Cultural Relativism, Identity Politics and Contemporary Visual Art

Cultural relativism, the realization that diverse cultures have different, incommensurable aesthetic standards, anticipated by Montaigne and Machiavelli, was the discovery of the Neapolitan philosopher, Giambattista Vico (1668-1744). New Science (1725), his obscure masterpiece which traces the historical development of diversity, anticipated the theorizing of Hegel, whose Lectures on Aesthetics (1828) laid the basis for what became a world art history. Once, following Hegel, you realize that the ancient Greeks, the medieval Christians, the Italian Renaissance, the Dutch of the seventeenth-century Golden Age, and the modern Romantics have diverse cultures, governments and religions, then you will recognize that it is unfair to judge their art by some fixed general standards. Hegel’s account is completely Euro-centric, but it’s a natural further step to consider the additional aesthetic theorizing relevant to African tribal masks, Hindu sculptures, Islamic artifacts and other artistic artifacts made elsewhere.

Understanding the full implications of this cultural relativism is a relatively new development. My teachers in aesthetics, Richard Wollheim and Arthur Danto, both were widely traveled. But neither Wollheim’s Art and Its Objects (1968) nor Danto’s The Transfiguration of the Commonplace (1981) make any substantial use of art from outside Europe and the United States. Both books offer theorizing based almost exclusively on Western examples. Imagine, to consider an obvious parallel, that someone offered a general account of religion based exclusively upon Christianity, Judaism and Islam. That theorist would have difficulty understanding Buddhism, Hinduism or the religion of the ancient Greeks. Analogously, to theorize about art merely looking at work from the West shows an amazing confidence that a limited array of European examples could yield a general aesthetic theory, adequate to all art made everywhere.

Cultural relativism is the natural intellectual result of the development of world history. Once imperialism connected all cultures, initially non-European art was not taken seriously. But then it was almost inevitable that constructive attempts were made to understand these diverse artworks. And, also, this relativism now becomes an essential basis for the study and appreciation of contemporary visual art, which also is very varied. French Cubism, German expressionism, Surrealism, American Abstract Expressionism, minimalism, Pop Art and the diverse developments of post-modernism: each involve the employment of novel forms of theorizing, which it is the goal of scholarship to make explicit. A museum of world art history such as the Metropolitan Museum in New York gathers together historical and contemporary works from everywhere because this theorizing gives us confidence that they all are of aesthetic importance. With the aid of the theorizing we have the reasonable belief that we can understand all of these diverse works.

Not very long ago, the very year when I started elementary school, a great new history was published in London, Ernst Gombrich’s The Story of Art (1950). After some brief remarks about the Paleolithic cave paintings, he discusses art in ancient Egypt (for him, an honorary part of Europe), in classical Greece and then on towards the present. One short chapter deals with art in China and the Islamic world. And there is no substantial coverage of works from elsewhere. Now, of course, that visual worldview is hopelessly dated. My A World Art History And Its Objects (2008) and Julian Bell’s Mirror of the World: A New History of Art (2010) are but two of the myriad tracings of this development.

What, however, is still more recent is the link of cultural relativism to identity politics. There is great, totally legitimate concern for our institutions to offer support to male and female Black artists. And, of course, to also support members of other groups who have unfairly marginalized in the American art world. You need only look at the present exhibitions at the major museums and galleries to see the importance and drama of this long overdue development. There are, I believe, two ways of reading this practice. Perhaps the development of diverse aesthetics is humanly enriching, showing how everyone’s experience is extended by awareness of this multiplicity of major artists. Maybe, however, and this is the more pessimistic reading, the net result will be not an expansion of the art world, but an unhappy extension of the present constrictions of the larger, bitterly divided political environment. When you are inside a culture, then you can understand its practices, including its art, in an immediate way, for it is, as we say, your culture. You know the conventions and history, and so can understand pretty directly what’s going on. Think, for example, how when young, you responded to pop music or contemporary films. (Unlike your parents!) But if you are outside a culture, then its creations will likely be relatively opaque to you. Or, to provide a more dramatic proposal, maybe you will be completely outside, unable to perform the act of ‘understanding’ required to sympathetically understand.

It’s obvious that no one living today can fully imagine belong to the long vanished Aztec or classical Greek cultures, whose values have become very distant. But after all, those ways of life are long gone. The more interesting question is whether it’s possible to imagine putting yourself in the lives of diverse present people who are unlike you by virtue of their race or gender. To understand is one step towards controlling. And often that understanding leads to exploitation. After all, that’s why there are great Western museums of Chinese art and major American collections of Islamic artworks, but no equivalent Chinese or Islamic displays of art from the West. The world art history museum is unavoidably, given its history, a collection of loot, in ways that now are being challenged. Consider, for a different example making the same point, how English white bands appropriated and profited from Black American blues culture. Given this larger story of cultural imperialism, it’s not surprising that everyone doesn’t want to be understood.

Here we get to a challenging philosophical issue. If to fully understand an artwork by a woman, or a Black person, or someone of Chinese ancestry . . . you need to be female or Black or . . . then what true experience of that art can an outsider, that is, a person outside of that tradition, have? Maybe no such outsider can really understand that work. It’s possible, then, that one result of this present interest in cultural relativism within the art world will be the balkanization of our visual culture. The different branches of the contemporary art museum devoted to people of diverse races will remain effectively set apart, in the way that in the historical collections Chinese, Indian and European artworks are mostly set apart.

Within European art history, a version of this conceptual issue has already been much discussed. When art historians studied sacred European art, they secularized these works, treating them as aesthetic objects, not as ceremonial Christian artifacts. When long ago visiting Italian churches, I was surprised to see photographs of car wrecks, posted to thank the saint depicted for preserving their lives. But to see an altarpiece as a baroque composition is different, surely, from praying in thanks to the saint’s intercession. And it’s arguable that just as a secular-minded scholar cannot really understand such a sacred work, so a privileged white male guitarist cannot understand Bessie Smith’s singing of the blues, no matter how skillfully he can imitate her performances.


On Vico see Erich Auerbach, Selected Essays (2014), Ch. 3. On Hegel and art history, Michael Podro, The Critical Historians of Art (1984) and Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art by G.W.F. Hegel (1988). On world history, The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History by J. R. McNeill and William H. McNeill (2003). And on Vico and Hegel, my In Caravaggio’s Shadow: Naples as a Work of Art (2024).

David Carrier is a philosopher who writes art criticism. His Aesthetic Theory, Abstract Art and Lawrence Carroll (Bloomsbury) and with Joachim Pissarro, Aesthetics of the Margins/ The Margins of Aesthetics: Wild Art Explained (Penn State University Press) were published in 2018. He is writing a book about the historic center of Naples, and with Pissarro he conducted a sequence of interviews with museum directors for Brooklyn Rail. He is a regular contributor to Hyperallergic.