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Why Art?

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Cleveland Museum of Art; Medici Chapel, Florence/Alinari/Art Resource
At left, a detail from Tung Ch’i-Ch’ang’s painting The Ch’ing Pure Mountain in the Manner of Tung Yüan, 1617; at right, the back of Michelangelo’s statueDay, circa 1530. Ben-Ami Scharfstein compares these two images in Art Without Borders.

Here are two books by professors of philosophy—one in Tel Aviv and the other in Christchurch, New Zealand—keen to grapple with the nature of art. Ben-Ami Scharf-stein is a veteran scholar of art and comparative religion: Art Without Borders, published as he turns ninety, surely stands as his aesthetic summation. The middle-aged Denis Dutton is best known as the founder of the Web site Arts & Letters Daily, but The Art Instinct is the first book into which he has committed his energies as a controversialist. Both professors are warmhearted educators, glad to engage their readers on a conversational level rather than to deliver pronouncements ex cathedra, and each is fired by an evident love and reverence for art. But what kind of conviction can they lend to aesthetics? Can they confer on this latecomer among intellectual projects—once memorably denounced by the Australian professor John Passmore in an essay entitled “The Dreariness of Aesthetics”—some aura of urgency?

Art Without Borders, the larger of the two books, focuses principally on the visual arts. Initially, it is true, Professor Scharfstein’s search for an “open aesthetics” leads him to float a proposal that the act of speaking could itself be considered as art; but he hardly carries this forward, unless by his own commitment to extended discussion, digression, and storytelling. (At one point he wryly describes himself wishing, as he sits at his computer, to do nothing “but only, stubbornly and self-forgetfully, keep on writing.”)

The reason Scharfstein wants to open wide the doors of aesthetics is that he can hear so many voices clamoring to gain entry. The terms of an inquiry that originated in Enlightenment Europe, predicated on classical antiquity and the Renaissance, must now be reshaped to accommodate art from every tradition across the globe. And it is not only what constitutes art, but what can be ascertained about art, that has expanded exponentially during Scharfstein’s decades of teaching. The ever-mounting studies of historians, anthropologists, and psychologists confront him with a daunting stack of information awaiting interpretation. If only he can devise sufficiently supple principles, perhaps he can encompass it all, showing “how art’s variety is qualified by its unity, and vice versa.”

Scharfstein keeps on writing; Scharfstein keeps on reading. His library stretches from New Kingdom Egypt and Tang Dynasty China, through Giovanni Pietro Bellori’s idealist art theory of 1664 and Marcel Griaule’s 1930s fieldwork among the Dogon of Mali, to the texts of postmodern conceptualists such as Sherrie Levine and the recent “neuro-aesthetic” studies of Semir Zeki. Myths from Tibet, Aboriginal Australia, and the Inuits rub shoulders with statements by Pliny the Elder, Friedrich von Schiller, and the postwar avant-gardist Karel Appel. Art Without Borders is indeed as wide-ranging a survey of the available literature on art as any single author could probably produce.

Moreover, Scharfstein reads attentively and judiciously. When it comes to Griaule, for instance, an anthropologist often suspected of planting a fabricated shamanic lore in the mouths of his colonial interlocutors, he determines that while as an art collector, the man was “less than morally exemplary,” his tales of tribal wisdom are worth relaying: “I see no sufficient reason to accuse him of conscious misinterpretation.” The temperate note is characteristic. The book abounds in generosity and a patient will to listen. It collects remarkable acts of witness, such as this reflection of a Liberian mask-carver on his own handiwork:

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.

With the many local lores of sub- Saharan Africa and, still more, with the long reflective history of Chinese painting, Scharfstein’s inexhaustible curiosity occupies itself happily. Art Without Borders could serve as a useful sourcebook in both these fields. Scharfstein loves reading and is compulsive about writing: in view of his choice of theme, he must also, I imagine, have a passion for looking. But about any such personal engagement with art objects, he is painfully shy. Note the locution he resorts to when he wants to characterize the work of the contemporary Boston-based painter Cheryl Warrick: “Her images are described as emotionally powerful…” (my emphasis). No visual reaction, it would seem, is to be adduced without independent textual authority. The book is virtually without illustrations and in their place the picturing is done by narratives, testimonies, and the occasional quotation of poetry. A rare exception is when Scharfstein essays a risky comparison between a photograph of the musclebound back of Michelangelo’s figure of Day (circa 1530), in the Medici Chapel in Florence, and another of the corrugated brushwork of Tung Ch’i-Ch’ang (Dong Qichang1), the formidable but unlovable doyen of late Ming Dynasty painting. “It is unlikely to be an accident,” he writes, “that Tung’s mountains and mountain ranges are in their bulges, thrusts, and forceful organization not unlike Michelangelo’s figures’ bulging muscles, thrusting movements, and forceful organization.” But what the parallel might be, if not an accident, Scharfstein can hardly explain, beyond offering the unilluminating comment that both artists were strong creative personalities. Formal analysis is not in his tool kit, and he flounders when he tries to characterize a style. When he writes of “the imitative, individualistic, abstract, analytical, quite human nature” of Tung’s art, what on earth are we expected to envisage?

