Monday, February 4, 2013

Art as Culture: Chapter 3 Review

Shaping an Earthen Pot by Doranne Jacobson. 

In my sporadically ongoing chapter-by-chapter review of Art as Culture: An Introduction to the Anthropology of Art by Evelyn Payne Hatcher, I have arrived at Chapter Three: "How? The Technological Means." This chapter provides a survey of six traditionally indigenous visual art media: hide work, fiber work, carving, modeling, painting and metalwork.  In addition, Hatcher includes two other categories: mixed media and stagecraft.  Mixed media is simply the combining of multiple art media into one object, such as with ceremonial costumes.  Stagecraft implies the combination of visual art with performance, which may include (but isn't limited to) costumes, dancing, lighting, sound, music, etc.

Hatcher also provides some commentary on the definition of craft, then surveys the production techniques of the six media, and lastly, discusses the effects of societal complexity vis-a-vis artistic specialization.

The majority of chapter three, however, focuses on the six visual art media, giving a brief description of each one and who typically creates them (men or women).  This information provides a helpful, though brief, introduction to the subject.  For further investigation into these production techniques, I would recommend finding more extensive books that provide a deeper exploration of any or all six of the media.  I know that there are plenty of books that focus on one particular art medium, usually one that is associated with a specific people group.  So if you want more detail on an individual culture's visual art forms, you generally won't have a problem finding information about it.  But I'm not sure what exists in book form out there about all six media by indigenous cultures from around the world.

Oba’s Royal Crown,  Nigeria, Yoruba peoples.
20th century
Hatcher begins the chapter by quoting Whiteford (1970) who wrote that "the arts of a people are the skills and techniques that they employ in making their tools, implements, and ornaments;" Hatcher adds that this includes "their symbolic statements" (not sure what she means by "statements").  She eruditely concludes her opening paragraph by stating,

It is arbitrary to draw a line between "arts and "crafts"; a work of art is considered by the observer to be of higher esthetic quality, and usually to be more meaningful than a craft object, but this is a matter of degree.

I've long thought that craft, i.e., handicraft or folk art, is simply handmade utilitarian objects (e.g., think furniture, pots, clothing, etc.), whereas objects that are "contemporary fine crafts" are handmade objects that have been transformed by imagination and skill into objects of art for the purpose of displaying beautiful aesthetic qualities, although they may still have some utilitarian purpose as well (e.g., the same types of objects above, but with a higher degree of skill and imagination).  Hatcher is right to say that the dividing line between the categories of handicraft and art is not a distinct one.  She defines folk art as "the work of specialists and professionals providing craft articles that can be bought by the person of humble means" (p. 56).

A carved panel for the Moroccan Court at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Photo by Ruth Fremson/The New York Times.

Hatcher notes that specialization of the artist increases with societal complexity: "Thus in small societies, 'everyone is an artist'... In complex societies there may be many full time professionals.  Between those extremes the pattern is one of recognized specialists who are usually paid in some form for their work, but who also engage in subsistence activities such as farming or fishing" (p. 55-56).  Societal complexity also results in a greater number of techniques utilized by folk artists, and means that the artist has a less direct relationship with the natural sources of artistic materials and tools.  

Guatemalan weaver Oralia Chopin

At the end of the chapter, Hatcher observes that it is generally thought that men produce art more often than women, especially in tribal societies, because women's domestic responsibilities preclude spending time on more creative pursuits.  She cautions, however, that while "in many societies there is some truth in this statement... acceptance of it has resulted in overlooking many works of women that are of high esthetic quality" (p. 83).  

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