Aesthetics in a Cross-Cultural Perspective: some reflections on ...

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Aesthetics in a Cross-Cultural Perspective: some reflections on
Native American basketry

Howard Morphy, Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford.

Reprinted with permission from JASO, 1992, vol. 23, no. 1, pp.1--16


Writing in 1904, Otis T. Mason begins his compendious work on American Indian
basketry with a reflection (or perhaps more truly a lack of reflection!) on the newly
awakened interest of that ubiquitous follower of ethnographic fashion, the private

In the past few years a sympathetic spirit has been awakened in the United States to
keep alive this charming Aboriginal art and to preserve its precious relics. In every
State in the Union will be found rich collections, both in public and private museums.
People vie with one another in owning them. It is almost a disease, which might be
called 'canastromania'. They resemble the ‘merchantman seeking goodly pearls,
who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all he had and
bought it.’ The genuine enthusiasm kindled in the search, the pride of success in
acquisition, the care bestowed on them, witness that the basket is a worthy object of
study. The story is told of a distinguished collector who walked many a weary mile to
the shelter of a celebrated old weaver. He spent the day admiring her work, but still
asking for something better. He knew she had made finer pieces. At last flattery and
gold won. She tore out the back of her hut and there, hid from mortal eyes, was the
basket that was to be burned at her death. Nothing could be more beautiful and it will
be her monument. (Mason 1988: ix)

The paragraph would provide an excellent text for a critical sermon on ethnographic
museums, the presuppositions of early twentieth-century collectors of ethnography
and primitive art, the post-colonial context of production, the inequalities in the
relationship between Native Americans and the colonial admirers of their artefacts,
and any number of other themes. The text is so redolent with the assumptions of the
time that it is hard to resist littering the quotation with paranthetical sics' and
exclamation marks. One cannot help hoping that as soon as the collector left, the
basketmaker replaced the missing basket with the next one in line for burning.
However, as with any text that presents so clearly the presuppositions of its times, it
is too easy to treat it unfairly and ahistorically as if it were written today.

The themes that I want to take up in this chapter are as controversial today as they
were at the time that Mason was writing. They concern whether objects of other
cultures should be presented as aesthetic forms or as art, and the extent to which
presentation as art involves a distortion or appropriation of value. Underlying these
themes is the question of the relationship between the aesthetic qualities of an
object as viewed by its Western public and its aesthetic qualities as viewed by its
producer, which question in turn has embedded within it the general issue of the

usefulness, and even the validity, of the notion of aesthetics for cross-cultural

James Clifford (1991: 241) has written that ‘one of the best ways to give cross
cultural value (moral commercial) to a cultural production is to treat it as art.' Mason’s
writing is clearly a part of this process and illustrates particularly well the linkage
between what Clifford refers to as the moral and commercial dimension of value.
The value (as ‘a worthy object of study’) is proved by the interest of the collector,
who is prepared to invest large sums in acquiring an object of beauty or aesthetic
value. The basket on the pedestal in the museum becomes the ultimate monument
to its creator. On the other hand, in his radically titled ‘Toward an anti-catalogue of
woodsplint basketry’, Russell Handsman (1987:147) notes: ‘When seen as art,
artifacts [are] separated from their human, historical and political relations'. As they
stand the two perspectives are not necessarily incompatible, depending on the
particular concept of art applied. Certainly it could be argued, as Handsman does,
that the exhibition of ethnographic objects as 'art' often involves the imposition of a
nineteenth-century Western European concept, whose application incorporates the
objects of other cultures within the framework of Western European values and
blocks understanding of their indigenous meaning and cultural context. Moreover,
the concept of 'art' can mask the process by which the object was acquired: ‘basket
diverted by flattery and gold from funeral pyre’ is unlikely to be part of the label.
These dangers are certainly there in the aestheticization of the works of other
cultures. However I would argue that the fault lies not just in the overall context of
exhibitions, but also in the particular concept of aesthetics employed. An exhibition
may simultaneously use the concept of art as a means of focusing attention on a set
of objects in a way that asserts the value of the products of another culture, and yet
simultaneously draw attention to the wider context of the objects in their indigenous
frame. Used reflexively the exhibition of ethnography as 'art' may involve a
repositioning of the concept of art itself that moves it away from its 19th Century
meanings, towards one that is more relevant to the particular cross-cultural
discourse concerned.

