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“Many of the earliest Oriental amateurs began by welcoming the Orient as a salutary derangement of their European habits of mind and spirit. The Orient was overvalued for its pantheism, its spirituality, its stability, its longevity, its primitivity…” –Edward Said, p. 150
While in politics and economics the world is divided between the developed and the underdeveloped, and many are likely to agree with Hobbes that life outside of the West is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” in spirit, the West has been enthusiastically appreciating the Nonwest for most of the twentieth century. You cannot pick up an article in my field of Pre-Columbian studies without an explanation of the Western mind – rational, logical, objective – and how different people like the Maya were with their magical thinking. Person after person get up at conferences to bear witness to the awful rationality of the West and the brilliant irrationality of people outside it with the intensity of a convert.
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Any analysis of “art” comes up against the concept of what is art. Paul Oskar Kristeller demonstrates beautifully that the modern concept of art – originality, creativity, genius – is eighteenth century in origin, but he refers to medieval and ancient art as “art,” even though he has just shown that they had no such concept or word for it. The term “art” is routinely invoked by current authors for all ornamented or figurative images of all people in all times, and thus has become a universal. Anthropology survey books have chapters on art as they do on kinship. Art is either not defined or very difficult to define. Theoretically, we all know what it is, but in fact we have no idea what we are talking about.
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Lisa and Bernard Selz Professor
in Pre-Columbian Art History
and Archaeology

Department of Art History
and Archaeology
814 Schermerhorn Hall

Columbia University
in the City of New York

[email protected]
(212) 854-5681