Thomas Fillitz

Approaching the topic of research in the anthropology of art I propose to consider the frameworks within which we are investigating. As broad concept, I use the one of ‘dialogue’ as outlined by Arnd Schneider in his series of articles on the new hermeneutics between art and anthropology, a conversational situation of collaboration between artists and anthropologists being fully conscious of differences (Schneider 2015).

Schneider considers two periods, (a) the ethnographic turn in arts and (b) the post-writing culture critique of fieldwork practices and other forms of representation. To this he adds now a third field, which is rising with relational/participatory or dialogical arts, thus furthering the interest in senses in anthropology or ethics (in plural).
He relates an “unparalleled period of fertile collaborations between artists and anthropologists” to the times of Surrealism in Paris, upon which James Clifford had worked in previous publications. In this context one further needs to acknowledge Roger Sansi’s recent publication ‘Art, Anthropology, and the Gift’ (2015) as highly valuable, in as far as he extends to other art forms/movements of the 20th Century, ending with his reflections on collaboration in the field of participatory art.

There is a second point, in which I consider Schneider’s debate valuable: constructing on the ‘conceptual differences between artists and anthropologists’, Schneider argues for “ceding one’s own disciplinary boundaries” as basis for understanding in collaborative projects. He therefore argues not for the equality in communication acts, but to start with an “act of self-reflective listening”, thus fundamentally acknowledging the “dialogical inequality which constitutes an uneven hermeneutic field which can still render a productive collaboration” (2015: 27). This new agenda, according to Schneider, again is positioned in relationship to participatory art.

Reflecting about the relationship between art and anthropology, one should not omit about the role of participatory/relational art in art theory discussions, and in mega-art events. Boris Groys argues that installation art is the art form of the time (2008), as it is the combination of original objects within a fixed, stable, closed context “here and now” (Groys 2008: 74). Nikos Papastergiadis extends this argument: in the present, artist have a desire “to be in the contemporary, rather than to produce a belated or elevated response to the everyday” (Papastergiadis 2008: 363). Therefore, participatory art too is a major current. Further, he explains ten characteristics for these dynamics of collaborations, among these I cite the politicization of artistic practices as a common need, or the critical engagement with the specificity of place. Moreover, Terry Smith considers among his three major currents “a more global current”, consisting of “local representations of widely shared contemporary concerns” (2012: 185).

What I want to point out may be first expressed with Gerardo Mosquera’s view that such assumptions produce a new international art language. According to him, the installation artist is a “global nomad who roams from one international exhibit to the other, his/her suitcase packed with the elements for a future work or the tools to produce in sites” (2003: 19). These new ‘postmodern international languages’ again reveal a hegemonic construct of globalism (ibid: 20). I also refer to the last Venice Biennale (2015) which favoured art that engages with political tensions of the present world, art that considers portraying reality as a duty … where the role of ‘artist-curators’ gets at the centre of reflection, in this context Okwui Enwezor, the chief curator of this edition.

I do not argue against anthropological collaboration within participatory art projects. But anthropology needs to consider the power relations these new international languages produce, clearly favouring certain art forms (installation, participatory art), and neglecting or marginalizing all others.
If I consider my own researches in West Africa, installation art was incipient in the mid-1990s, it is not a dominant medium right now, and participatory art projects are few in the present, one example being the Senegalese artists group Huit Facettes, who realised ‘art-development’ projects in the village of Hamdallaye/Senegal. Their projects were exhibited among others at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington D.C. (2000), and at documenta 11 (2002). Further, the Biennale of Dakar focused at different editions on specific art forms, installation art in 2002, new technologies in 2004, or painting in 2010. Each time, this involved hotly debates among local artists who opposed to such a dominant discourse. According to them, the Biennale’s duty is to display the spectrum of African artistic practices.

My argument connects to a wider framework for the art-anthropology relationship, where participatory art and anthropology is but one line. Another one is World Art Studies as it was redefined in the early 1990s. Wilfried van Damme (2008) suggests including our collective anthropological art investigations within this field of research, in as far as the context of World Art Studies is the whole humanity and its will for artistic expression.
Yet, another one, my personal favourite, is the framework of global art, a concept related to a new understanding of contemporary art. I would like to start these comments with Mosquera, who sees a multi-directional web of interactions at a global scale: “We are urged to organise South-South and South-North circuits that are able to pluralise what we understand by ‘international art’, ‘international art language’, and ‘international arts scene’, or even what is called contemporary” (Mosquera 2003: 23).

The goal thereafter is enacting difference, to actively fashion the ‘international language of art’ in multiple ways. One approach from anthropology is the ‘critical anthropology of art’ of Marcus/Myers (1995). It considers art as a central field in our societies for the production of cultural difference, and the authors propose to study the strategies and mechanisms of inclusion, exclusion, or circulation of the European/North American art world.
The concept of global art, however, expands the framework in a far as it reflects the new world order within the field of art, with the spreading of art biennials, art fairs, of new art centres. Global art (a) opposes against the old notion of contemporary art as defined by the European/North American art world, (b) therefore acknowledges local and/or regional contemporary art creations with their wider connections, (c) suggests a basic equality between art creations, (d) opts for breaking down the global art world (in the singular) into smaller units of the global art worlds-networks, and (e) relegates power relations or hegemonic processes to the agency of other fields (e.g. market, exhibition practices), (cf. Belting 2013a, 2013b). This framework therefore enables us to adopt another perspective, the one of an interconnected world, i.e. acknowledging the equality of contemporary art practices in multiple art worlds as a counter strategy against hegemonic practices of producing difference via exhibitions, markets, or discourses about art currents in the present world.

Topics of research are clearly situated within the endeavour of de-centring the European/North American art world. They may focus, for instance, on local discourses, practices of contemporary art (vernacular modernities), and how they are regionally, transculturally and globally stretching out, on regional exhibitions and markets. Another one is the focus on south-south mobilities as Mosquera suggests, which encompasses those of artists and their artworks, south-south art worlds networks or southern perspectives on institutions like art biennials (e.g. Gardner 2013; Gardner and Green 2013).
Anthropological researches in relationship to art may take various trajectories. Schneider and Wright took up the ethnographic turn in art to reflect upon new possibilities for anthropology. Today, this movement fused into considerations of art-anthropology collaborations in the context of participatory/relational art. For sure, most of these art projects have socio-political impacts. But anthropology also needs to reflect about the hegemonic discourses which unfold around this new art form that constitute new forms of marginalisation of other art practices. Like a prominent Austrian artist told me: “You know I am a painter. Unfortunately this is an art practice that is no more demanded in these times”. My own researches in West Africa, presently about the art biennial of Dakar, also show a different image about the plurality of art creations in particular art worlds. They cannot be subsumed under major (!) currents which consider installation art or participatory/relational art as contemporary dominant art forms. I therefore argue for an additional research line that operates counter hegemonic practices of the European/North American art world, that acknowledges the ‘postcolonial constellation’ (Enwezor 2008: 232) with the framework of the concept of global art as delineated above.


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