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Lecture 3

Notes on Readings for Week 3

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University of Toronto St. George

Haidy Geismar Pg. 44 ‘methodological philistinism’,1 rejecting critical reifications of western aesthetic criteria in favour of a truly anthropological study – understanding art objects as part of social relations rather than as merely reflective or representative of them. For Gell, art objects could be interpreted as efficacious artefacts that participate in society by virtue of their very materiality. objects are not merely privileged sites of analysis but intrinsic to the development of a social world, borne out of the importance of ‘difference’in creating social and political categories. Social agency can be exercised relative to “things” and social agency can be exercised by “things” ‘relational’perspective is particularly pertinent to the discipline and practice of anthropologists, situated as they are on the cusp between places, categories, languages, values and most importantly within the complicated methodological paradigm of ‘participant observation’ ‘philistinism’ with regards to our own constructed categories and to examine how persons and things together may articulate a broader perspective on ‘difference’within social relationships. Pg. 45 categories considered by many commentators to be non-indigenous (such as ‘art’) are, in Vanuatu, prime grounds for the production and manifestation of indigenousness. ‘mediating objects’(1998: 163), substantively and powerfully connecting diverse interest groups and categories. a student of material culture, is an invaluable methodology for the study of contemporary art. antithetical to customary material culture with seemingly little ‘local’significance, made primarily for sale and exhibition to expatriates and tourists, and exploiting often conservative ‘traditional’ imagery in often conservative ‘non-traditional’form for display in arts festivals and museums interested in ‘indigenous’art. Pg. 46 material categorized as ‘contemporary art’to explicitly interrogate their relationship to local development in both ‘traditional’and ‘modern’ terms, as well as to represent these relations to indigenous and expatriate constituencies. During the course of my fieldwork, I began to see how contemporary art objects could both consolidate and separate vital social and temporal distinctions, generically defined in opposition to the material culture and visual production of the past Throughout the region of Melanesia, heightened ideas about the past in the present are best expressed by the concept of kastom. In Vanuatu, kastom can be manifested in a variety of practices. In terms of material culture, kastom is constituted by the replication of forms and images that are either considered to have been handed down through generations by ancestors, or are more prosaic artefacts, still intrinsic to the perpetuation of customary practices as triggers for the reproduction of many different customary practices. The recreation of artefacts of kastom is seen as a vital key to social reproduction...‘revival projects’ Pg. 47 a vital materiality to the category of kastom, not only as a model of the past, but as a developmental model of indigenous national selfdetermination through the exploitation of various local resources, in contrast to the ways ‘of the white man’or ‘of the West’. locally as their opposite ‘contemporary’comes from you white guys. When you say ‘contemporary’, what do you really mean? Contemporary means ‘of today’, but for some people this applies to art only, it does not include traditional artefacts. But traditional art is contemporary, it’s alive Contemporary artists in Vanuatu define themselves primarily through their rejection of the materiality of kastom in favour of non-indigenous artistic media such as watercolour, acrylic paint, and tapestry. Nawita association is marked by the urbane diversity of its members, its reactions against local kastom to create new national forms, its involvement with expatriates, and the enthusiasm of its members for- Pg. 48 -developing an intellectual discourse around their work primarily in the context of international museum exhibitions and arts festivals. For Nawita artists, tradition or kastom has become a subject matter to be represented rather than a set of localized practices. This is a material transformation of the local directed towards the national, facilitated by ‘international’art media. each tentacle standing for a different, non-indigenous artistic medium contemporaneity into a material distinction – affirming a free open membership to both ni- Vanuatu and expatriates but excluding artists or artisans using ‘traditional media’and ‘traditional principles’(Regenvanu, 1996: 312). Here, contemporary art consolidates the category ‘indigenous’ by both creating and merging a series of contrasts – native/foreign, traditional/contemporary – through the combination of local imagery and non-local material Pg. 50 recognition of material forms (images and objects) can actively create relationships, mediating between and across contexts. The meaning of categories such as ‘art’are constructed through this process of material recognition, bouncing off forms seen to emanate from many different places. It is by creating material distinctions and affinities that ni-Vanuatu artists use the media of contemporary arts to conduct a series of negotiations with tradition in the present, with the past, and to make themselves specifically ‘ni-Vanuatu contemporary artists’. kastom, embodied by the ‘artistic’ representations of early colonial missionaries use the media of the contemporary arts to make vital distinctions about the relationship of the past to the