The Traffic in Culture

Sat, 4 May 1996 13:31:08 +1200

The following review can be found in the current issue of _Philosophy
and Literature_ (April 1996, pp. 283-92). It appears here with
permission and may be freely copied on the internet or downloaded for
personal use; other paper reprint rights require further permission .
_Philosophy and Literature_ is published by the Johns Hopkins
University Press. Information at 1-800-548-1784 or Copyright JHUP 1996.


Heavy Traffic
by Denis Dutton

It was the Reverend Sidney Smith who said, "I never read a book
before reviewing it; it prejudices a man so." Thirty years ago that
remark was still a joke. These days, it's a downright plausible idea, one
with a distinctly postmodern ring. If the objects of experience are
nothing but constructions, inventions of our cultures and mind-sets,
that must go as well for all the books we read--including those books
which urge this fact on us. To read them is to construct them, to write
them for yourself. But wait--that can't be a fact, because facts are just
prejudices too. Takes your breath away to realize how far scholarship
has come.

These thoughts drifted through my mind reading _The Traffic in
Culture: Refiguring Art and Anthropology_, edited by George E.
Marcus and Fred R. Myers (University of California Press, $48.00
cloth, $17.95 paper). It comprises a long introduction plus eleven
chapters which "explore the boundaries and affinities between art,
anthropology, representation, and culture, casting a critical,
ethnographic light on the art worlds of the contemporary West and the
ways they give value to cultural form--in short, a 'traffic' in culture."

It is not easy to make out a consistent thread in the essays themselves.
Carol Vance offers a fine discussion in the form of four small essays on
censorship, the NEA, Jesse Helms, and so forth. There is no discernible
connection with anthropology, and I cannot see why these pieces are
included. Nancy Sullivan, described as a Ph.D candidate in Fred R.
Myers's NYU anthropology department, struggles with her
cumbersome account of the artworld in the last generation. Again, I
can detect no hint of how anthropology has helped her understand the
artworld. Hal Foster makes a cameo appearance of only a few pages,
a kind of postmodern arabesque with lots of big words. Christopher B.
Steiner revisits material presented in his book, _African Art in
Transit_, which is squarely in the field, and Steven Feld agonizes about
appropriation of world music into commercial music business while
telling some interesting tales about a radio program he produced of
music from Papua New Guinea. The feminist Judith L. Goldstein does
a late-capitalist, "late-postmodernist" job on women's makeup, with
much reliance on Fredric Jameson but no anthropology I can discern,
despite the fact that she gave a version of it at an American
Anthropological Association conference. If we really have reached
"late-postmodernism" we can only be thankful.

Molly H. Mullin's account of the nineteenth- and early
twentieth-century enthusiasm for American Indian artifacts, on the
other hand, may begin with cliches about "elite responses to the rise of
consumer capitalism," but it soon settles down to a solid account of the
people and problems of trying to achieve recognition of Indian
handicrafts as art. This was made possible, we learn, by much devoted
work from people who were multiculturalists before the word existed,
white Americans whose actions were based on a love of Indian cultures
and arts, rather than postcolonial theory and the school of resentment.
All the issues of art vs. craft, the relation of tourism to artistic
development, authenticity, and so on, were raised in the 1920s and 30s,
with sophistication not often seen today.

But to figure out how it all is supposed to tie together, we have to turn
to the book's explanatory introduction. This is so turgidly vague that
when I was done I felt like invoicing the authors for my time. These
pages are peppered with half-assertions I'd half want to dispute if
their meaning were plainer, and a few that are plain enough to be
flat-out wrong. Among many examples: "Ironically, the very category
of 'art'--as opposed to 'the arts'--goes unexamined in its own
hierarchies of sense, so that various forms of popular performance, in
which disinterested contemplation does not necessarily reign supreme,
are excluded." Excluded? Notice that irritating passive voice: who, I'd
like to know, has left popular performance unexamined and excluded?
What are "hierarchies of sense"? The sentence carries no reference. In
any reasonable interpretation of the terms, it's false: popular
performances--from New Guinea to Bali to Africa are studied
everywhere by anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, and others. As
Molly Mullin hasalready made clear, it's not as though no one cared
about the folk, popular arts, and classical arts of non-Western cultures
till postmodernism and the contributors to this book came along.

