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Anthropology and Art: The Cross-Cultural Problem

Drid Williams

It is only quite recently in human history that it has come to be fairly widely—though by no means universally—accepted that all human beings are fundamentally alike; that they share the same basic interests, and so have certain common obligations to one another simply as people. This belief is either explicit or implicit in most of the great world religions but it is by no means acceptable today to many people even in ‘advanced’ societies, and it would make no sense at all in many of the less developed cultures.1

John Beattie (1964)

Introductory Remarks2

On the whole, social and cultural anthropologists3 do not reject philosophies of beauty or aesthetics. I know of none who ascribe to the asceticism of the Puritan fathers or to those of the desert fathers of the Catholic tradition that preceded them by several centuries. Also, I know of none who professionally adhere to the doctrine of orthodox Islam that forbids iconic representations of natural or human shapes in pictorial or sculptured forms. Whatever their styles of life or their personal tastes regarding these matters, they are meant to be held in abeyance during the course of anthropological investigations into their own or another society.

     Many anthropologists would agree that standards of beauty or aesthetics can be asserted as independent values in the many ethnicities of the world, but it is doubtful whether many of them could assent to generalizations like those of the Third Earl of Shaftesbury (Anthony Ashley Cooper), who held the opinion that, in art, humans enlarge upon and realize the values of nature.4 It is not only doubtful whether all human societies view their artifacts as realizations of the values of nature, but it is questionable if they possess what seems to be a Western cultural preoccupation—that of attempts, expressed in a variety of ways, to regain a lost paradise. Even if modern social anthropologists might agree on some level with the philosophical position that Shaftesbury’s proposition implies, they would almost certainly hasten to add that we do not know—‘know’ in the sense of our discipline’s having examined the proposition and its consequences on a global scale.

     In somewhat more modest terms than those of commonly heard philosophical generalizations, one could say that we do know something of principles of opposition and vitality in Fang aesthetics (Fernandez 1966: 53–64); something about design meanings and semantic description among the Arapaho Indians (Kroeber 1902: 83ff); and about sculpture in the Solomon Islands (Davenport 1968: 4–25). We possess studies like those of Forge on Sepik art and environment (1965: 23–31), of Milner on the quartered shields of Samoa (in Jopling 1971: 243–69), Turner on Ndembu ritual (1967), Douglas on natural symbols (1970), Williams on the Dominican post-Tridentine Mass (1978), Humphrey on Buryat ongons (1971: 271–90); and we have at least one published attempt to examine the concept of ‘aesthetic relativity’ by Child and Siroto (1971: 349–60).5

     Finally, we consistently consult with and depend on the rich literatures of ethnology and ethnomusicology and on the writings of museum curators and folklorists, art historians, and many others with reference to cultural artifacts of all kinds and descriptions. Some departments of anthropology offer courses in the anthropology of art. Nevertheless, many of us feel constrained to qualify our consent as to the universality of more well-known Western philosophies of art and aesthetics because few if any of us could confidently assert that these philosophies hold for the majority of selves in some societies, far less for all selves in all human societies. It is to considerations like these that the minds of modern social anthropologists might turn when confronted by claims of universal intent, especially at the level of meanings. The uneasiness stems, for a start, from an inability, based on lengthy study and experience, to see cultural homogeneity across ever-fluid, ever-changing sociolinguistic and religious boundaries.

Philosophical Perspectives

I chose Lord Shaftesbury to begin this discussion of qualitative evaluation in the arts not to single him or any philosopher out as a stalking horse but because his ideas had great influence in England and on the continent at a time when new problems emerged that were crucial to Western philosophies of art. These were generated, of course, by the impressive advances of the physical sciences and by the then ‘new’ philosophies of Descartes and Hobbes, and later, those of Locke and Mill. Shaftesbury was surely not the first philosopher of art to address questions of how Western aesthetics might be defended against hard-core relativism and mechanistic conceptions of the universe: he inherited the defenses put up by a group known as the Cambridge Platonists6 and tried to carry them further. Shaftesbury’s essays on aesthetics and religion represent a reassertion of humankind’s feeling for natural beauty and an attempt to free the human spirit from both the asceticism of the Puritans and the crippling influence of mechanistic philosophical models of humanity. A social anthropologist would simply want to ask if these issues are of central import in societies that have not generated mechanistic philosophies, Puritan asceticism, or an industrial revolution?

     My point is this: one can sympathize, possibly even identify with Shaftesbury’s point of view, if his sociohistorical period and the issues with which he tried to grapple are understood, just as one can recognize Immanuel Kant’s contribution to Western intellectual heritage in his attempts to go beyond empirical analysis to an identification of the ‘aesthetic’ as a domain of human experience equal in dignity to the theoretical (or cognitive) and the practical (or moral). Does it follow that our sympathy or understanding of these issues gives us warrants to assume that all humans everywhere—across time or space—hold these issues to be central in their traditions?

     Kant seemed to believe that the three fundamental cognitive faculties of understanding, reason, and judgment corresponded to the human faculties of cognition, desire, and pleasure and pain on a sensory level. He tried to put forth a primary mode of universal necessity and validity that conserved the aesthetic in human experience. In The Critique of (Aesthetic) Judgment, he argued that, since the judgment of beauty or taste must be universally or necessarily valid for all humankind, its taste must be identical in all human beings. He therefore postulated that ‘form’ (the bearer of communicable knowledge) and ‘sensory representation’ (the experience of the senses) must be the basis for identifying criteria of beauty. He believed that an ‘aesthetic idea’ was one that could arouse much thought but could not itself be encompassed by any body of concepts. Perhaps his notions could be seen as some of the first attempts in Western intellectual history to define the art symbol as it is generally thought of in literate communities today.

     Further to the point: if Kant could he seen to represent the (or ‘a’) culmination of eighteenth-century philosophical inquiry on the subject of aesthetics, then we might ascribe to Schopenhauer the paternity of nineteenth-century romantic interpretations of art.7 Whilst he accepted many of Kant’s interpretations, he could not consent to Kant’s distinction between noumena and phenomena, nor, apparently, did he find Kant’s psychology to his taste. Schopenhauer held, with Kant, that things ‘aesthetic’ were phenomena of the human brain, and both seemed convinced that art was the highest work of human consciousness, but Schopenhauer conceived this to be an expression of human will. To him, art was the human triumph over nature and, through the will, the realm where ‘mind’ could finally realize itself and communicate in a more holistic way with others. It would not be far-fetched to say that Schopenhauer saw art as a release from ordinary or more humdrum conceptualizations of the world. We are all well aware of the echoes of this notion in subsequent philosophies: Nietzsche began his examination of art with a refinement of Schopenhauer’s position, and it could be argued that Santayana learned as much from Schopenhauer as he did from Plato.

     This is not the place to discuss Hegel’s complex dialectical process of a self-splitting, self-readjusting, self-unifying Absolute, a monistic and cosmic development of Absolute Spirit; but it is relevant to mention the later replacement of this approach in the Western philosophical tradition by the American philosopher John Dewey8 who, as is well known, was greatly indebted to Hegel, especially in earlier years, but later interpreted Hegelian dialectic as a kind of process of reconstruction. Instead of the ‘Absolute,’ we are given the pluralistic experiences of finite human beings. In fact, one might briefly define Dewey’s philosophical development by the title of his volume From Absolutism to Experimentalism (1930). Dewey’s thought was greatly influenced by Darwinian biology, and it is probably to this more than to any other development in Western intellectual history that the strong functionalist bias appears in his mature philosophy. Here, Dewey focuses almost completely on experience and on a kind of processual reconstruction of the environment.9 On the whole, these aspects of his philosophy are much more compatible with social anthropological thinking on both sides of the Atlantic during the period between the two world wars, exemplified by, for example, the writings of Malinowski, Firth, and Radcliffe-Brown in Britain. Owing to the influence of Claude Lévi-Strauss, who in 1945 initiated strong connections between social anthropology and linguistics, our discipline now tends toward linguistic rather than biological models of humanity, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that modern anthropological thought assigns a privileged position to language, rather than to biology.10

     Because of this, there is a sense in which Benedetto Croce was (and is) closer in his thinking to modern social anthropology on matters of art than any of the philosophical concepts so far mentioned, although saying this in no way discounts or dismisses any of them.11 I draw attention to Croce mainly because he seems to have conceived of aesthetics as a general—and linguistically based—term: as a domain properly concerned with all expressive media—all forms of human symbolic construction, the paradigm of which is (and was) spoken language.

