The Laws of Nature

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Can art break down barriers among cultures?



This question appears in Chapter 2 of Cynthia Freeland's book, But is it art? One answer is offered by John Dewey, who wrote that art is a universal language because it provides an immediate encounter with other cultures if we take the time to consider it. Freeland expands on Dewey's idea by adding that we must know the external facts before trying to acquire an internal attitude of appreciation for another community's art.

I'm reminded of a discussion we had here months ago when we considered appropriating symbols from other cultures in our own art. I think we all agreed that there's potential for misunderstanding, especially if those symbols are used in a way that might offend the originating culture. More recently, we've seen the anger that's emerged over the use of sacred symbols in our own culture. What the artist intends isn't always clear to the viewer, and can be misunderstood.

So, when Freeland asks if art can break down barriers among cultures, I wonder what those barriers are and how they form. Does art transcend all of those barriers? What does it take on the part of the viewer to openly regard and accept art from another culture or even from our own?

I'll digress from the book to offer my viewpoints on these questions. What are the barriers among and within cultures and how do they form? My personal opinion is that people, by nature, are self-protective. It's a characteristic that has successfully kept our species alive thus far. But, we take this part of our nature too far sometimes, and see danger where there is none. Mental barriers are constructed when we experience something that is different from what we are accustomed to. Will that new thing harm us in some way? Do we need to construct customs or laws to protect us from ever experiencing that again? Translated, this means that exposure to "foreign" art might automatically trigger in us the instinct to reject it. Foreign art challenges our established customs and beliefs, which we hold sacred and protect.

Does art transcend these barriers? Yes and no. I think we all respond to "beauty" as we comprehend it in any work of art. But, "art" doesn't have to be beautiful. It can rely on form and content to be considered a work of art. So, how do people accept unfamiliar form and content embedded in foreign art? I agree with Freeland that art needs to be viewed within the context in which it was created.

Finally, what does it take on the part of the viewer to openly regard and accept art from another culture and even from our own? I've already offered "logic" and "context," but would like to add eliminate fear. Fear blocks our desire to understand.
These are only my opinions, and I'd like to know yours!

9 comments:

-Don said...

What an excellent mask - I love the little sea-shell adornments in its "crown". Sweet!

Oh yeah, there was a blog with this image...

I think you and I are definitely on the same level here. As you know, this subject is one that is near and dear to my heart. I agree that fear can be a huge factor in how others respond to images and items from other cultures. I find it quite interesting how people respond to what is basically a benign object when they ascribe their own experiences, beliefs and upbringing to the viewing experience.

Great post!

-Don

-Don said...

Wait! I see a new avatar... Great photo!

-Don

Kathy said...

Hi Don - you make me laugh! Yes, I put the mask up just for you :-) It is interesting how we ascribe our feelings and beliefs to other people and objects. Definitely gets in the way. Glad you like the new avatar ... my husband took this picture last weekend while we were in NYC. I figured it was time to bring it up to date.

hwfarber said...

I think it might be easier to accept the art of other cultures than to tolerate the beliefs of other cultures. Maybe art is an early step.

-Don said...

Well put, Hallie... That's part of why I'm so thankful for my liberal arts degree...

-Don

Stan Kurth said...

I think the blogging community is offering up quite a range of art from diverse cultures. I'm sure most of you follow or are followed by artists from some other culture. I look at art from all over the world and I think there is quite a bit of universality to it. Still, fear and ignorance are alive and well and no matter the culture, art is not understood by the masses (or by me quite often) and quite often its geographical origins are reason enough for disdain. Somewhere in the mix is subjectivity; how do we learn aesthetics? Don doesn't care for "Piss Christ" nor do I. Does anyone think it is a thing of beauty? I wouldn't want it on my mantle. So following this logic does art beget beauty or is art something of a different language so diverse as to sometimes be the antithesis of aesthetics in its conceptual ways? If so, gaps will remain. Art cannot be defined, contained, unified, homogenized or policed. I kinda like it that way, but I don't like a lot of "art" that I see.

Kathy said...

Hi Hallie - good point! Thank you.

Hi Stan - even the great theorists in art over the ages have disagreed about how to define art. In more modern times, however, the definition seems to be getting broader and broader. As I've said before, it's like trying to get a firm grasp on jello.

Tonya Vollertsen said...

I think art is an expression of our inner selves but born like children and fought with like siblings also cemented to our past like parents and grandparents. That's why we feel so vulnerable, protective, possessive, proud, and defensive of it and everyone can relate to that cross culturally. I think that's why we can visit another's art blog and it doesn't matter that it is in another written language. Whatever art is it's in a language we all relate to at our core. Like love or family, that sort of thing.

Kathy said...

Hi Tonya - well said! Thank you.