Marcus and Myers propose "a renegotiation of the relationship
between art and anthropology." They want to open a new "discursive
space," to challenge "hegemonies" which are "implicated" when they
aren't being "inscribed" or "valorized." The emphasis in the book is
constructionist: in their research Marcus and Myers are "constituting
art worlds and their discursive fields as conventional"; the "primitive"
is a construction, and so, according to Derrida, is Levi-Strauss's
"romantic representation of pre-contact Amazonian Indians";
artworlds "make art"; artwriting constructs art, and moreover, "has
created its own channels of appropriating anthropology's
constructions of distinctive difference as a source of value and
critique"; and ever since Kant's positing of an autonomous aesthetic
domain, "the culturally constructed boundaries between aesthetics and
the rest of culture have been neither stable nor neutral." Such
delusions of omnipotence--hand-me-down assertions that criticism
makes art, cultures are constructed by anthropologists, the
conventionality of art is "constituted" by Marcus and Myers, and so
on--feed the overweening sense of self-importance that pervades this
introduction: we academics invent words, we make worlds. This is
played over a kind of ostinato bass: universal artistic values are bad,
essentialism is bad, primitivism is bad, and a distinction between high
and low culture is bad. And if you have any doubts about this, it's all be
proven by important people: "see Clifford 1988; Derrida 1977; Foucault
1971, 1973: Said 1978; Trinh 1989: Torgovnick 1990."

In his own chapter, Fred R. Myers is not always so pretentious; at least
he is fulfilling the intentions of the book in discussing the marketing and
critical reception of Aboriginal acrylic paintings in America. Myers has
spent time in central Australia and when he writes of the Aboriginal
artists he has known he does so with affection. Despite his reliance on
postmodernist rhetoric and jargon, Myers does have something
substantial to say. On the one hand, the appeal of Aboriginal paintings
is bound up with a romantic conception of the primitive and with the
idea that this work is rooted in a place, a land, and an ancient culture.
New York art-types go for this sort of thing. The paintings also
superficially resemble abstract expressionism, and their ready
acceptance in commercial galleries is related to this accident as well.
But the resulting enthusiasm for the acrylics is tempered by doubts from
many quarters about whether the paintings are adapted to a Western
market, adulterated with European conceptions. There is also the
suspicion that the commerce in this art represents an exploitation of
naive Aboriginal people.

He reviews the different attitudes toward Aboriginal art, ranging from
effusive promotion to those who denounce any Western regard for the
work as oriented "for the gaze of the colonizer and on terms and
conditions set by the dominant culture." I wish Myers dared to take a
more robust stand on some of these issues, but he plays tolerant,
neutral reporter. Especially intriguing to me are remarks by the _New
York Times_ critic Roberta Smith, who judged a 1988 exhibition of
Aboriginal acrylics as "not work that overwhelms you with its visual
power or with its rage for power; it all seems familiar and
manageable." As for understanding the narrative elements which the
paintings represent, "The more you read, the better things look, but
they never look good enough." Myers suggests that Smith is falling
back on "formalist conventions," which assess paintings according to
how they organize "color and other values on a two dimensional
surface." But is Smith right that these paintings somehow "never look
good enough"? I suspect there is an element of truth here: too many of
the acrylics are merely nice without achieving the power of, say, some
New Guinea basket hooks or African masks. Is this because the cultural
loading of Aboriginal work is so great that formal demands,
complicated by the use of European colors, never quite receive enough
attention? I don't know, but I wish I did; Myers just changes the

Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett is not as wide-ranging as Myers,
setting her sights on a wonderfully deserving target: Peter Sellers, not
the lamented comedian, but the flamboyant impresario of the 1990
multinational arts festival in Los Angeles. Her message is that by
failing to give viewers adequate contextual background, the festival
organizers treated performances of international groups as modernist
aesthetic events--happenings, so to speak. Even if this wasn't the
express policy of the organizers, it was the inevitable outcome of their
policies, especially as espoused by Sellers, who rejected academic
knowledge to help viewers understand the events, offering instead an
unmediated aesthetic experience free of what Sellers called "cultural
baggage." (For cultural baggage, read "knowing something.") The
most memorable passages of Kirschenblatt-Gimblett's article are
simply quotations from Sellers: "One of the aims of the Festival was to
remove forever the concept of ethnomusicology and ethnic studies,
which at its core is offensive, and to move to another level where we
didn't have to have any special parentheses around things." As for
so-called experts who think they know something about those societies,
Sellers says, "You're not Samoan. You can't know." On criticism:
"People in those societies don't sit around explaining
everything....What about societies where the highest point is in the
performance, in the dance, not in talking about it afterwards?"
Sellers's words betray a disconcerting confluence of attitudes you
don't expect to find together, something like being a vegetarian
hand-gun collector. On one side, he's anti-academic and
anti-intellectual: this is a people's festival and we're not going to be
lectured by a bunch of professors. Fair enough, except that it's tied, on
the other side, to an ideologically correct version of multicultural
politics: you can't're not Samoan and anything you tried to
say about Samoans would be essentializing and hegemonic, so sit
down, shut up, and watch the Samoans dance.

