Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology and The Ethnographic Collection

Archiv: 2008

Considered as beautiful –
Objects in the Aesthetic Field of Contrasts


(19 October 2008 - 13 March 2009)

Every human being has an idea of what is considered as “beautiful”. Although evidently a “sense of the beautiful” is present everywhere, there are differing perceptions as to which cultural objects we judge as artistic creations that are felt to be beautiful. Aside from the immaterial references of the Aesthetic and its performative nature in music, poetry, dance, or the theatre, it is mainly the objects of material culture which can be understood and discussed in terms of their aesthetics in an anthropological context.

Artefacts such as the masks, figurines, overmodelled human skulls, potteries, featherworks, and weapons from Africa, Asia, Oceania, and America that are on display in the exhibition can give us clues as to which aesthetic ideas are connected with these objects in the eyes of those who made them. But additionally they shed light on the aesthetic reception patterns (influenced by European ideas) of those who selected the objects to be exhibited.

As these objects in their original place served as means of communication among people or between human beings and superhuman beings or powers, they elude the European traditional assessment of “art” as “l’art pour l’art” and cannot be embedded in categories such as painting, sculpture, or graphic art, which is due to those socially or religiously determined functions. Nevertheless the objects on display bear witness to the fact that the societies that created and used them did in fact possess criteria to judge aesthetic accomplishments. As Swiss anthropologist Christian Kaufmann once put it very aptly, what is good and beautiful in such an object is the way in which it “depicts the traditional unity of content and form and passes it on”. Thus, we are able to discern aesthetic parameters in non-European works, parameters which become evident when we consider the works’ style, shape, colouring, and motives. And these formal characteristics with their respective degrees of abstraction and functional perfection, of prestigiousness, trancendency, lastingness, or spiritual power determine whether an object in its indigenous context is valued as beautiful and artistically excelling, even if this alien society does not possess words for “art” or “aesthetics”.