9 Engaging with Indigenous Art Aesthetically

Elizabeth Burns Coleman

Introduction: Aesthetics and Indigenous arts

Historically, artworks created by Indigenous peoples have been treated by Western, non-Indigenous artists and art critics as “primitive art” and belonging to ethnographic museums rather than in art galleries. This chapter traces how Indigenous arts have come to be re-evaluated as arts and explores how the artforms of Indigenous peoples may be appreciated while recognising that these artforms are often created in artistic traditions quite different from those associated with the Western institution of fine arts. These traditions may not separate art from everyday life or ceremony and may involve quite different assumptions about the metaphysical nature of representation and the nature of beauty. Finally, it explores important ways to understand and appreciate the dynamic developments of Indigenous art, beyond the idea that “traditional” means without change.

In 2006, the Quai Branly museum opened in Paris to great fanfare. In the museum, Indigenous arts were to be appreciated as arts, as opposed to being studied as curios, or presented anthropologically as representative of vanishing cultures. While the claim that all people have art might sound obvious to a current audience, at the time it was not. The museum represented an important political claim—that all people were equal, because all cultures had art. Historically, the claim that Indigenous peoples did not have art was a reason given for thinking they were “uncivilised” and “savages,” one of the justifications of colonisation. As recently as the 1990s, anthropologists and philosophers were debating whether Indigenous arts were “arts,” and whether “aesthetic appreciation” of Indigenous arts was merely the projection of European concepts and values onto alien cultures.

Histories of the “discovery” and appreciation of Indigenous art from around the world have a very similar structure. As the philosopher Thomas Leddy has written:

[F]irst, the art of X was treated as a collection of curiosities; then it was seen as art paradoxically created by people without any aesthetic sensitivity; then it was treated as art which has formal qualities strangely similar to those of Western masterpieces; then it was treated as art, but only when it is “authentic,” which is to say, precolonial; then it was treated as art, but only properly so when seen in its actual historical and performance context (for example the tribal mask in the context of ritual practice); then it was treated as art best seen in terms of aesthetic concepts coming out of the culture in which it was produced. (Leddy 2017)

This short account of the history of the acceptance of Indigenous arts as arts is largely correct. To say that something is an art is to give it a special status, a recognition of the creators as civilised. Yet, it does not follow from this that aesthetic appreciation of it follows from its display in a gallery, or that its aesthetic appreciation is easy, or that questions about how it should be appreciated cross culturally do not remain.

The debate surrounding the establishment of the Quai Branly focussed on two issues. One was on whether the museum “patronises the cultures it wishes to invest with lustre,” a problem James Harding thinks may have been ameliorated if the exhibition were not presented in “significant dimness,” which, in combination with the plant motif printed on the windows, may be considered “dangerously close to a fantasy of pre-contact worlds adrift in benign and fertile obscurity” (Harding 2007). The second issue focused on how one should appreciate an object, “whether a Tuareg tent cushion, for instance, is an extremely pretty household object, a ceremonial device or a work of art” (Harding 2007). This catalogue suggests that different kinds of aesthetic appreciation and valuation might apply depending on how we categorise objects. The question of categorisation assumes that whether something is decorative art (a pretty household object) involves different aesthetic standards for appreciation than ceremonial objects which have deeper religious and social connotations (consider the symbolism of the Orb carried by Queen Elizabeth on her coronation), to “a work of art” (which might mean a fine art object produced by an artist). In the New York Times, Michael Kimmelman explained, “The familiar aesthetics-versus-ethnology question came up: ‘Will religious, ceremonial and practical objects, never intended as art in the modern, Western sense, be showcased like baubles, with no context?’” (Kimmelman 2006). Such a question assumes that to appreciate something aesthetically as art is quite different from appreciating it as an artefact.

How something is categorised as an art object is directly relevant to its evaluation, and whether or how it is appropriate to appreciate it aesthetically. To understand these issues, we need to delve deeper into the history of how Indigenous arts have been appreciated by non-Indigenous members of the Western art world.[1]

This chapter is broken into three sections. The first section explores the history of the “discovery” of Indigenous arts by people in Western societies. Artworks created by Indigenous peoples were re-evaluated, from “hoaxes” to “primitive” art to “masterpieces” as formalist approaches to art developed. The second section focuses on the debates related to the philosopher Arthur Danto’s reinterpretation of Indigenous arts as being primarily related to their relationship with a discourse within the society of production, and criticisms of his theory. The objections to this theory provide valuable points to consider in relation to contemporary Indigenous art. Finally, in the last section, I explore what a fusion of horizons in relation to Indigenous aesthetics might look like and sketch how Indigenous works might be engaged with aesthetically through the paradigms of comparative aesthetics and etiquette.

The discovery of “primitive art”

Naturally, Indigenous arts had no need to be “discovered” within their own societies. The discovery occurred among European colonialists and anthropologists, and later, by artists and art theorists. Discovery in this sense simply means that something was formerly unknown from a particular perspective. Yet, Indigenous peoples with histories of colonial invasion are rightly disturbed by the idea that Europeans “discovered” lands or species that they have lived on and known about for thousands of years. What follows shortly after is dispossession. The same is true of art. In this section, I explore the historical relationship between theories of art and the appreciation of African art, which enabled Indigenous arts to be valued differently. They also enabled their appropriation. The remainder of the chapter will draw out these philosophical connections between Western theories of art and how Indigenous art is appreciated in the context of Western societies more explicitly.

A popular theory of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in colonial societies was that Indigenous peoples lived in “primitive” cultures, and as such, were living at an earlier evolutionary stage.[2] Initially it was believed that hunters and gatherers were closer to nature and therefore did not produce art (Morphy 1998, 13). For example, in 1837, when Sir George Grey had come across the Wadjina rock paintings in the Kimberly Ranges in Australia, he thought they could not possibly have been painted by Australian Aboriginal peoples: “It is scarcely probable that they could have been painted by self-taught savages,” he wrote (Morphy 1998, 20). And, when Aboriginal carvings of animals were found at Lake Eyre in 1906, many commentators felt they could only be some kind of hoax (Sutton, Jones, and Hemming 1988, 196). Similarly, some people thought the First Nations peoples of the Americas did not have music (Coleman and Coombe 2009). If Indigenous peoples did not have art (along with other institutions such as law), then it was possible to justify their colonisation by a presumed superior (European) civilisation.

