Representing Culture: The Production of Discourse(s) for Aboriginal Acrylic Paintings

Essay Excerpt

It seems to me, drawing upon my own experience, that anthropologists have been largely concerned to defend their own interpretations or to make them intelligible within the shadow of what they take to be the prevailing, culturally hegemonic notions of "art." In so doing, we have tended to reify our own culture's concepts into a more stable form than they actually have, and we fail to consider empirically (and critically) the processes in which we (and the art critics) are engaged as ethnographically important processes of cultural representation. This is ironic, I think, because the point of the struggle is almost entirely a question of how to represent others. Thus, if these antagonistic encounters (and I must admit to being a willing participant) about the imposition of Western art historical concepts often seem to be only so much turf warfare, they can also be conceived of as themselves forms of the social and cultural practices of representation. In reconceptualizing the relationship between art criticism and anthropology in this way, it may be possible to articulate more cogently the processes through which difference can be rendered intelligible.

To be sure, such ethnocentrism persists, despite the interventions of anthropologists and art critics. However, the discourse of art critics (and art historians) is not a univocal one, and cases like those discussed by Price (1989) represent what is now only a portion of the Western discourse of art. This discourse is as unsettled and multiple as our own. What I want to trace out here is the "engagement" (is it a military metaphor or a romantic one?) between anthropological and indigenous accountings of Australian Aboriginal acrylic paintings and those of art critics. In part, the choice of subject is accidental, owing much to my personal circumstances and history. (Myers, 28-29)

About the Author

Fred R. Myers is a Silver Professor of Anthropology and Director of Graduate Studies at New York University. His areas of interest are Indigenous people and politics, Aboriginal Australia; exchange theory and material culture; anthropology of art and contemporary artworlds; the production and circulation of culture; in identity and personhood; theories of value and practices of signification.

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