     Anthropologists familiar with the legacy of Ferdinand de Saussure (see Ardener 1971b and Lévi-Strauss 1968 for his connection with social anthropology) might find intriguing similarities between Croce’s aesthetics and Saussure’s conception of a science of semiology.12 The Swiss linguist repeatedly stressed the interdependence of elements in a language system and envisioned a science of signs (l966: l6 and 67) that would attempt to discover the true nature of language by discovering what it has in common with all other semiological systems. Croce believed that “the category art, like every other category, mutually presupposes and is presupposed by all the rest: it is conditioned by them all and conditions them all” (Encyclopaedia Brittanica, 14th ed.). Croce envisioned a ‘field of aesthetic science’ that would not attempt to define art once and for all, from which definition we would then try to deduce various doctrines of art. He saw aesthetics as a sufficiently flexible field of study to allow for a host of issues that might arise in the course of its history.13 It is the very flexibility of Croce’s ideas, plus his recognition of the historicity of these matters, that make them more amenable to modern anthropological thinking.

Unities and Diversities

That ‘art’ is a sociolinguistic category, nearly all social or cultural anthropologists would agree; and like all other such categories, they know that it may or may not exist in another sociolinguistic context. The presence or absence of a category is significant in many ways in cross-cultural research, and its problematical nature in one sense is well expressed by Kaeppler thus: “It is commonplace to separate dance, along with music, from other forms of human behaviour and label it ‘art’. Once it has been so separated it is often felt that it need not be dealt with. This ethnocentric view does not take into consideration the possibility that dance may not be ‘art’ (whatever that is) to people of the culture concerned, or that there may not even be a cultural category comparable to what Westerners call ‘dance’” (l978: 46).

     It is well known that the Hopi have no term for art in their language, for example; but is this a mere semantic problem?14 I have heard it dismissed in this way but would want to draw attention to the observations of a friend and colleague—i.e., “there can be powerful and dissonant side-effects from the insistence of including art as an interface to dance. The manipulative attitudes of super-ordinate peoples can force adaptation by subordinate peoples that is not the same as an internally developed evolution. We may, for example, eventually force the Hopi kachinas onto the proscenium stage and Hopi ‘dance’ may become an art. If this happens, the world will lose at least as much as it gains” (Kealiinohomoku l980: 42).

     We should not make the error of assuming that these matters are best thought of in politicized, minority terms only. In fact, to reduce such complex issues to these realms of discourse is, to my mind, to avoid the real problems entirely. Kaeppler states the case in the context of a people who, unlike the Hopi, are hardly subordinate to anyone:

[T]here is little anthropological reason for classing together the Japanese cultural form called mikagura performed in Shinto shrines, the cultural form called buyo performed within (or separated from) a Kabuki drama, and the cultural form commonly known as bon, performed to honor the dead. The only logical reason I can see for categorizing them together is that from an outsider’s point of view all three cultural forms use the body in ways that to Westerners would be considered dance. But from a [Japanese] cultural point of view either of movement or activity there is little reason to class them together. Indeed, as far as I have been able to discover, there is no Japanese word that will class these three cultural forms together that will not also include much of what from a Western point of view would not be considered ‘dance’” (Kaeppler 1978: 46).

We would also be in error if we imagine that categorical and classificatory disparities exist only across language barriers in our present times or in relation to ethnicities other than our own. Baxandall (1972) clearly illustrates how the visual skills and habits evolved in the daily life of any society enter into its painters’ styles. Under a chapter heading, “Conditions of Trade,” he tells us that

[a] fifteenth century painting is the deposit of a social relationship. On one side there was a painter who made the picture, or at least supervised its making. On the other side there was somebody else who asked him to make it, provided funds for him to make it and, after he had made it, reckoned on using it in some way or other. Both parties worked within institutions and conventions—-commercial, religious, perceptual, in the widest sense social—that were different from ours and influenced the forms of what they together made (1972: 1; emphasis added).

It is an unwillingness to sacrifice cultural diversity, as in the examples cited from our own or others’ traditions, to the perhaps-more-satisfying conceptual closure of universal definitions of art or what-you-will that prompts many anthropologists to emphasize diversity of human symbolic expressions. Then too, the noticeable lack of finality in the definitions of art and interpretations of artifacts may, in the end, arise from the nature of anthropological inquiry itself, for, however rashly, from the discipline’s inception, we have been committed to thinking from a worldwide database. That feature of our studies alone establishes clear parallels with the science of linguistics, where cultural homogeneity is equally difficult to postulate. There are some, of course, to whom homogeneity through standardization is psychologically appealing, to whom differences are irritating, as if differences were somehow indecent—or wrong; but there are many of us who hope that there will always be unresolved tensions between features of ethnicities that clearly distinguish them one from another and features that appear to indicate similarities. Reflecting on the customs and beliefs of other cultures, Wittgenstein remarked that this is simply how human beings are (1967: 30). It is, after all, in a diversity of modes of expression that humanity thinks and acts. Could we not simply accept this as given and go on from there?

     Crick (1976) locates the tension between diversity and invariance in two central ideas used throughout his book, of ‘system’ and ‘map’—the one with its implications of closure, the other involving limited presuppositions. He acknowledges the analytical problem: “the diversity which [different ‘forms of life’] enable us to explore seems to lead us into . . . extreme relativism, a semantic solipsism which, amounting to a thesis of untranslatability, would render anthropology impossible” (1976: 149). On the other side of relativism on an imaginary scale, however, he warns against yielding to the temptation to “privilege one ‘form of life’ and judge all conceptual structures by its standards” (ibid.). It is unacceptable, in other words, to regard all modes of human discourse and expression as deficient instances of a scientific type.

     I imagine that everyone here is aware of the harmful effects of positivisitic philosophy on art and artists. Of those, a few may be aware of the harmful influence positivism had on the social sciences. Following Crick, one would want to say that as a philosophy, logical positivism was profoundly unanthropological because it attempted to raise selected scientific criteria (e.g., ‘verifiability’) into a universal standard of judgment. This led to declarations that everything that was ‘nonscience’ was either meaningless, emotional, or irrational. I am aware, as I am sure many scholars of my generation are, of a time when phenomenology represented a nonpositivistic intellectual haven in the United States.15 Its insistence upon features of intentionality, suspension of judgments, and the like were, and are, distinctly positive values. But if it has been necessary to struggle with positivistic evaluations of the arts in the United States for so many years and to resist the dominance of certain narrow criteria of judgment in those domains, do we not risk promoting the same kinds of conceptual imperialism if we erect Western criteria of artistic and aesthetic judgments—phenomenological or otherwise—as universal standards of cultural judgments? Crick makes several telling points:

The term science itself has had its current meaning for a little over a century, in what is historically a rather atypical culture. So the elevation of this map as a general standard of interpretation can only result in a grotesque sociocentrism. A sociologist has, for example, recently declared that if a doctrine “conflicts with the acceptance of the superiority of scientific industrial society over others then it really is out” (Gellner 1973: 71). An anthropologist is obviously more familiar with some conceptual systems than with others, since he—like the discipline of anthropology itself—grew in, and belongs to, a particular culture. But it is an indisputable fact that man as a meaning-maker creates a vast diversity of conceptual structures, and we have no grounds to accord a priority to any one. We have seen what a diversity of features maps can display in the relationship between language and terrain. This means that language has ontological implications in different ways. In some, representation is iconic; in others, no sign system can portray adequately; in yet others—and here the very field of human action is an instance—language can constitute the reality being mapped. It is for exactly this reason that so much attention has been paid to the ideas of Wittgenstein here. In his later work he showed by concrete investigations of conceptual landscapes how human discourse can mean [many different things] in many different ways. In these writings, philosophy is no longer an activity tied to the needs of science. Indeed, we capture its spirit if we see it as giving expression to a fear that the dominance of science in our lives would distort our view of the nature and powers of the human mind (Pears 1971: 103). (Crick 1976: 150)

The Science of the Concrete

Clearly, we are in very deep water here. Where we would not consider describing all spoken languages in familiar English grammatical categories, we do not seem to hesitate to describe all body languages16 in our own terms, nor do many hesitate to impose our own sociolinguistic category ‘art’ onto human symbolic manifestations of all kinds. The current temptation, of which I am particularly aware in the field of human movement, is to ascribe universality to body languages—to virtually all nonvocalized semiotic systems—and diversity to spoken language. The tendency in popular expression is to associate the alleged ‘nonverbal’ with synthesis, the ‘verbal’ with analysis. We further muddle the issues by labeling synthesis (hence, the nonvocal) as ‘good,’ while analysis and the verbal are ‘bad.’ This position, whether in mild or exaggerated forms, constitutes a profound delusion. Not only does it continue to reflect a Cartesian ‘mind-body’ split in our thinking, but it partakes of the positivistic ‘rational/nonrational’ distinction.

