This blog documents my progression through academia as a visual artist. I am currently undertaking a Practice-led PhD in the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies at the University of Leeds. The focus of my research is The Anthropology of Art. My supervisors are Chris Taylor and Dr Will Rea.http://louiseatkinsonblog.blogspot.co.uk http://twitter.com/loubietheartist http://abcarchive.blogspot.co.uk/ http://whatisanartistbook.tumblr.com/
Considering the relationship between art and anthropology has led me to consider my own interest in museums and the ways in which curating has become part of my practice. There are a variety of examples of artists working as curators, either in the more traditional curatorial role of devising projects with other artists, or through producing frameworks for artists to work within. Alongside these artist-curator practices, there are also artists appropriating museum strategies and techniques to produce museum-like installations outside the institution, as well as artists working inside the museum directly with their collections.
In her essay for Taxi Gallery, Becky Shaw defined curation as a word that has evolved to describe a number of different practices, including “the role of the person who looks after a collection of artworks, the person who decides which objects sit next to each other in an exhibition, the person who works closely with the artist to develop a new project, to the person who displays their colleagues’ or friends’ work in an empty warehouse.”
She categorised these various positions as ‘curator’, ‘artist-curator’, and ‘artist using curatorial activities’ and interviewed a different person from each of the categories in order to investigate whether the practices differ significantly from one another. Although these three positions may appear similar, they can deliver different social outcomes, including making the networks and relationships within cultural production explicitly visible to the audience.
Artists choosing to curate are often interested in the reception and distribution of artworks, as well as the production aspects of artistic practice. Artists working within museum networks are also afforded greater visibility. (Stearn, p37) However, these practices could also be seen to “jeopardise the [artist’s] external position which might previously have been seen as a prerequisite for the utopian imagination.” (Stearn, p38)
Ricardo Basbaum’s term of ‘etc-artists’ discusses artists that question the nature of their role through additional activities such as writing and curating: “When artists curate, they cannot avoid mixing their artistic investigations with the proposed curatorial project… The event can have a chance to become clearly embedded in a network of proximate knots… which the field of art has managed to comprehend in terms of its economy and circulation.”
These examples are indicative of the ‘usership’ described by Stephen Wright, which opens up the ‘expert culture’ of curatorship to more scrutiny and questioning. However, this critique of curatorial authority has resulted in an uncertainty within museum practice: “[Museums have begun to] doubt their authority, concerned that their vision of the past/present might be wrong and that it ought not shape the future so heavily. Rather than being the gatekeepers of culture they have become nervous of imposing any views whatsoever.”
Miranda Stearn suggests a more positive reading, that current practice “reflects the convergence of challenging artist practice with revisionist, self-reflective trends emerging within museums, and an awareness that by inviting artists to take on the role of curator, they can be enlisted as enablers, facilitators or partners in this process…” (Stearn, p38) These practices also allow museums to co-opt challenges to their authority and utilise artists to further promote their services. (Stearn, p43)
Shaw was particularly interested in understanding the power structures implicit in more traditional curatorial hierarchies, and whether the artist-curator role was ‘successful’ in disrupting these top-down relationships. Implicit in this idea was the notion of equality, which she identified as a work in progress that didn’t necessarily equate to “sameness”, but suggested a respect and trust of each other’s skills and ideas. Despite this, Shaw noted that the ‘curator’ always “[remained] the broker of visibility”
This (lack of) visibility is evident in Stearn’s description of Hans Haake’s interventions in the 1970s, where Haake was banned from exhibiting in galleries in New York and Germany due to his politically motivated works. (Stearn, p38) However, as museums became more open to artist interventions into museum collections, artists were afforded greater freedoms and in 1996 Haake was invited back into the museum to respond to the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. He did this by producing ‘Viewing Matters: Upstairs’, a series of collection storage racks which Haake relocated to the main galleries.
Alongside the racks Haake exhibited works from the collection which he grouped in the categories: Artists, Reception, Work/Power, Alone/Together/Against Each Other, and Seeing. All works were chosen without regard for time period, value, or historical importance, in order to disrupt traditional museum conventions. In addition, Haake didn’t provide any written explanation for his choices, allowing his audience to consider their own definitions of the work. (Stearn, p39) “This active mode of viewing, originating in the unusual juxtapositions and lack of written interpretation, impacts upon viewers’ experience of the selected objects but also potentially stays with them in their future museum interactions” (Stearn, p44)
Miranda Stearn, Museological Review no. 17 – Museum Utopias Conference Issue, January 2013 pp. 36-47
Thinking about the relationship between art and anthropology has led me consider how artists work within museum structures. I have previously explored this through the work of Eduardo Paolozzi in his installation ‘Lost Magic Kingdoms’, but I am also interested in the ways in which a museum can become an installation in its own right. In this way, the Pitt Rivers Museum presents a perfect example.
