Susan Vogel on Baule Art

Philosophy and Literature 22 (1998): 264-69.

Denis Dutton

Susan Mullin Vogel’s Baule: African Art, Western Eyes (Yale University Press, $65.00) is the sort of achievement that requires more than talent and intelligence. It needs time. Vogel’s first field work on Baule art was undertaken thirty years ago, and she has been returning to villages in the Côte d’Ivoire, especially to the village of Kami, ever since. She admits that her conclusions about Baule art are much more entangled with her research biography than is normal, and indeed much of the book’s text and pictures is given over to her Baule friends, vital and fascinating people of the sort anthropologists refer to by that bloodless term “informant.” Vogel and the people of Kami village “have become an indefinable part of each other’s lives, until affection, trust, loyalty, and the spectacle of our own aging have insinuated themselves into the work’s fabric.” The results is one of the finest, most penetrating African art ethnographies ever written. It is a book of rare depth and understanding.

Susan Mullin Vogel
Vogel describes the world of the Baule, the myths and philosophy behind what is regarded in the West as one of the most peacefully expressive of all African art traditions. The classic Baule figures familiar to European museum visitors are known for their downcast eyes, sense of meditative repose, and closure, a sense of completeness. Western admiration for this work, though justified in Vogel’s opinion, is naturally innocent of the intellectual and emotional meanings which suffuse and animate these objects for Baule people. Her book is a determined and largely successful effort to give the Western reader enough information to view these objects properly, or at least gain a sense of what’s missed. She describes different categories of art: public dances, including the powerful masks which belong to elaborate dance costumes, the celebrated spirit spouse sculptures (private representations of an idealized, alternative husband or wife), sacred and magical sculptures of profound elegance, and purely decorative carvings of many descriptions, often features of utilitarian objects.

Vogel wishes that her readers not jump to unwarranted conclusions about the function and meaning of these pieces. She writes: “Although Baule art is important in the Western view of African art, the people who made and used these objects do not conceive them as ’art,’ and may equate even the finest sculptures with mundane things, devoid of any visual interest, that have the same function and meaning.... ’Art’ in our sense does not exist in Baule villages, or if it does villagers might point to modern house decorations, rather than famous traditional sculptures still made and used in villages and evoked by the term ’African art.’” She supports this with the following observations, among others. First, the Baule will “merge and equate” (a) spirits and unseen powers, (b) ordinary physical objects in which they dwell, such as a lump of clay, and (c) superb sculptures which they may also inhabit. However, only the last are works of art in the Western sense. Second, the Baule “attribute great powers to their artworks — powers that Western culture would mainly relegate to the realm of superstition....Enormous powers of life and death are integral parts of the sculptures we admire in museums, and Baule people do not consider them apart from those powers.” Third, and especially emphasized by Vogel, many of the most important art works of the Baule are not meant to be seen by large audiences, or by just anybody, but are normally hidden from view, “kept in shuttered or windowless rooms that few people enter” or wrapped in cloth and taken out only infrequently. This sharply contrasts with the Western ethos of aesthetic objects which invite “intense, exalted looking” from a large audience. Looking itself is for the Baule a privileged and risky act, as the very sight of a sculpture by the wrong person can be fatal. This in turn has to do with the special place sight has in Baule culture, where “seeing something is potentially more significant, more dangerous and contaminating, than touching or ingesting something.” (Thus, Vogel says, a woman inadvertently seeing a sacred men’s mask might die from the event, whereas a blind woman who laid her hand on it but didn’t realize what she was touching would not necessarily be so threatened; men might find the sight of a woman’s genitals fatal.)

