Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Art as Culture: Preface and Chapter 1 Review

Back in March I wrote a brief post about Evelyn Payne Hatcher's book Art as Culture: An Introduction to the Anthropology of Art.  Afterwards I ordered a copy and promptly read the first chapter, but have not gotten beyond that as of yet.  However, what I've read so far has been very interesting, and I think that instead of trying to read the whole book and then write one review, I will review the chapters individually (or in groups perhaps) so that I can discuss more details and concepts throughout the book.  So in today's post I will begin with the book's preface, and then Chapter 1, "Contexts and Comparisons: The Anthropological Approach" (the first eight pages can be read here).

In her preface, Hatcher establishes the purpose of the book as "primarily to help provide a way for formulating questions concerning whatever aspect of the subject [art objects] is of interest, at whatever level the reader wishes to pursue it" (xi).  In order to assist the reader in this endeavor, she seeks to simply the multiplicity of theories surrounding the anthropological study of art and culture.  Hatcher rejects the idea of finding a single model to explain art in all societies, if that model is built upon only one viewpoint or way of looking at culture.  Rather,

one can perceive many theories and models as belonging to different categories, rather than as competing explanations... When various levels, aspects and viewpoints are sorted out in very basic terms, relationships between these different perceptions can emerge... Until the basic similarities are laid bare, the subtleties between different formulations of similar concepts make for confusion, misunderstanding, and unproductive controversy (xiv).

Hatcher utilizes the line drawings of art objects in the book to illustrate this idea, by repeating several of them in order to emphasize their "many aspects" and "different comparisons" (xv).

Illustration, page 7.

In chapter one Hatcher lays the groundwork for the rest of the book by defining several key concepts.  The first and most important term is culture: "the sum of all the learned, shared behavior of human beings: how they make a living, produce things, organize their societies, and use language and other symbolic forms."

Next she discusses the comparative method, which is the "the anthropological equivalent of experiment" (2).  This form of analysis consists of comparing and contrasting cultural forms in order to find the similarities and differences among them.  In the case of art, this method is implemented in order to "test the innumerable statements about the nature, functions and correlates of art that have been made in the context of the traditions of Western Civilization" (2).  The art of any culture (regardless of its level of complexity or time period) can be studied in this manner.  Hatcher includes esthetics as an item to be compared among cultural art forms.

Zillij tiles in Chefchaouen, Morocco.

The next section describes socio-cultural complexity, based on a society's level of technology, specialization of its craftspeople, and "the units of the society that are symbolically important in the art forms" (3).  These units are sub-groups which have their own identifiable art forms, such as men's and women's art, temple art, cult art, folk art, etc.

The three levels of society that Hatcher explains are tribes, kingdoms and preindustrial societies.  Tribal peoples "for the most part make their artifacts from materials in the immediate environment... In these societies, every person knows the basic techniques of craftsmanship appropriate to his sex, although some may be more proficient" (4).  Tribal arts reflect and dramatize the relationships among the society, between the society and the gods, nature, etc.  The most famous example of tribal societies are those of the Australian Aboriginals.

Aboriginal artists.

Kingdoms or chiefdoms reflect "less direct technology, often with trade in tools and materials, and with greater specialization in craftsmanship" (5).  Art forms are often stored in shrines, royal compounds and the dwellings of the elite.  Hatcher states, "As the whole society is too large to act out the relationships among its parts, the visual and visible symbols of common loyalties are very important" (5).  An example of this socio-cultural level is the Ashanti kingdom in Ghana.

Ashanti Gold

Preindustrial civilizations are "large scale societies with great social stratification, full-time professional craftsmen, extensive trade, and monumental architecture" (6).  Among preindustrial civilizations, there is a social stratification with political and religious elites at the top, down to commoners at the bottom, who may perceive the elite's religious symbolism very differently from their leaders.  Hatcher lists Bali as an example, where "culture itself is an art form" (7).

