Non-EuroAmerican Modes of Visual Thinking

There was a time when our discussion of visual ideas could stop here, with the history of European and American art and design. However, we are in an age of global culture, and in America we are an increasingly multicultural society. It is probable that in your lifetime people of European ancestry will cease to be the majority in this country. This reality requires us to consider a much broader perspective. Understanding how people communicate and think visually (not to mention in other ways) is crucial to our ability to understand one another in this shrinking and complex world.

We will therefore take a brief look beyond Europe at the visual expressions of some of the world's major cultural regions. We will pay particular attention to those regions that have had a substantial impact on American design and art traditions in the last century:

  • India

  • China

  • Japan

  • Islamic Near East

  • Africa

  • Native Americans: North America

  • Native Americans: Central and South America

  • As we have seen in European art, traditional, pre-modern modes are often expressions of religious values. The earliest art in all societies is religious art. Therefore we will have to consider the differences in spiritual outlook that shape visual expression in different cultures.

    Joseph Campbell has suggested that there is a divide to be seen between the cosmologies of the Mediterranean and Europe, and those of Asia, and much of the rest of the world. In the religions that evolved in the Near East-- Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the earlier religions of the classical and ancient Near East-- There is a separation between the creator and the created world. This separation has implications that are reflected in the social structure, the view of nature, and of the perceived human role in the world. In the cosmology of Middle Eastern and European religion, human beings have been generally understood to be the masters of a world that is intended for their use, but responsible to a God who is separate from his creation, and who will ultimately judge the quality of their lives. The search for spiritual attainment centers around the individual soul and tends to result in a duality that makes distinctions between spiritual and physical realities.

    On the other hand, the older religions of much of the rest of the world, and particularly of India and China from which great religions developed and spread, take a very different view. God, nature, and humanity are not separate, but rather are aspects of one sacred whole. Humanity is only one part of nature, and all of nature contains the essence of the great spiritual whole. In this view, the good, spiritual life is followed by finding one's place within the cosmic order of things, and by contemplating the sacred within oneself. The objective is to lose one's individuality in the cosmic whole.

    As we will see, these contrasting views results in very different modes of expression, and may lend very different meanings to visual images.

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