However, some anthropologists and art historians thought that the artefacts Indigenous peoples produced were art, albeit “primitive art.”[3] The establishment of museums in the late 18th century and the development of art history and cultural anthropology as academic disciplines played an important role in shifting ideas about whether Indigenous societies produced art. These emerging disciplines enabled the first studies of Indigenous art. Alois Riegl (1858-1905), a curator at the k.k. Österreichisches Museum für Kunst und Industrie in Austria and one of the major figures associated with the establishment of art history as a discipline, developed formalism as a method for the scientific study of the evolution of pattern in his 1893 book, Problems of Style: Foundations for a History of Ornament. Inspired by this, another curator, German-born American Franz Boas (1858–1942) drew attention to the evolution of design and the creativity of Indigenous artists in his essays “The Decorative Art of the North American Indians” and “Decorative Designs of Alaskan Needlecases,” before completing his groundbreaking work that established a place for the study of art in anthropology, Primitive Art. Inspired by Kantian ideas, Riegl and Boas postulated a human will to create beauty and postulated this drive as the basis for how we should understand the universality of artistic forms in human cultures.

Nevertheless, the concept of primitive art remained mired in elitist thinking and presumptions of European superiority. Primitive art was considered by many to be less sophisticated than the art produced by European artists. At the turn of the nineteenth century, the dominant theory of art was expressivism, the idea that a work of art expresses an artist’s thoughts and feelings. As Susan Mculloch has observed, expressivism as “the raison d’être of much Western art—the artist’s desire to communicate thoughts or emotions, to present the world through his or her eyes, or to comment in a highly individual way on imaginary or real life” does not generally apply to Indigenous art (McCulloch 2001, 23). The lack of emphasis on individualism and creativity led Europeans to think of Indigenous arts as repetitious and based in tradition. The objects produced by Indigenous peoples were artefacts rather than “fine art,” and so, the thinking went, they belonged in ethnographic museums not art galleries. That they were “traditional” rather than the work of individual “creative artists” justified their appropriation.

In the early twentieth century, primitive art was “discovered” a third time, by European artists. This was the first re-evaluation of Indigenous arts as having something particularly valuable to offer. Primitive art was reinterpreted as the direct expression of an aesthetic emotion lacking in Western civilisation (Köpping and Köpping 1998). At first, the imagery and motifs of Indigenous peoples began appearing in an art style known as “primitivism,” such as in the Tahitian paintings of Paul Gauguin. Primitivism became a trend among the expressivist French and German avant-garde. African masks brought back from French colonies were particularly influential for Parisian artists and the evolution of modernism. Henri Matisse and André Derain were influenced by Gambon and Congolese (Babangi) masks. Yet, the revolutionary change in attitude towards the masks occurred one day in 1907. During a visit to the ethnographic museum Palais du Trocadero, Pablo Picasso experienced a “revelation” (Fluegel 1980, 87). According to Arthur Danto’s  account of Picasso’s visit:

There, amongst the emblems of imperial conquest or scientific curiosity, amidst what must have been taken as palpable evidence of the artistic superiority of European civilization and therein palpable justificatory grounds for cultural intervention, Picasso perceived absolute masterpieces of sculptural art, on a level of achievement attained only at their best by the acknowledged masterpieces of the Western sculptural tradition. (Danto 1988, 18)

Danto suggests that what enabled this discovery were changes to the practice of art that enabled the values of African art to become visible to those who had previously not recognised them: “In liberating himself from his own representational traditions, Picasso liberated the art of Africa from those same traditions, in the light of which they could not be seen for what they were” (Danto 1988, 19). The influence of what was called “Negro art” on art practice became apparent in Paris from 1907, and by 1912 had spread through Berlin, Dresden and London art scenes (Encyclopedia of Art, n.d.).

These developments quickly influenced art theorists and critics as well. What distinguished the artefacts made in Indigenous cultures, it was thought, was their lack of representational naturalism, their “savagery” and “emotional rawness.” In 1914, the formalist theorist Clive Bell argued that “As a rule primitive art is good. … In primitive art you will find no accurate representation; you will find only significant form” (Bell [1914] 1931, 22). For Bell, what was so impressive about primitive art, all primitive art, he thought, was the absence of representation and of technical swagger he associated with the fine arts (23). In 1920 Roger Fry, another formalist critic, was to write of an exhibition of African sculpture at the Chelsea Book Club that “some of these things are great sculpture—greater I think than anything we produced even in the Middle Ages,” adding that “it seems unfair to be forced to admit that certain nameless savages have possessed this power [to create expressive plastic form] not only in a higher degree than we do at this moment, but than we as a nation have ever possessed it” (Danto 1988, 19). The idea that “nameless savages” produced the work underscores an attitude of the superiority of European civilisation. It does not suggest that there was a re-evaluation of their status as primitive, nor that the makers of the works were creative artists, regardless of the quality of their work. If anything, the focus on form encouraged people to ignore the ceremonial and religious meanings of Indigenous arts because, on a formalist understanding of art, this was what it meant for arts to be appreciated aesthetically.

The admiration of Indigenous arts by Western artists was accompanied by a hierarchy of values that, in their minds, legitimised using their forms in any way they liked. The highly stylised figures of African sculptures became influential in Cubism, and later, Surrealism. By the 1930s, Oceanic, First Nation Indian, and Eskimo art also became sources of inspiration (Encyclopedia of Art, n.d.).

