Aesthetics: Universal or Enculturated?

Anthropologist Ivan Karp expressed the confusion of many when he stated: "I'm really torn between the arguments that are made for universal aesthetic criteria and the idea that we can only truly appreciate something from the point of view of the people for whom it was originally made- that aesthetics are 'culture-bound'" (Vogel 1991, 194). The debate in aesthetics between universalistic and relativistic perspectives touches on other enduring, ongoing intellectual debates: Are humans shaped by nature or nurture? Does evolution govern our sensibilities, or are we enculturated to feel certain ways? Perhaps there are even certain underlying features that link the aesthetics of all human cultures across space and time based on our shared evolutionary background or our basic physical or mental similarities. This debate also touches on current issues, such as indigenous cultural autonomy and the legacy of colonialism. The prevailing “correct” viewpoint held by the culturally sensitive has shifted over time, from an adherence to the image of a “Family of Man” to an acceptance of the differences between cultures. There may be truth in both sides of the argument: while the most basic aesthetic effects communicate to all humans, the aesthetics of most cultures can only be fully appreciated by a member of the culture. The pages that follow will explore the debate between the relativistic and universalistic approaches to cross-cultural aesthetics.

Before examining whether aesthetics are universal or culture-bound, the usefulness of anthropologically studying the aesthetics of non-Western cultures must be established. This utility is debatable. The very concept of aesthetics, which involves comparison and discrimination, seems antithetical to anthropology, which compares but does not judge. When anthropologists do study the aesthetics of a culture, they attempt to view it from an internal, or “emic” viewpoint. Some anthropologists argue that the concept of aesthetics is a Western construct and should not be applied to other cultures, while others take it to be a universal capacity. Howard Morphy defines aesthetics as the human ability and tendency to attach qualitative properties to a stimulus, and argues that its study is important in understanding why people behave as they do (Morphy 1993, 258-260). Joanna Overing defines aesthetics as the judgment of beauty or value in art objects separated from everyday life, a situation epitomized in the West. She gives aesthetics a historical origin in the eighteenth century with Baumgarten, presenting it as intrinsically modernist, bourgeois and elitist in its discrimination between artistic products (Overing 1993, 260). Overing argues that because the “aesthetic” expressions of other cultures are embedded in their lives, their judgments of beauty are inextricably linked to utility and thus not a detached appreciation, like the Western concept of aesthetics (1993, 264). Arguably, Western aesthetics are linked to utility as well. Part of the difficulty that arises in attempting to define “aesthetics” is that the term originally referred to a subject of philosophical discourse, a systematic appreciation for quality or beauty, but has come to refer to “a class of activities in the real world” that could be evaluated by the standards of the discourse (Gell as cited in Ingold 1993, 279).

Does every culture have an "aesthetic" product of some kind that can be analyzed? Dutton (2002) states that the search for a universal aesthetic implies two ideas: that every culture in the world will predictably engage in some form of broadly defined artistic activity, just as every culture will use some form of language, and that the “art will itself have predictable content identifiable cross-culturally,” in the same way that unrelated languages share basic syntactic structures. This search implies that humans share characteristics at the most basic level simply by virtue of being human. Valda Blundell states: “Anthropologists often argue that […] expressive forms are found in all societies: indeed that they are is one of the major findings of comparative anthropology. Such cultural forms include myths, music, dance, and a wide range of productions with pleasing visual imagery" (2000, 14). Jeremy Coote attempted to falsify this supposition by studying a set of cultures, the cattle-keeping Nilotes of the Southern Sudan, which have no visible signs of an aesthetic. He concluded that the people of cultures such as the Nuer and the Dinka, whose subsistence depends on the quality of their cattle, invest these animals with their aesthetic appreciation. Alfred Gell criticized Coote’s study, saying that in fact, a Dinka youth cannot detachedly admire his cattle’s quality because it is the cattle’s fitness for “embodying him… which makes him think it beautiful;” Gell compared a well-marked cow to a Ferrari, which a man uses to obtain status and desirability to women (1995, 24). He also stated that Coote’s premise, that the Nilotes have no discernible aesthetic, is flawed, that Coote fell victim to the general Western primacy of the visual arts in spite of his objectives, and that the Dinkas’ true aesthetic is manifested not in their cattle, but in the songs and dances the cattle inspire (1995, 26). While Jeremy Coote claims that the Nilotes have an aesthetic appreciation of the natural beauty of their cows, Gell denies that there can be an aesthetic in a culture without some form of aesthetic production (Gell 1995, 29).

