Saturday, October 13, 2012

African masks and the costs of authenticity

Having admired and in a small way collected African masks for years, I've recently begun to study them. Isn't this a bit late? Well, no: I've followed the advice a wise friend gave me long ago -- that I should just buy what I liked. But now I find I want to know more about these things that I like.

Unfortunately a lot of what I'm learning is unsettling. For instance, the question of authenticity: is an authentic mask one that was carved for use in ritual practices embedded in African custom? If that definition is right, then two things would follow. (I say this based slightly on my own experiences looking for masks, but more on what I’ve been learning from reading, particularly in the fascinating book by Christopher B. Steiner, African Art in Transit (1994), which studies the African art trade in Côte d’Ivoire.)

First, it's very unlikely that many of the masks for sale in African markets today are authentic in this sense. The traditional practices of which the masks were a part are fading – though I doubt that these practices are entirely gone – and so presumably fewer and fewer masks are being made for actual use in ritual. Moreover, there are a lot of masks for sale, so many that there probably just aren't enough villages to support the commerce from their own ritual stock. Most masks, instead, are probably being made right now, and mainly for the tourist trade. They may look old, but that’s because they’re specially treated to appear that way.

Second, if a mask actually is authentic, how did it make its way from ritual to commerce? Steiner offers this description of bargaining “[a]t the village level of the art trade”: “[M]uch art is obtained during times of personal or regional crisis…. Bargaining here is less concerned with price as it is with the negotiation of a sale – i.e., convincing someone to sell something.” (64) On the same page, Steiner quotes an African art trader on this process:

When buying in villages, you have to be very careful about what you say. You have to be gentle and polite. You have to explain to the elders that these objects are things which people want to learn about. “Your children,” you must tell them, “won’t be able to appreciate or understand these things unless we take them and preserve them in museums and in books.”

I recently heard Michael Sandel speak about his current work on the intrusion of market thinking into areas of life that used to be regulated, at least on the surface, by other forces. (For example: government programs that pay children for reading books during summer vacation.) He was worried about the moral corrosion that might be caused by market values' "crowding out" of other human impulses, and that's an important concern. But the moment when an authentic mask is pulled from the world of its creation into the world of art and commerce seems worse -- an act of cultural destruction rather than mere corrosion.

Paradoxically, almost all masks that are really old (say, a century or more) seem to be in Western museums. There they have been preserved against climate and pests, which are not kind to wooden masks. There too, it seems, they get treated as objects for preservation rather than for use and in due course replacement.

But now, today, it seems right to say that those Westerners who simply like African masks should not seek masks that fit the definition of authenticity I started this post with, because if they succeed they will be contributing to the disintegration of a culture. Instead, they – we – should embrace masks made today, for trade, as today's expression of this traditional art. And we should buy what we like.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

From Kol Nidre

Kol Nidre, the opening service of Yom Kippur and also the name of the central prayer of that service, was last month. I was given the honor of speaking briefly at my synagogue's Kol Nidre service; what follows is a much revised version of what I said that night:

The ancient Kol Nidre prayer, which Jews recite at the beginning of Yom Kippur’s twenty-four hours of reflection and atonement, declares that all vows and obligations we have entered into shall not bind us nor have power over us. The prayerbook says that when efforts were made to drop this language, because it seemed so problematic morally, congregations resisted. Why? How can moral people embrace such a declaration?

One answer is that this is a prayer for the peace that passeth understanding. For people who are incapable of perfection – that would be all of us – only relief from the burden of seeking perfection can sustain us.

But perhaps we should understand it not as a plea but as a pathway. Like an amnesty after a war, Kol Nidre seeks a way to re-admit each of us to the community, when otherwise our past commitments and our past failures might overwhelm us. Yom Kippur calls on us to be better people in the year to come, but it does so in part by authorizing us to be merciful to ourselves.

This is no moral free pass. Actually (as one of my children pointed out to me) it must be a moral error to ask more of ourselves than we can do – as it is also a moral error to ask more of others than they can do. Instead this declaration is an assertion of our actually being moral persons, who can judge what is right and wrong, which duties are real and which are false, and who thus can freely live the most faithful and committed lives we can achieve.