Using the textbook Essentials of Cultural Anthropology, we finished the textbook with the chapter on “Art and Media.”

The previous class was on Religion.

Transcript: Art & Media

Today we are reading the last chapter in Guest. It’s our last class, and the chapter is titled “Art and Media.” I used to think this was a terrible last chapter. I wanted something much more powerful than this, maybe because I don’t like art so much, but I just thought it was a weak way to end the book. But several of you said it was a perfect way to end the book, so we’ll just go with that: great way to end the book, good job Guest.

One of you wrote that it circled back to the very beginning, because art and media are the epitome of culture. I won’t fight with you on that. If you think it’s good, it’s great!

Many of you were drawn to the idea where Guest describes a definition of art (437), or: what is art?

This is classic anthropological stuff, in the sense that anthropology in general was one of the key players to move us from this idea that only the elite or rich people in Western societies can create and understand and appreciate art, and that other people are living in some artless world.

Anthropology moves us to an idea that art is a characteristic of humanity, a fundamental thing that we all share. The idea that everyone has art. For many of you, this idea resonates. If you’re in a 200-level anthropology class, you’re probably inclined to go down this road anyway; you’re probably inclined to appreciate the art of other people and art around the world.

To drive home the point, Guest tells us about archaeological excavations in South Africa and that they may have been making paint as many as 100,000 years ago. Or you definitely see cave art or rock art 75,000 years ago in South Africa (440).

Why does he emphasize that so much? There’s a hidden reason. The next page is about the more classic cave art paintings in southwestern France and around the contemporary French/Spanish border. In some ways these have been held up by art historians that these 30-36,000-year-old cave paintings are the first example of human art. People have equated it to the bursting onto the scene of not just anatomically modern humans, but what are called “modern humans.” The idea is that somehow they had become mentally modern when they come into France and start painting on the cave walls.

Note: For related material, see this lecture:

Going back and showing us rock art from 75,000 years ago is trying to do that anthropological thing, that art is not something that just showed up in Europe 30,000 years ago. This is something that has been with us for a much longer time. It is widespread across our species instead of just being limited to what are called early modern humans.

Somewhat ironically . . . in the past few years people have speculated and seem to have some decent evidence that some of those early cave paintings that are so revered were made by Neandertals. Now, it’s probably impossible to tell. Of course, some people are really into that, because they’re into Neandertals.

It’s another example of how we don’t want to over-glorify the achievements of early modern humans in southwestern France, when in fact we see this much deeper attention to art around the world, and maybe even among our Neandertal cousins, who may have been making jewelry and art. Neandertals may even be responsible for some of those things that we see in the galleries and museums.

This is a classic anthropological tactic, to play a relativizing role, or to take something that has been appropriated or is said to be most realized among elite European or North American audiences and show how other people around the world as well as different social classes are also art makers or creators. The thing is, as soon as we do that–and it is an important move to make–it still in some ways opens a whole other bunch of questions.

For one thing, it’s like what we were talking about in the class on religion. To say that everyone has symbolic behavior or to say that everyone has a religion doesn’t get at the idea of who has the power to decide or how is it that certain kinds of symbols become powerful. How is it that certain kinds of beliefs and ideas become widespread? Who has the power to decide those issues? To simply say “we all have art” or “we all have symbols” or “we all have religion,” doesn’t get at some of these essential issues.

One of the issues that Guest talks about here is how different communities around the world will try to sell things, often to North American and European tourists. They then get boxed into this idea: these people produce scarves. These people produce jewelry. These people produce rugs. That then gets commoditized in a way which locks people into being traditional art producers. It can be a source of livelihood, but it can also be quite stifling. It can lock people into a cultural box, as if they are unable to do anything else than what it is we are most paying them to do. This is something that emerges in many in many tourist areas as well as wholesale art.

Then, the kinds of things that get appropriated as art, or as commodities around the world, another issue is how the art from certain areas can then be produced in factories, or by different people entirely, and then sold. The intersection of art, power, and capitalism is a huge issue, and simply saying, “well, everyone has art,” doesn’t really get at what we need to do to analyze that.