It's mildly pleasing to see such multicultural pieties spewed back at the
academy, except that Sellers really is insufferable: "People had to look
at stuff they did not know how to react to. That began to be an
authentic experience." As Kirschenblatt-Gimblett nicely points out, this
equates watching a dance of ritual healers from the Chindo Islands of
Korea with watching an unintelligible avant-garde performance (I
always think of _Last Year At Marienbad_). "Aficionados of
avant-garde and experimental performance," she says, "can sit and
watch something they don't 'understand' because of what they have
unlearn--namely, the expectations, attitudes, values, and sensibility
associated with establishment art forms." It is this unlearning we apply
to Dada cabarets, Bauhaus puppetry, theatre of the absurd,
happenings, postmodern dance, and so forth. This is hardly an
acceptable model for relatively naive audiences in their first exposure
to foreign musics and dance forms. Nor does it show any real respect
to the performers and their cultures. The only thing authentic in such
an exercise is the puzzlement it inevitably induces.

Lynn M. Hart, a psychologist at the University of Montreal, writes
about how paintings made by women in Uttar Pradesh are seen in
different contexts. She describes the women artists in their working
environment; then the appearance of one such painting in a "North
American" dining-room; thence to the exhibition of another of these
jyonti paintings in the Magiciens de la terre show in the Pompidou
Center in Paris in 1989. Just so we won't get the wrong idea she uses
"producer" instead of "artist" and "visual image" instead of "art."
This is because li'l ol' ethnocentric you might otherwise have trouble
appreciating that "the images and patterns themselves are based on
religion, ritual, and mythic themes and derive their meaning-and
their power-from the religious contexts of their production and use."
(Aren't foreigners weird!) The regional aesthetic principles of this art
are "different from standard Western aesthetics." The excellence of
the works from an indigenous perspective "is seen to lie in the closeness
of the central symbol's approximation to an ideal image, with special
attention paid to the style, technique, and materials used. It is
important to re-present the symbols used in an adequate way, not to
improve upon them, though at the same time the image on the wall
should be as beautiful and pleasing as possible"--and on it goes, all
"quite distinct from Western aesthetic canons." Is it now? Has Hart
ever considered the history of European art in the Middle Ages?
Religious folk arts and women's arts of Europe for the three centuries
prior to the present one, or the "visual images" of the Greeks, for that
matter? The theology might be different, but there's not one thing she
describes that can't be found in "Western aesthetics."

Hart objects to the opposition between art and craft, "with art
valorized and displayed in the art museum while craft, shown in the
ethnographic museum, is devalorized." As for genius vs. anonymous
producer, unique image vs. repetition, etc., Hart explains, "the first
characteristic in each opposition is valorized while the second is
devalorized"; she wants to go "beyond merely trying to reverse the
pattern of valorization so that the devalorized characteristics become
valorized." She thinks, along with every undergraduate who can
parrot Derrida, that we should stop valorizing the very opposition

Now while I would not want to devalorize the valorization of
devalorizing art, and would be even more reluctant to valorize the
devalorization of valorizing craft, I'd like to know what would satisfy
Professor Hart in all this tedious waffle. Her greatest pleasure seems
to be not be jyonti paintings, nor in discussing significant theoretical
issues, but in tearing strips of flesh off people who, not knowing as
much as she knows, make little mistakes. The Pompidou Center
curators identified the artist of their jyonti painting as "Bowa Devi,"
not realizing that "Devi" is an honorific, not a family name. Bowa
Devi, Hart allows, would be all right in a village context, but in Paris it
is an incomplete identification of little help to distinguish the artist
from thousands of other Indian women. At extraordinary length, Hart
explains how this prestigious art museum marked the work on the
floor plan guide to the exhibit as, quel horreur, "B. Devi." Well, yes,
the French do very often make hash of Indian names, but then lots of
locals did it to me when I lived in India, and think of what we've all
been doing to the Arabs and the Chinese for years. If belaboring such
errors is the new traffic in culture, I regret to report it's nearly at a

