Pacific Arts

Anthropology, Art, and Aesthetics

in Pacific Arts, 9/10 (1994): 107-110.

Denis Dutton

Anthropology, Art, and Aesthetics, edited by Jeremy Coote and Anthony Shelton. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992. xiv & 21 pp. $69.00.


This new anthology is notable not merely because of its general high quality, but because, mirabile dictu, it is a collection on the general topic of anthropological aesthetics which is dominated by discussion of the cultures of Oceania. In terms of theoretical reach and sophistication, it represents a whole new level of achievement compared to similar anthologies published twenty years ago.

Raymond Firth’s factually dense historical overview, “Art and Anthropology,” which begins the book, is backed by his vast experience, not only of the arts of many tribal societies, but also of European art history. He reviews the history of anthropological interpretation of art and discusses stylistic questions by way of a contrast between Maori and Tikopia. His skepticism about general theories of “primitive art,” based as they so often are on limited rages of examples, is worth keeping in mind while reading the book’s subsequent chapters. For example, he challenges Edmund Leach’s excessive emphasis on the importance of ambiguity and sexual symbolism in tribal arts. Leach concentrated attention on Oceanic sculpture; if he “had been analysing Polynesian songs or Malaitan flute music, the interpretation might have broken down altogether”(p.23). Though Firth ends his article with far more questions that he has answers for, it is credit to his honest appreciation of the complexities of the subject matter.

Ross Bowden presents a neatly succinct account of the art, architecture, and mythology of the buildings of the Kwoma of the Sepik River, while Susanne Küchler closely examines New Ireland malangan sculptures, concluding that they “could be a rare example of a gift-object with representational properties; yet how many other artefacts might have been categorized wrongly as ‘ancestor sculptures’ and their supposed purely commemorative function and symbolic status merely assumed?”(p. 110) Her analysis reminds the reader how easy it becomes to make erroneous assumptions about objects when ignorant of their shadowy histories.

Anthony Shelton’s essay on the art of the Huichol people of northwest Mexico provides an impressive description the cultural background of their art. Huichol traditional art is intimately bound with the rituals that embody the Huichol cosmology and value system, combining aesthetic with ethical notions. This art involves exchange relations, now only between human and supernatural beings, but between wife-givers and wife-takers in traditional marriages. While he repeatedly stresses how semiotically distant Huichol art is from Western models for example, in fusing the signifier with the signified, Shelton nevertheless admits it may have a “counterpart” in the “art and ideas of beauty developed in scholasticism in medieval Europe”(p.240). This is true; the notion that a work of art, a statute of the Madonna, for instance may on occasion actually incarnate, rather than merely represent, is not entirely unknown in the European tradition.

Shelton is both uncompromising and unfashionable in his insistence that the development of a commercial market for Huichol art has produced deplorable results. Whereas strictly traditional work — for example, votive offerings of beads embedded in beeswax to form a tableaux on a wooden board, or small bowls embellished with beads in beeswax — were sparingly decorated, the pieces produced for outside sale are larger and use brightly-colored commercial yarn. Despite the continuity of the beeswax technique, Shelton can detect no “organic principle of evolution which would suggest a direct development” of the new pieces from the older forms. Even though fine arts museums have expressed interest in this work, Shelton considers it inferior: it is alienated from the intrinsic spiritual requirements of Huichol life, commodified and fetishized. One wonders if there might not be Huichol defenders of such commercial craft who would argue for its beauty and authenticity as a cultural expression. Is there another side to this question?

In “‘Marvels of Everyday Vision’: The Anthropology of Aesthetics and the Cattle-Keeping Nilotes,” Jeremy Coote expresses the view that the anthropology of aesthetics has been too often misdirected by an exclusive concentration on physical artifacts at the expense of poetry, dance, and other art forms. The Nilotes of the Southern Sudan are his touchstone: they have few art objects, yet their aesthetic lives are as rich as many others’, being focused on aesthetic qualities of their cattle. Coote’s case is impressively mounted: the attributes of cattle — markings, horn configurations, general physical features —supply the reference and vocabulary for aesthetic and nonaesthetic ascriptions throughout Nilote society. Coote argues that there is a “cultural eye” which applies specified themes, along with visual skills, from one central cultural domain to others throughout a society. By providing a descriptive vocabulary, cattle — their types and features — affect the Nilotes’ very perception of light, color, and shape. Coote says, “Agar Dinka friends called me Markur, explicitly referring to the dark rings around my eyes like the black patches round the eyes of the ox makur. Other Agar to whom I was introduced immediately grasped why I had been so called”(p.257). Underlying this is what Coote calls the universal appeal of contrast, “manifested here in the appreciation of black-and-white and red-and-white beasts in herds of mostly off-white, greyish cattle”(p.269).