The other issue is to what extent art is still a part of the markers of being an elite or being in a wealthy social class. I think it’s true, to this day, that being able to say that you appreciate art, and especially if you have money to buy it and display it and be able to talk about what you own, is a good indicator of where in the social class hierarchy you stand. It’s a good marker of where someone is going to be in the hierarchy. Even though we might say everyone has art, and we might appreciate the art of people who are not at the top of the scale, the people who get to do the appreciating, the collecting, and mark themselves off as privileged are also using these kinds of ideas to mark themselves off.

. . .

Ironically, in some ways it’s the people who have been to wealthy institutions, wealthy colleges, who are the most apt to say that this particular form of ethnic art or popular art is real art. In some ways, it’s this funny thing where the higher up you go on the social ladder, the more prestige you have in terms of your social class, and the more you’re able to participate in these worlds in which you can valorize the art of what once was called “primitive” art or popular art. You can display that and have that in your house. This is often the case when you go into in into the houses of the very wealthy, and they’ll have things from all over the world. They’ll be jazzed-up on appreciating Asian art or African art or stuff from Papua New Guinea, but it makes you wonder what sorts of relationships they have, and what’s really going on when it’s the wealthiest who are able to do the multicultural art thing. It’s another issue that the relativizing impulse doesn’t necessarily tell us that much about.

Then, a super-interesting passage . . . about museum exhibits after 9/11. They were trying to humanize the Muslim world by showing different artists from that experience. But in the process, they had a selection process of what was shown. It had an interesting effect, and in some ways, you might say that it backfired, in the sense that they showed women who were commenting on Islamic art from a Western perspective. In some ways, people came away from that exhibit basically believing all, or having their stereotypes reinforced, about the role of women in Islamic societies.

Guest asks this as a question: “In the process of trying to accentuate common humanity through art . . . could curators’ and funders’ narrow selections have reinforced assumed oppositions between freedom and oppression, understanding and ignorance, civilization and barbarism?” (449).

I must say this is something that has happened to me time and again in my anthropology classes. I will assign a book or a text that is meant to show the cross-cultural appreciation for–I would say in the last 20 years, especially Muslims–and it just completely goes in the other direction. By the time I’m done, people are like “I can’t believe how oppressed they are over there, we need to do something about that.” For me, it is a complete failure. I was interested that it happened in the art exhibit as well.

This brings me to what is one of the main points of this class, that we’ve been talking about throughout Guest’s book. Guest styles his book as _Cultural Anthropology: Toolkit for a Global Age_ This is supposed to give you the tools that you need, to do what you need to do out there in the world. I’ve been trying to really emphasize how this is not simply a class for anthropology majors, but for everyone who wants to use anthropological tools to better analyze the world, and better appreciate and understand it. I think that what I’m going to call “the relativizing tool,” is perhaps our biggest and best hammer that we’re always pulling out of the anthropology toolbox. I dug up an old folk saying, which is that “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” You may think about this in relationship to how when you were growing up, or maybe you had a little sibling who then discovered a hammer, a plastic hammer or a real hammer. Then, all of a sudden that was all they did. It was just hammering all over the house because it’s really fun to swing a hammer, and if that’s all you have everything looks like it needs to be hammered.

This is a tool that we’re always pulling out of the anthropological toolkit. It’s basically this From We-the-Civilized have _______________ to “Everyone has _________”!!! I’ll fill it in as art, for now, everyone has art. We are taking what was once appropriated by let’s say White elite males or Europeans or North Americans, and saying, “no, everybody has that.”

If you step back into our textbook, you can see that we say it’s not just Europeans who have culture. Everybody has culture. It’s not just the American political system that is interesting. Everyone has political organization. It’s not just capitalist economics that makes sense. Everyone has their own economic system. It’s not just Christianity. Everyone has their own religious beliefs. Or kinship. You can keep going in an almost endless way. Those things that are appropriated by the elite. Language: it’s not just European languages that matter. Everyone has language and every language is worth knowing.

