Heavy Traffic

Philosophy and Literature 21 (1997): 208-21.

Denis Dutton

It was the Reverend Sidney Smith who said, “I never read a book before reviewing it; it prejudices a man so.” Thirty years ago that remark was still a joke. These days, it’s a downright plausible idea, one with a distinctly postmodern ring. If the objects of experience are nothing but constructions, inventions of our cultures and mind-sets, that must go as well for all the books we read — including those books which urge this fact on us. To read them is to construct them, to write them for yourself. But wait — that can’t be a fact, because facts are just prejudices too. Takes your breath away to realize how far scholarship has come.

These thoughts drifted through my mind reading The Traffic in Culture: Refiguring Art and Anthropology, edited by George E. Marcus and Fred R. Myers (University of California Press, $48.00 cloth, $17.95 paper). It comprises a long introduction plus eleven chapters which “explore the boundaries and affinities between art, anthropology, representation, and culture, casting a critical, ethnographic light on the art worlds of the contemporary West and the ways they give value to cultural form — in short, a “‘traffic’ in culture.” It is not easy to make out a consistent thread in the essays themselves. Carol Vance offers a fine discussion in the form of four small essays on censorship, the NEA, Jesse Helms, and so forth. There is no discernible connection with anthropology, and I cannot see why these pieces are included. Nancy Sullivan, described as a Ph.D. candidate in Fred R. Myers’s NYU anthropology department, struggles with her cumbersome account of the artworld in the last generation. Again, I can detect no hint of how anthropology has helped her understand the artworld. Hal Foster makes a cameo appearance of only a few pages, a kind of postmodern arabesque with lots of big words. Christopher B. Steiner revisits material presented in his book, African Art in Transit, which is squarely in the field, and Steven Feld agonizes about appropriation of world music into commercial music business while telling some interesting tales about a radio program he produced of music from Papua New Guinea. The feminist Judith L. Goldstein does a late-capitalist, “late-postmodernist” job on women’s makeup, with much reliance on Fredric Jameson but no anthropology I can discern, despite the fact that she gave a version of it at an American Anthropological Association conference. If we really have reached “late-postmodernism” we can only be thankful. Molly H. Mullin’s account of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century enthusiasm for American Indian artifacts, on the other hand, may begin with clichés about “élite responses to the rise of consumer capitalism,” but it soon settles down to a solid account of the people and problems of trying to achieve recognition of Indian handicrafts as art. This was made possible, we learn, by much devoted work from people who were multiculturalists before the word existed, white Americans whose actions were based on a love of Indian cultures and arts, rather than postcolonial theory and the school of resentment. All the issues of art vs. craft, the relation of tourism to artistic development, authenticity, and so on, were raised in the 1920s and 30s, with sophistication not often seen today.

But to figure out how it all is supposed to tie together, we have to turn to the book’s explanatory introduction. This is so turgidly vague that when I was done I felt like invoicing the authors for my time. These pages are peppered with half-assertions I’d half want to dispute if their meaning were plainer, and a few that are plain enough to be flat-out wrong. Among many examples: “Ironically, the very category of ‘art’ — as opposed to ‘the arts’ — goes unexamined in its own hierarchies of sense, so that various forms of popular performance, in which disinterested contemplation does not necessarily reign supreme, are excluded.” Excluded? Notice that irritating passive voice: who, I’d like to know, has left popular performance unexamined and excluded? What are “hierarchies of sense”? The sentence carries no reference. In any reasonable interpretation of the terms, it’s false: popular performances — from New Guinea to Bali to Africa — are studied everywhere by anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, and others. As Molly Mullin has already made clear, it’s not as though no one cared about the folk, popular arts, and classical arts of non-Western cultures till postmodernism and the contributors to this book came along.

