A weary trope for reading, listening or looking at a work of art outside of the canon is that of a trip or a voyage. This comparison offers such disparate interpretations as a dismissive national geographic exploration of local color, assumptions intact or a communion or transformation that shifts the very assumptions applied, or at least challenges them. All too often the experience is more like the former, an aesthetic safari, and no matter how much contact someone might have with that different landscape, whether that of their colonial subjects or their coworkers or their big sister, nothing will penetrate the airtight sphere of their ignorance. When it comes to aesthetics, remember that your aesthetics are constructed and do not criticize any art unless you are willing to criticize your assumptions.
What people so often forget when they are participating in “cultural studies,” such as a course on African American Literature or Middle Eastern Architecture is that when they are reading Austen or Eliot or walking past one of Monet’s takes on haystacks, they are doing exactly the same thing. The point is, or should be, trite, but the art of France, Russia, Western Europe or the United States is also culturally rooted or specific. Western Art (and by that I mean white and usually male) is premised just as thoroughly upon certain specific customs, conventions and assumptions as everybody else’s, and is often trying to meet specific, and by no means, universal aesthetic goals.
As a child, one of those delicious tidbits that helped mislead me into Western Chauvinism was the statement that the Chinese never discovered harmony. This is false, classical Chinese music uses a different scale than classical European, and utilizes different harmonies. There are not the same tensions and releases as may be found in a Mozart symphony, but classical Chinese music has its own beauties: a much more expansive and free notion of space and silence, more interesting rhythmic variety, different timbres and melodies. Both types of music are great, but both are premised on totally divergent standards. Ironically, contemporary classical music often sounds much more like classical Chinese music than Mozart. Classical music has been subverting its assumptions and incorporating others (Debussy and Glass are greatly influenced by Eastern music) before that term was even invented. Similarly a Tchaikovsky may play wonderfully with melody while an Obo Addy may play wonderfully with rhythm. There are many different standards of beauty, and they all apply, whether or not you can handle them.
This does not mean that there is nothing universal in art, I will leave that up to you. Nor does that mean that every time we look at a work of art we have to apprise it as a piece of specific cultural production, although knowing the culture won’t hurt, but no one should confuse universal with western or always use western cultural production as the standard. Often in a class, which is having a “peoples and cultures” moment someone will spout some idiocy like, “we are only reading this because the author is black.” (Funny how you never hear that “we are only reading this because the author is white and male” when tumbling through valuable but certainly not titanic authors such as Bernard Malamud or Sir John Suckling.) Often these students might complain that said painting, song or novel would be suitable in a history, anthropology of sociology course, but it is not art.
Often the reason that this is opined is that the work of art should only be in a history course is that it presents specific experiences, assumptions that seem particularistic or un-aesthetic to said person. Possibly there were not enough metaphors involved or the painting style did not employ enough chiaroscuro, possibly the aesthetic was great. Either way, independently of whatever “purely aesthetic” standards are being applied, the exposition of the given different perspective did not jive with art. As if real art did not make assertions, or have assumptions, or did not exist within a culture or society.
In reading Anna Karenina or viewing some Frenchman’s warped fantasy about the Middle East, there are myriad assumptions and assertions being realized: about women, about class, about sexuality, about the Middle East, about goodness, etc. There is a whole value system at work, if you prefer a historical snapshot of 19th century France or Russia. But it is not only the matter that we have decided to bracket due to being politically correct that asserts cultural assumptions. The whole thing does. Look at the Iliad. It is gorgeous but within that gorgeousness there is expounded a specific way of life and value system. Likewise a novel that deals with the aftermath of colonization or slavery is not hopelessly mired in the political or social but simply expositing a different content, a different discourse.
In art, except at possibly the most extreme fringes of abstraction, there is always something being asserted. We are hardly ever left miming the mere form of beauty, dancing mindlessly in the sunlight, but experiencing, words, figures, actions, ideas and meaning, most importantly meaning. Lets return to the warped Frenchman and a female Middle Eastern subject: reclined, relaxed, voluptuous and passive, the great sensual enervated Orient, that presentation says something about the Middle East and women and several other things. There is much more to the painting than being pretty. After being exposed it is probably much less pretty. Such content is active in just about every work of art we come across, and if you willfully blind yourself to it you are indulging luxuriantly in your own ignorance. This is a disservice to yourself and others and the artist. If you read Kafka or look over a Michelangelo merely for the artistry and not the passions and ideas (as if, that artistry could exist without that content) you are missing the art. What’s more, if you do not recognize this content when it perpetuates stereotypes, such as the Orientalist painting, you are perpetuating those parts of cultures that hurt and silence others.
We all have these assumptions. The important thing is to never forget that. When we listen to music, watch a movie or see sculpture we have a certain set of expectations and assumptions at work, expectations and assumptions that will not hold for many works of art that could be really beautiful if you tried harder. Never criticize until you criticize your assumptions. Keep an open mind. Keep an open mind. The way to arrive at any real diversity, and better yet at any appreciation of art that may even pretend at the universality so prized in our reigning titans, is not to be achieved by squeezing in space for non-western art inside the canon, but exploding the canon itself. Nothing is sacred, nor should it be. Not that we should burn our Shakespeares. A lot of Western Art is great; I’ve spent a lot of my time here studying it. But Western Art is premised on local moments with their aesthetics and thoughts, just like all the other art in the world. All art should be treated as such. Do not go on safari. Try to learn.