The incorporation of things within a unitary category of objects that are defined as
‘art objects’, which are to be viewed together as an exclusive set specifically for their
aesthetic effect, is what appropriates their cultural value and history and
subordinates them to Western values. If, rather than seeing aesthetics as referring to
this unitary category of objects, we see it as a dimension that any object can
potentially possess, then the danger of imposing one set of values over others can
be avoided. Instead, we may be able to enter into a cross-cultural discourse about
the aesthetic potential of objects. Handsman is certainly right to say that such a
discourse requires more than the display of objects on a pedestal in a particular light,
and indeed more than the simple presentation of the objects. Such an impoverished
and narrow conception of the way in which the aesthetic dimension of an object can
be appreciated is indeed an imposition of taste that narrows rather than opens up
the possibilities of cross-cultural appreciation. Handsman and McMullen (1987:34)
go so far as to suggest that ‘when presented and interpreted as art, splint baskets
were not and cannot be “read” as artifacts of specific societies.’ However, by
identifying aesthetics and art with nineteenth-century values they may be falling into
a trap : by defining art and aesthetics ethnocentrically they deny the possibility of
their existence in other cultures. By creating the category ‘art’ in relation to a
particular kind of non-functional aesthetic display valuable, associated with what
Brook (1986) refers to as the 'gemstone' model of art, our predecessors appropriated

not simply the objects that were put into that category but also the concept of art
itself. For a while, 'art’ became limited to a certain category of objects. This definition
is not only subject to an anthropological critique, but was also subject to criticism
from Western ‘art’ producers.

Art across cultures

The word ‘art’ defies simple definition. Historically 'art' can best be treated as a
number of different words whose meaning varies depending on who is using the
term and when. But it is possible to suggest some core components that seem to be
common to most of its usages. The defining characteristics of art objects' or the
artistic dimension of objects' tend to include references to their aesthetic properties,
to their effect on the senses, and to their expression of meaning and value. While
not all objects labelled as art share every one of these characteristics, they tend to
form part of a polythetic set with overlapping attributes. The narrow Western
definition of art, with its category of ‘set-aside’ objects, is misleading because it has
appropriated many of the more general ideas that lie behind the concept and
because it has added so many irrelevant exclusion clauses. Art objects become
objects that have no other function, or are the product of individual creativity, or are
defined according to innumerable other criteria that were signs of the myths of a
particular period of history and a particular ideology, whether free-enterprise
capitalism or socialist realism.

Guss (1989) addresses this issue in a rich analysis of the basketry of the Yekuana, a
people of the Upper Orinoco River in Venezuela. He argues that while the Yekuana
do not have a word for art, they do distinguish between works that are manufactured
under the guidelines of traditional design, tidi’uma and the mass of goods that they
acquire through trade mesoma: ‘Mesoma remains a synonym for any insipid alien
object’ (ibid: 69). He argues that tidi’uma, on the other hand, combine, in their
manufacture, raw materials and use, a fusion of symbolic elements and functional
values: in making and using them individuals continually recreate the cultural values
and physical and metaphysical processes of which they are a part: To become a
Yekuana is not only to develop the physical skills demanded of one’s gender, but
also to develop the spiritual awareness that the preparation of these goods imparts.
In a society that has no special category for a work of 'art', there can be no object
that is not one. Or to put it another way, to become a true Yekuana is to become an
artist. (ibid: 70)

At first sight Guss’s analysis seems to contain a paradox: he begins by stating that
the Yekuana have no word for art and yet ends up by stating that to become a true
Yekuana is to become an artist. Is there simply a lexical gap in Yekuana that is filled
by the English term? Is Guss writing rhetorically? Or is this simply a case of muddled
thinking? The answer is, most likely, none of these but lies in the problem of cultural
relativism and the limitations of ordinary language, though rhetoric too may play a
part. From a cultural-relativist perspective, concepts are defined according to the
particular context in which they occur: it is not anticipated that the concept of ‘art’ will
be any different from such concepts as ‘marriage’, or a ‘relative’, or ‘conception', in
that they all vary cross-culturally. Yet the very fact that we are applying the terms and
seeking the equivalent concepts across cultures implies that we have a more general
concept that transcends the particular case and is part of the anthropologist’s
metalanguage. What Guss is saying, then, is that what he understands by, or

defines as, the concept of art is found in something of the activities of every
Yekuana. By definition, that concept could or should not be identical to the Western
European concept of art, since that concept in turn will be relative to its cultural
context and hence be culture-bound(2). The metaconcept is related to the Western
concept since anthropologist begin their comparative enterprise from their own
culture, and in its recent origins, at least, anthropology is a Western science. The
concept should be defined independently of but necessarily with reference to, the
ordinary-language usage of the word ‘art’.

