Professor Ivan Gaskell

Professor Ivan Gaskell

Bard Graduate Center

        

Aesthetic Judgment and the Transcultural Apprehension of Material Things

San Francisco Workshop, Saturday April 2nd, morning session

This paper is an attempt to examine aspects of the consequences of the transfer of individual culturally charged material items (principally artifacts) between societies that have different cultural values. This is an especially urgent matter, epistemologically, aesthetically, and ethically, when the societies concerned are likely to develop or are already in an unequal power relationship. One pressing set of circumstances in which individual material items changed hands was the expansion of European (in the extended sense) interests in the sixteenth through twentieth centuries. Many of the things acquired by Europeans entered collections initially or eventually devoted to the emerging field of ethnography. In this paper I claim that when an object moves from one society to another, one or more of three attitudes is in play, each of which involves aesthetic judgment: (1) supersession: the new users employ and interpret it solely on their own terms without regard to the uses and interpretations of its earlier users, either oblivious to those earlier uses, or purposefully to expunge them; (2) assumption: the new users discern familiar characteristics that they value, including aesthetic characteristics, and that they assume earlier users also discerned and valued; (3) translation: the new users attempt to learn the terms of use, interpretation and value of the earlier users by means of cultural acquisition and translation, acknowledging that these may differ from their own wholly or in part, but in the belief that their acquisition will bring them advantages. In this paper I examine the character and some of the epistemological, aesthetic, and ethical ramifications of each of these three attitudes for both European communities and for communities that encountered Europeans.