The Pitt Rivers Museum
As Michael O’Hanlon explains in ‘The Pitt Rivers Museum: A World Within’, “Most museums are primarily receptacles for the artefacts they hold; it is the individual things rather than their container that visitors come to see. Among the ways in which the Pitt Rivers is unusual is that the whole is greater than the sum of it parts. It is better known for its displays as a totality – the single composite panorama that greets visitors as they arrive at the Museum’s entrance – than for any particular artefact…” (O’ Hanlon, 2014, p. 14)
Although, this bricolage style of collection and display presents problems within modern anthropology, the book describes how the museum came to exist in its current state, and how it has attempted to address concerns around the interpretation and acquisition of artefacts.
The history of the collection
As the name suggests, the initial collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum was donated by General Pitt Rivers, who amassed a collection of around 30,000 objects and photographs. The collection began with a selection of weapons, developed from Pitt-Rivers previous experience as a rifle tester: “I was… led to take notice of the very slight changes of system that were embodied in the different inventions, and also of the fact that many improvements which, not being of a nature to be adopted, fell out of use, and were heard of no more, nevertheless served as suggestions for further improvements which were adopted; and it occurred to me what an interesting thing it would be to have a museum in which all these successive stages of improvement might be placed in the order of their occurrence. (Pitt-Rivers 1891: 118)” (O’Hanlon, 2014, p. 24)
The lectures he delivered to the Royal Institution in 1875, discussed the “derivation from a single form” (O’Hanlon, p. 28) which showed a range of weaponry developing along different axes from a central image of a stick. As such, he believed that object collections could reveal how different technologies evolved. Grouping the objects as “typologies” also influenced the way that the collection would come to be displayed in the Museum: “all the weaponry together, wherever in the world it might come from; everything to do with writing, all the means of making fire together; all the locks and keys etc.” (O’Hanlon, 2014, p. 50)
Finding a home
At this stage, his collection wasn’t on public display, so he began to search for a museum so that members of the public could access the objects for educational use. The first museum to house the work was the Bethnal Green outpost of the South Kensington Museum (which would later become the Victoria and Albert). The collection then moved to the South Kensington Museum in 1878. After the South Kensington Museum refused to accept any more of the General’s continuous acquisitions he moved the collection to Oxford University. (O’Hanlon, 2014, p. 36)
Upon arriving at the Oxford University site, the Pitt Rivers collection was presented to its first curator, Henry Balfour. Balfour used the General’s initial plans as a basis for displaying the objects according to type rather than region, as well as implementing some of his own ideas. (O’Hanlon, 2014, p. 52). He also began making his own acquisitions through personal networks and travel, which amounted to tens of thousands of artefacts over the course of his curatorship. (O’Hanlon, 2014, p. 55) The size of the space afforded to the Museum was distinctly lacking, therefore new display cases were installed in, around and even above the existing ones. (O’Hanlon, 2014, p. 60)
However, during this time, an emphasis on fieldwork (associated with anthropologists such as Bronislaw Malinowski), diminished the importance of object collections, in favour of researchers embedding themselves in other cultures in order to “understand a society directly, as a functioning whole, rather than through arranging its artefacts in the study or museum.” (O’Hanlon, 2014, p. 66)
The Museum’s new curator, Thomas Penniman, inherited his position in 1939, after the previous curator, Henry Balfour, had died following several years of illness, leaving the museum “largely derelict”. This situation, coupled with the diminishing importance of object collections and the outbreak of the Second World War, impeded any substantial development, and led Penniman to attempt to improve the Museum displays within his own means. (O’Hanlon, 2014, pp. 66-68) He began reducing congestion in the cases by removing artefacts to give more space to others. In addition, he changed the black surroundings to wood and cream in order to lighten the surrounding and give greater emphasis to the objects on display. (O’Hanlon, 2014, pp. 68-69)
After many years of attempting to ‘resolve’ the museum’s problems with overcrowding, the distinctive arrangement of the Pitt Rivers’ displays began to attract more visitors precisely because of their unusual nature. In response to this, Penniman halted his renovations of the museum. The bricolage style backdrop also began to inspire other artists and writers who produced new creative works about and around the museum. (O’Hanlon, 2014, p. 85)
These artistic interventions began to contribute in some part to the museum’s ongoing dialogue with the ‘source communities’ of its previous acquisitions, as a way of attempting to reflect on its own history and the history of anthropology in general. This included projects which invited international artists to respond to, and re-interpret, the collections, such as Tibetan artist Gonkar Gyatso, who produced the suspended installation ‘Union Jack’. (O’Hanlon, 2014, p. 15)
As O’Hanlon explains “The Pitt Rivers is a museum of anthropology and archaeology, devoted to cultures across time and space. But all such museums are unavoidably also about the culture and times that put them together… In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the story was about the supposed development of cultural groups from simple to more complex forms. Today the messages the Museum hopes to convey are about cultural creativity, the diversity of cultural solutions to the same problems we all face as human beings, and about the capacity of the assembled collections to prompt questions and inspire the imagination.” (O’Hanlon, 2014, p. 17)
As my core focus is on the anthropology of art, I have been reading Morphy and Perkins’ edited collection ‘The Anthropology of Art: A Reader’, which traces the history of this field. In particular, they attempt to redress the neglect of art by anthropologists* by proposing a theory of how art can operate within cultural systems, both locally and cross-culturally.
