From a strict anthropological point of view, informed by the recent self-critical turn of the research, it is a debatable issue whether we should admit universals in art. It is equally an open question as to whether art is indeed a universal form of expression and communication. In what follows, we will attempt to lay down the conditions of the possibility of admission of universals in art as well as of considering art itself as one of these universals.
Anthropology has been formed as a social science in the course of 19th century and in the context of the great European colonial states. The European need to understand the non-Western world was concomitant with the desire to maximize the benefits acquired by the exploitation of the colonies. As a result, for a very long time, anthropology was based on empirical data and fieldwork, without really being concerned for its epistemological status as a science or with questioning its approaches to other cultures. This situation has radically changed in the course of the last 50 years, and anthropologists have systematically criticized the colonial, ethnocentric approach to other cultures as well as the epistemological basis and object of anthropology as a science. The term reflexive anthropology indicates that a scientific approach to non-Western societies is difficult and complex and, furthermore, requires both relentless critique and uncompromising alertness as far as questions of method are concerned. There is an increased awareness today of the perils and problems associated with central concepts like primitive art for example, which manifest a derogatory attitude to creative aspects of the material culture of non-Western societies, even when accompanied by the best intentions, as in the case of Franz Boas. This is the reason why the adjective primitive has almost unanimously been replaced by the term non-Western or small-scale. Apart from carefully scrutinizing terminology, anthropologists have recently turned their attention to their own society. In cooperation with the rest of human sciences and by implementing in their own society the approach reserved for non-Western societies, anthropologists have often generated impressive results of acute, hermeneutic analysis of Western institutions, customs, attitudes, and modes of behavior. One may here indicatively mention the pioneering work of Mary Douglas, or more recently of Jonathan Culler. If anthropologists tend to criticize the most intimate conventions of their own cultures, it is likely that they will be reluctant to accept unconditionally universals, which are conventions with cross-cultural application.
Art is a universal term that has been employed in the anthropological study of other cultures as an extension of its conventional use in the Western world. There are two interrelated problems concerning this employment: First, there is a serious problem of definition of art, even within European aesthetics, let alone in cultures that lack terms that even approximately translate as art, and second, the notion of art is an instrument of value if it remains undistinguished from fine art, a pervasive term in European culture with relatively recent origins in the 18th century, as Goehr indicates. To render a concept of art relatively functional in anthropology, it ought not be an instrument of value, restricted to fine art, but should rather be open and meant in the broadest way possible, to allow the analysis of objects from other cultures in their own terms. This is the reason why Anderson attempts to define art via skill and Layton via aesthetic factors, expressive considerations, and communication. However, anthropologists of art should not be limited by the objects included in any of the Western categories of art or by the Western aesthetic categories. Should art serve as a category of cultural differentiation, it needs to be a very accepting category and should indeed arise out of a thorough and careful consideration of all related contexts, attributes, and conditions as they apply to each and every unique case studied.
In the Western world, by “art,” we mostly mean painting and sculpture. In few cases, anthropologists are able to transfer this concept intact to other cultures without making any adjustments. In most cases, they are obliged to adopt a concept that encompasses craft, folk art, the ethnographic artifact, as well as music, dance, architecture, and literary arts, such as myths, proverbs, stories, songs, and the like. The European distinctions between high and low arts or between fine and practical arts are not operative in most of the small-scale societies. Provided that the material culture of each small-scale society comes first and that the anthropologist is willing to respect this priority, we can find recourse to a great number of definitions for art that anthropologists have furnished us with in the course of their research. Such definitions are interesting not solely for analyzing objects of small-scale societies but also for European culture too. For the study of non-European art has always been intrinsically connected with the interests and research in Western art history and aesthetics.