For instance, in Australia, the modernist painter Margaret Preston saw in Aboriginal painting the well-spring for an “Indigenous art of Australia.” According to Preston, for this “Indigenous” Australian fine art to be invented, all it needed was an “all-seeing eye of the Western Artist to adapt it [Aboriginal art] to the 20th century” (Angel 1999, 33). The relationship of Indigenous art with tradition is precisely what enabled it to be reinterpreted by the Western artist in the service of creating their own “great art.” This practice is embedded in contemporary Western legal systems in copyright law (Coleman 2005), and aesthetic appreciation and the value of self-expression remain used as justifications for cultural appropriation.

As widely observed, there are significant differences between Western and Indigenous art practices. First, in some Indigenous cultures, there may be no lexical terms for “art” or “aesthetics.” Second, art production in Indigenous societies is not an autonomous realm, and the Indigenous products the Western artworld calls art are often used in ceremonial or other socially significant contexts and were not produced as objects for sale (Davies 2010; Dutton 2000). It was highly controversial when, in the 1950s, Australian art galleries first started adding Aboriginal art to their collections. These controversies did not focus on the quality of the artefacts so much as the issue of whether or not they were art and should be displayed in galleries (Morphy 1998, 23–29). Debates about these issues became especially prominent as museum practices changed and Indigenous arts started to be displayed as art in the second half of the twentieth century, and especially from the 1980s. One of the most influential accounts of why aesthetic appreciation (understood in terms of disinterested contemplation) cannot be thought of as a cross-cultural concept was presented by Pierre Bourdieu in his article “The Historical Genesis of a Pure Aesthetic” (1987). Bourdieu argued that the aesthetic attitude is not shared by all humanity, or even by all people at all times in Western societies. He argued that art is not defined by a type of creation, but a kind of social institution, and that it follows from this that the aesthetic attitude is also historically produced. In 1988, when the Center for African Art in New York mounted the exhibition Art/Artifact, it explicitly explored the questions, “How do art museums deal with art made by people who do not call it art? How do we decide what objects to select, and how do we determine quality among objects of a similar type? How should our museums present art made for purposes unfamiliar to the audience and remote from the museum’s own purposes?” (Vogel 1988, 10).

The issue of whether Indigenous arts were art and whether anthropologists should explore aesthetics was still being debated as late as 1996 (Coleman 2011). One of the arguments against the position that aesthetics was a cross-cultural concept was that the fact that the term “aesthetics” was created by the philosopher Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten in 1735 shows that its meaning is intrinsically historical and not universal. Joanna Overing suggested that the study of aesthetics simply means the study of fine art, and she defines fine art as art that does not have a purpose. Overing suggests that the Piaroa notion of beauty “cannot be removed from productive use,” and that the conception of beauty is different because “beautification empowers” (Overing 1996, 265). Yet such an account of aesthetics cannot explain why we find stories, songs, performances, and paintings, items we consider to be aesthetically important, in every culture. Moreover, one can concede that Indigenous peoples did not have an “institution of fine art” involving galleries, critics, and fine artists without accepting that they did not have artistic practices. Further, if such an account of art and aesthetics were true, one would need to accept that music, performances, and paintings produced for religious purposes in Western societies were also not art. As many people do think that it makes sense to speak of ancient Greek art or icon painting and hymns as art, a better response is simply to reject the claim as too narrow. If ancient Greek statues and icons can be shown as art in art galleries, then so can Indigenous artworks. However, often such objects are held to different standards than works produced in European traditions. As the anthropologist James Clifford has shown, Indigenous arts become appreciated as masterpieces in galleries primarily through their relationship between being “traditional” and “authentic” (Clifford 1988, 251-252).

In the space of 150 years, ideas about whether Indigenous peoples had art, and whether their arts were aesthetically valuable, changed dramatically. This history shows that the history of colonisation is woven throughout the collection, display, and appropriation of art, and this history relates to dominant ideas about aesthetic appreciation and the nature of art. Aesthetic appreciation is important in several respects in this cross-cultural history. First, it is what enabled the recognition that Indigenous peoples have art across cultures—that is, aesthetic appreciation has an epistemic function. Second, it has an explanatory function in terms of why we might consider some attributes, such as the capacity to create art, to be particularly human capacities in terms of how they interpret the world. But third, a theory of aesthetic appreciation enables, and even justifies, the appropriation of Indigenous arts as if such appropriation was a sign of respect for the culture of other people. However, history is not a philosophy. To explore the philosophical debates regarding the appreciation of Indigenous arts, I contrast formalist accounts of art with Arthur Danto’s institutional theory and explore some of the criticisms that have been raised in this context.

Re-evaluations of Indigenous art

In addition to being a method for the study of art history, formalism is the philosophical theory of art that defines art in terms of those objects created by an artist that have “significant form.” For theorists such as Bell, significant form is the apprehension of the world in terms of arrangements and combinations that elicits an aesthetic emotion, the sense of beauty. This kind of apprehension of the world, Bell thought, is beyond mundane usefulness, and moral or political considerations. The focus of form is lost when the emphasis of an artist is on naturalism and the demonstration of skill. Bell wrote, “formal significance loses itself in preoccupation with exact representation and ostentatious cunning” ([1914] 1931, 23):

Naturally, it is said that if there is little representation and less saltimbancery in primitive art, that is because the primitives were unable to catch a likeness or cut intellectual capers. The contention is beside the point. … Very often, I fear, the misrepresentation of the primitives must be attributed to what the critics call, “wilful distortion.” Be that as it may, the point is that, either from want of skill or want of will, primitives neither create illusions, nor make display of extravagant accomplishment, but concentrate their energies on the one thing needful—the creation of form. Thus, have they created the finest works of art that we possess. (23)

As noted above, this enabled a re-evaluation of Indigenous arts by Western, non-Indigenous artists and critics in that what had previously been considered a “failure” or lack of representation was reconceptualised as a virtue. While the re-evaluation was important in recognising the beauty of the work, it denied the religious significance or meaning of those forms as important.

