Genesis by Dislocation: Evolution by Utility and the Object d’Art

This was presented at the Chisel Art annual international conference on art, art history and culture, hosted in the Emami Chisel Art Gallery in Kolkata. In 2010, when this paper was presented, the conference was titled  “Dislocation, Disorder and Dehoming: Is Art Withering Away?”. The paper is a response to the title.

It was published as the lead essay in Chisel Art’s magazine ArtEtc, Vol. 2 No. 3, in January 2011.

It’s long. Quite long. You’ve been warned 🙂

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Genesis by Dislocation: Evolution by Utility and the Object d’Art

There is a global cultural tendency to associate art and artists with the proverbial political left, if not the slightly alarming ‘radical’ margins of society. In fact, the word ‘artist’ conjures up, for the popular imagination, an entity that deliberately scorns the more cherished values of the mainstream: hard and materially productive work, stable finances, and a sterling moral character, advertised bodily by conventional clothes, and socially by a  (heterosexual) family.

The artist-stereotype, of course, breaks every one of these social expectations. Apart from his assumed radicalism that constantly threatens the social fabric, his supposed scorn for traditional social institutions, and his mandatory tangly-haired, baggy-clothed scruffiness, he is also frequently depicted—especially in societies that can afford state-sponsorship for the arts—as a leech that sucks sustenance from society without giving anything tangibly beneficial.  With constant cultural reinforcement, this image has acquired such power that some artists internalise it as the true representation of their field (cf. Bourdieu 1977) and reproduce it as their habitus, thus reifying a crude, marginalising, easily-attacked and largely inaccurate generalisation of a skilled profession.

This success of the economic and social mainstream in creating the public image of a supposedly ‘alternative’ field, and the subsequent internalisation and reproduction of that image by the inhabitants of said field—usually to emphasise their distance and difference from the mainstream—is a textbook hegemonic function, and therefore not surprising. However, to state that the image of an artist as a scruffy, troublemaking young man is an illusion sponsored by the profit-driven, market-centric mainstream, would be battling one simplistic cliché with another. Particularly since art is, and has been, a thriving sector of investment that measures returns in both incremental economic value of art objects, and the social prestige of possessing them.

Why, then, is there this disparity between the actual import of art in society, and it’s perceived dislocation from it? And how does the location of value in art fit into the narrative of socio-economic globalisation that consumes us today?

In his opening remarks, Dr. Mukhopadhyay discusses the economic and social factors that enabled (imperial) colonialism of yore, and its current counterpart, a corporate-dominated global market economy. These successive models of territorial and economic control, he posits, are the structural root of the current globalised world-order. His view is widely held, and is undoubtedly accurate. However, I would like to suggest that accuracy need not necessarily render an analysis complete. And that in keeping our eye trained on the economic and the political variables, we have excluded from the historical narrative the initial enabler of both those, and of the European colonial enterprise—objects of artistic and cultural production.

Here I wish to clarify that when I say ‘objects of artistic production’, I do not merely mean self-conscious art, art that is aware of its sole and unique aesthetic function, and its creator of his or her role as a producer of discrete cultural artefacts. I refer to the kinds of artistry that was inherent in all processes of commercial production—textile weaving, stone-masonry, metal works, pottery, various forms of painting and sculpting (in view of the current position of ‘ethnic’ cuisines as a global consumer commodity, I’m tempted to add ‘cooking’ to the list). Analysis of global trading from the period attest that the colonial system rose to greater glories not merely on the creation of territories to supply raw materials to, and closed markets to consume finished products from European industrial units, but also on the booming consumer market for real and imitation ‘artistic’ products crafted in various parts of the European colonies. Indeed, localised forms of artistic production seems to have been to colonial economy what offshore-technology is to the modern one: it required intensive training, had an enormous international market, provided dubiously-remunerated employment (in comparison to the profits made by the employing company), and its products were a mark of social status for the consumer.

But the similarity ends there, more or less, because however superfluous they may be to basic biological survival, modern technological devices have a specific kind of utility that is necessary to the social survival of the contemporary consumer. The prominent exotica consumed by the colonial states—Chinese jade figurines, engraved ivory boxes, silk thankas, miniatures, masks, ornate canes and daggers, painted porcelain, indigenous apparels, shell and feather jewellery et al—had no conventional utility at all in European households. Or, if that is a debatable generalisation, in such European households as could afford them. In particular, objects associated with spirituality, magic or worship, or objects used as currency in non-cash economies—masks, idols, ‘fetish’ figurines, thankas, shell and bead jewellery—lost their ‘authentic’ meaning when divorced from their cultural contexts, and sometimes lost these meanings permanently as colonisers destroyed their cultures of origin or recast them along European lines. The recession of the traditional social function brought forth a newly-acquired aesthetic function, and a new social role as the signifier of their owners’ cosmopolitanism. I say ‘newly-acquired’ because in their original geo-cultural location, the socio-spiritual import of these objects eclipsed their identity as aesthetic objects.