Note: For a more extended argument about art and language, see this lecture on Tim Ingold’s work:

This is what we could call the Relativizing Tool, which is to make us appreciate other societies and other cultures, and to look back at our own and be critical of it as well. It can be a very effective tool–I’ve seen it happen in class. The fact that many of you were drawn to this first statement in Guest about “what is art?” leads me to believe that indeed students come into class, or we go out into life, and we see that these religious beliefs have a logical explanation. The granary: that’s simply a different way of expressing a certain logic, and a certain longing for explanation. People are like, “wow yes, that is so cool, now I understand that witchcraft is not necessarily [evil] witchcraft, it’s an expression of a different logical system. Mind blown and everybody’s happy! We all hug each other.

It definitely is better than what we might call ethnocentrism and racism, and the kinds of things that oppress other people. I don’t want to throw this Relativizing Tool away quite yet, because it has been very good. It still seems to be able to work, even in recent days.

But I would say the Relativizing Tool obviously didn’t work for wide sections of the US population. If you think about the anthropological relativizing message, which we’ve been preaching since at least 1934 and probably before. I’m dating to 1934, the year that _Patterns of Culture_ by Ruth Benedict came out and became a bestseller. This is something that we’ve been hammering for a long time, and still we could say that vast sectors of US society didn’t seem to get the message. By that I don’t just mean those people who didn’t go to college or didn’t take an anthropology class. It doesn’t seem to work even for those who are Ivy League graduates. If we look at the degrees held by the members of the current US presidential administration, they seem to be very good at either cynically trying to *not* appreciate other cultures, or perhaps they honestly really don’t believe whatever they may have been taught at those fancy schmancy schools.

If we look around American society in the year 2020 and assess the Relativizing Message. Maybe we just need to hammer it harder? But in some ways, it doesn’t seem to have registered among large swaths of the population. Among the people who probably got it the most or should have gotten it the most when they went to college.

As we saw with the museum exhibit, it can backfire in strange ways. Sometimes we don’t even know when it’s going to backfire, but you need to be prepared for that. You try to show somebody something that seems to you like it’s a relativizing exhibit, or that there’s no other way to interpret it except to recognize the humanity of the people who are involved. Then it completely gets taken the other way.

Like I said, this has been something that we’ve been going over in different ways in this class. If you remember back to the class on culture, we talked about the importance of culture as a concept. But when we talk about “American gun culture,” all of a sudden, it’s like, “wait, that makes it sound traditional and good,” in a way that we may not want to promote out there in the world.

Now, Guest ends his book with his “Thinking like an Anthropologist” section, to which I’m going to say, “onward to our final projects!” “Thinking like an anthropologist about the world of art can give you a more complete set of tools for comprehending this complex part of human culture, understanding your own creativity, and engaging the world around you” (459). That’s the hope! Thinking about the world of art gives us a more complete set of tools for comprehending.

Before you tune out on me, I have a couple more things to say. This chapter is titled “Art and Media.” It took a while before anyone commented on the “media” part, maybe because media is really toward the end of the chapter, and is subdued in relationship to how much Guest talks about art. Maybe that’s fine. For me, I would like to know a lot more about media in this chapter.

I don’t know if I want to say the chapter should be less about art, but I want to know what is going on out there, and how creative expression is being used in the media. As Guest asks: “How do art and media intersect?” (451). Interestingly, at least as far as I can tell, he never asked the same question about media that he asked about art, which is: what is media? Is all art media? Is it only popular media? Where does media begin and end? He uses words like “global mediascape,” media worlds, social media as well as “Indigenous media” (455), but he–at least as far as I can find–there’s not a “what is media?” There is this “how do art and media intersect?”, but that is submerged into these other ideas about global mediascape.

I want to hear more about them, and not just assume that we know exactly what media is. I was thinking about this because in the last few months I’ve probably spent more time on Facebook than I should, and I see a lot of memes out there. It has been a little bit scary, I would say, to see the media worlds in which people are in, and how people on one side of the political spectrum are living in an almost entirely different media world than those on the other side of the political spectrum.

