Culture- ART FEATURE- Cultural claims: Does a rite make it right?
In last Sunday's New York Times, Tom Bissell opened a book review of Rory Stewart's The Places in Between by describing the plight of the modern-day travel writer. "Specialists pounce on the tiniest ‘mistakes,'" Bissell noted, "and ideologues condemn the whole enterprise as colonialism with a thesaurus."
Bissell's observation echoed in my head as I viewed "Art/Not Art: Made in Oceania" at the University of Virginia Art Museum because similar challenges confront collectors of non-Western art. Curated by Andrea Douglas, the exhibition examines issues of authenticity, imposed standards, and Western cultural consumption by looking at objects collected from the Asmat and Semik River region of Papua New Guinea.
For hundreds of years European and American visitors to Oceania—a geographic region encompassing most of the South Pacific—have collected sacred objects as cultural curiosities. During the last century, however, peoples of the region began producing these objects specifically for outside acquisition, creating an economic commodity for their communities.
The University of Virginia began collecting Oceanic art in 1976 and has since acquired 182 objects, ranging from woven masks to shields to carved instruments. In 1999, the museum hired a specialist to evaluate the collection "according to authenticity and exhibition quality." The upshot? Classified as either "real used for ritual" or "tourist art," most of the museum's objects, alas, fell into the latter, de-valued category.
But if the same artists—who often have sanctified status—are responsible for creating both the "real" and the "tourist" using almost identical methods, why is one more authentic than the other? And why do Western critics, who privilege form over function in Western art, reverse the standard for other cultures? To explore these questions, "Art/Not Art" places "real" and "tourist" objects side by side.
The objects themselves are fascinating. In male-dominated New Guinea, village life is all about penis power (consider the annual contest among men to grow the longest, straightest yam). The pieces on display are in-your-face phallocentric, with nostrils of carved masks' elongated noses looking more like testicles than breathing apparatus.
Completely stunning in its vision and stylized details is an anthropomorphic carved and shell-encrusted "Suspension Basket Hook." But because it's "tourist," it never dangled with hunted heads, despite its symbolism.
And perhaps it's this lack of "human sacrifice allure" — a term reviewer Bissell says Paul Theroux uses to describe certain travel books— that underlies Western critics' dismissal of Oceanic "tourist" objects. Nevertheless, interesting art is interesting art.
"Art/Not Art: Made in Oceania" is on view through August 6 at the University of Virginia Art Museum. 155 Rugby Road. 924-3592.