The other essays in the collection are solid and informative: Jarich Oosten on Inuit masks, Robert Layton and Howard Morphy each on Aboriginal Australian art, and Ruth Barnes on Lebata (Indonesia) textile designs. However, it is left to Alfred Gell, in an essay entitled “The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology,” to provide the anthology’s most imaginative provocations. Gell’s article can only be described as eccentric, yet its very oddity requires the reader reconsider settled positions in new ways.

Beginning with the debatable assertion that art has been neglected in modern social anthropology (what have contributors to this journal been up to all these years?), Gell says this should be entirely expected: social anthropology ought by its very nature to be anti-art. The aesthetic awe afforded by objects in the Museum of Mankind demonstrates “is an unredeemably ethnocentric attitude, however laudable in other respects.” What is required, Gell argues, is that the anthropological study of art be carried out under the assumption of a “methodological philistinism,” analogous to the “methodological atheism” required of the study of religion by social anthropologists.

Setting out from the implausible assertion, “It is widely agreed that ethics and aesthetics belong in the same category,” Gell continues: “I would suggest that the study of aesthetics is to the domain of art as the study of theology is to the domain of religion”. Just as anthropologists of religion must set aside religious predilections, so anthropologists of art must ignore the aesthetic attractiveness of the objects and practices they study — the anthropology of art requires “a complete break with aesthetics”(p.42). With this in mind, Gell invites us to consider the arts as components of “a vast and often unrecognized technical system, essential to the reproduction of human societies....” He proposes that art be thus understood as a “technology of enchantment”, where enchantment is seen not as peculiar only to art, but as a potentiality “immanent in all kinds of technical activity.”

This potentiality is essentially magical, and he uses as his central example the stunning prow configurations of Trobriand Island canoes used for Kula expeditions. These are designed to dazzle and upset the spectator, giving a possible trading advantage to the party which arrives in such a decorated canoe. So much is uncontroversial; one thinks not only of the psychological warfare of Kula transactions, but actual combat equipment, such as the fighting shields of Sepik men, which often display horrific faces designed to frighten an enemy. It is not the bold effect of such work that impresses Gell, however. Instead, he emphasizes what he calls “the halo effect of technical difficulty” in Trobriand art. As a child, Gell was deeply impressed by a matchstick model of Salisbury Cathedral: “from a small boy’s point of view it was the ultimate work of art, much more entrancing in fact than the cathedral itself....” He draws from this a very large conclusion about the reaction of all of us to works of art: “I am impressed by works of art in the extent to which I have mentally encompassing their coming-into-being as objects in the world accessible to me by a technical process which, since it transcends by understanding, I am forced to construe as magical”(p. 49). Works of art become objects of desire, at least in an intellectual rather than a material sense, by their very resistance to being understood as technical feats.

J.F Peto, Old Time Letter Rack (1894).

Gell attempts to reinforce this view using J.F. Peto’s 1894 trompe-l’oeil painting, Old Time Letter Rack, an astonishingly realistic still-life of letters, paper scraps, drawing pins, and faded ribbons. The attraction of this rendering, he claims, is that its audience cannot comprehend how mere paint could be used to create such a realistic representation. This “technical magic” gives the work its prestige and value (a value no similar photograph could attain). Moreover, the painting’s meaning in our aesthetic lives has analogies in the art of small-scale traditional societies. In the case of a Trobriand canoe splashboard, “it is very difficult to acquire the art of transforming the root-buttress of an ironwood tree, using the rather limited tools which the Trobrianders have at their disposal, into such a smooth and finished product”(p. 54).

Magic is the ideal technology of such societies as the Trobrianders’; it would enable one to accomplish a task instantly and effortlessly, rather than with uncertainty and effort. Art too exhibits technological mastery; hence Gell argues that there is a “convergence” between the aims of ordinary technology, magic, and art — the last two being enchanted versions of the first. Like conjurers, artists who that defy ordinary technical understanding are given the ambiguous status of being “half-technician and half-mystagogue.” While this puts artists at a disadvantage in modern market societies, Gell claims, it gives them a special status in traditional societies such as the Trobriands’.