In the introduction to the catalogue of the Art/Artifact exhibition, Arthur Danto presents a very different theory of Indigenous art to that of Bell. If what was important to Bell was the lack of representation and the focus on form, for Danto, what makes Indigenous art “art” is how the art embodies meaning. For Danto, all art is created by artists within a social and historical context that has an interpretive discourse about those objects. This discourse sets these objects apart from everyday life. His theory addresses the question with which I began this chapter, “whether a Tuareg tent cushion … is an extremely pretty household object, a ceremonial device or a work of art” (Harding 2007). For Danto, there is always a clear line between art and artefact, or art and a household object. While something may be both a useful object and a work of art, a work of art cannot be a mere tool. This distinction is drawn on the nature of how an object is related to a discourse of meaning and evaluation. It allows us to distinguish between otherwise identical objects, between an actual Brillo box and Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box. An actual Brillo box is something used and discarded. It is not something created for contemplation. In contrast, Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box contributes to debate within the artworld about the nature of art and its relationship to modes of production. For Danto, “An artifact implies a system of means; to extract it from the system in which it has a function and display it for itself is to treat a means as though it were an end. The use of an artifact is always its meaning” (Danto 1988, 29). In contrast, art is an end. Its meaning, and the discourse that sets it apart is what gives it a special status or value. This implies a difference in value that determines whether something belongs in an art gallery or a museum.

Danto applies this argument to African art by using an imaginary example of two African tribes of the same region, separated by a geographical feature that enabled their cultures to evolve in different ways. He calls these tribes the Pot People and the Basket Folk. Both tribes produce pots and baskets, and the features of the pots and baskets are indiscernible to an outsider, yet the pots of the Pot People belong in an art gallery, while their baskets do not, while the baskets of the Basket Folk belong in a gallery while their pots do not. The reason for this is the special role that pots play for the Pot People and the baskets play for the Basket Folk. The Basket Folk consider the baskets to have great meaning and special power. They express the idea that we carry youth within ourselves through their capacity to retain the scent of freshly cut grasses, which is released when the baskets are left in the rain. The Basket Folk view the world as a basket made by the great basket weaver God, and the basket-makers imitate God in her creativity. Pots, on the other hand, are “a piece with fishnets and arrowheads, textiles of bark and flax, or the armatures of wood that give shape to their dwellings” (Danto 1988, 23). In contrast, the pots of the Pot People are thick with signification, especially with the capacity to hold seeds for the next year’s harvest. Human beings and especially women are like pots for their ability to carry their seeds of the next generation. Baskets, for the Pot People, however, are simply baskets (Danto 1988, 24). In this explanation, it is the religious interpretative framework applied to the pots by the Pot People and baskets by the Basket Folk that sets them apart from being mere utilitarian objects.

For Danto, such meaning is a part of the work: “An artwork is a compound of thought and matter” (Danto 1988, 31), and the form of an artwork is given by its content. An artwork embodies its meaning (Danto 2000, 133). Borrowing from Martin Heidegger, Danto suggests that art embodies the “lifeworld” of a culture (Heidegger 1971). For example, an ancient Greek temple embodies the cosmology and ideology of the people who created it. Accordingly, Danto writes, statues of ancient Greek Gods “express the powers they personify” (1988, 31). Accordingly, if African art is not representational, it is because resemblance is not a consideration for the artists; they invent forms that best embody the forces they intend to express (1988, 31).[4] The form of African art is powerful because the forms of African art are about the powers central to human life. Danto suggests that non-members of African Indigenous cultures are severely limited in their understanding and appreciation of this art. If someone cannot see the philosophical content, then possibly they are unable to appreciate the work at all: “[W]e may … be unable to perceive them at all. If we do not know the powers, if we do not understand how those powers are lived in the forms of life they penetrate, and especially if we ourselves do not live those forms of life, we probably can see them only in our terms” (Danto 1988, 37).

Despite this change of focus from the form of the art to its meaning and the discourse that surrounds it, this theory also presents problems. First, as Danto acknowledges elsewhere, this theory excludes something that does not embody its meaning as art, and specifically excludes what might be termed “symbolic art,” “the meaning of which, as in a name, is external to it” (Danto 2000, 133). However, this excludes some Indigenous creations we would intuitively consider art from being so. Secondly, his argument about the indiscernibility of the pots and baskets of the Pot People and Basket Folk does not correspond with our intuitions, or what we know about the care with which ceremonial objects are created in most Indigenous societies. And thirdly, Danto’s argument has the unfortunate consequences of excluding the objects that Indigenous societies produce for aesthetic reasons as art, on the grounds that such objects are untraditional and therefore inauthentic.

Danto’s theory suggests a direct relationship between form and meaning. However, this relationship is more complex than he suggests when, as in the case of Aboriginal painting in Australia, the meaning is encoded through polysemic iconicity,[5] and a particular meaning is expressed within a ceremonial context. In such a case, the form of the object does not determine its meaning. For example, the foremost authority of Yolngu painting, Howard Morphy, shows how its iconicity has multiple meanings. Yolngu paintings have two main elements: figurative representations and geometric forms. The geometric shapes represent the form of sand sculptures used in ceremony or other ceremonial objects. The painting is divided into different segments involving rarrk (cross-hatching) and different diamond structures that are clan designs. The clan designs are multi-referential. The diamonds and rarrk in a single painting “can represent the turbulent floodwaters, the ancestral fire, the marks on a crocodile’s back, the cells of a beehive; its colours can represent flames or burnt wood, smoke and sparks, honey or foaming waters; and the distinctive variants of the design belong to different social groups and are part of the clan’s identity” (Morphy 2008, 103). The meaning in any given context is enacted separately in specific ceremonial contexts, say, through the words of a song or the expressive movements of a dance (Morphy 2008, 97). Danto might accommodate this by pointing out that the forms still embody the forces an artist means to express, yet the point is that the meaning expressed in the painting is not determined by the artist, but by the ceremonial context and other participants in it.

