An “us vs. them” world tends to produce belief in cultural superiority. But human beings share more in common than perceived—and, admittedly, sometimes real—differences that may separate us. Exhibit A: Teotihuacan.
Teotihuacan is a sprawling pre-Columbian archaeological site northeast of Mexico City. Famed for its huge pyramids, Teotihuacan once contained 125,000 residents. Carolyn and I went there over 40 years ago. So naturally, we attended the recent exhibit of Teotihuacan artifacts at San Francisco’s de Young Museum.
One piece particularly fascinated me: an incense burner dated 350–550 CE. No photo—at least taken by me—can do it justice. Fifteen to 18 inches high, it depicts a king or priest with a huge headdress. Its multi-planar construction could suggest a 21st-century artist. I didn’t over-think the piece. I just stared in awe.
Some Americans might think this piece primitive since it’s highly stylized rather than realistic. But such art, found worldwide, speaks to me far more than European art of the medieval and Renaissance periods, at first stylized then trending towards realism.
The Teotihuacan piece led me to wonder: How do Americans who don’t visit museums view art from outside the U.S. and Europe? Do they consider valid only European art of the 12th through 19th centuries? Do they think that legitimate art comes only from white Christian civilization, and its Greek and Roman antecedents?
No knock on European art, but my preferences run to Native-American, Latin-American, African, Middle-Eastern and Asian art—along with anything from antiquity. Also, the European Impressionists and many modernists. Why?
Stylized or representative art involves me precisely because it isn’t photo-realistic. Here I turn to Plato, who wrote of numina and phenomena. Simply put, all physical objects in the world represent—but cannot duplicate—their conceptual ideals, known as numina. For example, all physical chairs—phenomena—cannot replicate the ideal no matter how beautiful or utilitarian.
Likewise, no painting or sculpture of a horse can depict the ideal horse. By definition, any physical image is too specific and thus limited in scope. But artists still grapple with numina. Picasso drew a horse utilizing a single line—what appears to be a simple outline. The viewer’s imagination fills in the details and comes to some understanding of the concept of horse. That’s what makes representative art so engaging.
Regardless of style, representative art—like realistic art—expresses the universal human desire to understand the world in which we live and in doing so, ourselves. With clay, wood, metal and plastic; on board or canvas or rock; in leather and fabric; on slabs of stone or cave walls, artists from all places and times have sought to come to grips and move us with a greater reality.
The need for art is so basic, all cultures pursue it. Placing geographical constraints on art’s value dehumanizes artists—and ourselves. Moreover, variance in form and style does not make one culture’s art superior to others. There’s art well-done and art not particularly accomplished. Art presents is with a win-win proposition.
We can learn much from the art of other cultures, past and present. Their history and religions can inform us, too. As the old saying goes, we’re all different just the same.
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