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Thinking with Things


Any analysis of “art” comes up against the concept of what is art. Paul Oskar Kristeller demonstrates beautifully that the modern concept of art – originality, creativity, genius – is eighteenth century in origin, but he refers to medieval and ancient art as “art,” even though he has just shown that they had no such concept or word for it. The term “art” is routinely invoked by current authors for all ornamented or figurative images of all people in all times, and thus has become a universal. Anthropology survey books have chapters on art as they do on kinship. Art is either not defined or very difficult to define. Theoretically, we all know what it is, but in fact we have no idea what we are talking about.

Prior to the eighteenth-century concept of art, there were other concepts about objects. In the sixteenth century, for example, foreign things were put in several categories: treasures such as precious metals and gems desired for their monetary value, strange objects desired for their curiosity value, utilitarian objects largely not desired, and images interpreted as heathen idols usually hated and destroyed. As such, the conquerors of Mexico sent back gold, usually melted down in the form of gold bars; curiosities – i.e., weapons, headdresses, jades, and books – and utilitarian objects like blankets and textiles. Many of the curios came to light in the nineteenth century in trunks in attics and are now in museums as “art.” Of the hundreds of utilitarian items such as blankets, none were “treasured” or lasted to the twentieth century. The heathen idols were, of course, not sent back to Europe; they were destroyed in situ. In the nineteenth century, the surviving ones in Mexico became “art” and were sometimes taken to Europe or even faked.

What Albrecht Dürer enthused over in the often quoted passage fromo his trip to Brussels were Aztec “treasure-curios.” I saw the things which have been brought to the king from the new land of gold (Mexico), a sun all of gold a whole fathom broad, and a moon all of silver of the same size, also two rooms full of the armour of the people there, and all manner of wondrous weapons of theirs, harness and darts, very strange clothing, beds, and all kinds of wonderful objects of human use, much better worth seeing than prodigies. These things were all so precious that they are valued at 100,000 florins. All the days of my life I have seen nothing that rejoiced my heart so such as these things, for I saw amongst them wonderful works of art, and I marveled at the subtle Ingenia of men in foreign lands. Indeed I cannot express all that I thought there.
It is quite clear from the passage that Dürer’s admiration is of riches, curiosities, and craft. When he discusses Western “art” he uses different terms, such as proportion, or alludes to comparisons with antiquity. Contrary to usual interpretations, he doesn’t marvel at the “art” of the New World, he marvels at the “curiosities” and “craft.”
Yet by the eighteenth century what were “heathen idols” had become art. Europe was more secular and Mexico was less afraid of native religious revivals. When three Aztec sculptures came to light in the construction in the Zócalo of Mexico City in 1790, two were left visible and eventually moved to a new museum devoted to antiquity. The third, a colossal idol-like female figure, was reburied for some time for fear of its effect on the natives. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, it had found its place in the museum too. Plaster casts were made of the sculptures and exhibited in 1824 in London for a public eager to see exotic monuments.

This change in classification from heathen idol to art is not easily explained. Art and the aesthetic experience were being defined in the eighteenth century as universals – everyone was believed to have an aesthetic sense, although what was thought “beautiful” varied from person to person and culture to culture. Because the beautiful was seen as relative but the sense of beauty as universal, it became possible to admire the monuments of other cultures. Their religious content as truth or untruth became irrelevant. The concept of art in the eighteenth century was very close to the idea of loss. To George Hegel, art was always something “past” in a ruinous condition, through which one contemplated the spirit of history. Because classical art is largely stone, especially monuments, other similar monuments were classified as “art” with them.

The nineteenth-century focus was on big stone monuments, like the monuments of Greece, Rome, and Egypt that were then being excavated and transported to Europe and its new museums. One could say the museums and monuments became shrines to a new religion that celebrated the universal creativity of humanity. They became treasures and relics at the same time. God, no longer specifically dominant in society, was evident in the divine creativity resident in the genius of the artists who had made “art.” In contemplating art, the aesthetic experience was the equivalent of the religious experience. Large stone human figures were among the first foreign objects recognized as art in the eighteenth century. From that point on a domino effect ensued, as art after art was revalued. Captain Cook considered the Northwest Coast masks “monstrous” in 1776 and only collected two, but by 1900 George Emmons and George Hunt were filling the American Museum of Natural History with them. In this whole process of collecting, however, judgments were made as to what is art and what isn’t. It is quite clear that in the Western concept of art, the image of the human takes a central place. In fact, it is precisely what was once thought to be the “heathen idol” that is the work of art! The Yoruba people of Nigeria make a pot lid that sometimes has a figure on the top. An example is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The covers with figures are collected; the ones without are of little interest to us.

Besides its obsession with figures, the West determines the art of the rest of the world in terms of current taste and styles. Most pre-Columbian “art” has been appreciated, defined, and collected in terms of the prevailing Western styles whose last major stop was the recognition of Peruvian art via conceptual art.
The West has thus created non-Western “art” in its own image out of its own earlier traditions. It has created museums to house its global treasure trove. With scholarly research in libraries and in the field, these selections are not totally alien to the nature of native objects and aesthetics, but they have been fitted into the concept of art of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century West. You cannot find out what art is in the museum.

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Lisa and Bernard Selz Professor
in Pre-Columbian Art History
and Archaeology

Department of Art History
and Archaeology
814 Schermerhorn Hall

Columbia University
in the City of New York

(212) 854-5681