Saturday, September 03, 2011


NOTES from “The Predicament of Culture” by James Clifford, Chapter 10:  “On Collecting Art and Culture.”

This is the “quadrant on quadrant” Clifford was using as a thought-help.  One set of two perpendicular continuums is between the “masterpiece” and the “artifact” and the other is between authentic and inauthentic.  So these two crossed continuums are about the objects themselves, whether they are “just” an object or something created intentionally with high skill and whether they are authentic (which seems to mean something like whether they developed out of the real lives of a specific culture) versus whether they are just some kind of imitation replica. 
Then the outside quadrant is about the judgment of these objects, how they are seen, with the expert connoisseur at one end and the fakers at the other end, and along the perpendicular continuum those who seriously study material culture versus those who just churn out tourist curios.
So if you picked up something in the ruins of an ancient civilization (which probably makes it authentic), if it were very skillfully made (a “high” example) that would be part of its value.  But the way it was judged by people who deal with such things, curators or dealers, would also control part of the value.  At some points in history or geography, found or otherwise field-acquired objects as a category are highly valued but at other points they are scoffed at.  What seems to be merely another spear head might turn out to be an example of a rare technology indicating a unique society.  What is common on the ground in the American SW, say pots, might be sold for a lot of money in France.
Clifford says his chapter will deal with four “loosely related” aspects of these situations.  
  1. The “art-culture system” as it has developed over the past centuries, how it has sorted objects into taxonomies (the great 19th century preoccupation), and been affected by politics (the post-modern issues -- but he’s writing too early to describe them).
  2.   The cultural description of objects as a form of collecting, so the objects are only points of reference for the writing which is a library.
  3.   The claim that objects from historical or distant places carry abstract artistic values that can be used in modern works.
  4.   The personal “juju” a person gets from owning something.  I’m going to leave this for Sunday.
Let’s see whether I can invent some examples of the first three, to see if I can really grasp what Clifford says.
ONE:  The art-culture system has been a tension between humanities and science, but an enmeshed tension, like a lover’s quarrel.  An example of tanning or beading might be an aesthetic issue -- how beautiful -- or it might be a scientific issue: how to classify the beading style, how rubbing brains into a hide will preserve it, what the trade routes for beads were.  
Many early objects were not only utilitarian but also “superstitious,” like the belief that moving a kachina will affect the weather or saying a rosary will be protective.  There are “folk” uses of objects.  Whether or not a specific kachina or rosary is valuable as an object will depend on who made it, when and where, with what amount of skill.  These things might be carelessly or seriously made, of superior or ersatz materials.  The fact of what they “are” becomes secondary.  
So on this dimension it is the expertise brought to bear on the object that validates it.  A rosary that was kicking around in a grandmother’s bureau drawer might turn out to be a mass-produced string of cheap glass beads or it might turn out to be something ancient, made of semi-precious stones, and associated with major historical trends or events or persons.  That still neglects the “use” of the beads as a mnemonic device for patterned prayer, which is the real point of the object.  Most people do not have this knowledge or even think of using experts, but if they did, they would go to museums to find experts.
Long ago I was in a production of “Caesar and Cleopatra,” the George Bernard Shaw version.  (Paula Ragusa AKA Paula Prentiss) was Cleopatra.  The cast wished to give a gift to the director, Alvina Krause, so they gave me their collection of money and sent me down to the Chicago loop to find a bust of Cleo.   Fool that I was, I bought the biggest, brightest one I could find,.  I should have opted for a small, fine version, but I didn’t know any better.  It never occurred to me what “fine” might mean so I went for size.  I had a child’s value system.
The equivalent in the art scene might be the fad for multi-colored patinas or painting on black velvet.  So “God’s Eyes” and “Dream-Catchers” are sold by the ton, most of them totally unlike anything authentic enough to interest an anthropologist.  People like the idea and then buy the design that will fit their interior decoration.  Big bright ones to fill up the wall.  To experts, they have no value at all and are not even Native American.
TWO:  Ray Djuff sends me the news that old Blackfeet census rolls are for sale on a CD on eBay.

Ray says:  “Not to worry if someone doesn’t win the auction, as the guy also has a website where he sells the CDs. I’ve got a copy of this and for anyone who doesn’t have access to the microfilm, it’s a useful thing to be able to have on hand.  The CD covers 1890 to 1906, which is perfect for those looking for information before the 1907-08 census for the allotments, the book of which I believe is still available at the Museum of the Plains Indian.”   This is an object (a list or CD) that is valuable only because it contains information, which might be useful for those looking for the provenance of objects and so on.
THREE:  So now we come to what I think of as the Picasso effect.  When museums began to collect “primitive” art and masks, with their spooky, exaggerated, other-worldly aspects, the Paris artists declared them brilliant, from the child-heart of the uncorrupted, and echoed them in their art.  This taught people to see objects with new eyes, and eventually led to the idea that even industrial manufacturing can create pleasing shapes:  what is the difference between the subtle organic shape of a clam and the smooth vitreous curves of a urinal?  Aren’t they triggering something in us that is a similar response to form?  Does this mock the essentials of art or lift up ordinary objects in our lives?  So often a joke like Duchamp’s (entering an upside-down urinal in a juried art show) carries real meaning.
FOUR:  There are several ways to look at what Eliade called “valorization” of objects  but I’ll wait until tomorrow.

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