From Dull to Brilliant: The Aesthetics of Spiritual Power of the Yolngu

In the essay “From Dull to Brilliant: The Aesthetics of Spiritual Power of the Yolngu”, the author, Howard Murphy had discussed about the art of the Yolngu people. Yolngu are indigenous people that inhabit the northern part of Australia. On first look on the Yolngu art, we may find it strange and weird to the art that we used to. But after reading Howard Murphy’s arguments about aesthethics, we may just have to change our opinion about the Yonglu art and art in general.

            Howard Murphy had argued that the aesthetic effect of art differs for varying cultures (Murphy 302). To put it in simple terms he just means that what may be beautiful to you may not even be acceptable to me. The author even introduced this argument with saying that aesthetics itself has no universally accepted definition (Murphy 302).  The author said himself that this argument can be translated to the cliché beauty is in the eye of the beholder and in the light in which the object is seen.

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The author immediately notified his readers that the trajectory of the essay will be far from traditional art essays. He wanted the essay to only focus on the Yolngu art. He said that we should view Yolngu art as Yolngu art, not compare to European art. This is just logical as we can’t really compare things that are very different. This poses a problem if anyone is to view art objectively.

The author wanted to utilize concepts that western art is familiar with.

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He wanted to incorporate the theory of response and typical art critique techniques but that seemed problematic. Those concepts correspond to the idea that of we are to view art, we are supposed to feel something. The dilemma arises as it appears that the Yolngu people don’t have art critiques or aestheticians, even the concept of those practices don’t exist in the Yolngu culture. To resolve that problem, the author explained that the Yolngu also have a criterion in which they can measure the success of an art. The Yolngu are concerned with the effects of the art to the sense. In that sense, there is a similarity by which the Yolngu and Europeans view art (Murphy 303).

To support his arguments, the author went on with the discussion of the Yolngu paintings and the concept of Bir’yun. He has strewn all around the essay Yolngu words like mardayin and miny’tji. These words don’t even have direct equivalents in the English language. The exclusivity of the meaning of those words only supports the author’s arguments of aesthetic-cultural relativism. That simply means that there exist concepts that can’t be translated cross-culturally. And one of these untranslatable concepts is aesthetics.

There are just things that can’t be translated for cross-cultural understanding. Moreover, no theory is ever able to fully explain why art is naturally universal. The author has included images of Yolngu paintings in the essay. And I should say that these paintings were really amazing. I think the author may have over complicated his argument that aesthetics can’t be translated cross-culturally. With one look of the Yolngu paintings, one just knows that these are the kind of paintings that big-time collectors will kill each other for.

One of the paintings is entitled Yangarinny Gumana, or the Long-necked Freshwater Water Turtle. The painting is a representation of a current of seawater carrying debris of wood and logs along the river. Like most cultures do, the painting tells its viewers about the culture of those who have painted it (Murphy 305). Another Yolngu painting that is simply adorable is the Djapu Clan Shark Painting. The paintings serve functions for rituals and telling myths.

A very important element of the essay to support the author’s argument is the Bir’yun. Bir’yun is a Yolngu word that pertains to the generalized spiritual power that Yolngu paintings can potentially posses (Murphy 310). The concept of brilliance is very important in Yolngu art. They regard the quality of brilliance with ancestral power and with beauty.

In more specific painting terms, bir’yun is the flash of light together with the sensation of light that the viewers of the painting experience when they are viewing the painting. The paintings are basically ‘brilliant’ as in illuminated as it reflects light. Bir’yun is achieved by Yolngu painters by using marwat (a brush made from human hair). The marwat is gently applied across the surface of the painting to produce the fine cross-hatched lines. This gives the painting a visual effect that makes the painting appear as if it is shimmering (Murphy 311).

 As a conclusion, the art of the Yolngu people is certainly very different to European art. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that cultures can’t ultimately understand each other. That is why we have art. Art can serve as a bridge for cultures to understand each other. As the author had pointed out in his conclusion, the effect of the bir’yun operates cross-culturally. It just tells us that everyone may not understand an art done another culture as fully as it can understand those done by one’s own culture.

That may be the case, but still we unexplainably appreciate all forms of art regardless of the culture it originated from. I guess that there is really no need for a modified form of aesthetic relativism as cultures were already doing that unknowingly. Although though that, interpretations will always be certainly varied. But I guess that is art’s nature. Those interpretations should be left to the preference of the audience. There should be no unified interpretation whatsoever. That will only make art boring.

Work Cited

Murphy, Howard. “From Dull to Brilliant: The Aesthetics of Spiritual Power of the Yolngu.”

The Anthropology of Art: A Reader. Blackwell Publishing. 2006.


Cite this page

From Dull to Brilliant: The Aesthetics of Spiritual Power of the Yolngu. (2017, Mar 14). Retrieved from

From Dull to Brilliant: The Aesthetics of Spiritual Power of the Yolngu
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