Half a Million Feathers

Peter Campbell

  • Oceanic Art by Nicholas Thomas
    Thames and Hudson, 216 pp, £6.95, May 1995, ISBN 0 500 20281 8

Some art is distinguishable from non-art only by the kind of attention it gets. In a museum of modern art anything which is not already an item in the collection, from the light bulbs to the urinals, is on the verge of becoming one. Similarly, it was a change in the quality of attention which transformed ethnographers’ collections of ‘material culture’ – masks, weapons, textiles, pots – into ‘tribal art’: a transformation made easier, perhaps even caused, by new Modernist definitions of art. Once it had taken place there was free hybridisation between Western and tribal art.

Artefacts from the Pacific islands first came to Europe in the second half of the 18th century. The cabinet of curiosities, a triumph of omnivorousness in which tools, toys, relics, souvenirs and natural history specimens were gathered together promiscuously, had long had its day, and Oceanic artefacts, like plants and animals, were now collected with classification in mind. Eventually, when museum departments were established, everything was shared out. Natural history took the minerals, narwhal tusks and belemnites. Ethnology got the Oceanic art, along with the masks and moccasins. People still wanted (and still do want) to look at things which are rare and strange, but the justification for the new collections was pedagogic.

At the same time, changes were taking place in art museums. There was more to see and more people to see it. Works were displayed so as to illustrate the character of national schools and an evolution of styles in which primitive representations gave way to more realistic depictions of nature. The justification which Eastlake, the great Victorian director of the National Gallery, put forward for buying early Italian pictures for the gallery was historical rather than aesthetic. But the material culture of Africa, Pre-Columbian America and the Pacific lay beyond even his horizon.

By the first years of this century, the lines of development which the museum honoured seemed to have been exhausted, and a redefinition of frontiers opened the way to an art of flat patterns, unmodulated colour and expressive distortion. Artists ceased to heed the universal, if ill-defined, advice of previous generations – ‘learn from nature’ – and turned to new sources of inspiration: machinery, photographs and, most fruitfully, tribal artefacts. Artists bought these in flea-markets and looked at them in ethnographic collections. People who collected modern painting and sculpture began to collect tribal pieces as well. The Midas touch of the artist/collector transmuted them into the gold of art, and, like Midas’ daughter, they suffered a kind of death. It was hard to pay attention to the ordinary function of things which had acquired stunning power as works of art. Which is why Nicholas Thomas’s Oceanic Art, despite its ethnographical bias, appears in a World of Art series and why questions of what is and is not art keep intruding.

As Thomas points out, over-confident label-writers and catalogue-makers are liable to impose meanings on objects which were as mysterious to the people who made and used them as they are to us. The transformation of ethnographic evidence into art meant that these objects could be enigmatic in the way modern art itself is enigmatic. It can help not to know that a Brancusi-like object is in fact a bow, or a wooden throne-like one an anvil for beating bark cloth on. Ignorance can disorientate usefully, just as turning a painting upside down can make its composition clearer. In the end, however, cultural good manners require that you turn the picture the right way up again, and this is what Nicholas Thomas does in Oceanic Art. Any loss of mystery and potency is made up for by an increase in understanding. Some objects become a little less wonderful, all become much more interesting. Modern art’s love affair with tribal art went too far in encouraging critics to take the line that, if to look was rewarding, this proved that looking alone was enough. In Thomas’s book aesthetics and ethnography support one another.

Once you take account of factors other than raw aesthetic effect you must have a strategy of interpretation. Thomas points out that ‘although rituals and genealogies often create intimate bonds between people and their land ... Pacific cultures are not pervaded by harmony and spiritual interconnectedness with the environment, as a superficial New Age image of tribal societies might suggest.’ He acknowledges that there is common ground in all aesthetic response: ‘The meanings and effects of Oceanic art are not wholly alien to those of other artistic systems, in part because there seem to be psychological universals that influence art everywhere.’ And while he agrees that the concept of ‘art’ may be problematic, this is

not so much because it marks off a domain of intensified aesthetic power and value, but because of the way in which the domain is defined. For the Western viewer, ‘Oceanic art’ is associated above all with objects in museums, and although much indigenous energy indeed went into the carving, weaving and painting of material things, this conception is far too narrow.

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