Jeremy Coote (1993) claims that if anthropologists study the emic system of judgments in different cultures, it will become clear that non-Western cultures indeed have their own aesthetics. The idea of aesthetic appreciation implies discrimination or judgment on the part of an object's audience; aestheticians have the ability to rank objects based on a set of overt criteria. In sub-Saharan Africa, amateur Yoruban art critics have a stringent set of standards for aesthetic appeal in statues. According to Robert Farris Thompson, “Judgments of better or worse imply an aesthetic when they are qualified and if the qualifications prove to be fairly systematic. Whatever else true criticism is, it is an applied aesthetic. Traditional African critics may qualify their remarks with subordinate clauses, as it were, in which the reasons behind each choice are spelled out and where, ideally, the reasons for the reasons are also given” (1973, 23). At first glance, anthropologists did not believe that any members of Yoruban society had a systematic appreciation for art, and categorized their discussions of art as falling short of a true aesthetic. This is because early anthropologists focused on the judgments of artists or art owners, not art critics, and they were usually reluctant to judge their own works. Also, Yoruban critics were initially reluctant to share their judgments with Westerners, because as Thompson says, “Some traditional Yoruba seem to assume a white man’s ability to perceive aesthetic import in art is weak or underdeveloped” (1973, 30). Western critics find fault with some carvings for their "excessively" deep-carved eyes, but Yoruba critics particularly appreciate the clear, balanced effect of light and shadow created by deep eyes. Thompson (1973) polled Yoruban critics and assembled a list of eighteen common criteria by which they rank art, although no critic mentioned every standard: a good piece must show the correct degree of mimesis, visibility, shining smoothness, delicacy, roundness, pleasing angularity, straightness, symmetry, skill, and ephebism. These criteria, taken together, illuminate an internally consistent, coherent Yoruban aesthetic, which stresses balance and moderation between disparate elements. As articulated by the Yoruba, the ideal is a median between abstraction and realism, youth and age, light and shade (Thompson 1973, 58).

Unlike the Yoruba, the Yolngu of northeast Arnhem Land, Australia “have neither aestheticians nor art critics” (Morphy 1992, 182). Also, in theory, every member of Yolngu society is equally capable of producing art. Do the Yolngu have any system of aesthetics? The Yolngu do discuss art, but they usually frame their discussions in different terms than Westerners, and they rarely admit to aesthetic concerns in the production of their art (Morphy 1992, 182). However, Howard Morphy states that “the Yolngu clearly are concerned to produce effects on the senses by which the success of the work can be judged and which Europeans would interpret as aesthetic effect” (1992, 182). The Yolngu, like the Yoruba, have conventionally been understood to lack systematic judgments on the success or failure of art objects or artists. In the case of the Yolngu, this is because they do not publicly acknowledge or reward artistic skill. Morphy continues, "When asked directly, however, people readily acknowledge that some people paint better than others" (1992, 183). Although criticism among the Yolngu is less systematic and open than among the Yoruba, Yolngu people recognize the qualities that make a painting good. In both the Yoruba and Yolngu cultures, initially considered to be capable of producing art objects but not judging their aesthetic merits, anthropologists have revealed emic systems of judgment.

