Thursday, November 13, 2008

What counts as art? Context!

As I walked my way through the museum, I realized I didn`t seem to value the pre-columbian or the chinese exhibits in the same way I did with the Western Renaissance paintings collection. Some time ago, I had the exact same feeling while visiting a North American Native museum: I just couldn`t bring myself to seeing the beauty, the catharsis and the meaning of the collection. It was dry. All I saw were everyday life items, like shoes or belts or wooden sticks, and all of them said to me `mundane`, `banal`, `pragmatic`.

Every now and then, I would notice the craftmanship. I would spend time to look at the detail, trying to appreciate the exquisit skills needed to saw or to sculpt, and yet it was not art to my eyes. A recent conversation made me realized the hierarhical categorization system shaping my vision of things: craftmanship was not art. And why is that, I wonder? Is it the fact that I`ve been taught to draw a very fine distinction between art, High Art, and crafts, folklore? It is not sophisticated enough, I was told. Hierarchies of class were no doubt at play in classifying something as art or craft. Art belongs to museums. Crafts to fairs. Art is exhibited. Crafts are an amusement.

And hierarchies of class melt into nationalism: folk is what the proto-nation does, what the nation`s intellectuals collect and catalogue to prove the persistance of the nation. But art is what the established-nation seeks to create so that it reclaims its place in the cultural Pantheon of the world.

But that was not all: beyond class and national(ist) histories, or maybe together with them, there was something else at play in my classification of something as art versus craft. I looked at the China porcelain and I remembered the ones we had at home. Chinese porcelain was very popular with our grandparents`generation (again, as a sign of social status). I thought of the Western context in which Chinese porcelain became an important signifier of social class, of being of part of aristocracy. But beyond this, there was nothing else I could use or rely upon in making sense of the symbols, the images and the colors.

Show me any Western Renaissance painting or sculpture and I`ll easily talk about it for hours... I`ll see the links with the previous works, with the historical context, with the religious context, with the everyday life context... And that`s the key: CONTEXT. Today, as I looked at the pre-columbian exhibits, I could not make any sense of them. I could not place them within a context, within a network of relations that provides meaning. The only experience they could provide was the one accesible through my senses, and that was not satisfactory enough. I guess I should start reading more about non-Western histories before I can claim myself an intellectual...
Photo Credits: Mark Cartwright

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