New Bearings in Esthetics and Art Criticism

A Study in Semantics and Evaluation

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RELATIVISM                                              137
'life rhythm" of the birds and of the ink bamboo is the characteristic above all others which artistically matters.
The foregoing contrasts between Chinese and western painting point to different, if not entirely opposed standards of evaluation. Should the critic then attempt to show that either the Chinese standards or our own are the correct, valid, or true ones? Or may he claim that one set of standards is absolutely superior to the other? Whereas the objectivist will be so brash as to answer these questions in the affirmative, the relativist will understand the futility and the impertinence of pronouncing categorical judgment upon two such divergent and sensitive artistic approaches. The relativist will recognize the essential dependence of each approach upon the culture of which it is a part: he will see, for example, that the Chinese artistic requirement of an animated nature and the western artistic interest in inanimate particularities are influenced respectively by Chinese nature philosophy and by western science. Doubtless this critic will like and will probably even approve one artistic approach more than the other; and in that event, applying the principle of logical relativism, he will explicate his value judgments with reference to his chosen criteria. But, applying also the principle of psychological relativism, he will admit the legitimacy of the claims of differing cultures and sensitivities, will understand the superior quality of each set of claims, and will realize that his judgment can reasonably be binding only for those people who, as a result of fundamental similarities in their temperament, education, and environment, basically resemble him.
Confusion resulting from failure to grasp and apply this principle of psychological relativism may be concretely illustrated by two examples from current literary criticism, which, in general, is decidedly more acute, illuminating, and mature than current art criticism. In a single volume, The Intent of the Critic, the postulates of Edmund Wilson, Norman