How Not to Be an Idiot when Looking at Art of the Non-West

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Okay, before we get started here, let me explain that my field is decidedly Western Art (with those capital letters and all). Broadly, I study European art from the 18th through the 20th century, but my focus is on French drawing of the 18th century. I minored in Islamic art, which means I have been exposed to it over the course of three graduate-level classes, and understand the basics, but am in no way an expert. I know next to nothing about the art I'm discussing today (which is why I'm trying to use mostly Western examples, because that's what I know). But I have some important things to say.

Last night, I attended an event at the Rubin Museum of Art, which is the only (I believe) museum in the Western world dedicated to the art of the Himalayas. We were given a tour of their fabulous collection of pieces from Nepal's Kathmandu Valley, and then watched a performance of traditional dances with music, before enjoying a veritable feast of Nepalese food. But it's the tour and the art I want to talk about now. I'll admit that the tour guide was pretty abysmal, and it was clear she had no idea about any of the art on display. But what really struck me were the comments made by some of my fellow tour participants. Comments such as: "I don't like these paintings. I only like the sculptures because they have more artistic integrity [what the hell is that?] since the painting is so repetitive" and "That goddess [referring to Durga] with all of those arms sure must be able to get a lot of housework done!" And it occurred to me that even seemingly educated and thoughtful people sometimes just don't know how to look at the art of another culture. And both of the (incidentally older white males mentioned above) sure as hell didn't know how. So in order to spare you similar embarrassment and ugly glares from fellow art-lookers, I'm going to give you a few things to think about.

1) We in the West think of art as necessarily striving to accurately represent the "real world." And when it doesn't, such as in the many avant-gardes that developed at the end of the 19th century, we read those styles as rebelling against this ideal. But the ideal is foundational nevertheless. The thing to understand, is that our artistic heritage is grounded in the arts of Mediterranean antiquity, of the Greeks and the Romans. It is specifically to them we owe this assumption that art ought to be realistic and illusionistic. (Illusionism means giving the illusion of being real.) This is not the universal purpose of art.

The Rottgen Pieta, c. 1300-1325. See, not realistic, but definitely emotionally evocative.

Some art (like Medieval art, for example, Egyptian art, and Buddhist art as far as I can tell) is not interested in merely replicating as close as possible a likeness to nature. Instead, art is used as a medium through which to express ideas completely outside the realm of nature. When you look at what appears to be a crude Medieval sculpture, for example, it bears keeping in mind that the intent was not to represent accurately a likeness to Christ, but to transmit through the sculpture itself the essence of a divine being, made human. Thus the emphasis on a suffering Christ during this period. Rather than being in the service of accurate representation, the body is sculpted with an eye toward eliciting emotion.

2) We in the West assume that the most important person involved in the art-making process is the artist. The artist represents the singular genius, capable of great masterpieces. This is also an idea particular to the Western world, and a relatively recent development, to boot. It has not always been like this, and in fact, it wasn't until the development of the art market (again in the late 19th century) that the artist became the single most important factor. Before the 18th century, artists worked for guilds, which produced objects rather collectively. Even during the 18th and 19th centuries, great artists kept studios where they helped to educate students by doling out relatively unimportant passages of their own paintings to be completed by their pupils. Although the master's name was the only one to appear on the finished work, it was common for pieces to be the product of collective efforts.

So when you're faced with work that originated outside of the Western context, it would be good if you could keep in mind the fact that the artist's identity might not be the most important facet of that piece.

J-L David, Oath of the Horatti, 1784 - David's student Drouais was supposed to paint the figure of Camilla (the most important of the women in the story) by himself. It ended up that David hated Drouais' rendition of her, and completely redid it, but still, Drouais had his shot and the picture would have been no less David's had Drouais' image of Camilla remained.

3) This might be my most important point, and it's related to point number two. The idea of the singular artistic "genius" is bound up with the cult of the artist, which I described above. We in the West have been taught that the history of our art has followed some kind of linear path of development, which culminates in the modern (or post-modern, or post-post-modern) period. And the way we're taught that is through studying specific artists and the changes they made to the cannon (which, by the way, is a construct to begin with, but that's another post). Not all art is so self-consciously obsessed with development, revolution and originality. Some art is self-consciously obsessed with tradition, continuity and convention. For example, Islamic miniature painters were celebrated for their ability to maintain tradition, and to be so practiced in their specialties that they could paint without the benefit of sight (although that's a bit of mythologizing for you right there). Although artists always put their own mark on their works, it is crucial that you not judge another culture's artistic output based on it's willingness or resistance to constant change. Sometimes, change is not the friggin' point.

4) Please, whatever you do, do not use terms like "artistic integrity" to talk about, well, anything. That doesn't mean shit, and it will single you out immediately as being full of crap. Full of judgmental, self-righteous crap. And we don't want any of that.


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