Saturday, February 18, 2012

Shape Shifting into ART -- Day 42

Walk: R/T Mindful Body, Teach class
Distance: 8 Blocks plus teach

My docent friends who are continuing their training are beginning their semester of 'AOA,' (African, Oceanic, Art of the Americas). Some call AOA 'Tribal Art,' 'Primitive Art," 'Primal Arts,' 'First Art,' and there are constant new categorizations, so check with us tomorrow before making that presentation. The field, especially the museum world, is embroiled in the "problem of the name" as they work to leave the colonial world behind and be as culturally sensitive as possible in presenting these objects that have shape shifted into art.

But they don't fully understand what cultural sensitivity means either. They seem to know words like 'myth' and 'magic' bring up associations with outdated, disrespectful stereotypes, and that words like 'works' are more culturally neutral. But there is a long way to go - tracking down people in the field when the works were discovered, interviewing them, relearning, learning more deeply and completely 'works' in their collections. Etc, etc, etc. - impossible really especially if you are dealing with vanished and ancient civilizations.

So far the docent semester is two weeks old, and these weeks have been devoted almost entirely to issues of fakes, forgeries, authentication, and the above issues of naming.

I don't know how I'd relate to such training. It really isn't the docent's job to get into authentication issues - although certainly they have to be aware they exist. In the 1980's I actually sold such art (or works) in a gallery. Making the sale was mostly a matter of saying "we can't be sure.." "probably..." "most likely it was ceremonial, or religious or utilitarian." Then object (bowl, door, shield, cloth fragment, etc) was presented and possibly sold largely on the basis of aesthetic appeal: line, color, balance, harmony, expressive impact combined with probable historic period, possible artist, history of how the object arrived in the gallery to be sold which alluded to authenticity.

It was a blurry sale at best and a bit unsatisfying to me as the salesperson. I would imagine
presenting objects/works at a museum would also be blurry and unsatisfying - particularly with the controversies that swirl around the whole field and the types of minds that thrive on splitting hairs. If you haven't guessed, I do not have such a mind.

Here's an example of what you'd have to bring to bear to a work from New Guinea (New Guinea 'works' make up a large part of the de Young collection): New Guinea works span the time from 300 (or earlier) BC to the present where contemporary objects can perfectly duplicate works from other eras. Along with the difficulties in chronology are difficulties related to the fact that there are over 800 languages in New Guinea and each language group has its own culture.

So, what are you presenting? Really you have to do what I did when I sold: Say 'we believe..' 'the museum is quite sure..' and then interest the viewer in the materials, balance, form, etc.
And certainly these formal elements can be almost awesome in their presence. But even here, there is more beyond the impactful visuals as many works have been stripped of some of their physical Properties when they were discovered in the field and before they were shipped out of their native country to museums, individual collectors, dealers, galleries, etc. For instance the work below is now known to have had thick, hairlike raffia around its head and a long, ladder like body.

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