To the Editor:
I wish to protest against the tenor, and in particular the conclusion, of James Gardner’s “Indian Art—and Ours” [April]. Matters Indian do, it is true, tend to engender intense responses, and those of us who deal with Indian culture professionally eventually become used to confronting the two equally useless extremes of uncritical adulation (often of an apologetic cast), on the one hand, and a rather vicious criticism, on the other, though there is none of the latter in Mr. Gardner’s article. Instead, one encounters a rather different, perhaps even more insidious, kind of blindness.
Mr. Gardner visited the recent exhibitions at the National Gallery in Washington and the Metropolitan and apparently found much of interest. . . . Something, however, seems to have gone wrong. The article that begins on a note of appreciation . . . ends with the author’s headlong flight back to safety within the confines of his Western artistic heritage. One can sense his relief quite palpably, for example, in his comparisons between Rajput and Mughal paintings and the Limbourg illuminations, to the disadvantage of the former, and so on. All this then serves to lead up to the climax, in which Mr. Gardner declares, on the basis of Western achievements in art, his belief that Western civilization is, “taken as a whole, the greatest in human history.”
But what are we to make of the masterpieces that were assembled in the two exhibitions? Are they simply episodic manifestations of genius in a culture which, “taken as a whole,” simply does not quite make the grade? I think, for example, of the striking Bhairava panel in the Washington exhibit; of the Chola Sivas; of the Pahari miniatures at the Met. To me, these works, embodying the most amazing expressivity, subtlety, and grace, are important achievements of the human spirit by any conceivable standard. And what of the ideas that they were meant to convey, and the rich inner world from which they emerged—a world which is, no doubt, very different from our own, but surely no less compelling, complex, and in need of exploration and understanding?
I would not wish to be misunderstood. I do not believe that Indian civilization is superior to (or for that matter inferior to) any other human civilization. How indeed could anyone seriously make such a judgment? By comparing average per-capita incomes in the year 1000 with those of today? By adding up the number of people killed in futile wars, or victimized by their own fanatical and erring governments (on the latter score, I fear the modern West would do rather poorly compared with India)? The remarkable self-assurance of a Ma-caulay vis-à-vis the exotic culture that he made no serious attempt to understand is surely somewhat out of date. Of course Mr. Gardner is entitled to his own taste, and I can easily understand and accept that he prefers the Old Masters to the Rajputs. But it is one thing to state such a personal response in its own terms, or as a part of the cultural context which, one supposes, conditioned it and gives it meaning, and quite another to deduce from this that an entire civilization is not up to “our” supposedly higher standards. There is simply no excuse for such snobbery and smugness, especially when it is rooted, as it nearly always is, in ignorance. . . .
Institute of Asian and African Studies
James Gardner writes:
David Shulman seems to have misunderstood entirely the tenor of my article. Although he has some intuition about my conclusion, it occurs to me that I may be guilty of having misled him through the injudicious choice of a single word. When I used the word “civilization,” I thought the context would make it clear that I was speaking of art only. In no way did I intend to comprise within it religious or social questions which are not susceptible of the same criteria of judgment that I consider preeminent in any informed assessment of a work of art. Since I meant to discuss only the art of India and not its social or religious determinations, I consider Mr. Shulman’s points about religious and military matters irrelevant to my article.
What I find so problematical about Mr. Shulman’s letter is that he seems scarcely to have read anything between the first and last paragraphs of what I wrote. I would like to affirm that there are few artistic experiences I have cherished as much as I have those of Indian art, and it was my intention, and I hope my achievement, to manifest this affection throughout my article. I wonder how I can be accused of “blindness” toward Indian art when I clearly like it as much as I say I do, and I hope Mr. Shulman will accept that I was telling the truth and meant what I said.
But it would never have occurred to me that liking or indeed loving a work of art precludes preferring something else. Mr. Shulman appears incapable of appreciating the modality of my argument. If I say that, grosso modo, European art is better than Indian, I may be understood to be saying that I consider Indian art worse than European, or European even better than Indian. The latter was clearly my intention, for, as my article demonstrates, I love the one greatly, and the other more.
Mr. Shulman’s attempt to make me sound as though I consider Western art the standard by which all other art should be judged will find no basis in anything I ever wrote or thought. Rather than seeking to assimilate all things to Western culture, I am convinced that comparisons can and must be made precisely because there are universals of excellence embodied as much in Indian art as in Gothic or Renaissance, but which are not to be identified as the unique property of any one of them. I feel no compunctions about saying a Nigerian bronze head is as good as, if not better than, a Brancusi, not because I am eager to extol or denigrate Rumania or Nigeria, but because both artifacts strive ultimately for the same elusive thing.
To insist upon the autonomous excellence of every culture or every work of art is to incarcerate each in the adventitious specifics of its own creation, indeed to be blinded to its universal significance, which is the only thing that enables us to understand the art of other cultures. Mr. Shulman’s refusal to compare cultures, and his insistence on the equality of all cultures, though intended as high-minded liberalism, is really a direct assault on the universal communicability of artistic ideas. If we insist on the absolute and irreducible relevance of any culture, must we not then abstain from considering Albanian art, say, a little less prepossessing than the art of India or France? Upon what grounds does the Hebrew University (and everyone else) have departments of Indian and French art, but not Albanian art? Can Mr. Shulman prove that Indian art is better than Albanian?
All in all, his refusal to make cross-cultural comparisons is a strange argument for any kind of enthusiastic response to works of art. Any such response, if it is informed by a modicum of judgment, will proceed from the perception that the object in question is significantly better than other things in its vicinity. Unless one refuses categorically to make judgments, unless one insists that there is nothing shared by all the art of the world, unless one insists that each specific work is fully autonomous, it will follow that qualitative differences must emerge. We may abstain from judgment or be unable to render it, but that does not mean the differences will go away.
It is in this sense that I feel we can state that the artistic achievement of Europe, taken as a whole, and by universal terms of comparison, must be judged the greatest in human history.