How far is the category of ‘art’ applicable cross-culturally? Both self-styled connoisseurs and some artists themselves often claim particular expertise in judging artistic productions, though both may be influenced by extraneous factors, such as commercial value. The functions an art object may serve the skill of those who produced it, and the symbolic felicity of their work all have to be taken into account and judgements contextualized to the values of the society in question. Taking examples from Western and Chinese art, Maori art, Kitawan sculpture, body-painting, and dance, this chapter argues that while what fits notions of the beautiful often differs profoundly between different groups, some distinctions between what is aesthetically pleasing and what is not provide a bridgehead for comparison. Elites often bid to control taste, but innovation is stimulated by competitiveness between artists and between their patrons.
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