Hart's carping about Magiciens de la terre is typical of other passages
in The Traffic in Culture: any attention not paid to non-Western art is
evidence of ethnocentrism. Any attention paid to non-Western art will
be scoured till it is found that it is ethnocentric too. No matter what
you do, some superior being, quite possibly a contributor to this
anthology, will show you that--oh dear!--you've made a mess of
things again. So Hart won't let go, recounting how the Pompidou
curator remarks in his catalogue copy on the personal style of Bowa
Devi, which is bad Western aesthetics at work, since personal style isn't
that important to the female "visual image producers" of Uttar
Pradesh. If he'd remarked on the strong personal style of other artists
in the show, which he probably did, and had not said anything about
Bowa Devi's, you can bet that would have been bad Western aesthetics

Such pickiness also characterizes coeditor George E. Marcus's own
meandering contribution reviewing an exhibition of contemporary
American artists. Marcus has come to realize that there's more than a
little bad faith among ambitious young artists: they want to be critical
of capitalism and art-institution power structures, but also harbor
desperate desires to be famous and powerful in the artworld. For their
part, curators and rich collectors are happy to tidy sums for work
which may be critical of an economic system that has made them what
they are. Marcus drones on, pointlessly reproducing a long list of
collectors and paintings they've bought which were lent to the
Indianapolis show he writes about. What's the point in knowing that
Don and Mera Rubell of New York are guilty of owning a Jeff Koons
(_New Hoover Convertible_) and that Ruth and Jacob Bloom of
Marina del Rey, California own a Chris Burden (_Warship_)? It's
their money, and anyway the artists Marcus talks about seem to be the
real poseurs and hypocrites, though you'll not find an hint of that idea
here that isn't cloaked by Marcus in earnest euphemism. It's risible that
he calls a quotation from Koons "naive"--sure, as naive as Rupert
Murdoch, or Madonna. Nothing like a college professor calling a
multimillionaire hustler naive. (By the way, if owning a Jeff Koons is
some sort of criminal offense, it ought to be treated by the courts as I
believe bigamy should be treated--no need for indictment or
sentencing, as the crime is its own punishment.)

But it is not just that these artists are co-opted, as they used to say, by
the system; they also don't in Marcus's opinion pay enough attention to
Otherness. The Other, of course, is that bloodless abstraction most
cherished by angst-ridden academics. It is itself the ultimate
essentialism, a postcolonial fetish in which the innumerable forms of
human life which are not (genus) American (species) college professor,
are melded into a focus for all of our guilt. In a discussion which
includes far too many long, block quotations from other people (a
lesson from Koons, perhaps), Marcus teaches us that if ambitious
American artists would open their eyes to the Other, especially the
Otherness of struggling third-world artists, it would be, uh...well,
good for them. His "main point," when he finally gets around to it, "is
that those artists who are interested in the critique of power relations
within the high-culture art world might be interested in otherness, art
marked by cultural, ethnic, and racial difference, or merely art excluded
and unrecognized within this world, as a possible means of
transforming those power relations." Indeed, they might be interested,
but then again, maybe they don't give a hoot either about other cultures
or about transforming power relations, especially if their paintings are
being snapped up by the rich. Maybe their attitude toward the art of
Otherness is that of the Aboriginal artist at the Metropolitan Museum
in New York who, in Fred R. Myers's telling of the story, was informed
that the Degas paintings were "not from the Dreaming." She simply
decided they were therefore "rubbish." (A certain rugged integrity in
that reaction, but it does show that New York artists do not have a
monopoly on ethnocentrism.)

In their introduction, Marcus and Myers ask, "what are the current
conditions that make possible anthropological attention to Western art
practices themselves?" Typically, they don't try to answer. So here is a
start at specifying a few possible "conditions" for this "attention."
First it's nice to have a regular paycheck and, for academics, a
reasonable teaching load. Grants help. So much for the first condition.
The second condition, or cause, is that anthropology has become one of
the most desperate disciplines in the postmodern academy. The natives
anthropologists used to study cannot be interviewed because they're
busy watching reruns of _The Waltons_. Or they've moved to the city
to become Pepsi salespersons and truck mechanics. What's worse,
studying them is, as Peter Sellers says, offensive.

