Sunday, June 23, 2013

Authenticity and African art - again

As I learn more about African art, I hope I'm appreciating it more and perhaps grasping a little better what some of the debates about it involve. I've posted about the question of authenticity before, especially here and here -- and here's what's struck me most recently. 

Sidney Littlefield Kasfir, in her “Coda” to the fascinating book she and Till Fรถrster co-edited, African Art and Agency in the Workshop (2013), describes the functioning of “a Kamba women’s self-help group” making baskets in Nairobi, and writes that “[c]raft such as Kamba baskets … are sold to both local elites and expatriates, and traders supply the women with considerable feedback on aesthetic preferences from both groups of buyers…. The feedback has also influenced color choices, with a preference for so-called natural tones, and nonsynthetic materials, reminiscent of the influences on Navajo weaving early in the twentieth century by white collectors and gallery owners who wanted to keep it ‘traditional.’” (393) (For examples of Kamba sisal baskets, though not necessarily from the women's self-help group Kasfir discussed, click here.)

Part of Kasfir’s point is that wherever there are tourists and foreign markets, the local creators shape what they do in part with those buyers in mind. Today there are tourists everywhere – except in the places off the beaten track, whose residents dream of reaching the tourists buying elsewhere, as Kasfir indicates (390).

So is the art produced for these markets inauthentic? One answer would be that such art must be considered inauthentic because it was produced as a commodity. But that’s a hard position to defend, given that all or almost all art is at least in part a commodity. (Wasn’t the Sistine Chapel commissioned?) Even in African communities where art may have been made only for ritual purposes, and for only modest economic reimbursement, its producers surely received benefits of various sorts, such as “a certain importance and esteem in the community,” as Kasfir mentions in an earlier article reproduced in this volume, “Apprentices and Entrpreneurs: The Workshop and Style Uniformity in Sub-Saharan Africa” (367). Today, after Andy Warhol, it’s not surprising that, as Kasfir eloquently puts it, “commodification has become the norm in many [African art] workshops and has lost some of its stigma as it has become an acknowledged part of the broad sweep of changes introduced with modernity riding astride colonialism and political independence in African countries.” (386)

Another answer would be that art for the market is inauthentic because it doesn’t reflect the true impulses of the creators but rather the patrons’ or customers’ wishes. But this position is hard to defend too. The patrons’ wishes undoubtedly influence what the creator makes, as Kasfir emphasizes, but the creator’s views and achievements no doubt influence what the patrons wish for. The creator may well produce different things for different audiences, or even reserve some special works for his or her own personal enjoyment, but it doesn’t follow that any of these are inauthentic. To borrow from the world of etiquette: if we want to be courteous to others, using polite manners is an authentic expression of that desire. The different ways we engage with different other people may all be authentic expressions of ourselves, in those differing contexts. I don’t mean that everything people do is automatically authentic – just as the fact that there are social influences on what we do doesn’t make it all inauthentic either.

Still another answer would be that art for the market is inauthentic because it isn’t done with care. Kasfir, I think, would agree that much work for the market consists of “souvenirs or curios” (389), and it may well be that this work isn’t done with much care – though it may still be rightly fascinating to tourists who have not encountered it before (one shouldn’t be ashamed to be a tourist buying tourist art). Kasfir also seems unimpressed with “the perennial copies” that get produced – but it seems to me that a well-executed copy would in fact be authentic in the sense I’m considering now, precisely because it would have been done with care.

Yet another criticism might be that art done for the market isn’t authentic because it isn’t done with creativity – it lacks the spark of creation that marks authentic art. “Perennial copies” would be inauthentic in this sense, even if they are done with great care. But Kasfir makes clear that sometimes the impact of the market is to foster creativity, for example among the Dogon, where “it has increased competition among mask carvers and has also rewarded virtuoso masked dance performances that tourists strive to capture on video.” (389) (For one dealer's examples of Dogon masks, most evidently produced for the market, click here.)

There’s also another puzzle: is copying by definition not a form of artistic creativity? It might be that merely copying is not creative; recording the music for a CD is creative, but the process of producing a million copies is not. Even this proposition seems a bit uncertain: perhaps one might make one’s art consist of the process of mass production. But even if mechanical reproduction cannot be creative, copying by humans is not mechanical. In her earlier article, Kasfir observed that “even in cultures that hold style uniformity in high regard, the concept of drift has to be taken into account.” (371) Both parts of this observation are important. People don’t reproduce originals exactly, and so there is always some room for “drift” and with it for creative change. Just as important, some cultures value “style uniformity.” If style uniformity is a crucial aesthetic criterion, then artists will seek to achieve it; their artistic creation is the achievement of that uniformity.

That notion may seem to miss the point of creativity. But there are quite a few contexts in which Western art is very much concerned with uniformity. When classical orchestras perform, they interpret the score – but the score remains set. So, too, when actors perform Shakespeare (at least most of the time), or, I think, when dancers carry out the directions of a choreographer. The uniform basis is the foundation for the interpretive creativity. So, too, the mask carver’s ability to fully implement the rules of his style may precisely be his creativity.

There is, at last, one way in which art for the market may be inauthentic – namely that it is not a full copy. If work made for the market is visually identical to work made for ritual purposes, but was made without the religious rituals that would have been required to make the resulting piece carry religious power, then the work does not embody the same social practices as an authentic original would have. This is true. My impression, however, is that not every mask made in earlier times in fact carried such religious significance or was made in such a ritual fashion; people in Africa, as elsewhere, have been operating in the world of commerce and exchange for a long time. Nevertheless, some masks were made with ritual care, and the knowledge of those rituals is fading, as is Africans’ belief in them. So there may soon be no new masks which are authentic in this sense.

But even that won’t mean that the masks lack human authenticity. The artist who seeks to honor his or her forebears’ cultural practices by faithfully reproducing the objects they made is expressing an authentic human purpose. The artist who seeks an income from works that honor his or her forebears’ cultural practices is also expressing an authentic human purpose. And so is the artist who seeks his or her income with works that draw inspiration from, but are not identical to, those that came earlier, and that instead reflect new insights and achieve new results.

I think the net result of these arguments would be that there are so many forms of authenticity that the concept itself should be put to one side. One advantage of doing so is that those who admire African art could cease to worry about whether any given piece is authentic in yet another sense, namely that it is what its seller claims it is. That doesn’t matter, nor do the other senses of authenticity, if the only real question should be, after all, whether you (or I) like the work.

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