Another criticism of Danto’s distinction between art and artefact is that it is simply improbable as a distinction between art and non-art. It is highly unlikely that the Pot People and the Basket Folk would produce identical objects, where one produced art and the other produced mere things. Denis Dutton argues convincingly that this is simply unlikely to be true—the difference between the sacred and the mundane is expressed in care and attention to detail. Dutton argues, “if the pots and their associated mythology have the place Danto describes for them as having among Pot People, and if the making of pots among them has developed into their most treasured art—then it is hard to suppose Pot Peoples being anything but meticulous about the construction of their pots” (1993, 17). They would worry about finding the perfect clay and the process of firing the pots for the perfect finish. This is just what people do when they care deeply about a product they are making. Moreover, when an art form develops, presumably over generations, it develops a canon of excellence and requirements for good pot design and decoration. Aesthetic attention to form and material is perceptible in the making and the final product of an object made in another culture, even though the purpose of making the object does not involve making fine art. Whatever the purpose of making the object may be, it is possible to recognise that these objects, or products, involve skill, care, sensitivity, and intelligence.

Dutton’s example is convincing in that it is intuitive in terms of the patterns of use of objects from other cultures. However, an epistemological problem with Dutton’s objection is that care and attention to detail are not always apparent cross-culturally. An example of such a situation concerns Rembrannga digeridoos. Like the didgeridoos produced by their near neighbours, the Yolngu in Arnhem Land, Rembrannga didgeridoos are created with great care and attention to detail, however, they are not similarly popular with art collectors as the application of ochre to the object is messy rather than the neat application of rarrk found elsewhere in Arnhem Land. This messiness does not mean that the objects are not valued. Rather, what is important is the depth of colour of the ochre, which may be gathered from special sites and saved for particular purposes or works (Coleman and Keller 2006). This objection does not undermine Dutton’s point that special care and attention has been paid to the creation of something intended for ceremonial purposes, rather it suggests that only people with an understanding of the aesthetic values of the Rembrangga and their techniques of production may be able to perceive those differences.

A more telling objection might be that the difference between sacred and profane objects in some cultures do not follow the patterns that Danto suggests. For Danto, it is the theory or religious discourse that distinguishes art from non-art. A contemporary example of Danto’s conception of art might be objects such as dilly bags (woven baskets used to collect food) and fish traps produced by Aboriginal artists from Northern Territory, Australia.[6] Dilly bags and fish traps may be totemic objects associated with specific parts of the landscape. According to the Aboriginal arts organisation Maningrida Arts and Culture, “the conical fish trap has become the ritual focus of certain clan ceremonies and often appears as a design motif painted on bark. Sacred sites for the fish trap are scattered across western and north-central Arnhem Land, and certain creation beings are said to have imparted the knowledge of fish-trap technology to human beings” (Bawininga Aboriginal Corporation. n.d.).

Thus, as Danto suggests, fish-traps may be artefacts used for fishing, ceremonial objects, or created as objects of beauty for galleries and are connected with ancestral stories. However, this also undermines Danto’s account of the difference between art and non-art in terms of the value of objects, as these are not the exclusive disjunctions as he suggests. For Danto, it would be wrong to treat a fish-trap as an artwork if it did not have religious or ceremonial purpose. But fish-traps may be all these things. It is not that the category “fish-trap” has a special status, rather, the objects in that category are valued differently in different contexts. As such, the distinction between artefact and art breaks down. Spirit infuses all of life, as opposed to certain kinds of objects.

A further point of criticism concerning Danto’s use of the spiritual discourse surrounding the objects as the feature that makes something a work of art is made by Larry Shiner on the basis that it excludes objects produced primarily for aesthetic reasons (Shiner 1994, 52). Shiner points out that on this theory, the insistence that an African Indigenous carving be authentic, that is, used in ceremony, creates a restriction on Indigenous art that devalues the works produced for aesthetic appreciation. Further, the sculptural works that are made by African Indigenous artisans for sale for their aesthetic features are demoted to “tourist artefacts” or fakes. This is a common feature of Indigenous work produced for Western art markets. Similarly, Navajo sand paintings are created as part of a healing ritual and are not preserved after the conclusion of the ritual, nor replicated. In respect of this tradition, artists producing for the market will intentionally alter the design from ritual-specific counterparts according to Navajo design principles. However, many collectors feel that this art involves a loss of “cultural authenticity” (Gracyk 2009, 156–159). A distinct problem for Aboriginal painting according to Danto’s theory is that Australian Aboriginal peoples also had a tradition of painting that was non-ceremonial and was used locally for their aesthetic functions. Such works might appear on the walls of a bark hut, for instance, just as European paintings are used. They could not be important secret-sacred representations in such a context (Morphy 2008, 24). According to Danto, however, such paintings produced and used locally for aesthetic purposes, but without a deep discourse, would not be art.

The problem of the cultural authenticity of works produced for aesthetic purposes is emphasised when, according to an Indigenous culture’s standards of authenticity, a work produced for sale as art may be considered authentic even though it departs from historic forms. A similar problem arose with Australian Aboriginal paintings, as these became produced for sale as art objects (Coleman 2001). Critics were concerned that the paintings, produced in acrylics, could not be authentic given that they were not produced for ceremonial purposes or with traditional media. However, what cannot be “seen” in the artworks is their ontological structure.[7] We might discuss artworks as either “allographic,” that is, as having a symbolic structure like words, which can be repeated and produced in different media and yet always remain the same word, or “autographic,” meaning a single system produced by a specific author, like a painting. So, for example, the notation system of symbols and words means that any book with the same sequence of letters is an instance of the same book. There can be any number of instances of a performance of a play, and each interpretation can be quite different and have different aesthetic qualities while remaining the same play. However, a painting of sunflowers by Vincent Van Gogh is always a single and distinct painting, even though Van Gogh painted sunflowers many times. Aboriginal paintings are different from Western paintings in that they have instructions for correct performance, like plays or music. Accordingly, an Aboriginal painting can be reinterpreted in different contexts, and different mediums, because it is not autographic. Different interpretations are instances of the same work, regardless of the medium in which they are produced.