What are anthropologists to do? Realizing that literary and art theory
are fashionable, they decide to become "critical ethnographers" of the
artworld, taken ("constituted") by them to stretch from Manhattan to
Alice Springs and back to Rodeo Drive. They'll call what they're doing
the "ethnographic avant-garde" (impressive jargon which might
distract people from noticing the vapid amateurism of essays like
Marcus's). They can then quote Foucault, Bourdieu, Derrida, Said,
and especially one another, and make clear their opposition to
orientalism, imperialism, so-called objectivity, disinterestedness,
colonialism, racism--and even "late" capitalism, so long as they can
still earn an occasional upgrade to business class. The jargon is
important for effect: Myers's essay has a section entitled "My
Textualization of Pintupi Practice," which is followed by "Other
Textualizations." Funny, but it turns out that the section contains a
description of Pintupi art-making, and the later section has
descriptions by other people. But why "describe" something when you
can "textualize" it? Sounds so much more important. If
anthropologists work hard enough, like Marcus and Myers, they can
write portentous things such as, "For what one might call an
'ethnographic avant-garde,' instead of 'whole' cultures of extreme
difference in the contemporary world, whose codes and structures
might be subject to perfect translation and interpretation,
anthropology is faced now with an interpenetration of cultures,
borders, hybrids, fragments, and the intractability of cultural difference
to such authoritative interpretation....Heterogeneity has replaced
pluralism. Anthropology, now aestheticized by modernism's
conventions, can no longer provide a stable foundation for art's
attempts to destabilize the West." If you'd like to know about the
difference between heterogeneity and pluralism, what it means to
aestheticize anthropology, if it's true that art ever tried to destabilize
the West, or (my favorite) whoever thought that "perfect" translation
between cultures was possible, don't expect to be told. Or if you insist,
just "see Abu-Lughod 1993; Appadurai and Breckenridge 1988; Clifford
1988; Marcus and Fischer 1986; Myers 1988a; Rosaldo 1989; Taussig

There is a significant muddle at the heart of Marcus's and Myers's
project which they seem not to have noticed. They say that art and
anthropology are "fundamentally overlapping discourse fields"
because of their concern with culture and value, and we ought to
"renegotiate" their relationship, bringing them closer together. Just as
art is capable of "cultural critique," so anthropology should engage in
"critical ethnographic studies." There is a difference, they admit: art is
close to "large vectors of power and money," whereas "anthropology
is relatively distant" from both. They don't explore this idea, and they
should. True that art has rich superstars, still most artists aren't doing
very well and use other work to support their art-making. Compared
to this, the ten-thousand members of the American Anthropological
Association look like a civil service, with only a few superstars, an
unemployed underclass, and a large middle range of anthropologists
on institutional salaries.

But money is beside the point: Marcus and Myers should not be looking
to art as their renegotiated analogue for anthropology, but art
criticism, and to some extent art history. These writers are confused by
supposing that art (a creative and imaginative enterprise) or the theory
of art (a philosophical discipline) could be an adequate model for their
new anthropology. To imagine that the plodding academic essays in
_The Traffic in Culture_ bear even a distant resemblance to art, that
they are capable of anything like the shocks, insights, and imaginative
pleasures of art, is a ludicrous conceit. Art critics and historians, on the
other hand, do in fact attempt to describe, explain, evaluate, and place
into a larger cultural background the objects of their attention, as in
rather different ways do anthropologists. So to their credit do some of
the essays in this anthology (Mullin or Myers himself, at least in their
best passages). If Marcus and Myers were to pursue the art
criticism/history analogy, they would be required systematically to
study the methods, forms of arguments, styles, rhetoric, ways of
managing evidence, and so on of dead and living critics--writers such
as Hughes, Danto, Berenson, Panofsky, or Tovey. Much more would
be required here than habitual name-dropping: such critics might be set
along side anthropologists such as Boas, Malinowski, Levi-Strauss, or
Geertz. Equally fertile would be a systematic investigation of the
indigenous critical discourse and aesthetic standards of so-called
primitive societies, a project which Myers barely begins in his essay.

Such a "renegotiation" of boundaries, or blurring of genres, might
conceivably achieve something substantially more interesting than the
tepid, second-rate postmodern theory that clogs _The Traffic in
Culture_. Like so many other academics on the cultural studies
bandwagon, Marcus and Myers are obsessed by theory and
intellectually at sea. The jacket endorsements include the claim that the
book is "contemporary critical anthropology at its best." It's
depressing to realize this claim may well be true. [end]

Dr. Denis Dutton
Senior Lecturer in the Philosophy of Art
Editor, Philosophy and Literature
University of Canterbury
Christchurch, New Zealand
Phone: (03) 366-7001 Fax: (03) 364-2858