Art, Science, West and Rest

The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research has posted an article called Measuring Achievement: The West and the Rest by one David Murray.

The article is supposed to be an explanation of why, when Murray inventories “Great Achievements” in science and art, the West after 1500 came out profoundly ahead of the rest of the world. A snippet:

Eurocentrism has in recent years joined racism and sexism as one of the postmodern mortal sins. The Left’s fight against Eurocentrism explains why students in elementary school are likely to know more about Mayan culture than French culture, and why liberal arts students at elite universities can graduate without taking a course that discusses the Renaissance. The assumption that Eurocentrism is a real problem accounts for the reluctance of many to celebrate Western culture-or even defend it.

Part of the Eurocentric critique is based on an open hostility to Western culture. Other cultures, it is claimed, were more in tune with the earth, fostered more nurturing personal relationships, or were more cooperative than the despoiling, competitive Europeans. These are not positions to be refuted by logic and evidence-the West’s arbitrary allegiance to “logic” and “evidence” is one of its supposed evils. Another rationale for increasing attention to non-Western cultures is simple historical accuracy and balance. This is the “Eurocentric hypothesis,” which might be put as follows: When Westerners set out to survey history, they conveniently find that most of it was made by people like themselves. Sometimes this parochialism is fostered by a prescribed canon of fine art, music, and literature that marginalizes non-Western traditions. Other times it is a function of ignorance, which leads Western historians to slight the scientific and technological achievements of other parts of the world. In either case, the result is a skewed vision that does not reflect real European preeminence, but rather Eurocentric bias.

This argument is plausible. It is easy to mock today’s New Age deference to the Mayans, but the great civilizations of East Asia, South Asia, and the Arab world left splendid legacies in the arts and sciences. The West may have been pivotally important, but has it been too much at center stage?

According to Murray, no. But the problem with Murray’s argument is that, almost unknowingly, he asks the question of where human achievement has happened, without a lot of questioning about what constitutes “achievement”. He is not completely unaware of this, of course. Witness his claim that a “fine Japanese rock garden or ceremonial tea bowl expresses an aesthetic sensibility as subtle as humans have ever known.”

If we look at the definitions of the words “science” and “art”, I find it difficult to forget the fact that these categories are far from natural categories. In fact, it is unsurprising that most of the “achievements” Murray registers in these categories occurred in Europe after 1500, for after all, it was in this time that “art” and “science” were institutionalized as concepts. Why were there no writers in the stone age? Not because there were no linguistic geniuses… certainly there must have been some people utterly gifted with language in that time. But there was no writing. There was not an infrastructure that encouraged people to write, nor was there the cultural sanctioning of that kind of activity. Inscription did occur in that era, in the form of cave-paintings, but we do not consider the people who created those paintings as “artists” but rather as “religious” individuals. Similarly, we do not count as “great artworks” the dust-pictures made by Native Americans or Buddhist monks which are designed to themselves demonstrate the same transience that characterizes life itself. The aesthetics transcends in some way hard-and-fast paintings for an audience of generations, and yet there is no way to capture, preserve, or deliver this in a way that qualifies it as “art”. As soon as it is captured, its aesthetics are destroyed and it loses the essence of what makes it profound.

Similarly, the development of meditation in South and East Asia is something that qualifies neither as an art nor a science, but which is nonetheless the profound development of human experience, human understanding, and human capability.

The fact of the matter is, art as we know it is absolutely about what from the past can be captured and put on display, as ethnologist James Clifford once observed in the essay ‘On Collecting Art and Culture’ in his book The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art (1988: Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA). One does not find the tea ceremony in museums, because it simply cannot exist there. So many facets of non-Western cultures, and sites of aesthetic production, seem not to have been created for preservation, while Western post-Renaissance artists very self-consciously sought to make their art survive.

Further, Murray’s claiming individuals as having a single background seems to me conspicuous. Christianity, the great religion of the West, was based on an Oriental book which remains one of the central texts in Western literature. I have read that Plato had conversations with Hindu Brahmins who visited Greece and that his idea of the cave was likely influenced by their notions of Maya. Does the restatement of a religious notion in a non-religious and therefore “more philosophical” vein count as a new production? Influence and the lines of influence flowed in many directions. Debussy was influenced by gamelan music and by black jazz from America. Stravinsky drew upon Russian peasant songs in some of his greatest works. The discreteness even of an individual artist is something I’m not sure I can quite buy into.

Which is to say, I suppose, simply that I find this whole notion problematic in the sense of, well… as I learned from my friend Marvin, “So what?” The West developed a kind of valuation on premanence aesthetic experience-building, and in attribution of scientific discovery. No wonder its artists and scientists could aspire to find a place in the roll call, and design their work in order to do so. Those living in a place without such a roll call seem to me unlikely to see a place in it.

Of course, the fact that the existence of a roll call might spur artists and scientists is another matter… and that, these days, seems to be at work everywhere. But that may be a different discussion altogether.

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