     Social anthropologists have for many years abandoned that distinction, whether it is applied to stages (also called ‘phases’) in the evolution of human thought or to the rationality of nonscientific conceptual structures.17 The significance of Lévi-Strauss’s ideas in this regard can scarcely be overestimated, for he dissolved some commonly held notions (for example, those turning around the term ‘totemism’ [1969]) and finally opened up communication between the alleged ‘primitive’ and ourselves. He showed equivalences in the classificatory faculties of the human mind, carrying forward the work that Durkheim and Mauss (1963) had done before him and pointed out how these other systems are based upon similar principles of logic and opposition. It was he who brought together many anthropological findings and explored the extensive knowledge that nonindustrialized peoples have of their surroundings, leaving us with no doubt that this knowledge is framed into comprehensive, internally coherent taxonomic systems based on universal logical principles.18 For Lévi-Strauss (and indeed, for many modern anthropologists), humanity has always been thinking—and has always been thinking equally well. His insights have made virtually axiomatic the notion that all human thought is based on a demand for logical order. He tells us that

[e]very civilization tends to overestimate the objective orientation of its thought and this tendency is never absent. When we make the mistake of thinking that the ‘Savage’ is governed solely by organic or economic needs, we forget that he levels the same reproach at us, and that to him his own desires for knowledge seems more balanced than ours:

“These native Hawaiians’ utilization of their available natural assets was well-nigh complete—infinitely more so than that of the present commercial era which ruthlessly exploits the few things that are financially profitable for the time being, neglecting and often obliterating the rest” (Handy and Pukui, 1955: 62).

Cash-crop agriculture is hardly to be confused with the science of the botanist. But, in ignoring the latter and taking only the former into account, the old Hawaiian aristocrat [speaking above] is simply repeating, and turning to the advantage of a native culture, a mistake of the same kind that Malinowski made when he claimed that primitive peoples’ interest in totemic plants and animals was inspired by nothing but the rumbling of their stomachs (Lévi-Strauss l966: 3).

Evans-Pritchard (1937) and Lévi-Strauss were in accord in their teachings about making judgments from internal, not external standards.

     To Lévi-Strauss, art lay halfway between scientific knowledge and mythical or magical thought, and an artist is therefore both something of a scientist and something of a bricoleur.19 He distinguished the scientist and the bricoleur by the inverse functions that they assign to events and structures as ends and means. Although imprecisely stated in brief form, he thought that the scientist creates events by means of structures, but the bricoleur creates structures by means of events (1966: 22).

     It was thus that Western science and ‘concrete science’ are systems based on similar logics that are both equally valid in themselves. For those who can accept neither the validity nor the rationality of the thought of other cultures or of ‘artistic’ thought in their own, there is, of course, no problem at all. They need not concern themselves with conceptual structures other than their own, and the superiority of their modes of thought is (to them, at any rate) self-evident. Social anthropologists try to avoid this kind of thinking: at the very least, they might begin by asking, with Hocart, “How can we make any progress in the understanding of cultures, ancient or modern, if we persist in dividing what the people join and in joining what they divide?”(1970: 23). And the problem of ‘validation,’ in the sense of determining the truth of anthropological redescriptions of events or things begins with the degree of ‘match’ or ‘fit’ with the folk model. As Ardener succinctly put it, this constitutes a feature of our work as scientists that is imperative (1978: 121).

A Summary ‘en passant

I have argued thus far that it is necessary to exercise considerable restraint regarding the notion of ‘universals’ in human societies. That is, where one might safely postulate universal principles of organization, of logic, or of opposition in human conceptual structures, it does not follow that empirical manifestations of these structural elements are going to look the same or that they will be accorded the same value by every group. Because of this, one cannot rightly seek a universal definition of ‘art’ from which we can then deduce doctrines that seem to hold in all times and all places.

     It seems necessary to say that we are equally misguided if we carelessly accept (and try to apply) generalizations about art that define it as “a realization of the values of Nature” (Shaftesbury) or as “a triumph of human Will over Nature” (Schopenhauer) or as an aggregate of subjective individual experiences. True, these experiences may provide us with escape or entertainment—they may mitigate what some conceive to be the harsh realities of life (i.e., money, power, sex, hunger, and pain); but in the end, this makes of art an epiphenomenon—or a feature of social superstructure, as the Marxists would have it.

     These notions, and others like them, seem to represent a compartmentalization of thought and experience that is peculiarly our own. In an anthropological context, they are all culture-relative. We may well ask if we recognize our own conceptual artifacts when we speak of or interact with the symbolic expressions of others. I am convinced that, on the whole, we do not recognize the subtle projections of ourselves onto others and that, as a result, we tend to be rather naïve and uninformed in our attempts at cross-cultural evaluation, judgment, and comparison.20

      I have also argued that close attention must be paid to the sociolinguistic classifications and categories of ethnicities other than our own. Moreover, I submit that closer examination of our own socio-history of art would prove to us that great differences exist in present-day evaluations of, for example, fifteenth-century paintings and their evaluation by the people who bought, sold, produced, and used them. I would advocate, following Wittgenstein, recognition of the fact that it is in a diversity of modes of expression that humanity thinks and acts.

     Critics of the advocates of diversity usually ask at this stage of the argument, “But how are we to handle the notion of standards? If we accept diverse modes of human expression, do we not commit ourselves to acceptance, willy-nilly, of everything; good, bad or indifferent?” The difficulty that social anthropologists might have with queries of this kind lies in the unspoken (and usually unexamined) prior assumption of the questioner that standards do not exist outside of his or her social context.


Sieber tells us that “[u]nlike recent art in the Western world, traditional African art is an act of cultural integration. The artist neither castigates nor condemns the normative values of his culture, nor does he reject through inversion that culture’s concept of the image of reality” (1971: 128). Standards of excellence (or their reverse) in those social contexts would then relate to how well or how badly the artist managed to reflect the values of his or her culture: to the accuracy, for instance, with which a divinity is represented and the like. Obviously, evaluation of these traditional artifacts by an outsider either is informed by the kinds of understanding to which Sieber draws attention, or it is not. If evaluations are uninformed, then I would have thought that they are highly suspect.

     This does not mean that one cannot experience the artifacts or even appreciate them, perhaps as exotica, perhaps as points of departure for further study or a host of other personal aims; but this is quite different, is it not, from evaluation or judgment of them? When these terms enter our discourse, it seems that understanding might reasonably command prior consideration. At what point, I would want to ask, is knowledge required, lest our judgments prove to be mistaken—knowledge both of ourselves and others? Early anthropological literature is instructive regarding these questions, for given the benefits of hindsight, it serves to raise considerable doubt about the relevance or veracity of conclusions drawn from uninformed, unexamined ‘experience.’

     It was E. B. Tylor (1878), for example, who pointed out the doubtful character of travelers’ tales about tribes who supposedly could not make themselves understood in the dark because, it was said, they could only communicate by gesture and movement and were therefore forced to silence at nightfall or in the absence of a light-source. Andrew Lang (1887) remarked that “[s]avages and civilised men have different standards of credulity” after drawing attention to the derision with which many European concepts were met by Africans whose symbolic modes of expression appeared equally farcical from their visitors’ standpoints. Examples of artwork, literature, and the like have been collected and documented in a highly informative book entitled The Savage Hits Back (Lips 1937).

     It is interesting and no less relevant that we risk mistaken judgments with uninformed evaluations of, say, Western pre-Renaissance art, where the feature of anonymity of the artist was highly valued. That is, in many instances, artifacts of this period were unsigned—unless a guarantee of some kind was thought necessary, as in the case of metalwork or pottery that had to be used in some way. Here the identification of the artisan simply meant that the purchaser of the work had recourse to the creator of the piece if it did not give satisfaction.