But does this mean that the Baule have a different conception of art from the West, that “art” in our sense is not found in Baule villages? No, as Vogel’s subsequent discussion makes abundantly, repeatedly clear. The spiritual, magical, or personal aspects of many Baule sculptures loom larger in the minds of their owners than their aesthetic qualities. A majority of believers whose religious sentiments have been inspired by Giotto’s frescos at Padua have possessed little or no appreciation of the comparative artistic value, let alone historical importance, of Giotto’s frescos. They responded to them merely as religious narratives. Part of understanding cultural importance of Giotto for his original audience and its local descendants, is grasping the place of his work in a specific economy of religious thought, and religion, though often intermingled with art, need not be confused with it. That acknowledged, it is perfectly valid for an art historian to discuss the aspects of Giotto’s work which form part of art history — technique, formal excellence, modes of representation — rather than religious or social history. Nor are the aesthetic qualities of Giotto’s paintings and frescos accidental by-products of religion, however closely tied to religion that art may be. Their status as works of art is not threatened by their having been regarded by most of their audience as little more than biblical illustrations, or as barely noticed backdrops for religious ceremonies.

Even taking into account the privacy and magical properties of Baule Spirit carvings — or at least many of the ones most prized by Europeans — they are nevertheless subject by the Baule themselves to the same kinds of aesthetic characterizations applied to art carvings elsewhere. In fact, aesthetic appreciation of Baule carving is, Vogel mentions, one of the points of agreement between Baule people and Western connoisseurs: “Baule artists, and the individual owners of objects, certainly sometimes enjoy the beauty of these objects and the skill it took to produce them.” Following Herbert Cole, she says that Baule language points away from the “thingness” of art as noun, and emphasizes adverbial forms applied to carvings elegantly made to enhance, embellish, or empower experience. The nounish sense of the English notion of “art” is not entirely appropriate in the Baule context, where adjectives and adverbs relevant to artistic experience are used as modifiers attached to personal life, moral and physical struggles, and, Vogel says, “the drabness of daily existence.” Nevertheless, Baule will refer to outstanding sculptures in Baule equivalents of sweet, pleasing, beautiful, and good. A common phrase is to praise something or someone as “beautiful as a statue" — recalling the English “pretty as a picture.” Conversely, English has no hesitation to apply aesthetic modifiers to nonmaterial objects of appreciation: dances and musical performances, for example. Nor can a vast cultural gap be made of the fact that some of the spirit carvings are neither well nor often seen. As Vogel acknowledges in a note, “many works of European art (ceiling frescoes, books of hours, hinged alterpieces) and numerous objects from other traditions (Japanese netsuke, Egyptian and other tomb furnishings, Chinese scrolls, Russian icons) were created in the full knowledge that they would be seen in low light, partially or at a distance, or only rarely, or privately by only a few people.”

Moreover, beyond the personal and highly charged art works which dominate the first half of Vogel’s book, Vogel describes in a separate chapter the Baule people’s voluminous, purely secular decorative art. This includes doors, gold weights, stools, fans, combs, gong mallets, beautifully carved weaver’s pulleys, and other decorated utilitarian objects. Because these sculpted artifacts are sold on their visual appeal, rather than being privately commissioned and kept out of view, they are very often of better technical quality than the more deeply important spiritual carvings. Their aesthetic quality also serves to advertise the skill of their makers, many of whom specialize in specific kinds of domestic object, such as ointment pots. Although increasingly replaced by machine-made objects today, they were, Vogel explains, “once very common, satisfying the basic desire for a pleasing, aestheticized environment.”

Through much of her discussion, Vogel is attempting to defamiliarize Baule art in the minds of her Western readers — requiring them to stop and think about the presuppositions they may bring to any appearance of the word “art" — in order that they might see the Baule objects as the magical and spiritual objects they are in the minds of many Baule people. In itself, this demand for a certain kind of “unlearning” of cultural habits is laudable: it vastly extends the Western reader’s understanding and appreciation — and, by the way, it is a strategy that can be profitably applied to Giotto as well. But it is a strategy that can encourage the false notion that we are ethnocentrically mistaken in calling their works “art.”

In fact, Vogel does not believe this herself, which is why, having tried to establish the strangeness of the Baule approach to art, she turns around near the end to assure readers of its familiarity: “Nothing described in this book is completely unique to the Baule. In fact, the greatest interest of a tightly focused art study like this one may lie precisely in how much light it can shed on the place of art in other, distant cultures.” The universality of art is affirmed, as well as the proud artistic achievments of Baule people.

Copyright © 2001 Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.