lead to a sentimental enthusiasm for anything "hand crafted." By and large, however, the process of discovering the beauty of everyday objects enlarges and refines esthetic perception. (Sieber 1980).

When we use the word esthetic we are referring to the pleasurable response to what is beautiful, in nature and art. When applied to art, it has become unfashionable to refer to beauty, because art is not always a representation of what is beautiful in nature, and so the term confuses people. So we turn to the other great human values, the "good" and the "true,"

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