There’s an idea that I keep running into in different contexts that I’ve been having a hard time isolating. Now that I think I’m starting to isolate it I just don’t know what to do with it. I think it all stems from being in university and starting to learn again in a systematic way after being out of school for a decade.
I think the root of this idea can be summed up in binaries. To learn something it seems that the best way to illustrate it is to polarize it as much as possible. “It isn’t this - it is this.” It seems logical, in fact that’s exactly what it is. Logic. If I’m trying to explain a point I wouldn’t use a general nuanced example, but rather an exaggerated, simplified example. This is great, but misleading. I keep getting taught ideas and concepts, where the only real way to get a handle on it is to break it down into, essentially, a list of what it is and a second list of what it is not. I think the fact is that what’s at the heart of these concepts is always more subtle and full of all shades of grey.
This week’s lecture focuses on James Clifford’s chapter from The Predicament of Culture, “Collecting Art and Culture.” Roughly summarized, we could say Clifford breaks this chapter up around four inter-related aspects of collecting:
1. the taxonomic art-culture system of collecting and display (museums, galleries etc.);
2. the relationship of this system to critical analysis (“description”);
3. the appropriation of non-Westen “‘art’ and ‘culture’” and link to larger identity formations or “metanarratives”;
4. the challenge of alternative, “tribal” histories/contexts to dominant culture and the narratives it is based on.
In this chapter, Clifford directly links anthropology and art. Presenting them both as part of a larger system, he resists the universalizing drive of Western Culture, which has tended to elevate certain objects and practices to the level of art while consuming and subsuming other practices/objects, particularly those of non-Western cultures, as artifacts or exhibits.
For example, we might think of Pablo Picasso’s famous painting “Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon” (1907), which as Phil Smith pointed out lecture, draws on African masks as reference or source material.
Pablo Picasso “Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon,” 1907
In the process of infusing his work with these images, Picasso breaks with a particular tradition of representation in order to revitalize European art. Thus, his painting was unabashedly avant garde or “artistic,” and the work he created has gone on to take a central role in creation of the modern “art” and “culture,” circulating as it has through the system Clifford discusses.
In order to see how this system functions to divide art from artifact, high culture from low, we might consider Picasso’s painting is given value on in the market and compare it to the price his paintings fetch relative to those the masks from which his work borrows. We might also think about how this system create disparities of value between the groups of people associated with different sets of objects—say for example, the Paris or New York collectors connected to Picasso and the groups who created the masks.
In this cultural economy, art and artifact—art gallery and museum—become integral to the division of wealth and power across geographic and social (ethnic/racial) divides. The works of the richest are given highly defined values—social, cultural, economic, and educational. We study the paintings of Picasso or the poetry of Gertrude Stein in university. The works of the less powerful, if they are seen or collected at all, are seen as typical objects of a particular people or place. They are often viewed and collected in a way that does not erases the name or creative imprint of the individual creator—they are not artworks.
As Clifford suggests of Susan Stewart’s critical work, “collecting and display” are brought “sharply into view as crucial processes in Western identity formation” (220). Linking the history modern art and anthropology directly, Clifford discusses “both a form of Western subjectivity and a changing set of powerful institutions,” and he goes on to argue that “the history of collections (not limited to museums) is central to understanding how those social groups that invented anthropology and modern art have appropriated exotic things, facts, and meanings” (220-221) to make them their own.
Thus, we might think of the work of contemporary artists such as Art Spiegelman or Brian Jungen, for example, speaking back to this process. The images and references they choose attempt to short circuit the logic of collection and display while participating in it. In both case, references to popular culture play a vital role of in their creative work and are fundamental to their critiques of dominant Western culture.
In terms of Jungen’s work, this type of institutional critique functions through a redefinition of the artist’s repertoire—adding Air Jordans to the pallet.
Brian Jungen, detail PROTOTYPE FOR NEW UNDERSTANDING #23, 2005
Nike Air Jordans
38” × 22” × 7”
Photo Credit: Trevor Mills, Vancouver Art Galler
Courtesy Catriona Jeffries Gallery, Vancouver
Brian Jungen, VARIANT, 2002
Nike athletic footwear, 52” × 45”
Courtesy Catriona Jeffries Gallery, Vancouver
I expect that you will be able to follow up on how Maus draws on or appropriates dominant culture or the form of the graphic novel to its ends.
I also ask you to think about your own critical and creative repertoire, the works you draw on when you think about artistic practice or creative aspirations. Who do you reference in your thinking and mark making? Are these references explicit or implicit? How are they pushing the bounds of dominant culture and its expectations.
Think too about the larger systems that underwrite your own collection of references—repertoire. How does church, school, city, nation, language group, family connection or brand affiliation provide a basis for your critical and aesthetic judgements? What new references can you draw into the sphere of contemporary art that might make the institutional histories of collecting and display apparent?