The situation is though, even more complex than this. The Western concept of art is
itself a many-headed monster, with analysts and theoreticians continually struggling
to change its definition. Indeed, the ‘arts’ of non-Western peoples, folk art and
Oriental art have all been used by artists as part of their intra-cultural dialogue
attempting to inspire Western practice and change Western concepts. Thus the
analyses that anthropologists or art historians make of the arts of other cultures can
in turn have consequences for Western art: unlike the Yekuana, Western artists are
attuned to seeing aesthetic value in other peoples’ cultural products. The
presentation of Yekuana basketry as ‘art’, the assertion that it has an aesthetic
dimension, that it is a sculptural form, is both a challenge to the Western category of
art and at the same time, if it is successful, something that results in a broadening of
the category(3). The Western category of art, responds to criticism, Anaconda-like,
by swallowing it whole. It is broad in ways that the Yekuana category is narrow. The
Yekuana do not recognize any cultural value in objects introduced from outside for
functional purposes. Western cultures, on the other hand, consume through
aesthetics the objects of other cultures and discard their functions. The basket
becomes a ‘sculptural form’, no longer a container for grain or a plate for cassava.
This paradox has something to do with economic processes and the articulation of
modes of production, but also has much to do with cultural differences. Whatever the
cause, one of the consequences has been that while people of the Fourth World
stop producing baskets and replace them with plastic containers and recycled
products from the industrialized world (which they may or may not value
aesthetically), the industrialized world exhibit Fourth World products as works of art
and increases their ‘value’.

Exhibiting art

When trying to persuade a Western public of the aesthetic dimension of other
peoples’ material culture, anthropologists present their arguments not only through
their writings but also by organizing exhibitions of other peoples’ work as art. And as
we have seen, it is in the context of the art gallery that the Western definition of art
and the anthropological metaconcept of art have the opportunity to get almost
inextricably muddled. As Luke Taylor (1988: 93) has written: why is it that we find
objects from other cultures so beautiful, even though we know at some level, the
aesthetic values objectified in the works must be culture specific? Clearly an
emphasis on the culture specific qualities of aesthetic values is not sufficient to
describe the complexities of the situation.

There are two reasons why exhibition as art became an almost inevitable part of
anthropologists’ presentation of their case. First, part of the metadefinition of art
involves aesthetics, and one of the Western ways of communicating the aesthetic
properties of an object is through exhibition. Secondly, part of the cultural-relativist
agenda is to signify the essential equivalence of world cultures by a metaphysical

criterion of equal cultural value. Value in this context is intra-cultural the cross
cultural component is that value is created in each case in its terms of the cultural
system of which it is a part. The cultural relativist demonstrates the equivalence of
this difference by explicating the values of the particular culture in terms of its own
processes of reproduction and drawing attention to analogous processes operating
in other cultural contexts, and/or, by using rhetorical devices that assert that objects
or processes of similar value exist in different cultures, and that it is possible for a
member of one culture to appreciate value as it exists to a member of another
through a process of cultural translation. 'Art' as a rhetorical device in this context is
used to carry the connotations of art as high cultural value over to the objects and
ultimately the agents of 'other' cultures. They produce objects of 'art' therefore they
are of equal value to us, even though the 'art' they produce is different. In the former
case rather than asserting the equivalence of value the anthropologist is arguing
that, from a cross-cultural perspective value is value neutral. In the second case the
more positive assertion that all cultures are of equal value, is being made. The
agenda grew out of opposition to nineteenth-century evolutionary schema that
created out of the world's cultures a graded series in which those at the top had art,
science, and civilization and those at the bottom did not. This imposition of a
particularly culture-bound definition of art, in association with a colonialist ideology,
denied art to many cultures and, since art was one of the signs of civilisation,
devalued the things they produced. George Kubler (1991: 84) has written about the
distaste for America in European thought and literature:

The distaste was and remains a negative aesthetic expression about America and
Americans during the Enlightenment, and it survives in Europe and elsewhere to this
day. — the dominant belief in enlightened Europe, from 1750 to 1900, was that
America was inferior as to its natural and racial endowment. Buffon as a naturalist in
1759 deprecated the animal species as inferior and the humans in ancient America
as 'impotent and savage'. Kant’s verdict as a philosopher in 1778 — that
Amerindians were 'incapable of any culture, still far behind the negroes'— was
followed by Hegel’s 'immature and impotent continent’.

It is against this background that we should see the work of such early museum
ethnographers Mason and W. H. Holmes and the even more fundamental
contribution of Franz Boas. They were concerned to communicate the aesthetic
features of Native American material culture through the development of collections
and the organization of exhibitions as well as through their writings. In doing so they
were involved in a process of asserting the value of Native American culture and way
of life, making Native Americans visible again as people and showing them in a
positive light.

The initial division between ethnographic museums, where Native American arts
were shown, and art galleries, where art in the European tradition was exhibited, was
in itself a continuing imposition of the Western concept of art. In one sense, the
failure to divide the products of Native American cultures into art and non-art would
have accorded with Yekuana classifications, but in another sense it represented the
continued subordination of Native American artefacts to the evolutionary schema.
This contradiction cannot easily be resolved. If only certain works are selected for
inclusion within the art gallery, being chosen either on arbitrary aesthetic grounds or
by analogy with Western categories of art objects—for example, objects with painted
designs— then that continues the process of appropriation; the objects are
reclassified without reference to indigenous values. It is here that exhibiting

ethnographic objects as art becomes part of a radical critique of art galleries: it
provides a challenge to narrowly constructed definitions of art and to the separation
of art from artefact that was the product of a particular period of European history.
And though it can be argued that this strategy also incorporates artefacts within
global processes that are essentially part of a Western agenda, it has the advantage
of doing so by making people reflect on other peoples’ categories and other
constructions of the world.

Other peoples’ aesthetics

In discussing the exhibition of products of the Fourth world (see Graburn 1976), of
‘other cultures’, as aesthetic objects, it is helpful to make an initial distinction
between the aesthetics of the producing culture and the aesthetics of the exhibiting
culture (though we shall see that the distinction is not an easy one to maintain). To
begin with, we will assume that the distinction is a strong one and accept the
cultural-relativist position that different cultures have different and relatively
autonomous aesthetic traditions. What is beautiful to members of one culture may
not be to members of another, or, to phrase it more generally, the aesthetic
sensibilities of one culture may differ radically from those of another. The same
object may be seen, felt, or appreciated in different ways and on the basis of
different attributes, to the extent that it may, arguably, become a different object. To
take an apparently extreme and hypothetical example, in one case aesthetics might
include how the object smelled and in the other might focus on attributes of shape. If
an object from the former culture were exhibited on the basis of its shape and
surface form, then it would be treated in terms of the aesthetics of the exhibitor
rather than the producer. In the case of basketry it is quite conceivable that matters
such as the smell or the feel of the basket, as well as its appearance, should be part
of its aesthetics for the producer. It is worth quoting at length Trudie Lamb Richmond
(1989:127-8), herself a Native American, writing about Schaghticoke basketry:

To understand and appreciate Native American basket-making fully, one must make
the transition in thinking from materialism to spiritualism. — I spoke to a Mohawk
basket-maker not long ago and asked her how she felt about weaving sweet grass
into her baskets. Sweet grass is used by her people in their ceremonies and like
tobacco is believed to have great power. — She told me she had thought about this
meaning and that was why she always talked to the sweet grass and to her baskets
as she made them. She said that she asked forgiveness for having to sell the
baskets, but that she needed the money to survive. Using the sweet grass would
keep the baskets strong and alive, and she hoped that people who bought them
would appreciate their significance. The basket weaver explained that she never
picked the grass without making a tobacco offering.

