Artist and Anthropologist

My fist seminar session on Art and Anthropology discussed Theory and Practise reviewing the links between artist and anthropologist from surrealism to the contemporary ‘ethnographic turn’ with Joseph Kosuth.

Dialogues between Art and Anthropology.

Artist as Ethnographer-Art history has lost it’s broadening as western art has dominated art history. Very little on Asian and African art history which is needed to open up dialogue with other cultures. Lucy Lipard- a feminist art critique opened art history to a social context towards the end of the 1960’s. Western art history has always been based on aesthetics- based on academic notions of what beauty is about but other cultures have different concepts about what art is – Apolitical relevatism.

  • American anthropology = cultural anthropology (idea that everything is relevant)
  • English anthropology = social anthropology. Was called functionalism (1920-1930) was a very pragmatic organisation of social life etc.
  • Institutional Anthropology – divided by institutions. Goffman discusses how people are framed.

Surrealists, many of whom wanted to be anthropologists, were interested in the ideas of Marcel Mauss. The surrealists were interested in unconscious through the study of Freud and were exploring how much culture helps to understand of their background. They wanted to explore and experience ‘the other’. Although artists such as Picasso had studied ‘the other’,  he was inspired by African art in a purely aesthetic sense – he wasn’t interested in the culture. ‘Primitivism in Newyork’ 1970’s by Ruben, discusses how we  should treated ‘the other’ as not ‘art just as artefact’ but as art in its own right. BUT Picasso was appropriating, not actually looking at what was going on with this work which maybe was another form of ‘orientalism’.

Similarly, Edward Said when traveling to middle east brought back exotic canvas. They were presenting ‘the other’ as something radically different which we don’t understand, we fantasies and fetishes because of the distance we supposedly have from it. The notion of authenticity is what decides what’s authentic or not. There is a desire to preserve the ‘other’ as something which can be observed for pleasure of our aesthetic. Many blur the content so the viewer can just enjoy the work. An example of this is the Manchester exhibition-  ‘Independence of India and Pakistan’ – which camouflage what really happened, concealing that it was a division made by the British. This is linked to surrealisms discussing the covering up of  WW1 as surrealists started a journal which played with shock by mixing high and low.

There’s a tension between art and anthropology, anthropologist are interested in ‘the other’ but now moving to anthropology of ‘self’ and issues which effect us. Since 70’s we have moved away from anthropology which used to be colonial. (would study anthropology to understand cultures to empower us, a science of ‘the other’)

 Situationalist in 1950’s think about ‘self’ in anthropological form as their work is completed embedded in their engagement with the environment and the city. Their objective was the encounter itself. They never aimed to even collect things from the outside world and bring them into a gallery space. ‘Situationalist wanted it to be art dialouge’. Their work is described as ‘Happenings’. Situationalists’ refused to show or perform anything for the art world as their work was the encounter of everyday life. Their manifesto was situationalist international  and citisied the surrealists. They were very left and said capitalism had manipulated the surrealists art.

Mauss ‘The gift’ – discusses potlatch about basics of contracts between social groups. Religious, mythological etc. This ‘gift’ is about status and how does society works.  You give yourself in giving other things. A social person is never just him or herself, you are constituted by everything around you and therefore your personage is formed by your distribution. Before the market exchange, the gift was the main form of exchange. 5000 years of debt’ by David Graver touches on how society is based on debt. Interestingly this is reflected in the Brexit negotiations which are also based around debt. Will British social structure break down because of leaving a group? The notion of the ‘gift’ – ritual which doesn’t actually mean ‘free gift’. What happened with these ideas of Mauss and the ‘gift’ as the internet opens up genuine exchange, or does it just open up communication which could not be genuine?

The idea of the gift is:

  • To give
  • To receive
  • To reciprocate.

(This is not always nicely done- its antagonist.)

  • Ethnography– studies humans making/replicating the social order through fieldwork.
  • Anthropology– to exam social structures and reproduction through analysing culture.

Alfred Gell asks: what is the function of art? Art is about action rather than representation. Many say that an artefact is defined by its function but that an artwork is its idea/concept but there is an argument that an artwork is the extension of a person. Anything which makes you think can be an artwork. It’s a work because it has ‘complex intentionality’ it’s a THOUGHT TRAP. The artist is already made up of everything surrounding her or him therefore surely their work is anthropological by nature?

Joseph Kosuth argues in ‘the artist as anthropologist’ that artist born to be an anthropologist, because the artist is outside of that community which he studies they are in  ‘Critical distance’. The artist becomes totally immersed, where as anthropologist is a scientist and as a scientist they are disengaged. His work sided with Enthrographical study which increased the notion of field work, living with the patterns of society. Malanovski and Mauss discussed how much to embed with locals or not. Sometimes people get too involved/ loose themselves in the other. Susan Hillar was criticised by getting too close because they thought she became too involved.


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