Those unfamiliar with the culture should not assume that they can always identify the skill or the aesthetic properties that make a work valuable or good from the perspective of an Indigenous person from that culture. Some properties, such as the messiness of paint, may be less important than the density of the colour, and the sensory qualities of value may differ even in closely related societies. The meaning of the object we are attempting to appreciate may only be given in ceremonial contexts. Nor can non-Indigenous peoples assume that only certain kinds of work are authentic. Indigenous arts may have a very different ontological structure, and this ontology will make a difference between what counts as an authentic instance of an artwork produced within a tradition. However, it is important to avoid essentialising Indigenous arts to those artefacts produced for ceremonial or religious contexts. Indigenous peoples may also produce artefacts for purely aesthetic reasons to be used domestically or sold within a cross-cultural arts market. Developments within those traditions make it possible for artists to modify works within cultural protocols, retaining cultural authenticity, as objects created within those traditions.

European tastes and current aesthetic standards potentially blind them to acknowledgement of the achievements of other people. If Europeans attempt to understand works of art from their own perspective, they impose their own standards of taste, and learn nothing. As with the Rembrannga didgeridoo, they cannot see the quality of colour because they are looking at the messiness. Similarly, the music of the Kaluli tribe of Papua New Guinea was dismissed as unmusical by missionaries because it was structured to involve overlapping voices rather than harmony. People cannot make relevant aesthetic judgements based solely on what they perceive—that is, how an artwork looks or sounds (Higgins 2005, 2). They need information and categories that make the art’s properties relevant as points of comparison (Walton 1970). If the Quai Branly were to take its mission seriously, it needs to help viewers direct their attention to the qualities the artists saw as particularly valuable. Yet this is not a simple lesson in “how other people think.” To appreciate the art of another culture, there needs to be a willingness to allow differences between traditions to emerge, to accept that traditions evolve, and to explore different ways in which cross-cultural appreciation may occur.

Appreciating Indigenous arts

Throughout the 1990s, as academic debates about the arts of other cultures and whether they should be considered part of the canon taught in universities raged, the philosopher Charles Taylor suggested that the validity of a claim to significant cultural value (and hence to be worthy of being taught at university) must be demonstrated from within the standards of the culture. “To approach a raga with the presumptions of value implicit in the well-tempered clavier would be forever to miss the point,” he wrote; “what needs to happen is what Gadamer has called a ‘fusion of horizons,’” which “operates through our developing new vocabularies of comparison, by means of which we can articulate these concepts” (Taylor 1994, 67). People who attempt such a fusion arrive at an “understanding of what constitutes worth that [they] couldn’t possibly have had at the beginning. [They] have reached the judgment partly through transforming [their] standards” (Taylor 1994, 67).

One way to begin to interpret this claim is through thinking about how categories of art and structures of expectation inform our judgements. Formalist engagement with Indigenous cultures was historically important for the recognition of Indigenous arts as arts, as Boas’ interpretation of design showed. Formalist principles also enabled musical form to be reinterpreted. When the Canadian musicologist Ida Halpern began studying the music of the First Nations peoples in Canada, it was widely believed that they did not have music. Halpern was among the first researchers to recognise that what some considered nonsense syllables in native songs had an important role and religious meaning (Chen 1995, 52). The problem of interpretation was not merely that no one believed First Nations peoples had art (though that applied as well), it was that it could not be “heard”: there was no means to appreciate it. Melody and accompaniment were independent of each other; the vocalisation included sounds considered to be nonsense or meaningless syllables. To understand the music, Halpern had to free herself from the standard concepts and structures of Western music. Western concepts, such as notational scales, did not work. “Tonality seems to exist,” she wrote, “but in no direct relation to any specific existing system” (Cole and Mullins 1993, 30). Her model for understanding the music was medieval chant, where finally the structure became apparent. Yet, to understand the music in this form is different from appreciating it aesthetically using the value structures of the society from which it originates. Such a reinterpretation does involve a re-evaluation, because the music was recognised as music and as art. However, it is not yet the fusion of horizons that are necessary to determine whether it is good art.

Facts about the history of production play an essential role in the development of aesthetic judgements in that they determine what aesthetic properties something has. This includes the kind of broad categories that are established in the society in which it was produced, as well as the category in which the artist that produced the work expected it to be understood or interpreted. This process of categorisation involves coming to understand how a society categorises and values artefacts as well as the specific properties of those objects. We cannot generalise these categorisations across the broader classifications of societies, such as the categories African or Aboriginal or First Nations. For instance, the Navajo understand beauty as a property that affects things in the world, rather than a state of mind. Beauty is associated with harmony and goodness and “does” something in the world. Whereas beauty in Western culture is contrasted with ugliness, the Zuni people contrast beauty with danger. While, for Zuni, beauty might be used to describe flower bouquets, jewellery, songs, decoration, and other things that can be shared, danger is associated with shaggy, dark matted hair, ogres, and certain crudely naturalistic designs painted on ceremonial pottery. War Gods, for instance, are dangerous, and should not be shared or looked upon. Yet another people, the Kuna, have artistic practices involving the production of beautiful chants and speeches by creative individuals. These are structured in esoteric language full of metaphors, yet speeches are accompanied by a practice of interpretation, while chants are not (Webster 2005). We therefore need to be wary of overgeneralising, and to acknowledge that there will often be counterexamples to cultural claims. We also need to know how the features of artforms are assessed within the society. For instance, art historian Robert Faris Thompson showed that application of realism in form was not a relevant category through which to appreciate Yoruba sculpture. It was not that the artists did not have the skills to produce naturalistic forms. Rather they aimed for an aesthetic criterion of ofjioa, a term meaning “mimesis at the midpoint” between verisimilitude and abstraction (Higgins 2005). Similarly, my example of Rembrannga didgeridoos showed that what made them good was the depth of the colour of the ochre.