The particular raw material used will usually have an impact on the visible form of
the object, but this is not always going to be the case. Moreover, the aesthetic
appreciation of that visible form may be enhanced by knowledge of the properties of
the raw materials used and their cultural significance. It is sometimes difficult, even
impossible, for museums to allow their public access to the full aesthetic potential of
an object, since touching the object may transgress the requirements of
conservation, and smell, like colour, fades with time. However, it should always be
possible to draw the public’s attention to the existence of such properties.
Aesthetic relativism thus applies in the case of the non-visible properties of objects
and to the intersection of form and cultural meaning. But it also applies in the case of

observable form. When considering shape alone there is no reason to suppose that
the attributes of observable form that were appreciated by the maker and are part of
the object’s intended form are going necessarily to be the ones seized on by the
consuming or exhibiting culture. Mason (1904:142) sets out what he considers to be
the basis of the aesthetics of Native American basketry: ‘Unity in variety, the
underlying principle in all aesthetic composition, finds its first step illustrated in the
making up of a basket. — The unity is of a very high order for in many examples,
coupled with a monotony of elements absolutely under the control of the artist, there
is at the same time a charming variation of width and length in harmony with, and
made necessary by, the widening and narrowing of the basket. — Usually the
perfection of stitch is the aim of the worker.’

And in the following paragraphs after a catalogue-type entry, he provides a lyrical
description of a Washoe basket that efficiently summarizes a whole range of
attributes that go into the Western appreciation of a basketry form:

A rare coiled basket made by a Washoe woman named Datsolalee. It is in the
collection of A. Cohn, Carson City Nevada. The piece measures 8 1/2 inches high, is
12 inches wide, and 6 inches wide at the opening. The stitches number more than
fifty thousand, being thirty to the inch. The body colour is a rich light gold, and the
figures are in red and black. It weighs 16 ounces and is valued at many hundreds of
dollars. The figures on the basket represent birds migrating or flying away, the motto
being, “When the birds leave their nests and fly away we shall move”. The shape of
the piece and the quality of sentiments in the markings are excelled only by the
inimitable quality of the work on the surface. It is difficult to conceive a more perfectly
uniform piece of handiwork than this. (ibid)

It is easy to see how this description comes out of his theoretical framework, related
to the technique-and-form school of Gottfried Semper. The weights and measures,
the meticulous counting of stitches and the stress on uniformity, gain meaning
through the idea that perfection arises out of the application of technique to
functional form. There is nothing wrong with such a perspective, and it is one that
has in Mason’s case resulted in a magnificent examination of the relationship
between technique and form that can provide the basis of much further research.
However, the description tells us little about the aesthetics of Washoe baskets from
the perspective of the Washoe producer. For example, although it hints that there
may be a dimension of content that articulates with technique and form, it leaves that
unexplored. While Washoe aesthetic processes and concepts may share much in
common with Mason’s interpretations of the aesthetics of their baskets, we are not
presented with any evidence that this is the case (4).

A cross-cultural definition of aesthetics

As Coote (1989: 237) has argued, ‘the explication of the differences between
different cultures’ ways of seeing should ... be the primary task of the anthropology
of aesthetics.’ Although it may be perfectly legitimate to see other people's works
through the eyes of one’s own culture, the anthropologist’s job is to reconnect
aesthetics with the culture that produced the object. However, before going on to
consider how such a reconnection can be achieved and how it might be reflected in
exhibiting the works of ‘other cultures’, I can no longer postpone the task of defining
a little more precisely what I include under the rubric of aesthetics. I have discussed

the issue of cross-cultural aesthetics in detail elsewhere (Morphy 1989, c.f. Morphy
1992) and will only summarize the arguments here.

In the case of material culture 'aesthetics' refers to the effects of properties of
objects on the senses, to the qualitative dimension of the perception of objects. Such
properties include physical ones, such as an objects form, surface qualities, feel and
smell. They may also include non-material attributes of the object that are signified
by it or associated with it, such as the attribute of age or distant place or magical
substance. In relation to physical properties these stand as connotation to
denotation. Many of the physical properties are apprehended cross-culturally.
Attributes such as weight, shininess, softness, perhaps even symmetry and balance,
are analogous to electricity in that they can have an impact on the nervous system
irrespective of the cultural background of the person experiencing them. The
existence of the non-material attributes presupposes cultural knowledge.

