Is the idea that Art is a human universal harmful?

My sister asked me to explain to her what was being asked by a question in her Art studies recently. The question was,

The notion that art is a pan-humanic universal is a pernicious idea, which has on balance done more harm than good. Discuss.

Now, “pan” means “across the total of,” like a “pan-galactic space odyssey” film or something. So “pan-humanic universal” is academic pomp for “human universal.”

Taking a page out of Strunk & White’s book, you might edit the sentence to something like ‘Is the idea that Art is a human universal harmful?’

And I’d find that hard to agree with.

All human societies have cultures of language, dance, dress, money, agriculture, and art. Sculpture is more common than 2D visual art, but I’d say that most cultures have had a 2D visual art, even those without writing systems, although its obviously going to be very common in those with writing because the mark making tools required for writing would be put to good use by the dyslexics in the group.

Art has various functions - to tell stories, to just look nice, to be personal expression, to earn money - and each society will value each function differently. So people in very poor parts of the world today are less likely to value the personal-expression aspect of the artworks they create and more likely to value the aspects that will sell lots of works - which leads to generic, mass-appeal things that fit tourist’s preconceptions. It took a long time to pick over a few thousand trinkets in a marketplace to find things that were interesting and different, the first time we went to Africa, I remember.

It might be unwise to project our values of art onto other cultures, and pretend that there is some personal expression or anything else than there really is on to those little wooden sculptures. But “harmful”? No. That’s silly. Art is what it is. I’m fairly certainly that it is a human universal, though.

The question reminded me of an old Calvin and Hobbes strip:

calvin and hobbes on academia

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The Is the idea that Art is a human universal harmful? by David Crossland, except the quotations and unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.


One Response to “Is the idea that Art is a human universal harmful?”

  1. James on October 26th, 2007 09:17

    I was harmed by the notion that art is a pan-humanic universal, but I don’t like to talk about it.

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