‘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
can be exercised relative to “things” and social agency can be exercised
‘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’
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.
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
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
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’
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
standing for a different, non-indigenous artistic medium
a material distinction –
affirming a free open
membership to both ni-
Vanuatu and expatriates
but excluding artists or
artisans using ‘traditional
1996: 312). Here, contemporary
the category ‘indigenous’
by both creating and
merging a series of
contrasts – native/foreign,
– through the combination
of local imagery
and non-local material
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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’.
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,
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-
-’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
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-
-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.
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,
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,