Anthropology Of Art Contributions To Art History Cultural Studies Essay

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A global competition can be imagined, on the first glance at the juxtaposition of cultural anthropology and art history, into which every nation, all the ethnic groups who have ever lived on the earth, are invited to attend. Some of them respond willingly and gladly, others do not show any interest, or prefer to remain in auditorium, and the significant point is that there is a third group, who neither accept nor decline simply because they have not received any invitation. What's the prize for such a great event? A pair of glasses: spectacles to view all the nations in the world, in terms of history (ancient people) or geography (different societies throughout the globe), and to observe their ways and customs and everything. These glasses are called Anthropology. And it's easy to understand that when the competition for winning them started, most people were not even aware of their existence. The amazing thing is that, although several oriental civilizations had started to produce monographs and itineraries since much earlier, introducing many anthropological aspects and particularities, it was western scholars who won the competition and painted the above mentioned prize with every color they desired.

One of the most accurate meanings of cultural anthropology, beyond any doubt, has been offered by Sir Edward Tylor, a British anthropologist and the reputable pioneer in this field, in a repeatedly quoted sentence he wrote right at the beginning of his 1897 book:

 "Culture, or civilization, taken in its broad, ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society." [1] 

Tylor, with his plutonian argumentation, could provide a rather democratic view of concepts like 'culture', 'art', and 'society', however, it's difficult to believe that he was aware, or even could accept, that all the ethnic groups who took part in the above mentioned competition, and also the ones who didn't, played a distinguished role in constructing the history of art. Western scholars had won the anthropological glasses to use them in observing other cultures just as scientific samples, not as counterparts of their own culture. Therefore, any comparison made between the anthropology of art and art history would inevitably affected by a westernized point of view. While art historians could hardly go on without seeking any help from archaeologists, ethnologists and orientalists, anthropologists simply ignored their achievements for centuries and put a long and deep gap between the eastern art history and the western one. Having this in mind, the present discussion tries to take a deeper look to this gap, to find parallelisms between the cultural anthropology and the historical periods of western art, and to discover the effects they have exchanged during their two- or three hundred years of living together.

A historical relationship

Just a glance at the history of intercultural relationships between western nations and the so-called oriental societies is enough to pose this question into mind that why anthropologists, for a very long time, didn't show any interest to collaborate with ethnographers, archaeologists and sociologists to gain a better knowledge about other people throughout the world. One answer is to be found in the dominant way of thinking during an important historical period, the Enlightenment. It is known that most European thinkers of the 17th century understood all cultures other than their own as something exotic - unknown, interesting and exciting, but rather inferior, often immoral or even inhumane. As Marvin Harris puts it:

"Toleration of alien ways is a characteristic attitude among Descartes, Vico, Voltaire, Diderot, Montesquieu, Turgot, Helvetius, and many other famous Enlightenment authors; but this toleration should not be confused with moral indifference or genuine cultural relativism. By the same token, moral commitment should not be equated with the lack of a culture concept." [2] 

With this kind of attitude, anthropology stood in a farther distance with art and its epoch-making elements. And the poor informed interest led to emerging several pseudo-oriental movements in different fields of art like music, painting and literature. A good example is Mozart, who, having heard the ottoman military band called YeniÒ«eri, made an effort to recreate a kind of 'Turkish' music in pieces like 'Turkish Marsh' and 'Die Entführung aus dem Serail' ('The Abduction from the Harem', K 384), but ended up with a music which could satisfy only a western ear. [3] Thus, an anthropological approach towards art and culture didn't come forward until the 19th century, when the western scholars, the winners of 'Anthropological Glasses', could finally accept that culture is human nature, and does not exist only in 'western' human nature.

The 19th Century: non-western cultures do exist, non-western art doesn't

Assuming a cultural dimension for other ethnic groups was an important step to connect different intellectual activities, like art, to anthropology. But accepting any principles for defining an artistic work, out of boundaries of western intelligence and knowledge, didn't seem possible yet. In other words, although nobody could deny that many non-western countries own a profound, ancient civilization, imagining their 'primitive' art as something with formal genres and styles didn't look very easy from a western point of view. One example is Hegel, who despite his faith to a global evolutionary mental process called the World Spirit (or Mind)

"… deigns to consider China and India worthy of antiquarian interest, [and] he is convinced that these countries have no further role to play in world affairs." [4] 

