Ars brevis

by Henry Farrell on August 11, 2003

“Tyler Cowen”: has a nice, short piece on art and Western civilization, which gently takes a forthcoming Charles Murray book to task. The Murray book, by Cowen’s account, concludes that Western civilization has an overwhelming advantage over its non Western equivalents in music and the arts. As Cowen says, it’s hard to sustain this argument with great confidence, because the surviving evidence is grossly skewed. Since many forms of non-Western art haven’t survived, or went unrecorded until very recently, we can’t say with any degree of certainty that, say, John Dowland was any better than his Gabonese equivalents.

But there’s a second issue, which is very nearly as important – a version of what anthropologists refer to as Galton’s problem. The quick and dirty version of Galton’s argument is that there’s something very iffy about the assumption that cultures are self-referential, coherent wholes, which are absolutely isolated from each other. Western art didn’t evolve in isolation from its non-Western equivalents : at crucial points in its history, encounters with non-Western art drove it in new directions. Peter Conrad’s definitive study of 20th century art, _Modern Times, Modern Places_ has an entire chapter on how African art deeply influenced various modern greats. Conrad claims, and I have no reason to doubt him, that it’s simply impossible to understand Picasso without taking account of the influence of African mask art from Congo and the Gabon.



Scott Martens 08.11.03 at 10:33 pm

You don’t have to go as far as Picasso and African art to make your case. There is a clear line of influence and history that runs from Africa to Rock’n’Roll.


--k. 08.11.03 at 11:14 pm

The problem, of course, is that old bugaboo of definition of terms. If Western Culture means whatever I want it to mean, well, hell, I can prove whatever I like about it.

Picasso’s seminal trip to see the African masks at the Trocadero is reasonably well-known. Other points to consider are the intense recombination between European Art Nouveau painters and print makers and Japanese ukiyo-e print makers at the turn of the last century–each group stole madly from the other, and ended up stealing the other’s stolen impressions of themselves–though of course, that’s decadent; looking to something less easily dismissed by culture vultures than rock, we have the inescapable influence of African music and culture on jazz–though I imagine jazz is easily dismissed by Murray (ad hominem! ad hominem!); there’s the wildly fertile cross-pollinations of Bollywood, Hong Kong, and Hollywood–though films are beneath the notice of a true scholar of culture, one supposes, and anyway, that’s happening Here and Now; getting a little more regional, the cuisine and language of the American South would have been impoverished without the influence of African culture, and also the economy of the American South itself–the rice plantations along the South Carolina coast were never as important as King Cotton, say, but did bring in a pretty penny, and all through cultivation techniques implemented by the slaves themselves–but that’s just food and slang and farming. What of Art?

One could go on, but what’s the point? It’s just another Big Dumb Book that Ignores the World to kick around. Whee!


mCrane 08.12.03 at 12:39 am

Hmmmm. Read the Article by Murry that Tyler is linking to; it covers some of the objections you mention (long article, but interesting).


zizka 08.12.03 at 12:50 am

Haven’t read the Murray oiece, but the argument will be hard to make in music. Western music is better in terms of large forms, especially polyphonic forms, and complex harmonic and tonal structures, but not better in a number of other ways (rhythmic subtleties and complexities, subtleties of intonation). The superiority, on its own terms, of Western music is best seen in works that most Westerners never listen to, such as Beethoven’s last quartets or Bach’s Art of the Fugue.


--k. 08.12.03 at 1:14 am

I suppose one ought to read the Murray piece (if not the forthcoming book), rather than condemn him solely on account of his past accomplishments; I find myself struggling to get past this piece of hyperbolic crap in the opening paragraph:

The Left’s fight against Eurocentrism explains why students in elementary school are likely to know more about Mayan culture than French culture…

And I say that as something of an aficionado of hyperbolic crap.

Ah, well. Holding my nose, deeper I plunge–


drapetomaniac 08.12.03 at 1:52 am

there’s been quite a bit of interesting work been done on the influence of the ocean of stories and the arabian nights on european literature, eg boccacio.

but no doubt that this is all just another chance for people to show off how equitable they are by considering charles murray seriously.