The separation (and reintegration) of art and anthropology
Previous decisions to separate the studies of art from anthropology came in response to earlier colonial collections, as “in the minds of [20th century] theorists the study of material culture was too closely associated with the more simplistic aspects of evolutionary theory. [However, Morphy and Perkins argue that] anthropology must re-engage with [these] methods and problems… [in order to understand] the production of art objects [as] a form of agency that arises from bodies of knowledge… The study of form [also enables] comparative and historical analysis… [which] can be central to the analysis of historical process and the dynamics of relationships between groups over time” (Morphy and Perkins, 2005, pp. 6, 17 & 18).
After neglecting the study of art in the first half of the twentieth century, theoretical developments in two areas of anthropology began to enable theorists to consider material culture objects as invoking affect and (re)producing social relations. These two areas were Symbolism – “culture viewed as a system of meaning” and Exchange – “one of the ways in which value is created.” These theories developed from the 1960s onwards, in line with a growing interest in visual anthropology, myth, religion, and ritual. (Morphy and Perkins, 2005, pp. 9-10)
Definitions of art objects
In order to produce an anthropology of art, Morphy and Perkins acknowledged that they needed to define a working definition of art objects, one which could be applied to art produced in all cultures and contexts. They decided to reference Morphy’s previous definition (Morphy, 1994, p. 655) which describes general attributes that could be used to refer to art objects: “art objects are ones with aesthetic and/or semantic attributes (but in most cases both), that are used for representational and presentational purposes.”
They also identified that art can be mapped onto both senses of the word ‘culture’ – “[whereby art represents both the] bodies of knowledge, technologies, and representational practices… of a society [and is also] the product of a particular stage of Euro-American history… [one where there is] an emphasis on the autonomy of the aesthetic experience, … individual creativity [and] innovation.” (Morphy and Perkins, 2005, p. 12)
Defining art objects through an anthropological study which includes their social, political, and economic dimensions, as well as formal and aesthetic concerns, creates a potential framework for comparing art objects cross-culturally as it “incorporates a range of thoughts and practices that employ creativity in the production of expressive culture” which aims to “overturn the essentialised uniqueness of the western category.” This strategy would therefore require art objects to be analysed on their own terms and from an understanding of their own contexts, rather than through previous art historical classifications. (Morphy and Perkins, 2005, pp. 3, 13)
As anthropology has previously been focused on the material culture of ‘small-scale’ societies, a more holistic approach would be to address practices which have been defined through an art historical tradition, which includes an understanding of how artworks and artists are defined from this perspective. (Morphy and Perkins, 2005, p. 3) Such an investigation would also explore the boundaries between cultural forms of expression through trade and exchange, incorporating tourism and other forms of globalisation. (Morphy and Perkins, 2005, p. 18)
This approach aims to express the networks and processes which produce the image of cultures, in order to avoid the more damaging aspects of appropriation which “can create a simplified, essentialized, atemporal image of a particular society which bears little relation to its recent history or contemporary existence [and belongs more] to the consuming culture rather than to the producing culture.” (Morphy and Perkins, 2005, p. 19)
* Although this was generally the case, they do mention the few social anthropologists who maintained a holistic practice in the study of material culture including Raymond Firth (1979), Melville Herskovits (1934, 1938, 1959, 1966), and Robert Redfield (1959) (Morphy and Perkins, 2005, p8)
My recent interest in Image Studies has led me to consider iconoclasm in greater detail by reading Bruno Latour’s introductory essay to the exhibition catalogue for ‘Iconoclash: Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion and Art’. I first thought about iconoclasm after visiting the ‘Art Under Attack’ exhibition back in November 2013. However, it was only after I began thinking about my work in relation to image studies that these ideas became more relevant. The ‘Art Under Attack’ exhibition was specifically related to works of art, but the ‘Iconoclash’ exhibition focused on images in science and religion as well, bringing attention to pre-modern associations between the three disciplines. Links between art, religion, and science have been prevalent in my work due to my focus on anthropology, so this exhibition seemed particularly interest in the context of my practice.