The properties of the object are not in themselves aesthetic properties, any more
than an electric shock is. They become aesthetic properties through their
incorporation within systems of value and meaning that integrate them within cultural
processes. Shininess and symmetry, as aesthetic properties, are interpreted or
appreciated on the basis of certain evaluative criteria that in simple terms cause
them to be viewed positively or negatively, either in themselves or in relation to other
properties or combinations of properties. This value converts an abstract or almost
physical property into an aesthetic quality, and this quality cannot be assumed to be
invariant across cultural boundaries. The aesthetic quality may in turn be linked to
particular cultural meanings, and these too can vary cross-culturally. One of the
classic examples of the incorporation of aesthetic properties of objects within an
overall system of value occurs in the case of the Massim region of Papua New
Guinea, where the property of heaviness is associated with land, agricultural
production and femaleness, and lightness is associated with voyaging, exchange of
goods and male careers (see Munn 1986:80 ff.). Thus aesthetics involves not simply
how something looks and is appreciated, but also how it is felt and understood. This
insight illustrates both the difficulties and the potentialities of communicating
aesthetic values cross-culturally. Understanding the aesthetic response of a
member of another culture to an object requires suspending one’s own response to
it, and learning how that object and its attributes are incorporated into systems of
value and meaning. If one can teach people to interpret and value the properties of
the objects of another culture according to the aesthetics of that culture then one
may provide a powerful insight into that world, and into what it feels to be a member
of it.

Guss’s analysis of the cultural context of Yekuana basketry provides an excellent
basis for the understanding of Yekuana aesthetics. The Yekuana employ a
technique that is widespread throughout much of the Amazonian region, and many
of the designs that are found on their basketry occur throughout the region.
Employing a perspective from Western aesthetics (that used by Mason, for
example), would make it difficult to differentiate between the particular cases. Yet,
despite the existence of common cultural themes that cross-cut the region, we know
that the meaning of the particular elements, and the context of their occurrence and
use, varies from place to place. Guss’s particular focus is on the waja, the circular
serving-trays that are used for the staple food cassava. It is impossible to summarize
the full complexity of his analysis, so I will concentrate only on a few aspects of it.

In a revealing section (Guss 1987:), he shows how baskets mark stages in the first
year of a marriage. A man is expected to make nearly the full complement of baskets
that his household requires. The first basket that he weaves for his wife is a version
of a plain basket called a waja tingkuihato. It is a finely woven basket made from
cane. Although woven in a single colour, the mosaic of the weave produces a
pattern of radiating lines referred to as kutto shidiyu (or 'frog’s bottom'). It is from this
basket that the couple eat during the first year of their marriage. At the end of the
year, the husband weaves a waja tometo (‘painted’ basket), whose pattern is
marked out by the use of alternating black and white plaits. By changing the
sequences of plaiting, the technique can be used to produce an almost infinite
variety of different designs. The particular design selected is chosen after
consultation between the man and his father, and may well be one that was used by
his father or grandfather for one of their wives. The use of the painted waja is a sign
that the marriage is established: ‘the special images woven into this “painted” waja
will be a clear statement of the strength and uniqueness of their bond’ (1989: 83)

In order to explain the opposition between the frog’s bottom baskets and the painted
baskets, and the different contexts of their use we must consider both the
significance of the materials of which they are made and the significance of the
designs themselves. The plain basket is made from kana, a sacred cane that had its
origins in ‘heaven’ and was one of the original materials brought down to earth (ibid:
141). It is considered both a pure and a safe substance; it is also in some sense
considered to be pre-cultural. Plain baskets similar to the ‘frog’s bottom’, but less
finely made, are used in the context of fasts and in other situations where people are
particularly concerned with purity. The painted waja are made from two varieties of
cane that are associated with powerful and dangerous spirit familiars that can be life-
threatening, unless treated with care (ibid: 127). People who are in a weak or
spiritually dangerous condition, or who are responsible for someone in such a
condition (for example, the father of a new baby), must avoid contact with the cane
and eat from a plain basket. The designs themselves reflect this ambivalent status,
since they represent subjects that are both potentially dangerous and of cultural
value, for example, sources of poisons and such animals as the jaguar. For people
who are in a spiritually strong condition, the painted baskets can be a positive force,
purifying food by symbolically removing poisonous substances, marking the identity
of the person and enabling the maker to reflect on myth and cultural process. The
use of the plain basket during the early part of a marriage can thus be seen both as
precautionary, while a potentially dangerous relationship is being established in
which childbirth and anger are never far away, and as a sign of the newness of the
relationship and its potential (ibid: 81). The painted basket, on the other hand, is a
sign of the strength of a relationship that is well established and marks it with a
particular identity. It links the marriage with the history of a family and of a culture.