We can conclude from this that for certain a historical period at least, the transference of a cultural object from the field of spiritual/material utility to that of artistic production was caused by its dislocation from the social and geographical space of its creation. This is not to imply, however, that the object thus aestheticised had no utility. Indeed, nothing could be farther from the truth; apart from indicating its owner’s social and financial standing, such objects soon became subjects of academic enquiry, especially of anthropologists and area studies experts. But this newly-acquired academic utility was a delayed function of the objects’ relocation, and neither this nor the artistic function could be classified with the daily, imperative utility of being a conduit to the gods, or a means of payment for goods or services availed. The former, while retaining the ability to form a collective identity around itself—’experts on the Kula armbands and necklaces of the Trobriand islands’, for example—presented this identity as a choice (the Kula expert could switch speciality to pata-chitras). Thus, it lacked the power of defining a closed totality, a reality that is formed by excluding, out of ignorance or informed choice, every other available lifestyle or worldview (in this case, the Trobriand or East-Indian folk Hindu worldview).

It is in this situation above, I believe, that the discourse of contemporary globalisation has its root. Local forms of utilitarian production, whose artistic potential may or may not have been realised, were geographically and culturally dislocated and relocated, their ‘authentic’ function erased, their status as object d’art established, and then, after establishing a certain amount of local familiarity with these objects, enquiry into their erased histories began, leading to a transnational contact of cultures at a level other than trade or war—the two traditionally dominant methods so far.

However, that is not to imply this post-war cultural process was beyond the scope of parameters of power and violence, applied differently. In fact, they helped consolidate the global power structures of the colonial period in a different guise. In its initial stages, at least, anthropology, geological surveying, cultural expertise and similar disciplines served to underscore the ethno-cultural power-tilt of the time, that has persisted and shaped the current global system. After all, if one culture can permanently alter, influence, or destroy another culture, make it an object of academic enquiry, and displace objects vital to its social survival—and all of it without first seeking consent from the other culture—the hierarchy does not need much emphasising.

Having thus located the process of creation of one kind of object d’art and, in turn, its role in the creation of the contemporary global order, it is interesting to note how the process evolved to the the situation today, where we feel compelled to question the possible withering away of art, both with and without a capital ‘A’. The first century that was perceptibly flush with this phenomenon of redefinition-by-displacement of social artefacts was followed by the centuries of utilitarianism, the slow disintegration of European colonialism, wars, and a major shift in technological processes. Consequently, the social- artefact-to-art-object paradigm that was largely applied cross-culturally during the peak of European colonialism readjusted its boundaries to draw upon objects of extra-aesthetic functions that had outlived those specific utilities. For example, in the reproduced map of Australia included (Image 1), images have been used to convey the location of threats and resources. Conceivably, similar maps would have been of great help in the early days of colonial expansion, as Europeans of all social classes—and therefore of diverse literacy levels—flooded the globe and tried to interpret the unfamiliar in familiar terms, or failing which, depict them in a more universally accessible way.

Image 1: A picture-map denoting Australia in terms of popularly-known cultural markers.

However, now that the unknown continent is culturally and politically a part of the Caucasian ‘west’, and considerably more is known about it, maps such as this have lost their original utility. But they have acquired new utility, both as an indicator of the level of knowledge of settlers at the time of its creation, and an artistic object of cultural import. Similar artistic status is now bestowed upon even older and, by modern standards, even more inaccurate maps, most remarkable of which is the 16th century Lenox Globe, which authoritatively marks the Pacific-east Asia region with the warning, “Hic Sunt Dracones [here be dragons]”. Of course, contemporary research shows ‘here be dragons’ was a term used in early cartography to mark unknown territories, but that knowledge does not take away from the semi-indulgent affection that propels sales of posters and framed copies of this particular map.

As I have stated earlier, therefore, there is a clear connection—an almost reciprocal cause-and-effect connection—between the roots of contemporary globalisation (I insist on the rider ‘contemporary’ because the world has gone through several kinds of global orders within known human history) and the expansion of ‘art’ and art objects to include commodities whose aesthetic potential had been till then largely unrecognised. In some cases the new status of these art objects was brought about by the destruction of the cultures that produced them, just lending uniqueness to the surviving pieces. But if we agree that the roots of modern globalisation lay in, or at least coincided with, the expansion of object d’art as a commodifiable category, then the question posed by this seminar should strike us as even more baffling. What could be happening now to overturn the steadily-expanding sphere of artistic production of three and counting centuries, and its incremental economic worth? After all, even in the twenty-first century, when a consumer-good tries to justify its exorbitant price in terms beyond tangible utility, it inevitably falls back upon the culturally-viable marketing ploy of labelling itself ‘a work of art’. Why, then, is there concern about art—or Art—withering away?

Personally, I can only offer this: like any other sphere of production, artistic production has reached a certain saturation in levels of originality and innovation after three centuries of steady growth. Temporarily, therefore, it has reached a period of relative stasis, compared to its earlier dynamism. This period is marked by both hopeful experimentation and thoughtful self-exploration. The result, in part, has been a conscious shift from the art-as-commodity mode of discrete production, to art-as-social-production mode. Instead of expanding the sphere of objects d’art, Art has extended itself to more non-tangible forms—like live performances and social documentation using traditional and digital media—while preserving and experimenting with the more normative forms. These breaks from expected forms might give the impression of occasional ‘withering away’, but really it is a further addition to an already wide and diverse field that will enrich and nurture it. Indeed, Art might very soon start living up to its explicitly political, rebellious public image. And revel in it.

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