Maynard Handley 08.12.03 at 6:05 am

However I must admit to finding something immensely disturbing about going to the National Museum of Taiwan and seeing works from 1900 that look pretty much identical in style to works from say 1500 years earlier.
Certainly to someone from the modern west, this sort of statis just doesn’t seem right.


mattH 08.12.03 at 6:12 am

It is important to note that, even though Picasso was influenced by African art, his art does not contain any Congolese cultural traits. His interpretation is purely Western in this context.


--k. 08.12.03 at 3:49 pm

The important point is that without that exhibit of African masks, Murray’s “great man” (it is a great-man theory of art he’s positing–go read his piece, if only to giggle at his methodology) would not have achieved his greatness in the particular way that he did. If anything, it’s a much better example than my more intercultural melanges of the slipperiness of culture and the impossibility of sequestering it, splitting it, genrefying it in any statistically meaningful (or “pure”) sense: even though you can’t point Picasso’s cubism and find direct technical and thematic links grounded in a lifetime’s study of African art, nonetheless: cubism would not have happened the way that it did without it. The link is there, even if you can’t immediately grasp it. How many more links are there, in how many more directions?

What does “purely Western” mean in this context, anyway? That his art is strictly informed by concepts and techniques found only on this side of the Dardanelles? Or that his art is informed by his reactions to the culture around him, a complex admixture of vectors, including, among many other things, a wildcard shot of inspiration from an exhibit of African masks? –How can the latter view be considered “purely” anything, much less Western?


Kriston 08.12.03 at 3:57 pm

I was going to make the same point as Matth. Picasso formally assimilated various African tribal artforms, but in no way were his applications influenced by African artists or African concepts of art. There’s little reason to believe that he adopted any thematic inspiration, except that which intersected with his own interests (e.g., fertility).

I don’t think you have to use comparative or superlative terms to still make the point that questions/concepts of art are indeed primarily related to the community/civilization. Even when culturally recombinant strategies appear in art (or culture, really), you can argue about how successful the diffusions are. American culture seems to be exceptional in its ability to absorb cultural cues (particularly African and Carribean), but the nation’s youth explains that pretty well. Over long periods of history, across the world local artistic concerns have remained relatively static–even in the West, though its art might appear frantically dynamic.


Mark 08.13.03 at 6:59 am

I can just about take Zizka’s point, but find the way it’s expressed a bit difficult to swallow.


What if we put the “better” harmonic structures over the “better” rhythmic ones? Do we then arrive at “best”? Or a massive traffic accident?

Let the four winds blow.


Mark 08.13.03 at 9:00 am

Err, unfortunately, my ars is also short.


GT 08.13.03 at 8:47 pm


Are we saying that they are all the same. That, to take one example, no civilization or culture can claim their music to be better than the rest?


zizka 08.13.03 at 9:40 pm

Advocates of Western music will point to something like Wagner, Bach, Beethove, or maybe Stravinsky (not Schoenberg anymore) and explain what’s great about it in terms of harmonic and contrapuntal forms, etc. Then they ask, “Is their anything in Ad=frican, Islamic, or Indian music like that?” Well, the answer is no. As long as you’re arguing on those criteria, the West wins. On the other hand, either an African or an Indian musician can say something like “Why are all western pieces so rhythmically tedious and uninteresting, and they’ll be right. (Norah Jones dad: “Western music is all marches”.) If you are looking for polyrhythms or the tonal subtleties of raga, western music is going to sound awful.


Mark 08.14.03 at 6:37 am

Or you could pop on some Duke or some Gil Evans and get the harmonic sophistication *with* the polyrhythmic sass.


Mark 08.14.03 at 7:12 am

Or you could pop on some Duke or some Gil Evans and get the harmonic sophistication *with* the polyrhythmic sass.


Mark 08.14.03 at 7:16 am

Aargh! Excuse double post. Something to do with forgetting to put my email address on the first one, and the system telling me this parameter was required. On this showing, that could well be false.


Mark 08.14.03 at 7:19 am

Aargh! Excuse double post. Something to do with forgetting to put my email address on the first one, and the system telling me this parameter was required. On this showing, that could well be false.


Mark 08.14.03 at 7:20 am

Whoa, dude!


Paul 08.15.03 at 8:56 pm

That, to take one example, no civilization or culture can claim their music to be better than the rest?

If you can explain what exactly “better” means in that sentence, you’ll probably answer your own question.

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