Sunday, May 12, 2013

Art as Culture: Chapter 4 Review

Continuing with my chapter-by-chapter review of Evelyn Payne Hatcher's Art as Culture: An Introduction to the Anthropology of Art, I've arrived at chapter four.  Titled "Who?  The Psychological Perspective," it attempts to explain a psychological view of cultural art forms under four headings: perception, creativity, personality and the psychological functions of art.  Hatcher writes, "The anthropological questions relating to these concepts have to do with the ways in which perception, creativity, personality and functions are similar in different cultural contexts, and the ways in which they are specific to each cultural setting" (85).
Beginning with perception, Hatcher defines the concept in three ways: (1) psychological, i.e., sensory perception; (2) how people organize these physiological perceptions; and (3) what meanings they give to what they see.  She summarizes the first definition by stating that "on this level differences in perception exist [between people of different societies], as one would expect, but are small compared to the way people think about and communicate their perceptions" (86).

It is under the second definition that things begin to get more interesting.  Hatcher briefly uses color as an example of how different individuals and entire cultures categorize various hues: some have several names for hues of one color, others have only one or two.

Regarding the third definition of perception, the author spends more time unpacking its various applications.  Again referencing color, she explains that there is "considerable variation" in the symbolic meanings associated with various colors.  But an interesting point that she makes in this section is that "a fundamental way that all levels of perception operate has to do with what captures attention...  the human organism responds by arousal to what is not clear, what does not make sense, what is not familiar" (87).  

Dan Namingha, Metamorphosis,
oil pastel on paper, 30 x 37 1/2''.
Much of "the grotesque, the incongruous, the shocking and the unbeautiful found in art forms" is placed there by the artist to heighten the experience of "special events."  She then transitions into a brief discussion of how the contrast between the familiar and the the unfamiliar in art provides visual tension and harmony, which raises the overall aesthetic quality of the art.  Tension and harmony relate to balance and contrast (i.e., emphasis), which are two of the principles of design in art.

Next, Hatcher moves on to the topic of creativity.  She first makes a distinction between individual and societal creativity, writing that "the amount of innovation perceived by the artist and his immediate audience also depends on whether, and how much, innovation and newness are valued in a particular art form in a particular culture" (89-90).  She adds:

What I am calling creativity involves making something that other persons can see, hear, smell or taste; i.e., perceive... Creation in this sense can, at least conceptually, be reasonably independent of the degree of skill in craftsmanship or the quality of esthetic sensibility.  In this sense, then, it is the uniqueness that is diagnostic of creativity... (90).

Regarding creativity and ritual arts, Hatcher affirms that even in cultures where ritualistic innovation "is not appropriate," there often still remains opportunity for creativity in accommodating static visual images to different ritualistic spaces, materials, etc.  This seems somewhat analogous to the idea of contextualizing rituals themselves– and the visual imagery that goes with them– by adapting some elements, creating new ones and eliminating others in order to create a Gospel-centric ceremony.  The idea of adapting ceremonies and rituals for Christian use has been discussed by A.H. Mathias Zahniser in Symbol and Ceremony and by Ivan Jordan in Their Way: Towards an Indigenous Warlpiri Christianity.

Hatcher then moves onward by discussing artistic creativity and the variability of its expression among different cultures.  She offers no defining opinions on the reasons for this variability, but generally believes that the level of artistic expression in any culture broadly depends on the amount of artistic talent present plus the degree of encouragement that it receives from within the particular cultural setting. One of her thoughts that I found interesting in this section was the passing allusion that various "theories related the degree of creativity to social rather than psychological factors– i.e., that innovation will be encouraged where symbols of social identity are needed" (93).  I think that this would certainly be the case with indigenous Christian churches who want to affirm their cultural identity while simultaneously affirming their dedication to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  This has been done in various cases (e.g., Bali, Australia) with both visual art and architecture, as well as with adapted or transformed rituals.

Rick Williams, Nitinaht carver.
Continuing with the topic of creativity, Hatcher asks "Who is an artist?".  She defines an artist as "a craftsman (male or female) who by creative recombination and/or innovation makes an artifact (tangible or intangible, i.e., statue or song) that has a high esthetic component" (93).  Hatcher adds that "whether or not the people have a word meaning "art" or "artist," the selection of and attitudes towards persons who fit this definition is widespread enough to suggest the concept is cross-culturally meaningful" (93). She goes on to discuss various cultural factors that affect whether persons who show artistic aptitude are able to find outlets for their creativity.  She summarizes that in most societies, individuals who end up being identified as artists (or as being the best among artists) are those who are personally motivated, have opportunities to purse their creativity, and whose talents are accepted/approved by others in the culture.