Iconoclash: Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion and Art
The exhibition ‘Iconoclash: Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion and Art’, took place at ZKM Center for Art and Media, Karlsruhe, from 4th May – 1st September 2002. The show was produced by the CEO of ZKM, Peter Weibel, along with an international team of curators including Bruno Latour, Peter Galison, Dario Gamboni, Joseph Koerner, Adam Lowe, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Hans Belting, and Heather Stoddard.
The exhibition was described as “not an art show, not a science and art show, not an history of art show, [but] a bewildering display of experiments on how to suspend the iconoclastic gesture and how to renew the movement of images against any freeze-framing”. It featured a range of documents, objects and idols from the fields of religion and science, alongside artworks by Art & Language, Fiona Banner, Christian Boltanski, Daniel Buren, Marcel Duchamp, Albrecht Dürer, Lucio Fontana, Francisco de Goya, Hans Haacke, Richard Hamilton, Joseph Kosuth, Kasimir Malevich, Gordon Matta-Clark, Gustav Metzger, Tracey Moffat, Nam June Paik, Sigmar Polke, etc. The exhibition was accompanied by an edited collection of essays which also functioned as the aforementioned catalogue.
What is Iconoclash?
Bruno Latour’s contribution to the catalogue, entitled ‘What is Iconoclash or Is there a World beyond the Image Wars?’ set out the thought processes behind the selection of works in the exhibition and the exhibition concept as a whole. As an exhibition of images, Latour first determined the meaning of an image as “any sign, work of art, inscription, or picture that acts as a mediation to access something else.” (Latour, 2002, p. 16) The destruction of images, otherwise known as iconoclasm, was a central theme in the exhibition, which aimed to highlight the paradox of the image in accessing truth.
He then differentiated between the more familiar idea of iconoclasm and the subject of the exhibition, Iconoclash: “Iconoclasm is when we know what is happening in the act of breaking and what the motivations for what appears as a clear project of destruction are; iconoclash, on the other hand, is when one does not know, one hesitates, one is troubled by an action for which there is no way to know, without further enquiry, whether it is destructive or constructive. This exhibition is about iconoclash, not iconoclasm.” (Latour, 2002, p. 16)
Latour categorised each potential group of iconoclasts according to their suggested motivations, although he was keen to state that the nature of Iconoclash meant that it wasn’t clear what the intentions of the supposed iconoclasts were. He separated these iconoclasts into five categories, denoted by a letter to avoid any loaded terminology.
‘A’ people, who are against all images, “believe it is not only necessary but also possible to entirely dispose of intermediaries and to access truth, objectivity, and sanctity”. (Latour, 2002, p. 27) ‘B’ people are against the freeze-framing of images: “The damage done to icons is, to them, always a charitable injunction to redirect their attention towards other, newer, fresher, more sacred images”. (Latour, 2002, p. 28) The ‘C’s are only against the images of their opponents, “Flag-burning, painting slashing, hostage-taking are typical examples”. (Latour, 2002, pp. 28-29) Whereas ‘D’ people unwittingly destroy images “by restoring works of art, beautifying cities, rebuilding archeological sites…” (Latour, 2002, p. 30) In contrast to all of the above, ‘E’ people neither revere or despise images, but instead use them to mock both iconoclasts and iconophiles. (Latour, 2002, p. 30)
The idea of linking images of science, religion and art was iconoclastic in itself. Images of science are deemed to be not representation, but reality. Religious imagery and Contemporary Art, as alternative mediations of truth resonate with the scientific images on show. The question of how reality is mediated through images therefore exposes how these realities are constructed. (Latour, 2002, p. 21)
My discussions around anthropological perspectives on art have led me to reconsider the relationship between art and authenticity. This was also the subject of a recent Leeds Humanities Research Institute seminar. The seminar series, entitled ‘Experimental Philosophical Aesthetics’, was organised by Aaron Meskin and Shen-Yi Liao, in order to “uncover connections between aesthetics, morality, and communication with the aid of empirical methods.” As part of this series they invited a George Newman from Yale University and Greg Currie from York University to discuss their research into ideas of authenticity in art.