Marcus and Myers propose “a renegotiation of the relationship between art and anthropology.” They want to open a new “discursive space,” to challenge “hegemonies” which are “implicated” when they aren’t being “inscribed” or “valorized.” The emphasis in the book is constructionist: in their research Marcus and Myers are “constituting art worlds and their discursive fields as conventional”; the “primitive” is a construction, and so, according to Derrida, is Lévi-Strauss’s “romantic representation of pre-contact Amazonian Indians”; artworlds “make art”; artwriting constructs art, and moreover, “has created its own channels of appropriating anthropology’s constructions of distinctive difference as a source of value and critique”; and ever since Kant’s positing of an autonomous aesthetic domain, “the culturally constructed boundaries between aesthetics and the rest of culture have been neither stable nor neutral.” Such delusions of omnipotence — hand-me-down assertions that criticism makes art, cultures are constructed by anthropologists, the conventionality of art is “constituted” by Marcus and Myers, and so on — feed the overweening sense of self-importance that pervades this introduction: we academics invent words, we make worlds. This is played over a kind of ostinato bass: universal artistic values are bad, essentialism is bad, primitivism is bad, and a distinction between high and low culture is bad. And if you have any doubts about this, it’s all been proven by important people: “see Clifford 1988; Derrida 1977; Foucault 1971, 1973: Saïd 1978; Trinh 1989: Torgovnick 1990.”

In his own chapter, Fred R. Myers is not always so pretentious; at least he is fulfilling the intentions of the book in discussing the marketing and critical reception of Aboriginal acrylic paintings in America. Myers has spent time in central Australia and when he writes of the Aboriginal artists he has known he does so with affection. Despite his reliance on postmodernist rhetoric and jargon, Myers does have something substantial to say. On the one hand, the appeal of Aboriginal paintings is bound up with a romantic conception of the primitive and with the idea that this work is rooted in a place, a land, and an ancient culture. New York art-types go for this sort of thing. The paintings also superficially resemble abstract expressionism, and their ready acceptance in commercial galleries is related to this accident as well. But the resulting enthusiasm for the acrylics is tempered by doubts from many quarters about whether the paintings are adapted to a Western market, adulterated with European conceptions. There is also the suspicion that the commerce in this art represents an exploitation of naive Aboriginal people.

He reviews the different attitudes toward Aboriginal art, ranging from effusive promotion to those who denounce any Western regard for the work as oriented “for the gaze of the colonizer and on terms and conditions set by the dominant culture.” I wish Myers dared to take a more robust stand on some of these issues, but he plays tolerant, neutral reporter. Especially intriguing to me are remarks by the New York Times critic Roberta Smith, who judged a 1988 exhibition of Aboriginal acrylics as “not work that overwhelms you with its visual power or with its rage for power; it all seems familiar and manageable.” As for understanding the narrative elements which the paintings represent, “The more you read, the better things look, but they never look good enough.” Myers suggests that Smith is falling back on “formalist conventions,” which assess paintings according to how they organize “color and other values on a two dimensional surface.” But is Smith right that these paintings somehow “never look good enough”? I suspect there is an element of truth here: too many of the acrylics are merely nice without achieving the power of, say, some New Guinea basket hooks or African masks. Is this because the cultural loading of Aboriginal work is so great that formal demands, complicated by the use of European colors, never quite receive enough attention? I don’t know, but I wish I did; Myers just changes the subject.

Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett is not as wide-ranging as Myers, setting her sights on a wonderfully deserving target: Peter Sellers, not the lamented comedian, but the flamboyant impresario of the 1990 multinational arts festival in Los Angeles. Her message is that by failing to give viewers adequate contextual background, the festival organizers treated performances of international groups as modernist aesthetic events — happenings, so to speak. Even if this wasn’t the express policy of the organizers, it was the inevitable outcome of their policies, especially as espoused by Sellers, who rejected academic knowledge to help viewers understand the events, offering instead an unmediated aesthetic experience free of what Sellers called “cultural baggage.” (For cultural baggage, read “knowing something.”) The most memorable passages of Kirschenblatt-Gimblett’s article are simply quotations from Sellers: “One of the aims of the Festival was to remove forever the concept of ethnomusicology and ethnic studies, which at its core is offensive, and to move to another level where we didn’t have to have any special parentheses around things.” As for so-called experts who think they know something about those societies, Sellers says, “You’re not Samoan. You can’t know.” On criticism: “People in those societies don’t sit around explaining everything. . . . What about societies where the highest point is in the performance, in the dance, not in talking about it afterwards?”

