Banned by Definition

How do our ideas of art and culture render some things “visible” and others “invisible”?

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How do our ideas about art determine not only what we count as art but how we understand and evaluate art?

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“the definition of art in any society is never wholly intra-aesthetic, and indeed but rarely more than marginally so. The chief problem presented by the sheer phenomenon of aesthetic force, in whatever form and in result of whatever skill it may come, is how to place it within the other modes of social activity, how to incorporate it into the texture of a particular pattern of life. And such placing, the giving to art objects a cultural significance is always a local matter; what art is in classical China or classical Islam, what it is in the Pueblo southwest or highland New Guinea, is just not the same thing, no matter how universal the intrinsic qualities that actualize its emotional power (and I have no desire to deny them) may be… 

It is the failure to realize this on the part of many students of non-western art, and particularly of so-called “primitive art,” that leads to the oft-heard comment that the peoples of such cultures don’t talk, or not very much, about art they just sculpt, sing, weave, or whatever; silent in their expertise. What is meant is that they don’t talk about it the way the observer talks about it — or would like them to — in terms of its formal properties, its symbolic content, its affective values, or its stylistic features, except laconically, cryptically, and as though they had precious little hope of being understood…

..The approach to art from the side of Western aesthetics (which, as Kristeller has reminded us, only emerged in the mid-eighteenth century, along with our rather peculiar notion of the “fine arts”), and indeed from any sort of prior formalism, blinds us to the very existence of the data upon which a comparative understanding of it could be built. And we are left, as we used to be in studies of totemism, caste, or bridewealth — and still are in structuralish ones — with an externalized conception of the phenomenon supposedly under intense inspection but actually not even in our line of sight…”

Clifford Geertz, “Art as a Cultural System

 “The incorporation of these works in the West’s world of museum culture and its art market has almost nothing …to do with postmoderism…the ideology through which they are incorporated is modernist: it is the ideology that brought something called ‘Bali’ to Artaud, something called ‘Africa’ to Picasso, and something called ‘Japan’ to Barthes…(…Oscar Wilde once remarked that ‘the whole of Japan is a pure invention. There is no such country, no such people). What is postmodernist is Vogels muddled conviction that African art should not be judged ‘in terms of [someone else’s] traditional criteria.’ For modernism, primitive art was to be judged by putatively universal aesthetic criteria, and by these standards it was finally found possible to value it. The sculptors and painters who found it possible were largely seeking an Archimedean point outside their own cultures for a critique of a Weberian modernity. For postmoderns, by contrast, these works, however they are to be understood, cannot be seen as legitimated by culture-and history-transcending standards.”

Kwame Anthony Appiah, “The Postcolonial and the Postmodern,” from In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 147-8.

“Two very different discursive formations—the discovery of African art and the constitution of the object of African studies, that is, the “invention” of Africanism as a scientific discipline—can illustrate the differentiating efficiency of such general classifying devices as pattern of reality, designation, arrangement, structure, and character…Portuguese sailors brought to Europe the first feitiços, African objects supposedly having mysterious powers, in the late fifteen century. One finds them mostly in well-organized curio cabinets along with Indian tomahawks or arrows, Egyptian artifacts, and Siamese drums…On the whole, these objects are culturally neutral…It is not until the eighteenth century that, as strange and ‘ugly’ artifacts, they really enter into the frame of African art….”

V.Y.Mudimbe, The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge (Bloomington: Indianan University Press, 1988), pp 6-12.

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