American Ethnocentricism in "Verstehen?"

[ Follow Ups ] [ Post Followup ] [ Salon ] [ FAQ ]

Posted by R. John Howe on December 21, 1998 at 05:46:48:

Dear folks -

In his descripions of the visioning of Turkmen weaving that he recommends, Jim Allen often suggests that in order really to "see" what there is to see in these pieces and especially what the Turkmen "saw" in them, we must drop away from our usual modes of perception. We must adopt what he sometimes describes as "field vision," a perspective that apparently will permit us to experience a degree of cultural empathy with the weavers of the Turkmen pieces we collect. Jim suggests that it will be difficult for us to make this move to a "verstehen" perspective, since the mode of perception it requires is alien to that we ordinarily use to observe and to interpret things. Jim then moves to suggest in a rather thorough going way that many Turkoman designs are in fact representational pictures, often of birds and animals.

I am struck by some things about this particular emphathetic view of Turkman designs.

First, it seems to ignore, if not to deny, a very large tradition in Turkic art in which designs are purely geometric rather than representational. This tradition seems closer to the exploration of mathematical possibility than to any attempt to draw realistic images. Would it perhaps not be even more empathetic with the traditions visible in Turkic design and art, to suggest that some Turkman weaving designs are of the purely geometric sort?

Second, one of the deepest tendencies in Middle American artistic taste is for the "realistic." Its analog in literature is the elevation of plot to a primary position in evaluation. The first question most folks ask about a book is what is it "about." The assumed primacy of this question suggests that it may not only be the most important thing to consider but perhaps the only thing worth considering about a book. Back to designs. It seems to me that the most visible Middle American tendency in art appreciation is that which asks "what does this picture represent?" Far from being alien from the most frequent modes of American perspective, it is rather the most central one encountered. It is abstract, non-representational art that gives most Americans more difficulty. Their most visceral tendencies are that art should be a picture of something. The furor raised over the Vietnam Memorial when the veterans discovered that the winning design did not include a statue and their ultimate insistence on having one, is just one instance.

Now I raise these two points to suggest not that Jim's take on Turkmen designs and weaving is incorrect. I have no way of knowing how Turkman weavers in the 19th century or earlier actually "saw" the designs they wove. But the perspective that Jim invites us to adopt seems to ignore some central features of Turkic traditions in art of which the Turkman are a part and the insistence on seeing realistic pictures everywhere in Turkmen designs is entirely congruent with the most pedestrian interpretative tendencies of Middle America. It would be as easy to claim that Jim's views are rooted in American ethocentrism about art as it is to claim that they are an act of sensitive cross-cultural empathy.


John Howe

Follow Ups:

Post a Followup




Optional Link URL:
Link Title:
Optional Image URL:

[ Follow Ups ] [ Post Followup ] [ Salon ] [ FAQ ]