Sellers’s words betray a disconcerting confluence of attitudes you don’t expect to find together, something like being a vegetarian hand-gun collector. On one side, he’s anti-academic and anti-intellectual: this is a people’s festival and we’re not going to be lectured by a bunch of professors. Fair enough, except that it’s tied, on the other side, to an ideologically correct version of multicultural politics: you can’t know . . . you’re not Samoan and anything you tried to say about Samoans would be essentializing and hegemonic, so sit down, shut up, and watch the Samoans dance.

It’s mildly pleasing to see such multicultural pieties spewed back at the academy, except that Sellers really is insufferable: “People had to look at stuff they did not know how to react to. That began to be an authentic experience.” As Kirschenblatt-Gimblett nicely points out, this equates watching a dance of ritual healers from the Chindo Islands of Korea with watching an unintelligible avant-garde performance (I always think of Last Year At Marienbad). “Aficionados of avant-garde and experimental performance,” she says, “can sit and watch something they don’t ‘understand’ because of what they have unlearned — namely, the expectations, attitudes, values, and sensibility associated with establishment art forms.” It is this unlearning we apply to Dada cabarets, Bauhaus puppetry, theatre of the absurd, happenings, postmodern dance, and so forth. This is hardly an acceptable model for relatively naive audiences in their first exposure to foreign musics and dance forms. Nor does it show any real respect to the performers and their cultures. The only thing authentic in such an exercise is the puzzlement it inevitably induces.

Lynn M. Hart, a psychologist at the University of Montreal, writes about how paintings made by women in Uttar Pradesh are seen in different contexts. She describes the women artists in their working environment; then the appearance of one such painting in a “North American” dining-room; thence to the exhibition of another of these jyonti paintings in the Magiciens de la terre show in the Pompidou Center in Paris in 1989. Just so we won’t get the wrong idea she uses “producer” instead of “artist” and “visual image” instead of “art.” This is because li’l ol’ ethnocentric you might otherwise have trouble appreciating that “the images and patterns themselves are based on religion, ritual, and mythic themes and derive their meaning — and their power — from the religious contexts of their production and use.” (Aren’t foreigners weird!) The regional aesthetic principles of this art are “different from standard Western aesthetics.” The excellence of the works from an indigenous perspective “is seen to lie in the closeness of the central symbol’s approximation to an ideal image, with special attention paid to the style, technique, and materials used. It is important to re-present the symbols used in an adequate way, not to improve upon them, though at the same time the image on the wall should be as beautiful and pleasing as possible” — and on it goes, all “quite distinct from Western aesthetic canons.” Is it now? Has Hart ever considered the history of European art in the Middle Ages? Religious folk arts and women’s arts of Europe for the three centuries prior to the present one, or the “visual images” of the Greeks, for that matter? The theology might be different, but there’s not one thing she describes that can’t be found in “Western aesthetics.”

Hart objects to the opposition between art and craft, “with art valorized and displayed in the art museum while craft, shown in the ethnographic museum, is devalorized.” As for genius vs. anonymous producer, unique image vs. repetition, etc., Hart explains, “the first characteristic in each opposition is valorized while the second is devalorized”; she wants to go “beyond merely trying to reverse the pattern of valorization so that the devalorized characteristics become valorized.” She thinks, along with every undergraduate who can parrot Derrida, that we should stop valorizing the very opposition itself.

Now while I would not want to devalorize the valorization of devalorizing art, and would be even more reluctant to valorize the devalorization of valorizing craft, I’d like to know what would satisfy Professor Hart in all this tedious waffle. Her greatest pleasure seems to be not in the jyonti paintings, nor in discussing significant theoretical issues, but in tearing strips of flesh off people who, not knowing as much as she knows, make little mistakes. The Pompidou Center curators identified the artist of their jyonti painting as “Bowa Devi,” not realizing that “Devi” is an honorific, not a family name. Bowa Devi, Hart allows, would be all right in a village context, but in Paris it is an incomplete identification of little help to distinguish the artist from thousands of other Indian women. At extraordinary length, Hart explains how this prestigious art museum marked the work on the floor plan guide to the exhibit as, quel horreur, “B. Devi.” Well, yes, the French do very often make hash of Indian names, but then lots of locals did it to me when I lived in India, and think of what we’ve all been doing to the Arabs and the Chinese for years. If belaboring such errors is the new traffic in culture, I regret to report it’s nearly at a stand-still.