Another aspect of this valuation from an Indigenous perspective involves recognition of a different metaphysical structure, or the social role an artform plays. Many societies do not make distinctions such as fine arts and crafts, and arts are integrated into everyday life. Arts may show status or identity; they may also encode law or history (Coleman and Coombe 2009). A song may have the purpose of healing the sick, or a mask of transforming a person into spirit (Higgins 2005). The Zuni have sought the return of War Gods from museums because they are dangerous. These metaphysical aspects of aesthetics, as well as the different social roles art may play, suggest that to appreciate the significance of the work, and how people relate or respond to it, is to treat the object, and the people who created it, respectfully.

There are norms of behaviour for relating to religious objects, and these norms express the relationship people have with them (Coleman 2008). For instance, an icon in the Orthodox Church is a sacred image used in devotion. The most common subjects are Christ, Mary, saints, and angels. The icon does not merely represent its subject, the image and the subject are considered inseparable. The acknowledgement of this relationship within a ritual or religious context is physical. A priest may kiss the icon in recognition. Other devotional responses to art include people lighting candles before them, crossing themselves and genuflection. Similarly, there are norms of responses to Indigenous religious objects. The Maori may greet certain objects. Other objects, such as the False Masks of the Iroquois, should not be viewed except within certain contexts. The Zuni do not want the War Gods gazed upon. These norms of behaviour establish culturally specific protocols for how people should relate to those objects.

It follows that another aspect of appreciation in cross-cultural settings is acknowledgement of the normative aspects of behaviour that follow from the metaphysical aspects of the symbol, as religious traditions involve norms about how an object may be produced, as well as how the symbol should be treated. This involves the imaginative interpretation of the metaphysics of art (Coleman 2008). For example, in the tradition of icon painting, Europeans understand that the Platonic background to these ideas inform how it is engaged with. There are some aspects of many Indigenous claims and Platonic thought that appear to be similar. One is the association of the object with what it represents in such a way that it makes little sense to say that something is “a representation.” Similarly, when some Maori see images of the ancestors, they do not view or respond to the image as a representation but respond to the image by greeting the ancestors. In making such imaginative connections between metaphysical systems, non-Indigenous people may stretch their boundaries, expanding their categories of art, as well as how they engage with it.

The philosopher Thomas Heyd suggests that etiquette is a first step in the creation of a cross-cultural ethic that establishes a mode of approach that respects other cultural values (Heyd 2007). Heyd develops his idea of cross-cultural appreciation from the concept of civility in conversation. Civility involves distancing oneself from one’s own concerns to appreciate things from other points of view. Moreover, civility displays good will in the participants of an interaction even in the absence of agreement about other values, and a respectful attitude towards difference. In relation to the aesthetic appreciation of those goods, etiquette implies “seeking out the aesthetic and artistic perspectives that may have contributed to the manifestations in question, and at the same time taking note that … we need to be cautious in our judgement as to the significance of the values found” (Heyd 2007, 196). Such an approach, he thinks, would have the consequence that the value of cultural goods would be more likely to be understood, and they would be less likely to be misappropriated.

This idea of etiquette may be developed in terms of the observance of the protocols surrounding an object’s use (Coleman 2018). The first and most important aspect of this engagement involves attention to the protocols that accompany an object in the society that produced it. This may involve changing how we approach works in a gallery setting. For instance, in the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki in New Zealand, one of the first exhibits on entering is a Maori meeting house with carvings of the spiritual Ancestors. Visitors are required to remove their shoes before entering the space as a gesture of respect. Yet note, this is not a simple engagement as though participants were visitors to new lands in past times. Rather, it is an active negotiation between contemporary participants. The meaning of the ritual, and the way in which respect is interpreted, are negotiated within a new context.

The expansion of boundaries and categories in a fusion of horizons is not a one-way process. Remote Indigenous artists often travel to cities for exhibitions and have some sense of what galleries are and how they function. They produce work specifically for the gallery. Indeed, the Indigenous people’s negotiation with the secret sacred in the gallery context has been a spur to the creation of works of great beauty. Howard Morphy points out that the emphasis on dotting in Central Desert art occurs as part of a second wave of painting: “Early paintings showed an enormous diversity of form, technique and composition. … Although the acrylic paintings were soon to be popularised as ‘dot painting,’ many of the early works had no dotted infill, or had dotting restricted to certain areas” (Morphy 1998, 293-4).

According to the evidence, dots became an important element of Indigenous art after communities began enforcing secrecy restrictions on displaying sacred motifs. Vivien Johnson writes, “when it began, Papunya painting was perceived within most Central Australian Aboriginal societies as profoundly anti-establishment. The Papunya painters were generally regarded as a group of free-thinking radicals attacking what had hitherto been considered core cultural values” (Johnson 1994, 35). The radicalism of the movement was the context in which the paintings later appeared—a public gallery—which, according to Johnson, “tested the strict laws of Western Desert Society concerning the disclosure of secret/sacred knowledge” (Johnson 1994, 34). Widespread disapproval of this disclosure forced the painters to adapt their paintings if they wanted to be able to sell them. The painters began progressively attenuating the references to the sacred in order to protect their secrecy, “leaving out the offending images from the ceremonial context, reducing the design elements to essentials and filling in the background with dots” (Johnson 1994, 36). Such reinterpretations of traditions are not inauthentic, rather, we need to see the restrictions as spurs of creativity and innovation that make the traditions dynamic artistic forms.

The artist’s use of religious designs may also be personalised as self-expression. For instance, Tjungkaya Napaltjarri (later known as Linda Syddick), was the first Pintupi modernist painter. Napaltjarri appeared to have turned her back on Aboriginal traditions, however, after her adopted father’s death she painted two images using Aboriginal iconography, which she described as “her story.” One of the paintings showed Emu Men, ancestral beings whose representation is part of the Tingarri song cycle, which is usually painted by men. In doing so, she claimed an inheritance from her adopted father as being in control of these stories, insisting that she had inherited these rights. Her use of the cycle not only represented her life story but made a political claim against Pintubi tradition. The emergence of artists with a self-conception of themselves as creative artists, the creation of new forms of art produced with no other function than to be appreciated as art, and the level of self-expression of artists provide good reasons for considering the art they are producing to be fine art in the Western sense of the term. At the same time, such works remain traditional Aboriginal art in that they operate within and respond to Aboriginal values and practices (Coleman and Keller 2006).