Thus, for the Yekuana, the aesthetics of their basketry involves its integration within
a cultural context in which the form of a basket and the contexts of its use together
provide part of the framework of the Yekuana world. The value of the plain basket
exists in relation to the value of the painted basket, and a Yekuana appreciation of
its form will involve the understanding of its significance as an object of purity, a
connotation that can be equally conveyed by its ‘material, technique, design, and
function — coordinated to communicate the same message’ (ibid: 146).

It might be argued that what Guss's fine analysis has produced is the elucidation of
the cultural value of Yekuana baskets rather more than an exposition of their

aesthetics - the aesthetics if anything is the anthropologist's aesthetics as he or she
delights at the way in which cultural meanings can be read into everyday material
objects. (5) My response to such an argument would be to both reject it and accept
it. It may be rejected in the sense that the cultural meanings are going to affect the
way in which objects are perceived, and are going to be integral to the ways in which
the forms of the objects have an impact on the senses. Aesthetic perceptions and
conceptions are part of a cultural system. The aesthetic effects of objects are not
only part of value-creating processes, but are also affected in turn by the values
given to them and the meanings of objects into which people are socialized. While
the meanings of plain as opposed to painted waja are not in themselves aesthetic
values, they are likely to influence the aesthetic perception of baskets of the
respective types, and can be part of the way in which an aesthetic system is
culturally structured through the consistent association of perceived form with
emotional content. On a priori grounds, the aesthetics of a painted waja is going to
be different for someone who associates it with potentially dangerous forces and
substances, from what it is for someone who sees it only as a design form. The
emphasis on cultural knowledge, on the cultural semiotics and connotations of the
objects, is a necessary counter to those who see knowledge of meaning and context
almost as an impediment to aesthetic appreciation.

However, although analysis of cultural meanings is a necessary component of an
anthropological study of aesthetics, it should be made clear that I do not intend to
reduce aesthetics to cultural meaning or context. In order to analyse the aesthetic
dimension of a particular object, it is necessary to go beyond sketching in the cultural
background to an examination of the particular way in which the object is
appreciated, perceived and evaluated as a form by members of that culture, and to
show how the creation of an aesthetic effect is explicitly or implicitly part of the
intentional production of perceivable form. The task of the anthropologist is to elicit
interpretations, take note of the data and observe the structurings of effects across
media, that fill in the gap between cultural analysis and the objects as experienced
by members of the culture.

Conclusion: basketry, aesthetics and colonialism

Even with the information we now have, we do not know how the Yekuana ‘see’ their
basketry, how they divide it up into components, how baskets fit into with their world
of perception. As Forge (1970: 286) wrote, ‘it is impossible literally to see through the
eyes of another man, let alone perceive with his brain. Yet if we are to consider the
place of art in any society...we must beware of assuming that they see what we see
and vice versa.’ An anthropology of perception, if such existed, might enable us to
get closer, but to see as the Yekuana do would require that we were socialized into
their world, and that we were used to the light and shade and the sounds and smells
of the rain forest. But the ethnography does give us a greater understanding of what
and how the baskets mean to the Yekuana, and provides a perspective on how to
view them and how to value them. With this information we certainly do not see the
baskets as we saw them before, and we may have shifted a little closer to the
Yekuana view. We appreciate the baskets as the Yekuana do, on the basis of their
form, texture, colour, and even smell; and knowledge of the way these aspects are
culturally valued brings us closer to the Yekuana aesthetic system and enables us
to reflect on whether the form, texture, colour and smell are the same for them as
they are for us.

Document Outline

  • Exhibiting art
  • Other peoples aesthetics
  • A cross-cultural definition of aesthetics
  • Conclusion: basketry, aesthetics and colonialism