Hart’s carping about Magiciens de la terre is typical of other passages in The Traffic in Culture: any attention not paid to non-Western art is evidence of ethnocentrism. Any attention paid to non-Western art will be scoured till it is found that it is ethnocentric too. No matter what you do, some superior being, quite possibly a contributor to this anthology, will show you that — oh dear! — you’ve made a mess of things again. So Hart won’t let go, recounting how the Pompidou curator remarks in his catalogue copy on the personal style of Bowa Devi, which is bad Western aesthetics at work, since personal style isn’t that important to the female “visual image producers” of Uttar Pradesh. If he’d remarked on the strong personal style of other artists in the show, which he probably did, and had not said anything about Bowa Devi’s, you can bet that would have been bad Western aesthetics too.

Such pickiness also characterizes coeditor George E. Marcus’s own meandering contribution reviewing an exhibition of contemporary American artists. Marcus has come to realize that there’s more than a little bad faith among ambitious young artists: they want to be critical of capitalism and art-institution power structures, but also harbor desperate desires to be famous and powerful in the artworld. For their part, curators and rich collectors are happy to pay tidy sums for work which may be critical of an economic system that has made them what they are. Marcus drones on, pointlessly reproducing a long list of collectors and paintings they’ve bought which were lent to the Indianapolis show he writes about. What’s the point in knowing that Don and Mera Rubell of New York are guilty of owning a Jeff Koons (New Hoover Convertible) and that Ruth and Jacob Bloom of Marina del Rey, California own a Chris Burden (Warship)? It’s their money, and anyway the artists Marcus talks about seem to be the real poseurs and hypocrites, though you’ll not find a hint of that idea here that isn’t cloaked by Marcus in earnest euphemism. It’s risible that he calls a quotation from Koons “naive” — sure, as naive as Rupert Murdoch, or Madonna. Nothing like a college professor calling a multimillionaire hustler naive. (By the way, if owning a Jeff Koons is some sort of criminal offense, it ought to be treated by the courts as I believe bigamy should be treated — no need for indictment or sentencing, as the crime is its own punishment.)

But it is not just that these artists are co-opted, as they used to say, by the system; they also don’t in Marcus’s opinion pay enough attention to Otherness. The Other, of course, is that bloodless abstraction most cherished by angst-ridden academics. It is itself the ultimate essentialism, a postcolonial fetish in which the innumerable forms of human life which are not (genus) American (species) college professor, are melded into a focus for all of our guilt. In a discussion which includes far too many long, block quotations from other people (a lesson from Koons, perhaps), Marcus teaches us that if ambitious American artists would open their eyes to the Other, especially the Otherness of struggling third-world artists, it would be, uh . . . well, good for them. His “main point,” when he finally gets around to it, “is that those artists who are interested in the critique of power relations within the high-culture art world might be interested in Otherness, art marked by cultural, ethnic, and racial difference, or merely art excluded and unrecognized within this world, as a possible means of transforming those power relations.” Indeed, they might be interested, but then again, maybe they don’t give a hoot either about other cultures or about transforming power relations, especially if their paintings are being snapped up by the rich. Maybe their attitude toward the art of Otherness is that of the Aboriginal artist at the Metropolitan Museum in New York who, in Fred R. Myers’s telling of the story, was informed that the Degas paintings were “not from the Dreaming.” She simply decided they were therefore “rubbish.” (A certain rugged integrity in that reaction, but it does show that New York artists do not have a monopoly on ethnocentrism.)

In their introduction, Marcus and Myers ask, “what are the current conditions that make possible anthropological attention to Western art practices themselves?” Typically, they don’t try to answer. So here is a start at specifying a few possible “conditions” for this “attention.” First it’s nice to have a regular paycheck and, for academics, a reasonable teaching load. Grants help. So much for the first condition. The second condition, or cause, is that anthropology has become one of the most desperate disciplines in the postmodern academy. The natives anthropologists used to study cannot be interviewed because they’re busy watching reruns of The Waltons. Or they’ve moved to the city to become Pepsi salespersons and truck mechanics. What’s worse, studying them is, as Peter Sellers says, offensive.