     I suspect that much modern American and European art would be relatively unintelligible or not highly regarded by peoples of the past to whom highly individualistic expressions, created solely for display, were relatively unheard of. We would hardly expect cults of individuals to have flourished in traditional India (see Dumont 1972), but their absence did not mean an absence of standards of any kind. The absence of such cults and a star system in that context is as much a result of social structures and relations as is their presence in our context. Unsigned, anonymous artifacts simply do not reflect idiosyncratic or highly personal statements such as we are accustomed to see. Nor is this solely a feature of societies of the past.

     Malinowski (1922) compared the Western notions of museum pieces and heirlooms with highly prized white necklaces and red arm shells that comprised Trobriand kula gifts that were accompanied by a form of interisland trade called gimwali. He made the comparison to draw attention to the vast differences that exist between a society that orders its affairs, as we do, around notions of individual ownership, possession of land and objects, and several Pacific island peoples to whom this ordering was an alien set of values. Kula partners were obliged, in fact, to pass kula objects on, not after death but after relatively short periods of time. Although highly treasured, the kula artifacts were never possessed in the way in which we think of possession of objects. Clearly, the meanings of those objects to Trobrianders and their meanings to us, were we suddenly confronted with them, would be quite different.

     In other words, all that to which social anthropologists refer when they speak of ‘material culture’ is never a simple matter of the object itself in isolation. Evans-Pritchard made the point in this way: “material culture may be regarded as part of social relations, for material objects are chains along which social relationships run, and the more simple is a material culture the more numerous are the relationships through it” (1940: 89). Anthropologists prefer to think in spectrums of reciprocal relations in any given society that, in each, may range from exchanges of goods, of information, or messages—or themselves (as with marriages or labor exchanges) that are outright exploitations to exchanges that involve sacrifice and altruism—but I now digress.

     If it is true, as anthropological evidence indicates, that all human societies possess standards of excellence in connection with crafts, skills, and symbolic expressions of all kinds, by what criteria other than those of the people who made it can we assess the merits of, say, an intricately carved Tlingit fishing club,21 a Japanese scroll painting, a Hopi kachina figure, or a Mughal garden? Anthropologists grant the priority of indigenous meanings in these examples just as they would do were the object under consideration a Scarlatti sonata, a raga played on an Indian sitar, a Yemeni wedding dance, a Brancusi sculpture, an Egyptian tomb effigy, or a disco dance. And most anthropologists recognize that these indigenous meanings are only a part—however vital and essential—of the totality they try to explain.

     This point can scarcely be overstressed; for in the main, modern cognitive, semantic, or symbolic anthropologists regard their work as a highly complex act of translation in which they participate with native collaborators (whether inside or outside their own culture) in an intricate process of theory building. A working anthropologist does not enter into dialogue with his or her informants in the same way that a teacher, a journalist, a businessman, a government official, an artist, a missionary, or a representative from a grants foundation or a tourist might do.

     All these persons might be more effective in their aims and endeavors should they take cognizance of the anthropologist’s findings, but the point that needs emphasis is that anthropological inquiry does not disturb or destroy the native grounds for action because it does not proceed from the standpoint of bringing about change in the society. Elsewhere, I have given an account of the problems faced by the student of human movement and of some of the attendant concerns regarding objectivity, preconceptions, and the like, so I will not repeat it here (see Williams 1977).

     Suffice it to say that to my mind, Pocock described professional aims briefly but well when he said:

The anthropologist is concerned with a systematic understanding of what he sees going on around him. He learns the culture, as he learns the language of the people, on the assumption that action and belief are no more random than language. The first step is to find out by participation and identification the meaning which people themselves attach to what they do. He does not assume at the outset that phenomena may be labelled political, religious or economic because that is what initially they mean to him[.] . . . [B]y not assuming that what he sees he immediately understands, he places himself ‘outside’ the society he studies and to this extent approaches social facts ‘as though they were things.’ (Pocock 1961: 85).

It is against this background that I will now attempt to provide some insights into how a working anthropologist of human movement might conceive of ‘events’ such as ceremonies, rituals, dances, counting systems, and the like that have movement rather than speech or sound (as in music) as their major communicative basis.

Things and Events

I will focus on the dance for the moment, both because it has been mentioned several times so far and because interesting issues arise in connection with dances. I doubt that any other form of human activity has generated so much discussion with so little satisfactory result over the years in Western intellectual traditions, especially with reference to an ontology of things in contrast to an ontology of events.

     In the interests of clarity and accuracy, we will briefly examine a view that has been repeated, with elaborations, omissions—and great tedium—by many theorists of the dance before and since the time when this passage was written:22

In passing from the drama to Sculpture we make a great leap. We pass from the living thing, the dance or the play acted by real people, the thing done, whether as ritual or art, whether dromenon or drama, to the thing made, cast in outside material rigid form, a thing that can be looked at again and again, but the making of which can never actually be relived whether by artist or spectator (Harrison 1948 [1913]: 170).

Harrison clearly indicates that the thing done, the event, is impermanent—gone forever—while the thing made, the sculpture, is permanent. The contrast, as expressed, depends entirely on time elements and an assumption that there is no thing made in the event of a dance. We are thus led to believe that every ‘primitive choral dance’ (one of the subjects of the author’s investigation) was a once-in-a-lifetime event that cannot be repeated.

     Next, she makes an interesting distinction that, differently handled, could have yielded great insight; however, the dominant contrast between material objects and events got in the way:

Moreover, we come to a clear three-fold distinction and division hitherto neglected. We must at last sharply differentiate the artist, the work of art, and the spectator. The artist may, and usually does, become the spectator of his own work, but the spectator is not the artist. The work of art is, once executed, for ever distinct both from the artist and spectator. In the primitive choral dance all three—artist, work of art, spectator—were fused, or rather not yet differentiated. Handbooks on art are apt to begin with the discussion of rude decorative patterns, and after leading up through sculpture and painting, something vague is said at the end about the primitiveness of dancing (ibid., 170–71).

We notice here that, in the case of sculpture, Harrison bases the differentiation of artist, artwork, and spectator solely on the presence of a material object. Furthermore, she concludes that this difference establishes the basis for tripartite priority of the dance as the first—the oldest—of all art forms:

But historically and also genetically or logically the dance in its inchoateness, its undifferentiatedness, comes first. It has in it a larger element of emotion, and less of presentation. It is this inchoateness, this undifferentiatedness, that, apart from historical fact, makes us feel sure that logically the dance is primitive (ibid., 171).

Since ritual, dance, and drama are included equally in Harrison’s events ontology, we may suppose that the speech in drama, for example, is also a unique event that is impermanent and cannot be repeated like the dance movements. The “fusion,” then, that allegedly characterizes the dance also characterizes the drama; but somehow, the dance was designated (not drama) as logically prior to sculptures or to other material objects that are classified as art. Most philosophers would agree, I think, that to assign logical priority to either things or events is meaningless.

     Readers may think the above example is philosophically misguided or intellectually trivial, yet the relation between naïve viewers of the dance and dancers themselves often has no more characteristic context than this. Harrison could have argued with considerable force that speakers, dancers, and sculptors are ontologically prior to dramas, dances, and sculptures, but that obviously was not her intention. She wanted to establish the primitiveness of the dance and movement in general, a preoccupation that, I am sorry to say, still consumes much time, talk, and printed space.

     The argument for the historical priority of the dance is posited to support the logical claims, but one can only ask (1) if there is archaeological research relevant to the claims and (2) what historical ‘fact’? Presumably, evidence could be brought forward in the form of cave paintings depicting things in contrast to cave paintings depicting events that would convincingly demonstrate that either the dance or the things were historically prior to each other or to something else. This evidence would necessarily have to be combined with authoritative statements about the intentions of the creators. Were such evidence available—and, of course, it is not—then the historical argument for the primitiveness of the dance or movement could be conceded, but that would still not alter the speciousness of the argument from logic. I will simply say in passing that it is a complete mystery to me what Harrison meant by the “genetic priority” of the activity of dancing and with that confession of perplexity, will turn to further consideration of her contribution. Her book has as little to recommend it regarding arguments for priority as do any of the writings on ‘origins’ arguments, but it does have value because of ontological questions it raises.