Art is thus defined through the institutions of society, by recourse to the intention of the artist, to the attributes of the objects, and in connection with the reception of these objects. There is always a complex interrelation between individual intention, interpretative context, and institutional or attributive definitions that ultimately depends on additional parameters, such as the time and place of the object creation, tradition and the general circumstance of creation, and presentation and reception of the object. Skill, function, religious or ritual meanings, ideas, and aesthetic and expressive factors are attributes, which help understand and delimit artistic objects. We usually find recourse to the category of art when it is impossible to include material objects in more narrowly defined categories. In such circumstances, we have had several definitions of art professed by the field experts: Morphy claims that artistic objects have semantic and/or aesthetic properties used for presentational or representational purposes and that art in general is a system of meaning and communication. Gell has defined art as the technology of enchantment. Lévi-Strauss defines art as an ordering system of signs and communication, like language. Anderson maintains that all cultures recognize as artworks certain human-made, material artifacts of significant cultural meaning and of exceptional mental or manual skill, produced in media that make sensuous effects, and sharing stylistic conventions with objects of proximate geographical and temporal origin. Finally, Layton considers artwork as a ritualistic symbol.
The role of the artist varies significantly from one culture to the other. The artist may incarnate a genius, an idea that is still popular in Europe due to the legacy of romanticism, or may simply be an artisan who knows how to apply the conventions inherited by a cultural tradition, performs a social function, and is indistinguishable from his or her audience. In some societies, the artists are among the privileged classes, and in others they enjoy no distinction whatever. In most cases, however, the artist is that person who has a certain technical aptitude, a capacity of doing or fabricating something that reproduces and propagates the values of the society in which he or she lives. Very often, the artist must conform to certain typologies and rules governing the fabrication of objects and is therefore judged in accordance with them and not by recourse to the intention of producing something. On the other hand, the Eskimo wood-carver works without any intention whatever and in the process accidentally “discovers” a form out of this aimless carving.
When it comes to the category of artwork, the research interests of European and American art history that have placed the emphasis either on form or on meaning and function have always conditioned it. Until the 1960s, the analyses of artworks and culturally significant objects aimed at (a) integrating them in evolutionary or diffusionist hypotheses, (b) revealing their formal properties, or (c) creating types associated with culture areas, tribes, or schools. Since the 1960s, the increasing interest in meaning formation and symbolism has generated a lot of studies of artworks and elements of material culture, often from an interdisciplinary vantage point that combined anthropology, archaeology, art history, and aesthetics and aimed at exploring both meaning and form. The most revealing approach to form is usually through function. What an object does and what it is used for better discloses details of its construction and shape, although there are many cases of practical objects, like weapons and other quotidian, highly decorated tools, whose function is independent from its artistic decoration and only appropriated by it. Artworks and other significant cultural objects perform a number of functions: Biebuyck reports how such objects are used in male initiation ceremonies among the Lega of Central Africa, and Morphy demonstrates the association of art with the sacred and with images of ancestral power in Yolngu, an Australian Aboriginal people. Often possessing artworks is a sign of power and prestige and secures the status, rank, and control of leaders like in the Tiv, the people of North Nigeria. This is the reason why access by the public to such artworks is either limited or prohibited and, in any case, remains strictly regulated by those who possess or safeguard them. Artworks supplement the social rituals, help maintain the traditions and reproduce the existent hierarchies, become emblems that reflect the unity of social groups, and at times, house the spirits and therefore bring health and success in the endeavors of those that carry them. Form captures semantic, aesthetic, and functional properties of the object; how a formal trait is encoded influences its meaning and effect to others. Artworks and other significant objects generate meaning in an immense variety of ways, which depend on form, function, context, and reception. In any case, understanding this meaning by cultural outsiders requires a careful acknowledgement of all the previously mentioned parameters as well as their integration in large-scale social and cultural settings.
Cultural outsiders always face the temptation and challenge to group things under the heading of style. Style, according to Morphy, denotes the way an object formally communicates meaning and concerns the properties of the work considered as symbol. But style also refers to the formal ways in which different artifacts are similar to each other and may ultimately lead to structural distinctions and properties of the social or cultural system. In his 1962 authoritative study of style, the art historian Meyer Schapiro defined style as a system of forms with quality and meaningful expression, revealing the artist and his world. He even stated how modern artists feel a spiritual kinship with those of primitive societies due to their frank and intense expression and their effective participation in collective life. However, he still called for an adequate theory of style that would thoroughly meet the historical problems and address, at a deeper level, the principles of form construction, the problems of expression, and the processes of social life and emotional behavior. Schapiro had probably sensed the limitations of his theory, which basically point to the problems of the concept of style itself, stemming from its neat separation between form and meaning, between decorative and semantic elements, and from its strong presupposition of creative agency and motivation, behind the form. However, the separation of form and meaning cannot be absolute, let alone the fact that in many cases of European as well as non-European art, this binary opposition hardly makes any sense.