I pose this as a question, because one of you said that we can now learn about other cultures because of the global mediascape, and we can learn about other societies in ways we couldn’t before. I’m sure that is true, but it also seems to be an almost impenetrable world, in which we can’t do the same kinds of things in terms of conveying complexity and truth in the ways that we may have been accustomed.

Let me give you an example. I saw both of these memes on Facebook during the Amy Coney Barrett confirmation hearings. This is Amy Coney Barrett at the top and Ilhan Omar, the US House representative from Minnesota at the bottom. This is something that appeared on what you might call the more conservative side of my Facebook feed, which is the idea that the liberals don’t question Ilhan Omar’s religion, but that the liberals are attacking Amy Coney Barrett for her Catholicism. There was this strange-in-retrospect idea that during the hearings the Democrats were all going to attack Amy Coney Barrett’s Catholicism, and that they found it problematic to have another Catholic on the Supreme Court. Funny, because Joe Biden is Catholic, but we’ll just let that go. It never happened, but that was the idea, that in some ways the liberals were making Amy Coney Barrett’s religion into a problem, but we’re never questioning the religion of Ilhan Omar.

But then not too long after, I saw on the liberal side of my Facebook feed the exact same images and the exact same words! But geared toward a different audience. In this reality and this meme, what I think they’re saying is that the conservatives are attacking Ilhan Omar’s religion all the time, but they never reflect on Amy Coney Barrett’s religion. This is a problem, or this is hypocrisy, or this is something. Again, you can see we have the same pictures and the same words, with simply an inverted frame. One of them shows up on the conservative side. One of them shows up on the liberal side. Everybody goes away believing that the other side thinks in a certain way.

I don’t know what to do about this, in part because it’s difficult to insert objective reality. The objective reality is that in fact no one made an issue of–at least in the confirmation hearings and certainly not in anything that I saw on the liberal side–no one made an issue of Amy Coney Barrett’s Catholicism. I will admit that there were a few people who were a little bit disturbed by her membership in something that looks like a sect of either Catholicism or something that was pretty weird. But it wasn’t her religion, it was her membership in a society or a sect. Objectively, she was never attacked in any way because of religion. But when you’re circulating this meme, the idea is “oh that’s what they *really* think.”

It’s hard to get to the objective truth. Then, it’s also hard to get to the other objective truth, is that we have seen, time after time after time, attacks on Islam and Ilhan Omar for being a refugee. We’ve seen her attacked as not American. But no one no one lobbed similar attacks at Amy Coney Barrett to say that she wasn’t American or was somehow way out of what could be considered the American mainstream.

How do you break through these kinds of competing memes with a reality that doesn’t simply enforce either one side or the other? Related to that, if all we need to do is invert the meme or turn it upside down, so that then one side is going to believe it, how do you then introduce what we want to talk about, which is the complexity of religious experience? How do you talk about the relationship between power and politics? The relationship between power, politics, gender, and religion? How do we introduce complexity into this situation, into the meme world? I’m not sure how we break through some of those issues in the global mediascape, in which memeification seems to be predominant.

That said, I don’t want to end this class on a downer. I’ll go back to my “onward” part except with the second to last sentence, the penultimate sentence from the chapter, which I think is maybe even better than the last sentence: “After reading this chapter [or after taking this class], you should be able to apply these questions to situations in which you encounter art and media and the intersections of real life, play, politics, and creative expression” (459).

That’s what I’m hoping you’ll be able to do: apply the toolkit, the expanded toolkit from anthropology, into real life, wherever that may be: play, politics, and creative expression.

Recap: Using the textbook Essentials of Cultural Anthropology, we finished the textbook with the chapter on “Art and Media.”

The previous class was on Religion.

Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together. This blog is a personal project of Jason Antrosio, author of Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. For updates, subscribe to the YouTube channel or follow on Twitter.

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