The anthropology of art: A reader
Howard Morphy and Morgan Perkins (eds), Blackwell Publishing, Carlton Victoria, 2006.
ISBN-13: 978-1-4051-0562-0 (pbk). RRP A$54.95
review by June Ross
Anthropology of Art book cover

Until the recent past, the study of art remained on the margins of anthropology research, due in part to the narrow concept of what constituted 'art' in western societies. Today, the central place of art as the focus for anthropological research, its inclusion in museum collections and its pivotal role in display underpins the new-found acceptance of its relevance as a category for cross-cultural analyses. Such studies can provide the means to develop an understanding of the art within our own society alongside that of other places and times.

The Anthropology of Art is the seventh in a series of international readers published by Blackwell Anthologies in Social and Cultural Anthropology. Each edited volume aims to draw readings from the most significant scholarly work in each sub-discipline of anthropology — in this case the study of art. Volumes in the series provide both a foundation and overview for students, researchers and general readers, introduce theoretical debates, and illuminate the new directions in which anthropology is moving today.

As is customary, the back cover of this volume is emblazoned with 'bites' of lavish praise garnered from pre-publication reviews, including such phrases as 'near-perfect book', 'essential reader' and 'superb compilation'. I therefore opened the book with great expectations. In the comprehensive introduction, the editors place the study of art against a historical overview of anthropology and art history studies, tackle the hoary issue of appropriate cross-cultural definitions of 'art', the universality of aesthetics, and identify some of the major debates and issues within the discipline. Among the most recent changes to which the editors draw attention, and of particular significance to many readers of reCollections, are the ways that altered anthropological views on the study of art have impacted on the role of museums and art galleries as repositories of cultural artefacts. Such institutions are now more commonly perceived as 'valued repositories of cultural and historical archives', allowing for 'a reanalysis of contact history, colonial processes, changes in material culture and so on' (p. 20). Further, such collections have enabled Indigenous peoples to 'rediscover their pasts' and challenge stereotypical images of the present (p. 20). The editors identify a number of American museums where such changes of view have led to cross-cultural collaboration, resulting in the incorporation of Indigenous systems of knowledge into present-day museum practice. The increasing engagement of contemporary artists with institutional staff and researchers also differs from past practice, where objects were collected without the participation of the producer. This fresh approach provides broader potential for those studying the objects and artefacts produced.

Divided into six parts, the 30 chapters that make up the volume are drawn from previously published books and papers. Each chapter has been judiciously chosen to illustrate the salient points outlined by the editors in the brief essay that introduces each part. In this way the reader, whether novice or expert, is guided through the following chapters and is more able to identify the relevant theoretical issues and concepts covered in each paper.

Part I, titled 'Foundations and framing the discipline', includes classic readings that illustrate the scope of early anthropological approaches to the study of art. Chapters by Franz Boas on the art of Indians of the Pacific Coast of North America, Claude Lévi-Strauss on Asian and American art, and Raymond Firth on the art of the Tikopia in the Solomon Islands also reflect issues pertinent to the wider anthropological studies of that period. While some of the assumptions and theoretical approaches adopted may seem outmoded today, it is on the shoulders of such scholars that the discipline stands.

The compilation of chapters in Part II, 'Primitivism, art, and artifacts', is selected from more recent publications, but addresses issues that have remained central to the study and display of art throughout the twentieth century. Based on specific exhibitions, the authors explore the tension between the conceptualisation of objects as either art or artefact, the relationship between form and function (e.g. chapters by Susan Vogel and Alfred Gell) and the juxtaposition of modern art alongside ethnographic collections. Arthur C Danto's and James Clifford's contributions highlight the influence that museum and gallery curators can exercise in moulding the perceptions of their audiences by the ways they conceptualise and display material culture.

In Part III, 'Aesthetics across cultures', Morphy suggests that the term aesthetics implies a scale of judgement within a society: an awareness of which aspects of material culture might affect the senses. In the case of the Yolngu of Arnhem Land, the qualities of shimmering brilliance in a painting are deemed pleasing, while for the Yoruba of Subsaharan Africa, criteria on which sculptures are judged include delicacy, roundedness and ephebism — the depiction of people in their prime (see chapter by Robert Farris Thompson). The form of material culture assessed for an aesthetic criterion is extended by Jeremy Coote to include 'everyday visions' of societies otherwise poor in objects more commonly selected for analysis. Coote reviews aesthetic perceptions of cattle, central to the economic and spiritual worlds of the Nilotes from Sudan. The Nilotes' evaluations will resonate with anyone familiar with the pithy discussions of seasoned, stud cattle breeders from the Australian bush.

Part IV, 'Form, style, and meaning', covers areas fundamental to the study of art, whether it be from an art historian's perspective or that of the archaeologist or anthropologist. The editors have astutely selected readings to illustrate a variety of approaches that can be adopted in the analysis of these aspects of art. While emphasising the importance of studying form in the context of its production (e.g. chapters by Nancy Munn and David Guss), the editors also flag the value of analyses of museum collections. Formal analyses provide an opportunity to broaden studies beyond the limitations imposed by fieldwork, and can address questions of chronological or stylistic change not otherwise evident.

In Part V, 'Marketing culture', Ruth Phillips, in a chapter reminiscent of several in Part II, explores the ways in which American Indian curiosities and souvenirs have traditionally been displayed in museums, and concludes that the form and content of such exhibitions reflects the value system of the colonising society, rather than that of the producers. Each of the authors in Part V addresses some part of the complex and sometimes indirect interplay between artist, dealer and the ultimate consumer, whether individual collector, tourist or institution. Such interplay, especially when it is economically driven, frequently results in the adoption of new materials or the modification of form, as artists strive to balance the aesthetics of the purchaser with their own.

The final chapters presented in Part VI, 'Contemporary artists', elaborate and draw together themes introduced in the earlier parts of the volume, but generally focus on today's Indigenous artists who engage with the western art establishment. Such cross-cultural interaction is mediated, manipulated and motivated in complex ways. Fred Myers investigates the ways that the acrylic paintings of the Pintupi people from Australia's Western Desert, have come to represent 'Aboriginal culture' despite being produced in non-indigenous materials. In contrast, Gordon Bennett, an Aboriginal artist, critiques the stereotypical visual imagery used to create a concept of Aboriginality.

After reading the volume, I share the enthusiasm of earlier reviewers. It is indeed a superb compilation of papers: an essential reader for anthropologists, art historians, museum and gallery professionals, and anyone with an interest in art. The editors have presented a comprehensive overview of the sub-discipline in a format that guides the reader through the major issues. With art now firmly established as an area of anthropological study, it is a timely contribution — a near perfect book.

An archaeologist with an abiding passion for Aboriginal rock art, June Ross is a fellow in the School of Human and Environmental Studies at the University of New England.