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Art Without Borders

A Philosophical Exploration of Art and Humanity

People all over the world make art and take pleasure in it, and they have done so for millennia. But acknowledging that art is a universal part of human experience leads us to some big questions: Why does it exist? Why do we enjoy it? And how do the world’s different art traditions relate to art and to each other?

Art Without Borders is an extraordinary exploration of those questions, a profound and personal meditation on the human hunger for art and a dazzling synthesis of the whole range of inquiry into its significance. Esteemed thinker Ben-Ami Scharfstein’s encyclopedic erudition is here brought to bear on the full breadth of the world of art. He draws on neuroscience and psychology to understand the way we both perceive and conceive of art, including its resistance to verbal exposition. Through examples of work by Indian, Chinese, European, African, and Australianartists, Art Without Borders probes the distinction between accepting a tradition and defying it through innovation, which leads to a consideration of the notion of artistic genius. Continuing in this comparative vein, Scharfstein examines the mutual influence of European and non-European artists. Then, through a comprehensive evaluation of the world’s major art cultures, he shows how all of these individual traditions are gradually, but haltingly, conjoining into a single current of universal art. Finally, he concludes by looking at the ways empathy and intuition can allow members of one culture to appreciate the art of another.

Lucid, learned, and incomparably rich in thought and detail, Art Without Borders is a monumental accomplishment, on par with the artistic achievements Scharfstein writes about so lovingly in its pages.

Read an excerpt.

558 pages | 9 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2009

Art: Art Criticism, Art--General Studies, Middle Eastern, African, and Asian Art

Philosophy: Aesthetics, General Philosophy


“This is the most comprehensive study of art and artists ever written. Not only does it range across the world’s cultures in time and space, but it takes account of the latest findings in a variety of relevant disciplines, including neuroscience, cross-cultural psychology, and anthropology. Scharfstein’s mastery of the literature of those disciplines is impressive, as is his command of scholarly writing on art worldwide. Timely, global, and open-minded, Art Without Borders evinces warmth and humanity as Scharfstein admirably highlights the makers of art, their individual lives, and their views on artistry.”

Wilfried van Damme, author of Beauty in Context

Art Without Borders is a masterpiece that elucidates human thinking about art in all its facets. Drawing on the best available knowledge in psychology, anthropology, and art history, Ben-Ami Scharfstein opens with a wonderfully cultivated meditation on the question of how we are to understand the notion of art in our present global village. But he also deepens the discussion throughout with detailed examinations of individual artists’ lives, accomplishments, reflections on art, and attitudes toward their work and traditions. This richness of human detail is one of the great virtues of this immensely learned and stunningly good book.”

Hilary Putnam, author of Reason, Truth and History

"I have never seen such an impressive array of historically, geographically and culturally diverse evidence brought to bear on any subject. . . . What [Scharfstein] has achieved is nothing less than a comprehensive answer to both Eurocentrism and relativism in the arts. Looking very much like the culmination of an extraordinarily long career, Art Without Borders is that rare book in which generalizations, of which there are many here, are fully earned through sheer weight of research. . . . But this book is more than an agglomeration of anthropological trivia. It’s a delineation of what it is possible with confidence to say about art, which is simply that it is with us, everywhere and always, as ineluctable as our shadows."

Bert Archer | Globe and Mail

"Scharfstein supports his views through a remarkably wide survey of the history of art. In this study, several polarities organize his discussion, e.g., prehistoric art and its later successors, tradition and individual genius, and Asian and Western art. He ranges freely over Chinese and Islamic art and modern primitives. As if this were not enough, he presents findings on the brain as well. Scharfstein’s insights and extraordinary knowledge command respect, and this book is a major contribution."

Library Journal

“As wide-ranging a survey of the available literature on art as any single author could probably produce. Moreover, Scharfstein reads attentively and judiciously. . . . The book abounds in generosity and a patient will to listen.”

Julian Bell | New York Review of Books

“This rich, wide-ranging study in comparative aesthetics is nourished by theories, facts, and conjectures from a broad array of disciplines.”


Table of Contents



Note on Transliteration


Why There Is Art · The Aesthetic Dimension of Life · Being Aware · Seeing · Remembering · Preferring · Forgetting Self · Grasping · Theorizing


Tradition, Traditionalism · Problems Anthropologists Encounter and Create · The Anthropology of Art · Ceremonial Celebrations of Life · Memory Preserved · Authenticity · Ephebism · Four Symbolic Images · From Apprentices to Masters · Exacting Rules · Classicism and Archaism · Chinese Connoisseur, Archaist, Collector · Creative Copying from the Chinese Past · Classicism in European Art · Creative Copying from the European Past · The Ideal of the Anonymous Craftsman · The Metaphysical Ideal


Egocentricity against Tradition · Inspiration, Heroism, and Uniqueness ·Islamic Hero-Artists · Hero-Artists of the European Renaissance · “Genius” · Genius, Melancholy, Madness · The Romantic/Egocentric Artist · Chinese Romantic/Egocentric Amateurs · Indian Romantic/Egocentric Artists · “Primitive” Romantic/Egocentric Artists · African Artists’ Creative Egocentricity · All Alike, All Different


Creative Chaos · The Camera’s Liberating Light · Historical Relativity ·The Encompassing Influence of Japan · Gauguin and Other Savages·European Borrowing · Japanese and Chinese Borrowing · The Excessive Past of Chinese and Western Art ·Symbolic Deaths and Erasures of the Past · Modern “Primitives”: Creating and Debating Identities


Human Perceptual and Emotional Responses ·Old and New Criteria of Judgment · Fame and Price · Diminishing the Subjectivity of Judgment · Local Art and Universal Art· Judging Art Fairly · Fusion, Oscillation, Realism, Equilibrium, Beauty · The Snow Woman as a Universal Paradigm· The West: Intimations of Neoplatonism · Africa: Statue-like Beauty and Goodness and Clarity· India: Depersonalized Emotion · China: Reverberations of the Life-Breath · Japan: Beauty Tempered by Regret · The Common Universe of Aesthetic Discourse · Final Thoughts



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