Gell concludes with a description of Trobriand horticultural magic. The Trobriand garden is “a system of technical knowledge and at the same time a work of art, which produces yams by magic”. Rather than carving, the technology of enchantment is manifest in garden layout and poetry: “Just as when, confronted with some masterpiece, we are fascinated because we are essentially at a loss to explain how such an object comes to exist in the world, the litanies of the garden magician express the fascination of the Trobrianders with the efficacy of their actual technology which, converging towards the magical ideal, adumbrates this ideal in the real world”(p.62).

Launching a kula canoe

Gell’s argument both succeeds and fails. He certainly throws light on how some forms of ethnographic art might profitably be understood. However, the connecting of art with magic is plausible only so long as he attends to the general awe felt by audiences; but to insist on appropriating überhaupt the logic of artistic technique to magical technology is much more doubtful. In considering Western art alone, the claim does not stand up. While there are many works of art which fascinate audiences with technical display (Peto’s painting is a perfect example), and while technique is for many naive art audiences virtually the only criterion for artistic excellence (hence the familiar abuse of modernism: “My kid could do that!”), technical excellence is not the main reason most European audiences are interested in art. In the current epoch the most popular art period, judged by print and art book sales and exhibition attendances, is French Impressionism, which is not a historical school particularly marked by technical display. Gell mentions that Rembrandt is admired for technical skill, but so are many other seventeenth-century painters who are rated much lower as artists.

That Gell senses the dubiousness of his position is indicated by his strained attempts to expand his conception of technique to include Picasso’s bronze of an baboon whose head is a toy car (1955), and even Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), an ordinary urinal proposed for an art exhibition. This strategy, however, compounds the error: Baboon and Young is a delightful but technically uninteresting piece, while Fountain is in part a direct attack on the very idea of technique in art. The whole point of Duchamp’s “readymades,” of which Fountain is one, is that the artist does nothing to them. If Gell can include this particular piece of plumbing in the class of technically accomplished works, then he has expanded the definition of “technique” to encompass displaying anything witty or original. This is not a load the term can intelligibly carry; Fountain is a famous work, but not because it exhibits extraordinary technique. Rather, it hopes to prove that it is possible for an object to be a work of art while demonstrating no technique whatsoever. The inclusion of Picasso and Duchamp here is not a minor slip on Gell’s part, but in fact undermines his whole effort to show that admiration for technical mastery — and with it a sense of magic and enchantment — is universally intrinsic to the aesthetic response.

The prow of a kula canoe

Turning specifically to ethnographic arts, we equally encounter further uncertainties. Technical skill is perhaps more obviously admired in, say, Oceanic art traditions than in many European modernist exercises, but not always. Virtuoso carving, such as seen on Trobriand splashboards, fits Gell’s case very well, as would much Maori carving. But consider Sepik: in northern New Guinea wild expressiveness, rather than elaborate finish or virtuoso facility, is frequently the criterion of aesthetic excellence and cultural power.

Moreover, while some cultures treat artists as a virtual priestly class, as possessors of special magical/aesthetic knowledge, others do not. This suggests another consideration contrary to Gell. He stresses that we are amazed, wondering of the art work, “How was it done?” True indeed, especially with well-developed European traditions: I simply cannot conceive what it takes to compose the Pastoral Symphony or write The Brothers Karamazov. But many of us could well imagine painting as realistically as J.F. Peto, had we time enough and the will to learn. Similarly, some small traditional societies, lacking either the extreme specialization of labor of European culture or its highly developed art-technical histories, do not treat the artist as a master of a kind of technical magic, but as a trained craftsman performing tasks anyone else could learn.

Finally, Gell’s call for methodological philistinism raises questions that need more careful attention. Even methodological atheism in the study of religion requires that the social scientist has some idea — some sympathetic appreciation — of what purely religious values are. This is necessary even if those values are, for instance, ultimately cast aside as so much ideology justifying economic relations. Similarly, there could be little point to a sociological study of music which disregarded the possibility that sounds can be aesthetically attractive, or which was carried out by a tone-deaf investigator. Most often, it seems to me that the study of ethnographic arts has been stultified not by the failure of anthropologists to adopt philistine standpoints, but precisely by their incapacity to adopt anything else. The last thing anthropologists of art need to be told to behave more like philistines.

In the end, despite his universalizing ambitions, Gell fails to establish an acceptable way of looking across the whole range of art in traditional societies; he falls to the kind of Trobriand localism Firth manages to avoid. Moreover, his case is not helped by simplistic generalizations about European arts. Having said that, it must also be remarked that this is one of the most outstandingly imaginative essays in aesthetic anthropology written in recent years. As with the rest of this anthology, it will reward careful, skeptical study.