The Existential Status of Events

Dances do not simply spring up like mushrooms on the occasion of performance in our own society, or anywhere else that I know of, and there is no just cause for us to label the odd bit of spontaneous cavorting or gamboling about as ‘a dance.’ Rituals do not appear as if through spontaneous combustion either, although it has pleased many people to imagine this is the case, especially with dances. Harrison’s remarks are misguided chiefly because she denies ontological status to events. But she is not alone in this: there has long been a problem in the minds of many as to the existence of a dance, except during the period when an actual performance is going on. In fact, critics of a phenomenological approach to the dance (see Sheets 1966) say that this approach precludes preconceptions, as did Harrison’s arguments, thereby denying dances any duration in time.

     This is an idea worth thinking about. Empirically, of course, no dance—whether Swan Lake, the Bugaloo, or Bharata Natyam—exists as a virtual entity23 except when it is being performed. The most common platitudes about dancing are those that stress its ephemeral nature. Such statements frequently take the form of Yeats’s often-repeated question at the end of his poem “Among Schoolchildren”: “how can we know the dancer from the dance?” We may as well ask how we can know the speaker from the language or the music from a cello player?

     I am well aware that I now risk being called a philistine by offended poetry buffs, but I hope to mitigate this impression by reminding them that emotions, important though they are, often obfuscate accurate apperception. The point is unsentimental, unemotional, and unpoetic: a dancer is logically prior to a dance (or ‘the’ dance), precisely as a speaker is logically prior to a speech or to the notion of language and a musician to music.

     Harrison has said that there is no thing made in the case of the dance, a position she would never have tried to defend regarding spoken language or music. If ‘thing’ is defined as a material object, then she is correct in making the statement. If ‘thing’ is defined as a virtual entity (cf. Langer 1957: 6) or if ‘thing’ is defined as any of the manuscripts consisting of kinetographic scores of dances that we can find in dance archives or if Durkheim’s treatment of social facts ‘as though they are things’ is accepted, then what she says in incorrect. I would contend that arguments like Harrison’s are incorrect in any case because they deny ontological status to events. To a social anthropologist, this is to argue that events have no permanent character in human social life—an indefensible position. ‘Events’ not only include dances, but the signing of declarations, court trials, wars, christenings, marriages, funerals, the swearing of oaths—the list is almost infinitely extendable.

     True, none of these events consists of material entities like sculptures, motorcars, or paintings, but to deny ontological status or duration in time to any of them is absurd. As many readers are more familiar with examples from spoken rather than body languages, I would recall that, in English-speaking societies, “a man’s word is his bond,” only one of many commonly used sayings tied to the fact that verbal contracts are social facts in human life and that they do possess duration in time. Events often entail heavy consequences; rapes or robberies are acts seen as sequences of movements, as are most felonies. Human actions thus conceived of can be notated. They can be repeated, as can dances, rituals, or any human movement. If they can be notated and repeated, we need not trouble ourselves with their existential status. It would be well to repeat a statement quoted earlier—“This means that language has ontological implications in different ways[.] . . . [L]anguage can constitute the reality being mapped’ (Crick 1976: 150; emphasis supplied). When we enter the realm of human body languages, we enter the realm of reality. This being the case, we might better get on with research that would be amenable to the realities that events have in our lives—but this subject cannot detain us here.

Language Use

As is probably apparent, I now speak from conceptions about the dance and human movement that are quite different from more traditionally accepted ones. Part of the reason they may seem novel is that they proceed, for a start, from different definitions of what humanity is.24 It is an axiom of semantic anthropology that, in dealing with human actions, one is dealing with actions that are suffused with meanings; and if it is true, as we believe, that human beings are above all language users, that they are role-, rule-, and meaning makers, then these facts have profound consequences on what a human(e) scientific investigation amounts to. Not only does the investigation itself involve symbolic interchange (as in the collection of the folk model of events), the object of the investigation in these instances is a code of human symbolic interchange.

     The basic forms of human actions, (i.e., idiolects or dialects of body languages, idioms of the dance, and all the rest) are therefore not ‘external’ in a crass observational sense. Put simply, one would want to say that human beings do not merely emit ‘behaviors’ because, owing to the nature, powers, and capacities25 of the human mind, they have models of ‘behaving,’ plus the power of being conscious of being conscious, and so on. Therefore, when we look at dances, rites, and other phenomena of this kind, we are looking at human structured systems of meanings that are objects of communication and that are, among other things, objects of knowledge. What we see—as if out there in the real world—is only half of the picture. While the seen messages of movements are empirically observable, the ‘code’ that generates the messages is not. This code is irrevocably tied to the human faculty for language use.

     With reference to movement, the object of anthropological study is a series of different units of motion combined with a series of different ideas. The combinations of certain actions with certain time/space/motion ideas then engender a system of values. It is this system that serves as the link between (1) actors and observers and (2) mental image (or concept) and the articulated actions.26

Movers and Watchers

Fully to comprehend any of the objects mentioned above, it is essential that we recognize some of their outstanding features. For example, there is a fundamental duality involved in all of them: not a duality of ‘body-mind’ but a duality that consists of their being both ‘expressed’ and ‘impressed,’ as it were. Like Baxandall’s interrelational analysis of fifteenth-century paintings, these systems of actions constitute a social relationship between two individuals or two groups of people: dancers and audience, priest and congregation, T’ai Chi master and opponent, seller and buyer, or whatever. The unique semantic space that is created in each exists in virtue of both ‘active’ and ‘receptive’ participants, as in regard to spoken language, we are accustomed to think of speakers and listeners.

     When this duality is dealt with as it has so often been in the past as a fictive ‘polarity’ between artist and audience or actor and spectator, we are led to suppose that the process of communication is accurately diagrammed like this:

Figure 1

In this conceptual framework, the agents are trying to ‘say’ something with movement, while the onlookers are trying to understand it. The agents are ‘expressing,’ and the onlookers are being ‘impressed’ (or not, as the case may be). This is a grossly inadequate conceptualization of what actually takes place in the combined acts of moving and watching. It depicts an old-fashioned, outmoded way of looking at the communication process, reminiscent of the ‘black boxes’ of information theory.

     In the diagram, two groups of human beings are represented. For the sake of convenience, we will call them H1 and H2. H1 is ‘encoding,’ and H2 is ‘decoding.’ In the space between them, indicated by arrows, there is thought to be mainly sound and fury—signifying nothing. The people, whether single persons or in groups, are isolated; they are inexplicable because most of the processes that happen between them have been explained in the past through stimulus-response theory and not through linguistically based theories of speech or action sign systems.27

     In order to comprehend the concrete object of any of the systems dealt with by the anthropologist of human movement, it is necessary to consider first how a continuity exists between what H1 and H2 experience in these kinds of interactions. What constitutes the link between what H1 enacts and H2 understands? It is just here that one’s theories, both of what human beings are and of what ‘communication’ consists, are so important. If we proceed from the assumption that human beings are language users and that their interactions occur through structured systems of meaning (rather than conceiving of their interactions as the results of two disparate sets of individual emissions of raw ‘behavior’), then we cannot rightly say that a continuity exists between them that is the result of biological ‘triggering’ or external, environmental forces.

     If it is true that spatial points of reference are human points of application for linguistic predicates,28 as, for example, in the philosophers’ conception of ostensive definition, then it follows that the continuity—or any possible understanding that exists between H1 and H2—can only be accounted for in terms of a spatiolinguistic field that they share. This ‘field’ consists of a shared spoken language and a shared body language. Moreover, if either language is not shared, communication in the fullest extent will not result.29

Feedback and Net Links

Neither the above-diagrammed relationship between H1 and H2 nor information theory goes far enough. Regarding human spatial communication, two notions are vitally necessary to the above formulation: those of positive feedback and ‘net linkage’:30

Figure 2

Both terms are taken from electronics engineering, but the idea of feedback is not solely the property of mathematical systems theory as an idea. Feedback has been known and used in Western theater, for instance, for centuries. There, it is called rapport.31

     In the light of what has so far been said, there are two propositions that can be drawn from the discussion: (1) H1 impinges on H2 (and vice versa) in the body language context in such a way that H1 or H2 or both are altered, and (2) changes of actions and understanding on the part of either are contingent on the outcome of a relational, interactional situation mediated by an action sign system.

