Discourses and Artifacts

I’ve pulled down a few books from my library about primitive art. I am looking for some clues or insights into a personal question that has been lingering for some time: Why are non-Western, non-contextualized images increasingly compelling to me? Perhaps this can’t be parsed into logic and language–that’s a conclusion I’ve come to many times before–but there is pleasure in the search.

In the course of this casual research, I have had some moments of “that’s not it.” Shelly Errington’s book, The Death of Authentic Primitive Art and Other Tales of Progress is Foucaultian and readable (yes, that is a combination that does exist in nature!) But here’s a passage that speaks to my divergence from her point of view:

My position is that artifacts themselves are mute and meaningless. Their meanings are created by the categories they fall into and the social practices that produce and reproduce those categories.

To put it more dramatically: Discourses create objects. A “discourse” is not just a way of talking about things. Discourses materialize and narrativize categories by creating institutions and using media that illustrate, support, confirm, and naturalize their dominant ideas. Objects may physically preexist those discourses and their institutions, and they may persist beyond them; but, appropriated by new institutions, their meanings are remade and they are transformed into new kinds of objects.

Errington takes this argument further:

In his book on art collecting, Joseph Alsop calls the art market a “by-product” of art. I would reverse the causality implied in that statement, arguing that “art” is produced and reproduced by the art market rather than causing it.

There are certainly a number of examples in the world of art where Errington’s description is fitting. But I can think of many examples where this discourse-driven, “mute object” view does not . Errington is, after all, an anthropologist, not an artist or art historian. The possibility of a powerful reaction or connection to an object or artifact, with or without an accompanying discourse or context, is a steady state of mind for most artists. The thing itself, (German Ding-an-sich) is something altogether different from the words, the social practice, the marketplace. And like many things in life, if you haven’t had that experience, words just aren’t going to get you there.

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