Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Art as Culture: Chapter 2 Review

Papua New Guinean artist Fabian Paino carves the wooden part of a Tatanua Mask.

Chapter Two of Evelyn Payne Hatcher's Art as Culture is titled "The Geographical Dimension."  The chapter consists of two parts: the first is a worldwide survey of traditional cultures and the physical environments in which they live, with an emphasis on the art forms of each society.  The second (and shorter) part is called "Art and Environment," which explores how physical environments may affect indigenous culture and visual art forms.  The first section is far too short to be of much value, though it might provide a beginning point for further research.

The second section is much more interesting.  Hatcher attempts to summarize various ideas about the relationship of the physical environment to the form and imagery of indigenous visual art.  She emphasizes three main points:

First, the local physical environment provides societies with the raw materials for making visual art, and these materials influence what each culture can produce artistically (except in more technologically advanced cultures where there is access to more materials, tools, etc.).  Hatcher states that "some of the qualities in a style are inherent in the material from which the artifacts are fashioned, and this is related to geographical factors" (50).

Breastplate by Don Standing Bear (Sou' West Nova Métis)
at the Autry's American Indian Arts Marketplace.
(photo by Abel Gutierrez)

Secondly, though the surrounding landscape, flora and fauna, and weather provide much subject matter for art objects, neither the environment nor raw materials entirely account for the style of the artworks: "Cultural environment as well as the natural one influences the artistic products we see... [and] the relation between art and environment is not all one way" (50, 51).

(3) Probably the ultimate source of subject matter for indigenous artists is their worldview and beliefs.  Hatcher writes,

As art forms are often expressive of belief systems, and belief systems tend to be concerned with the chief problems and dangers of life, visual symbols are likely to be parts of systems that relate to adaptation and survival in a given habitat, although the way the visible forms relate through the belief system to that habitat is not always obvious (50).

Detail of pictograph panel, Crow Canyon.
(photo by Tom McCarthy, Museum of New Mexico)

Therefore, when indigenous art depicts subject matter from the local environment, it often relates to that society's biggest fears and concerns, i.e., basic survival, as well as other important challenges of life (food, childbirth, fertility of people and crops, etc.).  Hatcher summarizes her thoughts by writing,

To perceive the relation of a people's symbolic forms to the environment in which they live, we need to undersand the problems and dangers of that environment.  The question "From whence comes death?" can illuminate the way the religious ideas of a people are structured... the Unknown, the Invisible, is defined in terms of metaphors and images that reflect responses to fears and hopes in the physical world (54).

The subject matter of indigenous art, then, sometimes depicts or relates to a society's greatest fears and concerns, regardless of how those concerns are depicted visually.  I would add that subject matter also may depict what a society values most: important ideas, warfare, beauty, peace, a deity or deities (and what they provide), etc.

In any case, a culture's visual artwork can reveal much about what they value and fear, and how they express those concepts.  Those hopes and fears can reveal much about their heart cries, as well as possible redemptive analogies and/or barriers to the message of the Gospel.  But remember: (1) don't assume that everyone in a society completely understands the imagery of a local art form; and (2) don't misinterpret the meaning of a symbol or imagery by assuming that it means the same to them as it does to you– verify everything with members of that society before you procede with making any conclusions about iconography and meaning.

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