Indigenous peoples may also appropriate the space of museums and galleries for their own purposes. In a recent collaboration between the peoples of Martu, Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara and Ngaanyatjarra lands, the Australian National University and the National Museum of Australia, The “Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters” exhibition enabled Aboriginal peoples to represent the story of Ancestral beings who travelled from one end of Australia to the other in their efforts to evade a lustful figure in the guise of a man. This representation was important to the elders, and a response to their needs. “You mob gotta help us … those songlines they been all broken up now … you can help us put them together again” was the request by Aṉangu elder David Miller to curator Margot Neale (Neale 2017, 14). The representation in the gallery context enabled Aboriginal peoples to represent an epic story, recovering and piecing together a jigsaw puzzle of narrative, and for non-Aboriginal Australians to grasp something of the deep relationship between country, culture, and cosmology, and at the same time to discover an Iliad or Odyssey, an elemental tale of “intrigue, desire, drama, passion and beauty that connect[s] people and distinctive places across the desert lands” (Trinca 2017, 11).

A fusion of horizons is more than an attempt to understand something from the maker’s perspective, or according to their values. The fusion of horizons is a result of negotiation and reimagination from both perspectives. Non-Indigenous peoples not only come to understand another culture’s forms, but how to relate to them, changing the modes through which they engage with works, and changing their ideas about art. Indigenous peoples, for their part, have reinterpreted their cultural forms as fine art, with new audiences. Artistic traditions have been reinterpreted and developed to create new cultural forms for the gallery context, and new artistic modes of expression. Moreover, Indigenous peoples have begun to appropriate gallery spaces for Indigenous cultural purposes.


To accept that Indigenous peoples produce art is quite different from being able to appreciate the work produced by those cultures. This chapter has shown how this acceptance has followed theoretical changes to the concept of art, which allowed it to be re-evaluated. This process is not necessarily a celebration of enlightenment, as the discovery of art is also associated with its appropriation. To appreciate a work of art requires more than an admiration of form. Formalism, which focussed on the forms of the Indigenous arts rather than their meanings, though encouraging appreciation, is also associated with the widespread (mis)use of Indigenous motifs in Primitivism. This process at once acknowledged the visual power of Indigenous artforms while re-affirming the non-Indigenous artist’s “right” of artistic self expression. Danto’s institutional theory, which focussed on the religious meaning of much Indigenous art, devalued works deemed to be utilitarian objects, and those produced and sold for aesthetic purposes. Such a theory raises a series of questions about the difference between utilitarian objects, ceremonial objects and works of art raised by the opening of the Quai Branly Museum. However, it cannot tell us how to appreciate different works of the same kind. This is because aesthetic appreciation requires us to have an understanding of the aesthetic values of the culture of production, the ontology of the works, and the traditions within which the objects are created. What is involved is a fusion of horizons.

A fusion of horizons may involve the creation of new theories and new ways of thinking about art and aesthetics. The engagement with the arts of other cultures leads to the development of what is now known as comparative aesthetics (the study of beauty in different cultures) as well as everyday aesthetics (the study of how we engage aesthetically beyond the domains of art). The creation of new forms of Indigenous art for gallery contexts shows that the idea of a fusion of horizons may also be expanded beyond the appreciation of the art of another culture, to the creation of new cultural objects, and finally, it seems, to new forms of engagement and appreciation. Non-Indigenous peoples have slowly expanded their ideas about art and begun to (re)learn different ways of engaging with it. Meanwhile, Indigenous peoples are beginning to transform the Western “sacred” space of the art gallery.


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  1. To present the issue this way suggests a monolithic “Western” culture and contrasts it with a similarly monolithic “Indigenous” culture. The oversimplification overrides multiple differences within Western cultures, and within Indigenous cultures. Indigenous societies and arts may be considered as varied and diverse as those of Western societies. The English, French, Greeks, and Italians all have different cultures, languages, and artistic traditions. Similarly, Indigenous societies are distinct, with their own languages, lifestyles, and artistic traditions. Nevertheless, some generalisations hold, even if they do not capture all Western or Indigenous artistic practices or modes of appreciation.
  2. The use of the term “primitive” in this context stems from the evolutionary theory of society, the idea that some cultures and people were less evolved, more primitive, than others. This contrast between “more” and “less” evolved was applied to different societies, the people who lived in them, and the material culture that they produced. European cultures were considered the most highly evolved and European people were considered more “civilised,” in contrast to “primitive people” whom Europeans considered “savages.”
  3. The term “primitive art” was used to categorise material culture of sub-Sahara Africa, Oceania (the Pacific Islands), Americas, and Southeast Asia. It was not generally associated with the artefacts of Egyptian, Chinese, Indian, or Greek or Roman civilisations, which Europeans considered major cultures, or cultures that existed before the stone age (prehistoric).
  4. Danto might be interpreted as essentialising African art here, as though there were only one Indigenous culture in Africa. However, the “essence” here concerns a theory of art rather than indigenous cultures. His critique of the 1984 Primitivism exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York suggests that the habit of designating cultures as primitive is a form of colonialism on par with Orientalism. He was particularly critical of a room showcasing figures from New Guinea, Zambia, Zaire, Nigeria together, asking, “what do they have in common, really, with one another, or with objects from Easter Island or the American Southwest or Papua or New Ireland or the Arctic?” (Danto 2006, 148).
  5. The term “polysemic” means that there may be more than one meaning or interpretation.
  6. See, for example, Kunmandj (Dilly bags), by Elizabeth Kala Kala, and Mandjabu (Fish Trap) by Susan Marawarr, on the Bábarra Women’s Centre website.
  7. By “ontological structure,” I refer to the structure of something that makes it an instance of that thing.


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Engaging with Indigenous Art Aesthetically by Elizabeth Burns Coleman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.