Sally Price states: "I would argue that subscribers to the universality of aesthetic response have saddled their theory with an implicit and potentially disquieting corollary." This corollary is that while "primitive" societies have the ability to create objects that are judged to be aesthetic masterpieces by other (Western) cultures, they do not have the ability to make similar judgments about objects made by people outside of their own cultures (1989, 35). Price points out that if one assumes that "all cultures allow for aesthetic response (which particular individuals in each society develop to varying degrees," then an aesthetically sensitive individual from any culture should be qualified to comment on the art of any other culture (1989, 34). For example, a Yoruban carver could expound on the virtues of the Mona Lisa (focusing, perhaps, on the clarity of light and shadow in her deep-set eyes or the smoothness of her features) equally as well as an Italian painter. However, in practice many people assume that only a cultural insider can truly understand a work, especially in the case of indigenous critics. Sally Price demonstrates this prevalent assumption that “primitive” people can make but not judge art by citing a review by Raymond Silverman of an exhibit titled Perspectives: Angles on African Art. Silverman states that the curator of this exhibit, Susan Vogel, asked ten people of diverse backgrounds to give their individual opinions on African artworks. One contributor, Baule sculptor Kouakou Kouame, who was unfamiliar with any art but Baule art, was given only objects from his own culture to discuss, while Vogel gave the other contributors a variety of art forms, some of which were probably unfamiliar to them. Silverman argues, “Surely Kouame, as an artist, can appreciate the aesthetic merits of art from other cultures" (as cited in Price 1989, 36). If aesthetic effects really communicate across cultural boundaries, they must do so in more than one direction. Denis Dutton (2002) points out that many cultures worldwide appreciate the artistic products of other cultures: "It is important to note how remarkably well the arts travel outside of their home cultures: Beethoven and Shakespeare are beloved in Japan, Japanese prints are adored by Brazilians, [and] Greek tragedy is performed worldwide." But can we assume that Japanese people really understand Shakespeare, or that Brazilians really understand the meaning of the aesthetic effects in Japanese art?

Aesthetics is concerned with perception, appreciation, and understanding: "One dictionary gives the terms linguistic root as from the Greek: aiesthetikós-perceptible by the senses, from aisthesthai to perceive. Therefore it may be understood from the outset that aesthetics embodies the notion of perception; to thoroughly grasp or comprehend; to recognise [sic] a thing through the senses especially the sense of sight" (Bennett 1993, 85). In his article, “The Anthropology of Art,” Howard Morphy (1994) describes a person's aesthetic reaction to an object as being comprised of two parts: the fairly objective perception of the physical characteristics of an object, and the relation of those characteristics to a subjective set of cultural connotations. The former reaction may be universal, but the latter is not. He compares perceiving an object's attributes to receiving an electric shock: noticeable, but meaningless. As Morphy states: “the properties of [an] object are not in themselves aesthetic properties... They become aesthetic properties through their incorporation within systems of value and meaning that integrate them within cultural processes. [...] This valorization converts an abstract or almost physical property into an aesthetic quality, and this quality cannot be assumed to be invariant across cultural boundaries” (1994, 673). Morphy qualifies his point in another article, stating: “Aesthetic properties are often [required] to be seen in a particular way by viewers, who, because of their background or personality, are able to appreciate them… [However], while an artist familiar with his or her audience may try to create an object which elicits a particular response from the audience, the creator of an object is never the complete master of its aesthetic potential” (1992, 182). An artistic object sometimes fails to convey the desired effect even to an audience with the same basic worldview as its creator, and sometimes an object takes on a host of meanings for its audience that its creator never imagined. Thus, the Japanese may not be understanding Shakespeare in the same way that Queen Elizabeth I did, but they are adding their own cultural values to his plays and enjoying a rather different product than the Bard created. In a classic article, Shakespeare in the Bush, Laura Bohannan (1966) recounts sharing the story of Shakespeare's Hamlet with a group of Tiv bushmen. They enjoyed the story immensely, but interpreted the plot with Tiv concepts, such as witchcraft and polygamy.