     There are obvious explanatory advantages in the above diagram. Mainly, we can see that between H1 and H2 there is no longer a blank, inexplicable void, but a ‘code,’ some kind of language or symbolic system that, in the case of movement, consists of a code of action signs through which insights are negotiated and meanings are mediated. Before going on to further examination of movement-based systems, it needs to be said that, regarding my own work and that of my students, all the elements of the above structure would have to be dealt with and accounted for whether the object under consideration was a musical, a danced, a dramatic, or an ‘ordinary’ interaction. If material objects are under consideration, we would view them as ‘net links’—as some kind of cultural ‘code’ or as symbols in someone’s semiotic. I would also be prepared to say that, to me (and my colleagues), all human ‘culture’ is a kind of language—or languaging process, if you will. There are two primary systems of human communication: speaking and moving. The latter is a human semiotic system of great logical complexity, no less than the former. Systems of human actions are kinds of languages too: they are not the same as spoken languages, but they can be notated—they possess syntax, grammars, and all the rest. They are reflexive, referential, and relational. They structure space. Their ‘vocabularies’ and the degrees of freedom of their executants’ bodies may be more or less articulate.

     An immobile person is to a semantic space with reference to actions as a vocally inarticulate or impaired person is to a linguistic ‘space.’ The problems of translation, therefore, are much more complex than we have imagined in the past. If we adopt a position that insists on the inclusion of meanings in our analytic redescriptions of human life, then we cannot be satisfied with naïve conceptualizations of it, such as the ‘black box’ diagram with which we started. Nor could we be satisfied with Harrison’s arguments that, if anything, are even more simplistic, as she would have us believe that, in ‘primitive’ dances, there was no differentiation between dancers and audience: everything is somehow ‘fused’ into one indistinguishable mass.

The Non-Primitiveness of the Dance

Even functional explanations of the dance in social anthropology discredited arguments like these: the evidence that Malinowski left, for example, about a Polynesian ‘Gumagabu’ dance is final evidence that such notions about the dance are wrongheaded:

The other type of transaction belonging to this class is the payment for dances. Dances are “owned”; that is, the original inventor has the right of “producing” his dance and song in his village community. If another village takes a fancy to this song and dance, it has to purchase the right to perform it. This is done by handing ceremonially to the original village a substantial payment of food and valuables, after which the dance is taught to the new possessors (1922: 186).

Obviously, the Trobrianders considered that there was something made in a dance, moreover, something that could be purchased and in which a creator or possessor had rights. The dance, in other words, meant something as a construct of the human mind. It had continuity over long periods of time, for we are told that in 1922 the Gumagabu dance was owned by To’uluwa, the chief of Omarkana, “his ancestors having acquired it from the descendents of Tomakam by a laga payment” (Malinowski 1922: 291–92). While Western dances are commonly thought of as having composers, performers, dancing masters, and the like, the dances of non-Western peoples, particularly those lumped into a homogeneous category ‘primitive,’ are not thought of in the same way; but this is simply a result of our own misconceptions and biases—and the same kind of talk about the dance that was fashionable in Harrison’s time is unfortunately repeated today. Agnes de Mille’s recent television series, for example, is totally uninformed about any of the research that already exists—and she therefore repeats myths of origins, of undifferentiatedness, and all the rest. However, in 1936, Firth told us that

[a] specific dance, the mako fakaraka, was presented by Pa Mukava recently as an adaptation of a Raga dance which he had seen in the Banks Islands. . . . The motives for the adoption of new cultural elements have been mainly for the desire to secure economic advantage or enhancement of the person. Mere imitation, as such, seems to have played little part; there has been in each case a set of ways of behaviour into which the new item has fitted. It is the proper existence of this general pattern that has given cultural value to the items introduced by individuals, made them objects of general desire, and not merely the unsupported whim of the introducer (1965 [1956]: 65).

Firth’s remarks about dances in Tikopia, as above, as well as those he makes in connection with dancing in the spirit world and dance of abuse at weddings and at initiations, reduce cherished notions of ‘spontaneity’ and ‘untrammeled emotional expression’ as the prime impetus for dancing to nil; but old ideas, old fantasies, and old loyalties die hard.

     In the past, understanding of human action sign systems in particular has been obstructed because we have viewed them primarily as ‘non-verbal behavior.’ We have made no distinctions between actors and actions, between ‘dancer’ and ‘the dance.’ And this point is crucial because the result has been that we do not see what is social and what is individual; we do not comprehend the difference between the Saussurian levels of la langue and la parole. Furthermore, spurious positivistic classifications of actions have been made into ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ components, and we have overlooked what is internal to any given system of actions and what is not.

     Dancing, acting, moving are all individual matters. They are momentary, as speech is momentary. But a body language, an idiom of dance, a liturgical body language, a cultural scenario for meaningful or appropriate bodily expression are not individual matters. Individuals are at liberty to choose a specific idiom of action signs within the community, just as there will be a certain latitude within the system for personal expression and for innovation,32 but an individual is not at liberty to exceed the limitations of the possible movements of the semasiological body (See Williams 1976a), nor can the idiom or systems as wholes be changed, unless we encounter a diachronic, paradigmatic change such as that discussed in Williams 1976a.

Open Structures

A full structure of communicative elements of a Western theatrical dance would look like this:

Figure 3

Obviously, a network of human relations is involved, but the demands on an investigator to satisfy a notionally adequate anthropological ‘fleshing out’ of these structural relations are considerably greater than those we have come to expect in more traditional behavioral accounts.

     An anthropologist of human movement begins by focusing on the code; the semiotic system of the dance (rite, ceremony, or whatever); and after rigorous textual analysis,33 both of the action sign system under investigation and the distinctive features of the idiom of body language to which it belongs; he or she then goes on to expound the structural relations indicated on the diagram—with the proviso that the diagram is an open structure and must be adjusted according to the ethnicity to whom it belongs. In particular, care must be exercised as to the classifications and categories of the phenomena to native speakers. The relations indicated above are simply a subset of the wider social relations in which they are embedded.

     How is the dance transmitted? By whom? What social relations are involved? Is there written history attached, or must it be dealt with in ‘oral-historical’ terms? On what occasions is it performed? Who may participate? Why? What kind of semantic space is created that is internal to the system? What are its kinological, kinemic, and kinesemic elements? What is the basis for its identity? Is it strongly connected to the kinship structure of the society? What are the symbolic personas of the performers, and what do they mean? The list of questions is virtually endless. The period of ‘participant-observation’ is long, and the investigator must speak the language of the people.34 The essential point is that we are here dealing with an ‘open structure’ that includes many sets of structural oppositions and several ‘nodes’ of social relations. Every time we replace a ballet in the above diagram with the name of another movement artifact from another semiotic system, we must accommodate ourselves to different sets of structural relations.

Time/Space Concepts

Were one to write ‘Bharata Natyam’ or the name of some other form of Indian classical dancing into the ‘net link’ slot, for example, one would realize that that simple act projects one into a world of different time/space conceptions. There are certain characteristics of position in the caste system in India that are not dependent on achievement as are, theoretically, all positions achievable in our society. For instance, the positions of both brahmans and untouchables are not elected or promoted as status positions. They are social positions that are acquired through being born into the caste; thus, such positions are, to us, “raised above the effects of history” (Pocock 1967: 303). Although not the only one, the caste system is frequently used to illustrate a system that devalues historical time as we conceive of it. Instead, it places great value on immutability. Pocock attempted to discover how the Patidar (the people with whom he was concerned) managed to reconcile their experience of change with their set of values regarding time, which seems to deny change. As might be expected, the reconciliation of these experiences is effected through religious conceptions. It is therefore simply a nonsense in the eyes of an anthropologist to imagine that dance forms (rites, ceremonies, etc.) can be separated from the human structures of time, space, and motion that generated them; thus, we distinguish between two terms: time reckoning and duration.

     Pocock rightly points out that, as anthropologists, we are concerned with “the way in which people reckon time and not with an enquiry into the nature of time itself” (1967: 304). He is acutely aware of the possible conceptual gaps between the anthropologist’s own modes of time reckoning (and the values thereof) and the values belonging to the peoples that the anthropologist attempts to understand. There is a strong possibility that there will be a lack of ‘fit’ between the folk model and the anthropologist’s homemade models of events, but our discipline provides us with the means whereby we can cope with this.

     For example, accurately to illustrate the concepts of time/space held by a group of English Carmelite nuns (in research carried out over ten years; see Williams 1976b) required extended efforts on my part because their language and concepts, English though they are, are very different from prevailing secular concepts of time and space. The arguments I have put forward can thus be seen to apply intraculturally as well as cross-culturally.