The next topic under the psychology of art is that of personality.  In the first part of this section, Hatcher reviews a few theories on the interplay between individual and cultural personalities.  In other words, does a cultural art form reflect the individual artist's personality more, or does it reflect the entire society's "personality" (also known as a "modal" personality)?  Although some studies have asserted that a modal personality is the primary expression in cultural art forms, Hatcher reports that this was not borne out in her studies of the formal qualities of Navaho art.

In one Maori creation myth, the
primal couple are 
Rangi and Papa,
depicted holding each other in a
tight embrace.

She then goes on to discuss whether modal personality influences the concept of self-image in cultural art.  Some scholars have asserted that depictions of the human figure in ethnographic art reflect an ideal personality according to that society.  Hatcher writes that "something of a people's idea of what it means to be a human being may come through in their representation of the Founder couple– or Holy Pair, just as some of the people's world views can be found in their creation myths" (99).

Hatcher asserts that rather than being reflections of one idealized personality, cultural self images are actually "multiple," meaning that these images "include the image of one's fears, the images of one's dreams, and the images of one's roles" (99).  Next she postulates (rather biblically, though unintentionally I'm sure) that by "knowing something of the lives of the people who present these images, and seeing the variety of forms they make, we can better interpret the 'selves' being shown" (99).  She also mentions that cultural art forms can influence individual and cultural personality by showing people not only how they should act, but even how they should "be."  Hatcher contends that "human beings seek to present themselves as art tells them they should be; some peoples also recognize that such acting can lead to becoming" (101).  This is an idea that could be utilized by all Christian communities in order to teach themselves and their larger society about who we are in Christ, as well as about the character of God that has been revealed through the pages of Scripture.  As they live out their faith in Christ, their art forms can reinforce what is being revealed about God.

Omni innerG, oil pastel on paper by Mansa Pryor.
The author (via Margaret Mead) goes on to suggest the possibility of the artist as a potential healer of conflicts within individual societies.  She writes: "If we think of the artist as a person who finds esthetic means of symbolically resolving problems of conflicts in a form that communicates to others, we can see how his unusual way of responding to the situation may express what others feel" (102).  I guess by that she means that the esthetic expression of grievances as well as hopes for a solution to hostilities might encourage dialogue.  This might be one way that the arts can be used to communicate a biblical solution to a problem found among the members of a society, which in turn may potentially draw people to finding the ultimate fulfillment of their individual and cultural needs through Christ!

Concerning the question of whether there is a single artistic temperament found across cultures, Hatcher states that although most artists have "the obvious characteristics of high motivation and aesthetic sensibility... artists may vary widely in personality" (102, 103).  She concludes: "It would seem probable, though, that the very best artists are the ones most obsessed with their creative efforts, and are therefore persons who do not always perform other roles successfully" (103).  HA!  Couldn't have said it better myself.  ;-)

Lastly, Hatcher tackles the subject of the psychological functions of art.  She reviews several theories, many of which are fundamentally more psychological than cultural: for example, the idea that art expresses taboo subjects that cannot be addressed directly in typical social situations within a society.  Other theories focus on art as an articulation of the need for mastery; as a source for catharsis or release from accumulated tensions and emotions; as a source of psychological and/or physical healing; as pure entertainment, i.e., an escape or "a kind of safe rehearsal for coping with configurations that are disturbing"; as a source of problem-solving via the presentation of innovative analogies; as a way of integrating the analytical and "primitive intuitive unconscious" parts of the mind in order to achieve wholeness, i.e. enhance one's life.

None of these theories, of course, reflect the fact that we human beings are made in the image of the Creator God, and therefore are creative beings ourselves.  For some of us especially, this need to aesthetically express something within us or depict what we see outside of ourselves is a reflection of God's imprint upon us.  These expressions can be used for a variety of purposes, but their source rests with the Creator Himself.

What resonated most for me from this chapter is the idea of the indigenous artist as a source for the promotion of the holistic synthesis of cultural and Christian identity– the indigenous artist as healer, in that sense.  But this would probably only work in societies where art and artists are affirmed, and in which artistic innovation is encouraged or at least tolerated.

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