What are anthropologists to do? Realizing that literary and art theory are fashionable, they decide to become “critical ethnographers” of the artworld, taken (“constituted”) by them to stretch from Manhattan to Alice Springs and back to Rodeo Drive. They’ll call what they’re doing the “ethnographic avant-garde” (impressive jargon which might distract people from noticing the vapid amateurism of essays like Marcus’s). They can then quote Foucault, Bourdieu, Derrida, Saïd, and especially one another, and make clear their opposition to orientalism, imperialism, so-called objectivity, disinterestedness, colonialism, racism — and even “late” capitalism, so long as they can still earn an occasional upgrade to business class. The jargon is important for effect: Myers’s essay has a section entitled “My Textualization of Pintupi Practice,” which is followed by “Other Textualizations.” Funny, but it turns out that the section contains a description of Pintupi art-making, and the later section has descriptions by other people. But why “describe” something when you can “textualize” it? Sounds so much more important. If anthropologists work hard enough, like Marcus and Myers, they can write portentous things such as, “For what one might call an ‘ethnographic avant-garde,’ instead of ‘whole’ cultures of extreme difference in the contemporary world, whose codes and structures might be subject to perfect translation and interpretation, anthropology is faced now with an interpenetration of cultures, borders, hybrids, fragments, and the intractability of cultural difference to such authoritative interpretation. . . . Heterogeneity has replaced pluralism. Anthropology, now aestheticized by modernism’s conventions, can no longer provide a stable foundation for art’s attempts to destabilize the West.” If you’d like to know about the difference between heterogeneity and pluralism, what it means to aestheticize anthropology, if it’s true that art ever tried to destabilize the West, or (my favorite) whoever thought that “perfect” translation between cultures was possible, don’t expect to be told. Or if you insist, just “see Abu-Lughod 1993; Appadurai and Breckenridge 1988; Clifford 1988; Marcus and Fischer 1986; Myers 1988a; Rosaldo 1989; Taussig 1987.”

There is a significant muddle at the heart of Marcus’s and Myers’s project which they seem not to have noticed. They say that art and anthropology are “fundamentally overlapping discourse fields” because of their concern with culture and value, and we ought to “renegotiate” their relationship, bringing them closer together. Just as art is capable of “cultural critique,” so anthropology should engage in “critical ethnographic studies.” There is a difference, they admit: art is close to “large vectors of power and money,” whereas “anthropology is relatively distant” from both. They don’t explore this idea, and they should. True that art has rich superstars, still most artists aren’t doing very well and use other work to support their art-making. Compared to this, the ten-thousand members of the American Anthropological Association look like a civil service, with only a few superstars, an unemployed underclass, and a large middle range of anthropologists on institutional salaries.

But money is beside the point: Marcus and Myers should not be looking to art as their renegotiated analogue for anthropology, but art criticism, and to some extent art history. These writers are confused by supposing that art (a creative and imaginative enterprise) or the theory of art (a philosophical discipline) could be an adequate model for their new anthropology. To imagine that the plodding academic essays in The Traffic in Culture bear even a distant resemblance to art, that they are capable of anything like the shocks, insights, and imaginative pleasures of art, is a ludicrous conceit. Art critics and historians, on the other hand, do in fact attempt to describe, explain, evaluate, and place into a larger cultural background the objects of their attention, as in rather different ways do anthropologists. So to their credit do some of the essays in this anthology (Mullin or Myers himself, at least in their best passages). If Marcus and Myers were to pursue the art criticism/history analogy, they would be required systematically to study the methods, forms of arguments, styles, rhetoric, ways of managing evidence, and so on of dead and living critics — writers such as Hughes, Danto, Berenson, Panofsky, or Tovey. Much more would be required here than habitual name-dropping: such critics might be set along side anthropologists such as Boas, Malinowski, Lévi-Strauss, or Geertz. Equally fertile would be a systematic investigation of the indigenous critical discourse and aesthetic standards of so-called primitive societies, a project which Myers barely begins in his essay.

Such a “renegotiation” of boundaries, or blurring of genres, might conceivably achieve something substantially more interesting than the tepid, second-rate postmodern theory that clogs The Traffic in Culture. Like so many other academics on the cultural studies bandwagon, Marcus and Myers are obsessed by theory and intellectually at sea. The jacket endorsements include the claim that the book is “contemporary critical anthropology at its best.” It’s depressing to realize that this claim may well be true.

Copyright © 1997 Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.