The good news is that Romantic era had its own useful characteristics, one of which being a common enthusiasm for discerning national identity more precisely in the major part of western world. In many European countries, artists in different fields of expertise tried to display individual and more authentic traits as clearly as possible. In music and performing arts, paying attention to particular characteristics in this or that European culture led to creating collections of local pieces, both instrumental and vocal, as well as loyal - to - authenticity operas like 'Carmen' by Bizet. In terms of understanding the identity, forming a national group of musical experts, 'The Five', in Russia can be a good example. [5] New developments in technology provided a profound resource of help and support for visual artists to study the original form of every image and depict them with authentic care. [6] This 'self-ethnicizing' and 'nostalgic' kind of cultural studies [7] found a counterpart not in anthropology itself, but in its closest collaborator, ethnology. Ethnologists, like artists, at that time were dealing with a big dilemma: If different manifestations of civilization, including art and language, in some human races can be ranked higher than others, then why different groups of people developed similar beliefs and practices in apparently independent ways? Lewis H. Morgan's answer was that because they must have passed the same 'cultural evolution':

"The achievements of civilized man, although very great and remarkable are nevertheless very far from sufficient to eclipse the works of man as a barbarian. As such he had wrought out and possessed all the elements of civilization, excepting alphabetic writing. His achievements as a barbarian should be considered in their relation to the sum of human progress; and we may be forced to admit that they transcend, in relative importance, all his subsequent works." [8] 

Thus, ethnology and art, in a parallel approach, finally turned to an 'anti-racist', realistic and almost unbiased assessment of cultures. By the late 19th century another important thing occurred, which changed the image of enculturation and socialization, and questioned the presence of the deep gap between 'civilized societies' and 'primitive others': colonialism. A closer contact with other cultures, this time through pragmatists not theorists, put an emphasis on this fact that various people, either in a modern society with advanced technology or in an undeveloped tribe with the most basic lifestyle can provide interesting subject matters for cultural anthropologists, who'd better not "simply use their imagination to invent other cultural worlds". [9] 

The 20th century: non-western culture and art do exist, now what to do about it?

Colonialism, bitter and harsh to many 'occupied' nations, had its own merits, especially in terms of expanding the horizons for different cultural fields. Anthropologists started to analyze accurate data, collected by their ethnologist colleagues through fieldwork. Artists became perceptibly familiar with the whole new world of 'exotic' cultures through artifacts which had been imported directly from their origin. Paris international exhibitions, for example, provided an ideal loco for transmitting exotic ideas to the western world. Their artistic outcomes could be seen in architecture, painting and music. Impressionists like Toulouse-Lautrec were not afraid of expressing their fondness towards Chinese visual art and use its elements in their work. [10] Some artists, like Gauguin, showed an even more passionate enthusiast and travelled to live in those exciting 'exotic paradises'. And then there was a group of artists who were born in a part of colonial world, e.g. Albert Camus. All these paved the way for a new path in art history, which became more and more anthropological and authentic. Now was the time for both artists and art anthropologists to go and see themselves - to act in place of ethnographers. Because

"Ethnographers might lie. They might be brilliant. They might be government spies, or worse, revolutionaries. In an anxious history, the drive to rethink culture must engage with diversity, media, commerce and yet is nothing if it does not encourage the opening of minds that only transgressive questioning can ensure." [11] 

While cultural anthropology was compiling its own independent principles, modernism in art tried to depict a façade of art which followed its own principles and didn't care that much for popularity or authenticity. However, experiencing two catastrophic world wars taught both of them to reflect the voice of their severely suffered communities. And this very factor proved to be the crossing point of these parallel lines: anthropology as mind and art as heart of a global culture. This resulted in one of the most popular phenomena of the contemporary world: hybrid art, a form which contains both original and foreign elements, with equal status of importance. Original details are verified through principles; foreign traits must show a degree of authenticity, rooted in anthropological grounds. Though, in Thomas Reuter words:

"…the mind of a multicultural individual is [not] a cognitive blender in which different cultures are pulped into a mush of basic components which constitutes a new kind of mixed-up, hybrid culture. What they reveal instead is the individual mind as an inner space populated by a community of separate cultural selves which all reflect experiences and competencies pertaining to different social settings or cultural worlds." [12] 


Now that a global multiculturalism is apparent and also very popular in most parts of the world, it seems true that anthropology tends to play an increasingly significant role in art, either the contemporary or the historical one. And few art styles can be found which doesn't show any trace of anthropological studies, even if on the slightest level of hearing about this or that ethnic feature. Cultural anthropology has provided a vast ground for historical and history-making art to flourish.