present and they, like Gell, also explicitly develop the idea that contemporary art pieces can be politically and socially efficacious. meaning ‘a beam or ray of light that shines through a hole, like a shaft through a bamboo woven wall of a house’, used by the association to represent the ‘Erromangan Artistic Beam’ ‘to revive, preserve and promote the traditional arts of Erromango, and to fight against SPR’4 Pg. 51 simply copied images from the corpus of colonial and missionary artists of the 19th century. At first glance, these images seem to be literal representations of the vehement missionary illustration (Figure 4). However, this particular image has also been drawn into the wider narrative of the exhibition – an indigenous effort to represent and manage the troubled history of Erromango. Pg. 52 re-emphasizing the hagiography of missionary representations. At the same time, he literally frames his painting with Erromangan tradition – painted barkcloth. material method by which to overcome a series of divides: between the past and the present, between Christians and non-Christians, and between Erromangans and missionaries. , Nerimpau, ‘warrior of darkness’, after murdering James Gordon and a young Erromangan woman working for the mission, is drawn into conflict with an angry relative, who disapproves of his actions – the two mortally wounding each other on the Pg. 53 When found by local villagers, Nerimpau is buried like a criminal with a wooden stake through his throat (Figure 5) and Novohyalpat is given a hero’s burial. here the medium (acrylic paint) of ‘traditional western’ representation is appropriated to construct an indigenous political Pg. 54 whilst pictorially ‘writing’the other side of Erromangan experience, asserting indigenous choice and agency in the troubled situation of violent colonial encounter, even including some Erromangans as those among the martyred. larger cultural effort to engage with, and reimagine, the kinds of social and political relationships that missionary art represented provides redemption not only for the martyred missionaries but also for Christian Erromangans, visually distancing themselves from the now shameful acts of some (but not all) of their forefathers. Pg. 55 such public performances depict the arrival of the missionary, the initial encounter with heathen savages, and their conversion from paganism to Christianity, from ‘darkness’ to ‘light’. However, despite this comment, little attention has been paid to the material efficacy of these representations, in the case of Nainao, the insertion of paint into local experiences and understandings of history: an actual ‘art’history. images of missionary artists are appropriated in the presentation of an indigenous political narrative that does not deny complex entanglements with the outside world in either the past or the present. Here, ideas about both contemporaneity and about the traditional past are combined and made coeval through the materials and technology of ‘contemporary art’. Gell Pg. 15 When is a fabricated object a ’work of art’and when is it something less dignified, a mere ’artefact’? It may be said that a work of art can be defined as any object that is aesthetically superior, having certain qualities of visual appealingness or beauty.These qualities must have been put there intentionally by an artist, because artists are skilled in activating a capacity present in all human beings, Pg. 16 to think that visual attractiveness, or beauty, is something they can recognize automatically. Awork of art may not be at all ’beautiful’or even interesting to look at, but it will be a work of art if it is interpreted in the light of a system of ideas that is founded within an art-historical tradition. Call this the ’interpretive’theory. much more attuned to the realities of the present-day art world, which has long abandoned the making of ’beautiful’-looking pictures and sculptures in favour of ’concept’art, a more radical version of the ’interpretation’, theory, which, provides the third possible answer to the question ’what is an artwork?’. This theory, known as the ’institutional’theory, claims, like the- Pg. 17 -’interpretive’theory, that there is no quality in the art-object, as material vehicle, that definitively qualifies it to be, or not be, an artwork. whether or not it is taken to be one by an art world, institutional theory does not presuppose the historical coherence of interpretations. but if the art world co-opts the work, and circulates it as art, then it is art, What Vogel wanted to do was to break the- Pg.. 18 -link betweenAfrican art and modern art ’Primitivism’ African objects were worthy of study in a more expanded perspective, including the dominant art-style in New York in the 1980s, i.e. concept art, ’Institutionally’speaking, the net had indeed become art in the sense that it had been exhibited as such by Vogel, and we may be sure it was received as such by a significant, and very gallery-educated, segment of the visiting public. art world creates its artworks by labelling them as such. Pg. 19 Danto is responsible for both the interpretive and institutional theories of art, in that it was he, originally, who introduced the expression ’art-world’into philosophical aesthetics (Danto, 1964). But whereas Dickie (1974) developed Danto’s ideas in the sociological direction outlined above, so that being a ’work of art’becomes a matter of social consensus among the art public, Danto’s position is that art objects are such by virtue of their interpretation, and that interpretation is historically grounded. no characteristics that an object can have which make that object a work of art; big difference between the kind of interpretation, context,
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