Personalities and the issue of artistic egocentricity form one vector to this text-driven survey of art; local traditions across the globe, another; there are also chapters on the psychology of viewing and on the confluence of cultures in the contemporary world. What unifying principles emerge from all the erudition? In another turn of phrase that is so fumbling it is almost inspired, Scharfstein notes that “surely, a basic lesson is that the art of all these peoples has been congregating into a vaguely single world of artistic discourse.” Vaguely single: rather an apt characterization, if one thinks about it, of a world in which pictures of Renaissance marbles and Ming Dynasty scrolls, along with all other reproducible material—from madonnas to Madonna, from icons to emoticons—cohabit the diffuse, centerless common ground of Google Images.2 This kind of globalization, however, does not make it any easier to engage fully with art, as Scharfstein points out while discussing Aboriginal work:

To the extent that the painting becomes universal, it loses its symbolic references and therefore its depth. By Aboriginal standards, to appreciate it as an abstraction is to trivialize it.

The respect for local traditions and their diversity shown in that considerate comment proves, in the end, to win out over the philosopher’s impulse toward unity. Provisionally casting an eye over art’s “vaguely single world” in Chapter 1, Scharfstein arrives at thirty-one numbered observations, all of them tolerably plausible, or at least amiably uplifting. (“24. The experience of a work of art involves a sharing of intimate experience between whoever creates it and whoever enjoys it.”) The last of these remarks, namely “I am convinced that the views I express here are worth arguing out and arguing over,” was in fact the only one I felt any urge to disagree with. But as he proceeds with his researches his wisdom takes a more negative cast: bringing his encyclopedic labors to a close, he admits that “I have lost the desire to…[reduce] the varying cultural views of aesthetics to a few easily assimilated generalizations.” Where then is one to seek the heart of this rambling, genial, awkward hulk of a book? Although Scharfstein asserts that “art is not a single problem nor does it have a single solution,” the drift of his opening paragraphs seems to express his deepest motivation. If we humans had no art, he claims (and, by extension, if we had no aesthetics), “it would be harder for us to escape boredom, and boredom would, as always, lapse easily into apathy, and apathy into depression….” Write on, then, by all means write on. One reason it is hard to specify what Scharfstein has achieved with his magnum opus is that he declines to place himself within any particular aestheticians’ debate. While he makes the odd skeptical remark about leading writers in the field over the last few decades, such as Arthur Danto, he would rather stand on the sidelines of intellectual history than lose his irenic equability. This is not a position Denis Dutton would settle for. Here is an ebullient Web entrepreneur bidding to place his chair at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury right on the front line of battle, if he can find the right war. Dutton’s The Art Instinct is a brisk, bracingly confident performance in argumentation, full of smart journalistic touches. Dutton wants to indicate, for instance, how religiously oriented art production in New Guinea differs from tourist-trade material: “The spirit,” he writes, “may prefer a very large carving, and is not concerned whether it taxes a twenty-kilo luggage limit.” The fine-tuning of that figure lets us in on the author’s savvy when it comes to the tricks of the ethnic art market, to the check-ins at Port Moresby Airport, and indeed, when it comes to life in general beyond the library. (We also get to hear a little about his childhood around the California film industry and his time in the peace corps in India.)

Nonetheless the library is his business. There is an equal panache to the professor’s filleting of Plato and Aristotle for their thoughts about the arts; and when he has to define the nature of that field (here taken to include literature, music, and performance, as well as visual art), he weaves his way past Kant, Tolstoy, et al. to arrive at a compact dozen “cluster criteria,” for example “expressive individuality ” and “emotional saturation.” Unlike Scharfstein’s thirty-one, these are so trenchantly formulated that one can imagine them pinned up independently on a classroom wall, whether for edification or for target practice. But in the context of his book, they simply serve as a base camp in his foray in search of an enemy. The humanities, Dutton asserts, have been for the past half-century too much in thrall to a certain model of the human mind. That model posits that all our distinctly human qualities are products of nurture, inscribed on a brain that by nature is indefinite: the “blank slate” hypothesis denounced, as many readers will recall, in Steven Pinker’s best-selling book of that name, published in 2002. That celebrated evolutionary psychologist is, Dutton readily declares, his mentor in many matters—not least when it comes to drafting polished, pugnacious prose.

  1. 1

    Most people these days would spell his name in pinyin, but Scharfstein sticks to Wade-Giles.

  2. 2

    A much better argued meditation on the same cultural predicament can be found in David Carrier’s recent book, A World Art History and Its Objects (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008).

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