Style may be a useful concept to the extent that it leads to summoning structural aspects of art and culture, such as principles of representation. Tracing such principles of representation does not mean deciphering whether the evolution of motifs in visual arts works from figurative icons to abstract, noniconic patterns or vice versa, although for a very long time and until Boas’s radical criticism of cultural evolutionism, anthropologists were extremely preoccupied with such concerns. Boas authoritatively established that abstract and figurative designs have a long and ancient history that reaches back almost 30,000 years; they emerge independently in different contexts but may also coexist or succeed each other within the same civilization. Thus, style concerns more than questions of technique and method, since it has been noted that civilizations with relatively similar technical methods and apparatuses produce different styles.
Style may also be conscious or unconscious depending on whether it is based or not on explicit motivation. Stylistic conventions like color signification are arbitrary no matter whether they denote likeness or stylization. The concept of style can be studied as a vessel for the crystallization of religious, moral, and social values and for communicating them via the emotional impact of forms. These functions of style allow art objects to be evaluated: In the case of figurative designs, objects are valued in relation to the extent to which they comply with the original represented, whereas in cases of abstract or geometrical patterns, objects have to comply to definite rules passed on by tradition. The process of evaluation is usually reserved for powerful people, who are familiar with stylistic conventions, object placement, context, and how such objects integrate in the larger socioeconomic and religious issues. In cases of geometrical or abstract stylistic conventions of small-scale societies, Western anthropologists must make an extra effort to familiarize themselves with the traditions of such societies if they ever hope to decipher meanings and worldviews.
Still, however, familiarization with tradition and stylistic conventions vitally depends on the world-views of the observer. A case in point is the issue of split representation, which has drawn attention by many anthropologists. Split representation refers to a design technique in the art of the North American, northwest coast that Boas was among the first to study. However, Lévi-Strauss remarks the analogies of this design technique in areas such as China, Siberia, and New Zealand, which are incompatible geographically and historically. Split representation refers to the painted figure of an animal, divided in half all across its body and open in its interior, in an elaborative, symmetrical manner, representing one individual in front view with two profiles. Split representation is employed for decorative purposes of quotidian objects, like globes, boxes, and columns. For Layton, the motivation behind split representation is the desire to represent well, accurately, and from all possible points of view the elements of the animal figure. For Lévi-Strauss, the recurrence of this specific representational method among different cultures so widely separated in time and space denotes a deeper meaning, namely, a deeper and more fundamental splitting between the dumb biological individual and the social person whom he must embody. Split representation thus denotes the personality split, the contrast between the actor and his or her role, and the societal request of strict conformity between this actor and his or her role, a favorite motif in French philosophy and psychoanalysis at the time of Lévi-Strauss’s texts. The difference between the two views is relative to the difference between two conceptions of anthropology: on one hand, anthropology as a social science of fieldwork, data, empirical analysis, and a limited number of general conclusions and on the other hand, anthropology as a social science that uses fieldwork to extract general principles and universals concerning kinship, social organization, religion, mythology, art, and the like and to establish those key motifs that may explain the vast syncretism of life forms.
The example of split representation makes clear how the approach to non-Western, representational techniques becomes an occasion that brings on surface our own differences, in values, thought, writing, and methods. The recent shift of interest in anthropology toward the study and understanding of presently existing societies probably has to do with the realization that we Westerners, who seek to know the other, are fundamentally unknown to ourselves. The anthropological attitudes of uncompromising thinking, critical alertness, and careful reflection ought now to be also directed to our world in order not only to explain the differences that Westerners have between them but also to learn from them. Art can indeed be a bridge between Western and non-Western worlds, but has recently been revealed as also a means to better appreciate and safeguard the diversity of Western world.
- Anderson, R. L., & Field, K. L. (Eds.). (1993). Art in small-scale societies: Contemporary readings. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Coote J., & Shelton, A. (Eds.). (1992). Anthropology, art, and aesthetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Layton, R. (1991). The anthropology of art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Morphy, H. (1991). Ancestral connections: Art and an aboriginal system of Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Schapiro, M. (1994). Theory and philosophy of art: Style, artist, and society. New York: Braziller.