Authenticity and art
The session was introduced as follows: “In general, we seem to have a preference for “the real thing”. We tend to like people who we find genuine. We tend to find authentic food more delicious. However, nowhere is this preference more apparent than in the domain of artworks. We look down upon copies, replicas, and forgeries because they lack the aesthetic virtue of authenticity.”
The first presenter, George Newman, was interested in communicating the relationship between aesthetic judgement and other kinds of values. His objective was ultimately to create a ‘lay theory of art’ whereby he could determine how works of art were valued by audiences, both financially and emotionally. His presentation ‘The Valuation of Authentic Goods’ discussed “why people value original artworks more than identical duplicates and what explains consumer demand for celebrity memorabilia or luxury products?” Through the use of empirical methods, Newman has attempted to uncover psychological factors relating to audience assessments of works of art, using ideas of performance in artmaking, and laws of contagion.
Artwork as performance
In his 2011 paper ‘Art and Authenticity: The Importance of Originals in Judgments of Value‘ in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, Newman writes: “Dutton (2003, 2009) has argued that people assess artwork, even static artwork such as paintings, as the endpoint of performances. From this perspective, our assessment of an artwork is related to our intuitions about the processes that gave rise to its existence. Thus, an original is different from a forgery because it is the end point of a different sort of performance. The original is a creative work, whereas the forgery is not.” Despite my interest in the provenance of artwork as a type of performance, I think it is important to note the difference between ‘forgery’ and ‘replica’, as although both may be produced from the original, the implications of each term are very different.
Ideas of performance were also linked to the law of contagion, whereby the proximity of the artist to the work of art was a factor in its perceived value and authenticity. Such theories were developed as part of anthropological studies by writers including Frazer, 1890/1959; Mauss, 1902/1972; Rozin & Nemeroff, 2002; and Tylor, 1897/1974. As Newman et al. 2011 discovered, “such contagion effects [were] not limited to art; [but also extended] to objects such as autographs, baby shoes, and the possessions of celebrities”.
Why do people value original artworks?
The term original is used in two senses here, as both individual object and the result of a unique creative process. Although scenarios were presented whereby artworks and original artefacts were duplicated, only the duplicate artwork was consistently deemed to be of lesser value than the original, suggesting that people valued something other than the aesthetic or the craftsmanship of the object.
Factors which may have contributed to these findings were presented as follows: “artworks are generally one of a kind, whereas artifacts are mass produced; artworks and artifacts are manufactured using different types of methods and may require different amounts of time and effort to produce… these factors may [also] be particularly salient in the domain of art in part because artworks do not have any functional value… and this salience explains why authenticity matters so much in this domain (Hagtvedt & Patrick, 2008). One prediction from the studies reported here is that these processes may have a compensatory relationship, such that increases in the importance of functional value decrease the importance of historical factors (such as contagion or performance), and conversely, that decreases in the importance of functional value increase the importance of these historical factors.”
Although the definition of art is not made explicit, the results seem to suggest particular assumptions about the nature of art, ie. its lack of functional value, thereby excluding certain types of cultural objects. Despite this non-anthropological perspective, this creates an interesting question about what would happen if we were to view ‘gallery’ artworks in a functional context.
Authenticity and the Traces of Making
The second speaker, Gregory Currie from the University of York, discussed whether the term ‘authentic’ was necessary when discussing works of art. Although, in his view, “Authentic Rembrandts are Rembrandts, and vice versa”, he was interested in the questions that this raised about people’s interest in the history of an object. He felt that the idea of contagion was too illogical an analysis, but argued that aspects of the artist’s making and thinking processes were evident within the work, which explained the higher values of ‘authenticated’ works.
My thoughts about the term authentic are linked to context, in particular, in relation to cross-cultural interpretation of objects, whereby artworks are reclassified in accordance with the cultural systems to which they are introduced. For example, in the case of sand paintings which have been taken out of context and recreated as permanent artwork (usually with changes) for a gallery setting, rendering them both authentic and inauthentic at the same time.