Monday, July 22, 2013

Art as Culture: Chapter 5 Review


Timkat, the Ethiopian Orthodox celebration of the Epiphany

Today's post is my summary and review of of Chapter Five of Art as Culture: An Introduction to the Anthropology of Art by Evelyn Payne Hatcher.  Chapter Five's title is "Why? Social Contexts and Social Functions," and examines three theories that attempt to explain how art helps hold societies together (i.e., its "social function").  Hatcher does this by exploring the type of situations in which visual art forms are utilized by indigenous cultures, and the reasons why.

Here's a basic outline of the chapter:

How Does Art Help Hold Society Together? There are Three Primary Theories:
     I. Art as a psychological means to social ends: Art functions as a safety release valve for negative emotions or excess energy. 
     II. Art as social setting: By providing aesthetic pleasure to large groups during gatherings, art helps to reinforce a sense of community or communitas. 
     III. Art as a symbol of society: Art can reflect and reinforce proper social relationships, through the use of collective cultural symbols.
Hatcher suggests that art can function in all three ways, even simultaneously, and then goes on to examine each theory individually.  She begins with a brief mention of the psychological theory by recalling that it was examined in chapter four and that the psychological function of art isn't always the same as its social function.  For example, if art is used as a psychological deflector of tensions it can actually short circuit some needed social interactions and do more harm than good.

Next she considers art as social setting.  This section is largely concerned with how art can contribute to a society's sense of community, or communitas, during gatherings or ceremonies.  Communitas is "an intense community spirit, the feeling of great social equality, solidarity, and togetherness" and "is characteristic of people experiencing liminality together" (Wikipedia).


Young dancers practice prior to a performance at the Laura Aboriginal
Dance Festival at Laura, Cape York, North Queensland, Saturday, June 20, 2009
Photo by Dave Hunt, AAP

Christian author Alan Hirsch writes in The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church that liminality

applies to a situation where people find themselves in an in-between, marginal state in relation to the surrounding society, a place that could involve significant danger and disorientation, but not necessarily so. … Communitas is therefore always linked with the experience of liminality. It involves adventure and movement, and it describes that unique experience of togetherness that only really happens among a group of people inspired by the vision of a better world who actually attempt to do something about it” (page 220; 221).

Hatcher goes on to explain how the preparation of art for community gatherings can contribute to communitas, even if the artwork itself isn't highly valued– it is the shared experience of producing the art that heightens communitas, rather than the art object itself.  This is a very different take on art from the typical western perspective!


Bulacanese students participate in the making of Tagalog Christmas décor.


Hatcher also mentions that the art of creating "culturally shaped environments, settlement patterns and structures affect people" as well.  "These spaces," she writes, "physically direct the movements of the people, and so affect who meets whom, in addition to whatever symbolic meaning is given to the shapes of the spaces or any of the art forms displayed" (119-120).


Photo credit: Glenn Cameron.

(Click the photo above for a detailed explanation of how this Canadian church reflects First Nations cultural sensibilities).

Lastly, Hatcher spends the rest of the chapter examining the third theory.  She begins by dividing the concept of "art as a symbol of society" into two levels: (1) art that represents society "as a structure or pattern of statuses," i.e., art that indicates individuals' social rank or kinship identity within a society; and (2) art that represents society as a whole and relates to their shared worldview and/or religious beliefs (121).  She represents these two levels with the following formulation:

                                                     synthesizing symbol       patterning symbols
of social organization  [Level 1]               A                                     B
of cultural beliefs  [Level 2]                      C                                     D

In this formulation (if I understand Hatcher's ideas correctly), a synthesizing symbol = "one symbol, or a complex of symbols" (122), and patterning symbols = insignias or visually-arranged forms/patterns/designs/etc. (124, 130).  Therefore, A and B represent artwork that symbolizes how people relate to each other in society, while C and D represent artwork that expresses the entire society's worldview or values.

Hatcher labels and illustrates each of these four visual ideas as follows:

A = Symbolic Labels for Social Entities:
"One symbol, or a complex of symbols, that stands for a whole society, often a corporate group or political entity... The symbols that stand for the society include totemic animals and ancestors as symbols of kin group; in more centralized societies the ruler is often the symbol" (122).  For example, a crown or throne represents a kingship, just as the individual king or ruler is a living symbol of it as well.


Crest of Haida Raven clan


B = Symbolic Labels Indicating the Social Order:
"The variety of insignia surrounding, worn by, or actually made part of individuals." Examples include scarification, tattoos, body paint, ornaments, dress and adornment, hair styles, etc. (124).




C = Symbols that Synthesize Ideas and Sentiments:
"'A culture' can be thought of as the shared model of reality in the heads of the members of society.  A synthesizing symbol stands for this model and for all the basic postulates that are embedded in it, as well as the values that are derived from it" (127).  Examples may be "arbitrary to outsiders, but may be based on the natural symbols of life: the human body, the great tree, Father Sun (or Sky), and Mother Earth" (126-127).


Mayan Axis Mundi or World Tree

D = The Patterning of Values:
Any visual form(s) that communicates "common values and patterns that reflect the basic postulates concerning what life is all about and how things, including society, are or should be structured" (128).  For example, "the Fang value balanced opposition as a means of achieving vitality and harmony in social relations and in symbolic forms, and the Navajo value the orderly arrangement of many elements, not opposed, but going in the same direction without interfering with each other" (129).


Navajo sandpainting

So, what is to be learned from Chapter Five?  For me, I found the concepts of art as social setting and art as a symbol of society to be the most important for Christians.  In many cases, it is a difficult task for indigenous Christians to identify with both their own culture and simultaneously with the body of Christ.  This is especially true when they are a minority within their society and/or when both the larger indigenous culture and the western church look at them suspiciously.  Therefore, I think the idea of indigenous Christians creating new symbols, patterns, etc. which simultaneously represent their cultural heritage and also their identity in Christ would be a very exciting endeavor.  This idea probably wouldn't extend to creating new clan symbols, etc., but could for example possibly incorporate or reinterpret them or other cultural art forms from a biblical/Christocentric worldview.  Below is an modern graphic logo for the Aboriginal & Islander Christian Fellowship which utilizes Aboriginal art forms to symbolize themselves following and seeking Christ:




AICF's logo incorporates the Churches of Christ logo and has 3 features:

1. THE CROSS
People sitting at and gathered around the foot of the cross.

2. WATER/STREAM
Representing Jesus, river of Life.

3. STEPPING STONES in the stream
Leading to the cross of Jesus. We 'of many people groups' all have a path to travel.

It seems that the cross is a convenient symbol to "indigenize" as a symbol of Christian identity, though it is not necessary to always use incorporate it.  But using the cross does link one Christian community to others around the world and those in the past.

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