     I am aware, as nearly any serious dancer is aware, of the fundamental indeterminacy of time—that is to say, whether time is reckoned in days, seasons, rhythms, hours, events, dates, microseconds, or occasions. Most of us are aware that one of our own dances, lasting approximately half an hour measured in clock time, can be the expansion of a moment in someone’s life—as in Antony Tudor’s Jardin aux Lilas—or that a dance lasting one hour might cover several years of historical time and that ‘time,’ in any case, can as easily be defined as rhythm as anything else, as the regular reoccurrence of accented beats. Time systems are of central anthropological interest, as the search for ‘real’ time and ‘real’ space has preoccupied Western peoples for centuries; cf. Ardener 1989: 144. Anthropologists who deal with Muslim peoples obviously must also deal with the disparities between the lunar calendar and our own, just as, with some other ethnicities, they have had to deal with ‘months’ that appear to be movable, depending upon the right conditions, as they define them.

     I draw attention to these things to try to emphasize the fact that we know very little about the relations of human movement to spoken languages and that it is extremely difficult to visualize a location or an action in a complex, multidimensional space in our own society, far less that of others. I doubt that we really understand why it is that gestures, no less than spoken words, are “arbitrary,” to use the Saussurian term (1966: 67ff). Different ethnicities have generated different values for the spatial dimensions of up/down, right/left, front/back, and inside/outside.

     True, these are obvious instances of the conceptual fields in which dances—or any human action whatsoever—take place, but these sets of contrary oppositions often do not mean the same things cross-culturally.35 All these are reasons why one’s own experience of the cultural artifacts of another people cannot always be considered a reliable guide.

Mental Spectacles

Perhaps the important feature of general education that is shared by the contributors to this symposium is a belief in the values of consciousness: this may be the point at which phenomenology and an anthropology of meanings do meet. But our consciousness is predicated on vast areas of knowledge, experience, and belief of which we are largely unaware because they are habitual. Our understanding is itself a relationship because it is contingent upon what we do not understand. As I have said elsewhere, one is irresistibly reminded of Wittgenstein’s and, later, Toulmin’s and other philosophers’ usage of the image of ‘mental spectacles’; “There is only one way of seeing one’s own spectacles clearly; that is, to take them off. It is impossible to focus both on them and through them at the same time” (Toulmin 1961: 101).

     To accomplish the kind of objectivity that Toulmin (and many modern anthropologists) had in mind, one must first become aware of, and then be able to remove, one’s mental spectacles. In the process of removing and examining them, one is not bound to throw them away, discard them, or label them ‘bad.’ I believe that an unknown Zen master put the matter this way: one can look at the soles of one’s feet, but not while walking. In either case, the crucial difference lies in our individual awareness of responsibility for, and commitment to, what we are doing. Call the spectacles ‘conditioning,’ ‘socialization,’ or what you will, we all acquire at least one set of mental spectacles in virtue of the fact of being born into a specific language, into a given society, and all the complex network of systems of communications that are implied. Then too, other sets of spectacles may be acquired: the professional sets, as, for example, physics, philosophy, anthropology, psychology, music, dance, and the rest. But here too, the aphorism applies: if we fail to recognize the conceptual elements of the academic discipline to which we are committed, we will fail to recognize the true character of our ideas and our intellectual or other kinds of problems. This is equally true, of course, if we consider the intellectual problems of our predecessors—or of the people in ethnicities other than our own. None of us can float free of our historical selves.

     Our major difficulty is that we are so used to viewing the world, ourselves, and its other inhabitants through our particular sets of spectacles that we forget what it might be like to see without them. Our identification with one, or many, sets of mental spectacles tends to prevent us from seeing that other alternatives and other possibilities exist. Perhaps they also prevent us from realizing that having at least one pair of mental spectacles is fundamental to the common human estate. Unfortunately, there is no analogous image for the mental spectacles in relation to the other senses, yet we might imagine that we experience similar impediments in relation to them—in our hearing, for example.


What I have indicated here is not easy. The kinds of understanding to which I have alluded do not happen overnight or in one school term or even through the acquisition of advanced degrees. Anthropologists have diverse interests, and they do very different things. They disagree—as all human beings do—when fundamental questions about society and values are asked. There are certainly some who would disagree with what has been said here, but this kind of ongoing debate lies at the very heart of our discipline and is what makes it distinctively social.

     In conclusion, I would want to say that this essay on anthropology and art by no means exhausts the subject. Indeed, it is hardly more than a few notes and reflections on a theme, but they are offered in the hope that they might stimulate thoughts about ourselves and others that will ultimately be of benefit to our efforts to see others more clearly than ‘through a glass darkly.’ In particular, I would want to encourage the human capacity to transcend both ego and societal values, because I believe that it is through this capacity that significantly different views of the world and its peoples can be reached.


1 Beattie continues: “Among some of the indigenous tribes of Australia, a stranger who cannot prove that he is kin to the group, far from being welcomed hospitably as a fellow human, is regarded as a dangerous outsider and may be speared without compunction. Members of the Lugbara tribe of North-western Uganda used to think that all foreigners are witches, dangerous and scarcely human creatures who walk about upside-down and kill people by magic. The ancient Greeks thought all non-Hellenic peoples were barbarians, uncivilized savages whom it would be quite inappropriate to treat as real people. And many of the citizens of highly advanced modern states today think of people of other races, nations or cultures in ways which are not very different from these, especially if their skin is differently pigmented, or if they hold other religious or political faiths” (1964: 1).

2 This paper was prepared for the Symposium on Qualitative Evaluation in the Arts, held at SEHNAP (School of Education, Health, Nursing and Arts Professions), New York University, July 1980.

3 It seems necessary to point to certain curriculum differences that exist between countries here, lest my remarks be misunderstood. That is to say that social anthropology in Britain and France is an autonomous discipline, in contrast to the United States, where ‘anthropologist’ can still refer to archaeologists and physical anthropologists as well. I do not presume to speak for them in this paper, and it is only with a certain amount of hesitation that I venture to generalize about the group ‘social and cultural anthropologists,’ yet I hope my remarks will be taken in the spirit in which they are written, as they pertain to social and cultural anthropologists who have, on the whole, accepted the changes that the ‘linguistic revolution’ has effected in scientific thinking in general.

4 For a good contemporary summary, see Townsend 1982.

5 It is admitted by the authors that this study is ‘weak’ in the sense that they had neither the time nor materials to carry out their project properly. However, the article is provocative and is a valuable addition to Jopling’s anthology (1971) because it serves as a reminder that such work, if undertaken in different circumstances, would increase our insights into cross-cultural reactions to artifacts from different conceptual structures.

6 “The Cambridge Platonists were a group of English seventeenth-century thinkers associated with the University of Cambridge. The most important philosophers among them were Henry More (1614–1687) and Ralph Cudworth (1617–1689), both fellows of Christ’s College, Cambridge. The group also included Benjamin Whichcote (1609–1683), Peter Sterry (161–1672), John Smith (1618–1652), Nathaniel Culverwell (1619–1651), John Worthington (1618–1671), all one-time fellows of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. Their younger followers included George Rust (d. 1670), Anne Conway (1630–1679) and John Norris (1657–1711). In so far as they all held the philosophy of Plato and Plotinus in high regard, the designation ‘Platonist’ is apt. However, they drew on a wide range of philosophical sources besides Platonism. . . . The framework within which they read and understood ancient and modern philosophy was that of the ‘perennial philosophy’ (philosophia perennis) proposed originally by Italian Renaissance philosophers such as Marsilio Ficino, and Agostino Steucho, but also employed by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Not only did they share the Renaissance Humanist regard for the achievements of ancient philosophy, but like the Humanists of the Renaissance, their interest was dictated by their sense of the relevance of classical philosophy to contemporary life. . . . One difference between the Cambridge Platonists and their more famous philosophical contemporaries is that they all had a theological background. Nevertheless, convinced of the compatibility of reason and faith, they regarded philosophy as the legitimate concern of theologians and are distinguished by the high value they accorded human reason” (from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (<>).

7 Much of my reading in philosophy of art—certainly that to which I refer here—was done in the early 1960s. Schopenhauer’s work was of particular interest to me at the time because I attempted then to discover the intellectual and philosophical basis for Western romantic ballet.