Is there a compelling reason why all humans would perceive and react to the world in similar ways? The field of evolutionary psychology, which posits that human predilections have developed because of their adaptive function, has contributed to the debate over whether some aesthetic effects are universal. Gordon Orians argues that humans have preferences for certain aesthetic effects because having those preferences was adaptive for our human ancestors thousands of years ago. In separate surveys, Orians, Roger Ulrich, and others discovered that young people presumably uninfluenced by enculturation prefer images of landscapes that remind them of the savannas where early humans roamed. People prefer landscapes that feature clumps of trees, water, sunlit clearings, and uneven ground, because these vistas offer shelter and resources. Orians argues that the genteel tradition of English landscaping was an attempt to recreate a savanna environment by removing dense vegetation and introducing “water holes;” this was roundly denied by the English gentry (Conniff 1999, 96). Orians and coauthor Judith Heerwagen conducted another study, analyzing 35 paintings of sunsets. They theorized that sunsets would have represented a threat to early humans because they heralded the onset of night with its accompanying dangers, such as nocturnal predators. They found that two-thirds of the paintings featured some form of shelter (Conniff 1999, 99). Thus according to Orians and Heerwagen, humans have evolved to respond to a treacly Thomas Kinkade picture of a sunset over a quaint village with relief that they have a place to spend the night.

Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid satirized the aesthetic tastes of nations in their book Painting by Numbers: Komar and Melamid's Scientific Guide to Art. They polled the citizens of ten countries, asking them what they wanted to see in art; then they compiled these symbols into an aggregate image that was an amalgam of the preferences of a nation (Dutton 2002). For example, America’s Most Wanted painting featured George Washington, children, and some deer in a verdant blue-and-green landscape. These works, though parodies, were remarkably similar, indicating that people's tastes can be quite uniform cross-culturally. Melamid states: “In every country the favorite color is blue, and almost everywhere green is second... Everywhere, the people want outdoor scenes, with wild animals, water, trees, and some people” (as cited in Conniff 100). These pictures look as similar as they do because the same artists painted all of them, based on the style of Italian painter Domenichino. However, the human desire for a safe, habitable landscape comes through the images clearly.

It may never be possible to "prove" whether aesthetics are universal or culture-bound; the truth probably contains elements of each perspective. Howard Morphy (1994) compares three examples of disparate cultural responses to a common aesthetic effect- the quality of shininess- among the Yolngu, the Wahgi people, and the Mende. The Yolngu experience bir'yun (“shimmering brilliance") as a process by which fine cross-hatched lines filling a painting transform it from a state of dullness into shininess. Morphy states: “The paintings themselves are believed to be manifestations of the ancestral past and the shimmering effect is interpreted as the power of the ancestral beings shining out from the painting” (1994, 675). Yolngu paintings are judged by the degree to which they express the quality of shininess. The Wahgi people express shininess through their elaborate body paintings. Michael O' Hanlon interprets this shininess as a marker of “health and fertility,” as well as “power and strength, because people decorate themselves for war” (as cited in Morphy 1994, 675). Shininess is associated with glistening pig fat, a central material in Wahgi ritual and life. Among the Mende, shininess arises from the polished blackness of the sowo-wui mask. This mask is worn over the head of a female elder who dances for the women's society. The mask's shining blackness connotes the essence of female beauty and moral purity. These evaluations illustrate the similarities and differences in different cultures' reactions to an aesthetic effect: in each case, shininess is interpreted in a generally positive way and seen to represent power. However, important facets of the significance that cultural insiders attach to these effects are different in each example. Even if the objective truth about aesthetics remains elusive, I believe that it is better policy as a Westerner not to presume that the Western evaluation of the art of other cultures is based on aesthetic universals. Given the West's history of cultural colonization, it is probably best to cede to other cultures the defining of their own aesthetics. Charlotte Townsend-Gault powerfully articulates an argument for cultural relativism: "In the end, cultural difference is expressed not by attempting to find common ground, common words, common symbols across cultures. It is finally dignified by protecting all sides from zealous over-simplification, by acknowledging a final untranslatability of certain concepts and subtleties from one culture to another" (1992, 100-101).



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