To the Editor:
As I read James Gardner’s “Indian Art—and Ours” [April], my reactions turned from confusion to dismay. Initially it appeared that Mr. Gardner’s intention was to re view the exhibitions which were taking place as part of the “Festival of India.” He begins by quoting several historical figures who, at some point, had proclaimed the absolute lack of value in all things Indian. But then, as the article progresses, Mr. Gardner seems grudgingly to accept certain refreshing and noteworthy aspects of Indian art. It is not until the third to last paragraph that we learn his true thesis—that the art and culture of each civilization can be ranked in terms of superior or inferior and that, in fact, “our” (which I assume to mean Western European) art and culture are superior to those of India. Several comments need to be made about this thesis, the author’s conclusions, and the unspoken consequences of such an approach.
First, it strikes me that the mere attempt to define “superior” art betrays a provincialism which has plagued our Western civilization. The concept of superior and inferior art or civilization is not an absolute concept, but rather one which is a function of ideals, goals, and standards which may vary with geography, history, and possibly other factors. How does one rank the inner vitality of pre-Islamic Indian sculpture with the outward realism of Western sculpture? How do we crank into the equation the religious motivation behind Indian art as opposed to the variety of purposes in much of Western art? When we make this ultimate judgment, what weight do we give to the quality of form versus function or to the impact of an art either domestically or internationally? . . .
Perhaps our own civilization would be better served by attempting to illuminate the differences in the art of various cultures whose diversity has been encouraged by several thousand years of relative isolation. I propose that we would be better served by looking at these matters not with the eye of a mathematician in search of a common denominator, but rather with the eye of a historian who spots trends and influences rather than absolutes. Indian art has strengths and weaknesses whether we use a Western or an Eastern sense of value. But the concept of “superior” or “inferior” is, I believe, too high-minded and ultimately of questionable value.
By opening with such esteemed commentators as Babur and Macaulay, does Mr. Gardner give the Western reader any choice but to agree with his reassuring conclusion that ours is a superior culture? Should we not give weight to the historical impact of a culture and its art? In determining superiority, how do we deal with the fact that until 1949 Buddhism had a deep and profound impact on the cultures of Asia and the West? It can be said that Buddhism has been the dominant ideological force in the lives of over 20 percent of the world’s population. For anyone who understands the East, it is axiomatic that religion, culture, and art are inseparable.
Perhaps of greatest concern, however, are the potential implications of the concept of a superior culture. Do superior cultures come from or create superior men? Is the white culture of Africa superior to that of the blacks? Or would it be more appropriate and instructive to say that each culture has its own strengths and weak nesses? How about the Chinese or Japanese—where do they rank in our hierarchy? And finally, what should we do with all those inferior cultures which are laying claim to the earth’s limited re sources?
If the purpose of Mr. Gardner’s article is to provoke questions and debate, I say bravo. But if he is seriously putting forth the concept of the superiority of Western art and culture, I say the thought is provincial in outlook, counterproductive in concept, and of concern in its consequence.
Thomas J. Pritzker
President, Hyatt Corporation
James Gardner writes:
I am grateful to Thomas J. Pritzker for affording me the opportunity to expand upon certain themes in my article with which he takes issue. I should begin by saying, however, that I do not ad mire the art of other cultures only “grudgingly.” I meant it when I wrote of India that “within the province of sculptured stone and cast bronze . . . it is difficult to name any nation that has achieved greatness so instinctively,” and that “. . . it is easy to believe that the world has not produced builders with architectural instincts superior to those of the builders of Islam.”
Furthermore, my purpose in writing the article, my “true thesis,” was to render an honest judgment of what I took to be the excellences of Indian art. Although the concluding discussion was an integral part of the whole, it was neither the main point, nor the veiled message, of the article.
According to Mr. Pritzker, my desire to compare and also to rate the artistic achievements of different cultures “betrays a provincialism which has plagued our Western civilization.” I believe, however, as 1 wrote in the article, that the desire to seek out the art of other cultures is itself specifically a Western attitude, unique, so far as I know, in the history of the world. Mr. Pritzker may have mistaken my position for one which prevailed prior to our century, when Westerners believed, as other civilizations have believed of themselves, that theirs was some how at the center of creation. Through the efforts of writers like Romain Rolland and Roger Fry, both of whom I cited in my article, there evolved in the West a healthy and, I believe, an admirable affection for artifacts that implicitly reject the canons of Western taste.
But in allowing for this proliferation of formal possibilities, need we also believe that all art and all cultures are equally good? Or may we believe that no one mode of art is uniquely qualified to generate excellence? There is a big difference between these two theses. I assert the latter to be true. Many different cultures have created works of great beauty, just as many have probably never created a single work of art worthy of the name. I believe that within a single culture certain aesthetic specimens will be greater than others, and also that certain aesthetics have generated more good art than others.
Since my concern here and in my article is with art, I feel no compunction in overlooking the religious questions Mr. Pritzker raises, but I must reject his claim that “For anyone who understands the East, it is axiomatic that religion, culture, and art are inseparable.” For me this is not axiomatic, especially not in the evaluation of a work of art. Two statues of Krishna from 13th-century My sore, identical in their artistic and religious terms, can nevertheless vary considerably in the degree and excellence of their realization, for reasons that have nothing to do with style or culture. Furthermore, no one who is sensitive to the beauties of sculpture will fail to see that almost any Gandharan Buddha is better than almost any piece of 19th-century French or English academic sculpture.
Finally, Mr. Pritzker advocates a quest for diversity rather than for absolutes. Perhaps I would share his preference if I did not think it possible to achieve both. How can one say, as I feel we all must, that the cave paintings of Ajanta are superior to the covers of Time magazine unless one perceives, despite their diversity, a thread of continuity running through both, making such a qualitative comparison possible? I believe that all art, whether a sonnet or a cathedral or a symphony or a mural, has this same thread of excellence running through it. Whenever we respond to the purely formal beauty of art, this is what we are seeing, this is what causes us to reject as alien the bad art of our own creating, and to feel at times a community with artists who lived at a distance of thou sands of miles or thousands of years. I can conceive of no doctrine more liberal or more cosmopolitan than this.
As Mr. Pritzker intimates, my purpose was, at least partially, to provoke questions and debate, and thus I am gratified that he has taken the trouble to consider my arguments. But I do not feel that it is “counterproductive,” as he suggests, to consider the competing merits of civilizations along the lines I have discussed. Not to do so is perhaps to provoke a lassitude of response that, by allowing every thing, loses the energy sincerely to admire anything. To the truly liberal mind, a distinction should be drawn between the universal possibility of achieving excellence, and the achievement itself. To the truly liberal mind it should be as difficult to bestow unmerited praise as to withhold it where it is due. That is why I am confident in repeating the conclusion of my article by saying that in a universe of many excellences, the art of the West, taken together and according to universal principles of comparison, must be considered the greatest in human history.