Foreword & Essay
Foreword: Art and Life
by Professor Pavel Büchler
‘The one thing to say about art and life,’ declared Ad Reinhardt in the early 1950s, ‘is that art is art and life is life.’ Something of that demarcation still holds a decade later for the Fluxus artist Robert Filliou for whom ‘art is what makes life more interesting than art.’ Obviously, art is not life but a catalyst which opens life to our curiosity and makes us attentive to the intricacies and complexities of human and social existence.
When anthropologists are interested in art, they are interested in what art can make of life. When they ask ‘What is art?’, they want to know what life is - or, more accurately, how life is lived, experienced and expressed. And when they enquire about what it is that artists do, they want to find out how their diverse creative pursuits are shaped by the specific cultural and social relations and practices which, at any given moment, make both art and life what they are.
The radical contribution of artists exemplified by Fluxus was the designation of the practices of life as art. Forty years on, art is often something that looks, feels, tastes and smells like life but the closer it resembles life, the less visible it becomes as a distinct practice and the more it relies for its effectiveness on an increasingly prominent, heterogenic but thoroughly networked, institutional structure that determines its identity as art (one striking example of which is the emergence and rise of the institution of ‘the curator’, another the self-designation of museums, galleries and even commercial art fairs as ‘places of production’). This is true of all contemporary art but it raises particular issues for the recent forms of artistic practice that seek a close critical participation in the social, for the validation of their results, for their sense of purpose, integrity and legitimacy, for the ways in which they conceptualise and reflect on their own condition and so on.
This also gives a new impetus to the critical dialogue between ‘socially engaged art’ and anthropology, an array of research practices with their own contentious relation to the practices of life and their own contested disciplinary identity. If Amanda Ravetz’s project had done nothing more than provided an imaginative setting in which a dialogue could usefully take place, it would have achieved a great deal. But the real success of Ravetz’s initiative lies in showing that the dialogue can well be entered into by the simple means of ‘doing something together’ without determining a priori what, in a disciplinary sense, this ‘something’ should be. On her behalf and on behalf of the host institution, I wish to thank all who helped to make this encounter what it was.
On Art and Anthropology
In the early 1990s, fifteen anthropology post-graduate students and lecturers at the University of Manchester squeezed into the artist Sonya Boyce’s temporary studio. She was in residence in the city and we had come along to see what she was up to. She sat us down in a circle and without much warning passed around a curly ‘afro’ wig and invited us to try it on. There was laughter and some embarrassment. Here was an artist confronting us with the effects of what anthropology does in the world, the way our concern for what it means to be human can turn cultural difference into an ‘object’. Relying on the separation of art practice from other realms, Boyce’s gesture cut through academic theorising and confronted us with something uncomfortable and raw. But the gesture’s power to communicate also pointed to the affinities between the two fields, the things art and anthropology often unwittingly share.
As Marcus and Myers have suggested, the relationship between modern anthropology and contemporary art comes in part from their shared roots in ‘modernity’ and the critical stance each has adopted towards that common tradition. A consistent issue for contemporary art practice has involved negotiating the borders between ‘life’ and ‘art’ that originated in part from Kant’s idea of a distinct realm of aesthetic human judgement. Anthropologists on the other hand are trained to approach each aspect of sociality in relation to a wider context. The western conception of art – as something transcendent and external to everyday life – is understood by anthropology as socially and historically contingent. However, the line that separates these two positions is neither stable nor neutral. The discursive separation of art from culture – and the focus by anthropology on cultural difference – add up to a struggle to define precisely what culture is. When it comes to culture, both art and anthropology have a vested interest.1
While Sonya Boyce was shaking up students and staff at the University of Manchester, a small group of anthropologists in the United States were shaking up their discipline’s take on modernism, art and life. George E. Marcus’ work with American dynastic fortunes and families and Fred Myers’ ethnographic research with Pintupi-speaking Australian Aborigines had led both of them separately and unexpectedly to art collections, museum endowments, critics and dealers. Picking up on the complex internal dynamics within the art world they began to see that both post–modern theory and the broadening of the art market to include aboriginal work posed serious challenges to the essentialist categories operating in both fields. Their suggestion to those within anthropology who tended to miss the heterogeneity of the art world was to pay more attention to the debate and division therein about how art is understood in relation to life. Some contemporary art practice they suggested, like anthropology itself, must now be approached as a space for ‘tracking, representing and performing the effects of difference in contemporary life’.2
The ‘traffic in culture’ noted by Marcus and Myers, brought with it a small number of ad–hoc collaborations between artists and anthropologists. The 1990s saw a swathe of artists interested in anthropological method, as well as anthropologists attracted to visual media and contemporary art. Anthropology, long identified with the methodology of fieldwork, became a rich source for artists doing precisely what Marcus and Myers suggested, ‘tracking difference’. Some anthropologists, often from the sub discipline of Visual Anthropology, looked to the visual arts for ways to approach embodiment, emotion and social aesthetics. But if Boyce had revealed the inability of anthropology to stand outside artistic cultural production in order to study it, the years since that time have produced too few projects aiming to explore where this complicity might lead.
By bringing together artists, anthropologists and curators with clear interests in the overlap between art and anthropology, namely engaging ‘the real’, Connecting Art and Anthropology (CAA) set out to foster in a modest way one such project. The aim was to occupy fully the ground that Boyce, Marcus & Myers had sketched out, and to take the thesis a step further within a negotiated space. The challenge as I saw it was to enable participants to open up and explain their practice, while at the same time engaging as equal partners in an active process that would result not in art work or anthropology work so much as lay bare the kernels of each approach.
What emerged over three days pointed to the differences and similarities between the affects of anthropology and art; but CAA also revealed much about the means by which artists and anthropologists reflexively engage in social realms. By asking artists and anthropologists to respond to a brief, contemplation moved recursively between artistic and anthropological action in the world and the unfolding, through activity, of the conceptual ground to each participant’s approach.
At the end of the first day Liesbeth Bik asked if the reason we were here was ‘to report, tell, explore, represent, develop, find out?’
While the original research questions for the CAA workshop were couched in terms of the differences and overlaps in finished examples of art and anthropological work, the answer Bik suggested to her own question invoked process, the doing of things, a freighted movement towards understanding art’s and anthropology’s ‘concept-work’.
Most recently a significant contingent of contemporary artists, many of them working with film, have approached their work with an eye on anthropology, and its dealings with ‘the real’; yet many anthropologists remain oblivious of contemporary art’s legacy of social intervention, from Fluxus and the Situationists to Conceptual Art. The CAA event points to a strand of contemporary art active in 2007 that not only tracks social worlds but engages in collaborative acts of shared imagination. The value of the CAA Workshop was to show that by doing something together anthropologists and artists also generate an imaginary, one that by pinpointing the being of anthropological research and art work may be capable of finding out where the contestations and the reciprocities between the two domains suggestively lead.
1 George E. Marcus and Fred Myers, ‘Introduction’ in The Traffic in Culture: Refiguring Art and Anthropology. eds. George E. Marcus and Fred Myers, (Berkeley: University of California Press) 1995.
I would like to thank Lesley Young for her insightful suggestions on an earlier version of this essay.