The European definition of art in any case changes all the time. At one time, art is what the church approves, at another--say, as defined by Sotheby's--whatever buys or sells in the marketplace.
Artists of European extraction have continually challenged the definition of art, and how they have done so is precisely the course that Western art historians follow so diligently.
That definition has been challenged repeatedly from the inside, but now we have a chance to challenge that definition from the outside, with the art of non-European cultures.
Q: How would you compare, for example, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with an Amazonian headdress?
A: They're both ceremonial, they both took a special effort and special devotion--in the very pure sense of men standing in awe of beauty, they're equal. Where there's no comparison is in the work involved.
The Sistine Chapel represents years of work, it's a monumental human achievement in the amount of time and effort that went into it, whereas a headdress can be completed in a few days.
But that's the only way that it's essentially different. The headdress, though only a few days' worth of work, also represents the expression of a lifetime's worth of devotion to the ideas and concepts of its culture.
Q: Much like the single brush stroke of a Chinese watercolor?
A: On the very most poetic and essential level, a perfect example.
Q: Let's say an Amazonian is looking at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, while a European is in a room looking at an Amazonian feather headdress. What happens?
A: Both are confused. Eventually, they both start to recognize colors and harmony and the work that has gone into them, and eventually they both begin to appreciate them as works of art.
Q: I would suspect that at first the Amazonian might be overwhelmed, and the European underwhelmed--the Amazonian assaulted by too much sensory data, the European too little.
A: That might be a cultural chauvinism of "primitive" versus "modern." But, yes, it may indeed be the case that the Amazonian is overwhelmed by information--to the point where he might not even \o7 see \f7 it.
I come from another culture, and I know what it's like to stand in front of something and not be able to see it. I'm reminded of the film "Alien." There are scenes in that film where the monster is right there in front of you, yet you can't see it until all of a sudden a coil moves and everyone in the room screams. It was in front of you the whole time but you couldn't see it because reference points needed for identification were not in motion.
Those kind of references can also be cultural. I can show you a Navajo rug and you won't see what I see in it. You might see lines and shapes--I might see a rainstorm.
Q: Do you believe the headdress and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel are works that are equal in complexity?
A: For us to believe in the equality of human beings, we must \o7 really \f7 believe in the equality of human beings, and that includes the complexity of their expressions.
To think that some people need complex math equations to satisfy their intellect while other human beings need simple ones is another terrible chauvinism. All people work to the same level of complexity.
That complexity can be communicated empathetically or explicitly. It can be expressed in a mathematical equation, in an Islamic set of tiles or in what may appear to be, to a person outside of a culture, a very simple object. But (a similar) level of complexity is always present. . . .
One of the peculiarities of European Western culture--just peculiar, not bad or good--is that it verbalizes and otherwise manifests its complexity as explicitly as it can. In fact, we exhaust ourselves with the explicit explanation.
There's no energy left to appreciate more empathetic kinds of communication. Art, as the language of human expression, is a way for us to start to see the way other cultures see. You'll never ever think like an Amazonian, nor will I. But we can begin to think a little bit more like them.