How can you judge the art of other cultures? Aren't all cultures equal?

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How can you judge the art of other cultures? Aren't all cultures equal?

From Brian K. Yoder

Published before 2005


Q: How can you judge the art of other cultures? Aren't all cultures equal? Aren't you advocating an arrogant pro-Western position that puts down those from other parts of the world?

While cultural barriers can sometimes constitute an impediment to certain kinds of art (for example, literature in a language you don't understand), there's nothing inherent in a difference in cultures that makes it impossible for people from outside it to understand and judge its cultural products. I have heard a few arguments to the contrary and I can't encyclopedically list them here and provide rebuttals to each one, but I must say that none of them have been even slightly convincing. It is eminently possible to observe what foreigners do, see if it works well, recognize its value, and adopt useful ways if they seem desirable or reject them as worse than what we already are doing. Clearly this happens all the time in all but the most insular societies. To claim that such cross-cultural understanding is impossible is not only unjustified, but if we really accepted that notion it would justify a rather extreme kind of provincialism verging on xenophobia.

There are three ways to approach foreign ideas and cultural products (such as art). One is to mindlessly reject them as incomprehensible, strange, evil, and foreign. Another is to mindlessly accept them as "all good" or "beyond evaluation". I see both of these as wrong for the same reason... they both forbid the use of the the mind and instead judge the ideas based on where they came from rather than their merit. The third approach (which is the one I advocate) is to reject both of these false alternatives and instead to intelligently evaluate the works and let the chips fall where they may. That's not arrogant, that is even-handed, open-minded, and respectful of that which deserves respect.