That all classical arts recognize each other (1)

November 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

Perhaps Eco cannot help making observations like this:

The worst cases of befuddlement often occur when Westerners (and not just 15-year-olds) come across religious icons from other cultures — which happens increasingly often today as they travel to distant countries and people from those countries settle in the West.

I’m not talking about Westerners’ puzzled reactions when faced with an African mask or laughter at the sight of an enormously fat Buddha. The fact is that many shake their heads in disbelief when they learn that Hindus worship a deity with the head of an elephant, yet find nothing odd about portraying Christianity’s divine personage as a dove.

It is, of course, a semiotician’s professional disease — the focus on denotation:  art conceived of as manipulation of a set of symbols /meanings — whether mythological or political or otherwise.

Not that what Eco reports isn’t true:  enough people do respond to art the way he suggests (and perhaps does himself) — if they don’t get the story, they don’t get the art — “look, that’s the holy spirit”; but to me this is not the interesting story.

To me, the really interesting story is the (unnoticed) opposite:  that of a cultured western man coming — completely unprepared — face to face for the first time with Indian, or Chinese, or Indonesian art and — being instantly moved by it:  indeed, realizing its familiarity; perhaps not the political or mythological message, but something else, something much more fundamental, much more important.

All classical arts across the globe, no matter how isolated and how independently evolved, share certain features, certain conventions; they slot into our minds in the same way; which means that — sometimes, for some people — being steeped in one classical art is enough to access another.  A sitar raga is immediately comprehensible to some people with solid foundation in western classical music; many with good background in European baroque opera instantly grasp what is going on in Balinese dance drama; people familiar with Shang bronzes are often instantly moved by Benin plaques; some Iranian carpet lovers gasp when they see for the first time in their life Indonesian batiks.

Perhaps this has never happened to Eco; but this certainly does happen to some of those familiar with classical arts.  Perhaps this group are unlike Eco in that their appreciation of classical arts consists in paying attention to features other than those he pays attention to:  perhaps they don’t care what the dove means but about something entirely else; something of which Eco may have no inkling.

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