8 I am aware of the vast corpus of work that Dewey produced during his lifetime and would not want anyone to think that I imagine that I make final assessments of his work. Like all great thinkers, he has been both misinterpreted and misunderstood. Moreover, by his own admission, I believe, the field of aesthetics merited less of his attention than other areas of human thought and action.

9 It is important to note that, with reference to the dance, Dewey’s notions are strongly represented by Margaret H’Doubler in a book entitled Dance: A Creative Art Experience (1962). The extent to which her ideas are faithful to the philosopher from whom they derive is a question that students in the future may or may not wish to examine, but the field of dance and dance education has been greatly influenced by Dewey through H’Doubler’s work.

10 As Crick pointed out in 1976, British social anthropology has lost that level of consensus that characterized it in the previous stages of its development. “Work in such fields as kinship, symbolism and classification over the last fifteen years has seen increasing stress on the concern of the discipline with questions of meaning, to such an extent that we are justified in saying that there has been an ‘epistemological break’ (Ardener 1971b: 450)” (Crick 1976: 1).

11 In particular, I have not mentioned the existentialists or the phenomenologists—men like Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, or Heidegger—but feel that this is unnecessary because of the presence of Eugene Kaelin at this gathering, who more than adequately represents these philosophical points of view. He needs no explanation other than his own and that of his colleagues.

12 I do not mean to imply a historical connection here or an exchange of ideas between them. The similarities between their ideas may only exist in my own mind, but their modes of expression seem strikingly parallel in many ways, hence my mention of them in tandem.

13 See also his Breviary of Aesthetics.

14 According to Kealiinohomoku (personal communication), the Hopi do not consider dance to be an ‘art,’ but they have terms for ‘dance,’ i.e., tiihu (sing. noun) or tiitihu (plural; noun) that can also be glossed ‘ceremony,’ and the verb forms are (sing.) wunima and tiiva.

15 I speak here of the late 1950s and early 1960s. During the years 1963–65, I was privileged to know and to have studied with Eugene Kaelin at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

16 As, for example, in the superficial, popularized and shoddy manner of Fast (1970) and Morris (1969), whose works make that of serious scholars in this field even more difficult than it already is.

17 For a more thorough understanding of this from an anthropological standpoint, see Wilson (1970) and the anthology edited by Horton and Finnegan (1973).

18 Lévi-Strauss represents an amalgamation of some of the best thought of French sociology and American cultural anthropology. Characteristically, he gives credit to Franz Boas and others for many of his inspirations.

19 Lévi-Strauss devotes approximately seven pages of his essay to discussion of his term (1966: 16–29). Suffice it to say here that the bricoleur is someone who works with his/her hands and who will use any means available to accomplish the purpose. The term bricoleur, we are told, has no precise equivalent in English. He is a man who understands odd jobs and is a jack-of-all-trades or a kind of professional ‘do-it-yourself’ person, but he is different from a ‘handyman.’

20 The ontological and epistemological differences between social anthropology conceived of as a language-based science rather than a behavioral science are more fully discussed in Williams (1977).

21 Lévi-Strauss uses this example (1966: 26), saying, “we may ask whether it is in fact the case that works of art are always an integration of structure and event. This does not on the face of it seem to be true . . . of the cedarwood Tlingit club, used to kill fish[.] . . . [T]he artist who carved it in the form of a sea-monster intended the body of the implement to be fused with the body of the animal and the handle with its tail, and that the anatomical proportions, taken from a fabulous creature, should be such that the object could be the cruel animal slaying helpless victims, at the same time as an easily handled, balanced and efficient fishing utensil . . . ”.

22 Harrison (1948 [1913]), Havemeyer (1916), and Ridgeway (1915) form a trio of dance and dramatic theorists who were all classical scholars and were contemporaneous with one another. No keen student of the history of dance can avoid them, and I have yet to see a list of references in the field that does not include at least one of them, especially in the writings of those who wish to avoid scientific approaches, who prefer a literary or aesthetic approach instead.

23 This is a familiar philosophical term, borrowed from Suzanne Langer (1957).

24 Humanity has been defined and described in many ways, as, e.g., ‘a political animal’ (or ‘social’ or ‘economic’ animal), ‘a tool-maker,’ ‘a weapon-user,’ ‘a fallen angel,’ ‘the imperial “animal”,’ and so on. None of these phrases focuses on the symbol-creating capacities or language-using faculties of human beings, hence the different definition, because it draws attention to the stress on meaning that has been evident in social anthropology over the last two decades.

25 See Harré and Secord (1972) for an exegesis of the “nature, powers and capacities” arguments and for further references pertaining to an ontology of powers.

26 There is nothing fuzzy about the notion of mental images as they are used here; cf. Sweigard (1974). lf a speaker, for example, says ‘door’ (or utters a sentence about a door), the hearer has an image of some kind of door, given that they are speakers of the same language. An image of a door accompanies the utterance. This seems fairly straightforward. The same kind of relation holds between action images and their spoken or written representations and the movements involved. Both the concatenations of linguistic sign arabesque and the action sign written in Figure 1 below represent that position from the idiom of ballet; but with no image of the position, the reader will be at a loss to understand either set of signs. The same is true for the action sign in persona Christi (see Fig. 2) from the Dominican Mass or the number ‘one million’ from an Anglo-Saxon manual counting system (see Fig. 3) or for any other movement one would care to mention.

27 For a more thorough discussion of action signs, their definitions, implications, and consequences, see Williams (1979).

28 See Harré and Secord (1972) for an exegesis, and especially see Hampshire (1965).

29 It might be more fruitful, in one way of looking at it, if there were more serious study done of noncommunication. As it is, we tend to focus on communication and ignore the many instances where it does not take place. Interestingly, in these cases, psychological explanations of deficiencies of some kind are generally given, but these do not advance our knowledge in the slightest—on the contrary, they seem only to increase a floating sense of anxiety or guilt. After all, if we really understood why we do not communicate, we would have taken several positive steps toward understanding how our theories, methods, and philosophies might be adjusted so that we do communicate.

30 With this diagram, we are not working toward mathematical systems theory nor setting up a ‘block’ or ‘control’ diagram, because it is highly unlikely that mathematical equations could be written in connection with human social situations to show ‘rate variables’ and such with reference to ceremonies, dances, and the like. Even if they could, it is questionable of what value they would be. I use such diagrams as these purely for their heuristic value in this kind of context, and they are necessary, if a bit tedious, because they form a kind of ‘assurance’ that readers will not conflate various aspects of the human interactions involved in the examination of a structure of this kind.

31 In the Indian theater, there was an actual personage designated, called a rasika, to whom the actors and dancers played. Generally, this was a village elder who knew the epic poems (as, e.g., the Ramayana) that were performed and who could appreciate the subtleties and nuances of the performance. He (or she) also knew whether the performance was ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and whether the performance was faithful to the stories and styles of performance. A degenerated form of this to be found in Western theater is the ‘claque,’ who knows when to applaud.

32 The question of latitude in personal performances of action signs also related to the constituent and contingent properties of any given system. Like its linguistic counterpart, the action sign has a narrow range of possibilities within which it can operate and still be recognizable as the same sign. It is possible to go into minute detail with this; the questions one might ask are analogous to linguists’ questions about how far any spoken utterance can be distorted (for example, ‘ten minutes to seven’ to ‘tem minits sevn’) and remain understandable or recognizable to a hearer. The question of identity is, of course, paramount. I would argue, on a somewhat larger scale, that it is the same Mass whether the priest wears a Gothic or a Kente chasuble, whether the church is cruciform, circular, rectangular, or some other shape. All these elements are contingent, not constituent, elements of the identity of the Mass. With reference to a ballet, it is the same ballet—as in the case of Checkmate—that is rehearsed in Talgarth Road that is subsequently performed in a Covent Garden theater or anywhere else in the world, and so on. The identity of a semiotic system does not change because it is performed in different environments and in different physical conditions; but these matters, interesting as they are, cannot detain us here.

33 It is required of a graduate student of our current program in the anthropology of human movement at New York University to be able to write movement fluently and to be able to read as well. We use the system of Labanotation. We analyze texts of human movement.

34 Although the field is very new, there are two excellent graduate-student examples of the kind of work to which I now refer: Puri (1980) on Bharata Natyam and Kürti (1980) on Hungarian folk dances. They are both works in progress toward Master’s degrees.

35 One of the most interesting and significant developments in modern social anthropology is the work done on dual symbolic classification. See Needham (1973).

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