Stone carver in Batubulan, Bali

Then Hatcher continues by asking, "What is art?"  After discussing several approaches to answering the question, she concludes that "art is the esthetic dimension of any human activity" (9).  Thus, the first component of art, she writes, is "purely esthetic" (the idea of beauty, of course, differs significantly from one culture to another).  She mentions two more components that go along with the esthetic dimension, which are craftsmanship and meaning.  Craftsmanship is the technique of the artist, and consists of knowledge, physical skill, and effort through "human energy expended" (10).

The third component of art is meaning.  Visual art can have various levels of meaning, and Hatcher breaks these down into five categories.  The first is the subject, or image, which is a portrayal of a form(s) from nature, regardless of its degree of realism.  The second category of meaning is the symbolic, which is what the portrayed image represents beyond the immediate subject matter.  This can also be called the iconographic level (iconography is the description and classification of images).  This type of art object can often be thought of as an icon, or representation of a particular individual.  Collectively, these two categories are sometimes called the content of the work.

Next, we have the third category of meaning which is interpretation (or theoretical level), where "meaning is interpreted in terms of a particular theoretical symbolic system" (11).  This deeper, more complex level of meaning is sometimes known as iconology, which differs slightly from iconography (see paragraph above).  For a more detailed explanation and history of these two terms, check out this video.

Fang Reliquary Figure,
19th–20th century, Gabon.
The fourth category of meaning is metaphor, which is the connection between a formal quality of the art object and "some relationship or quality in human experience" (12).  Hatcher mentions how people of the Fang culture in central Africa "regard balanced opposition as necessary to achieve vitality," which is reflected in the bilateral symmetry of their statuettes.  Bilateral symmetry is therefore a metaphor of this cultural tension.

The fifth category of meaning is ambiguity, a sense of mystery or apparent contradiction within the content and/or between different levels of meaning in the artwork.

Hatcher also mentions that Lewis has stated that the social context of the art provides another level of meaning.  The social context can include rituals and festivals, in which "art objects gain much of their importance and effect from being part of, or souvenirs of, meaningful and satisfying events" (12).  This ties in with Symbol and Ceremony: Making Disciples Across Cultures by A. H. Mathias Zahniser, which explains how the religious symbols and ceremonies of many cultures have significant meaning for people in traditional religious contexts and how these can be given a Christian meaning and be used for discipleship.

In the next section, Hatcher discusses the topic of cultural context, where an outside observer must make a distinction between the use of an art object and its function.  Use connotes the object's literal physical purpose, while function speaks to how it "works" on a psychological or social level within the society.  Function can differ from the artist's intended purpose for the object.

In any case, it is important whenever possible to examine the artistic and cultural contexts in order to more fully understand the work of art as an object, as well as event, action and process.  In many societies, art objects do not exist as "art for art's sake," so this wider understanding is vital.  An example that Hatcher cites are Navaho sandpaitings, which are created as a kind of altar within a series of rituals for the curing and/or blessing of an individual, and are quickly destroyed after the ritual is over.  Hatcher (14) quotes Witherspoon who writes:

To the Navaho, the artistic or esthetic value of the sandpainting is found in its creation, not in its preservation.  Its ritual value is in its symbolic or representational power and in its use as a vehicle or conception.  Once it has served that purpose, it no longer has any ritual value.

Hatcher ends the chapter with a discussion of style.  Style "is sometimes used to mean the formal, abstract qualities [of an art object] as distinguished fromt the content, but usually also includes the way the representational elements are treated" (16).  And yet, there are many kinds of style: individual styles, period styles, culture area styles, etc.  Any of these and more could be classified and defined based on observable features that they share; similar "resemblences" between objects help observers define a style and determine what objects belong to it.  There can be multiple styles within one art form in a particular society.  In Western European art history, examples of styles include Gothic, Baroque and Cubism.  Sometimes these terms have been applied to nonwestern art forms by those who were reminded of the European styles, but "these transplanted terms are more confusing than helpful, and can even be misleading... Descriptive terms (vertical, ornate) would be more appropriate, as they do not imply all the other qualities of the European styles" (17).

Hatcher concludes that "the important anthropological question with regard to style is how do the various aspects of the context within which the artist works affect the product, the visible form" (19).  The following chapters will examine these aspects in more depth.

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