Clifford, J. 'On Collecting Art and Culture' [originally a chapter in The Predicament of Culture] in During, S. (ed) (1993) The Cultural Studies Reader, London: Routledge.
The theme of the piece is the dialectic of the strange and the familiar, revealed by looking at ethnographic objects and their emerging status as art. A 'collection' of objects means both physical objects but also the classification of them, for example in museums or disciplinary archives. Together, there is a whole 'art - culture system' (50). The piece also discusses various definitions of authenticity, which stem from 'specific assumptions about temporality, wholeness and continuity' (50).
In the first phase, ethnographic collections began as ways to indicate danger [male heroics again?], as personal fetishes, as illustrations of taboos. The objects themselves were treated as curiosities, and the guiding principle was one of possessive individualism. There were assumptions more generally of what counted as property, including the idea of culture as collective property. Private collections featured arbitrary classification systems [and there is a marvellous strange list of contents of one, page 52]. They reveal 'contested encodings of past and future' (52) [contested between the original owners and the collectors]. Modern collections differ from pre-modern accumulations displayed for example in potlatch ceremonies in Melanesia, where the idea is to accumulate goods in order to give them away [conspicuously, so as to demonstrate status].
Most individual collections tend to reveal obsession and the importance of the wider culture, including notions of 'taxonomy... gender and... aesthetics' (53). They became suitable for public consumption only as a result of developing tastes. Sometimes pedagogical motives were apparent. Sometimes fetishism and the workings of desire had to be managed or disguised. There were clear desires to close a collection, or to make items stand for larger concepts as metonyms, to impose some cultural order. They also offer a clear example of commodity fetishism, where relations between things displace relations between people. Collections had to be represented as a way of making meaning of objects that had been abstracted from the original cultures. Typically, this labour of representation was concealed.The background assumptions of capitalist culture and the creation of value through labour were integral.
Collections and their representations reveal aspects of social stratification, especially the power to classify. They bring to light the whole surrounding set of aesthetics, including notions of 'good', or 'complete' collections, 'scientific' displays, and a whole set of judgments about what should be displayed rather than stored [Clifford points out that many museums store far more than they display]. Why should Western countries in particular wish to acquire and display the objects from other cultures? We need to see how ethnographic objects became art. Temporality is important here too -- the depth of 'history' attached to an object can make it important. This is an example of how 'authenticity' is also a construct of the present [deciding what is relevant and valuable in the past]. Finally, a number of writers including Baudrillard have pointed out that there are two main modes of taking ethnographic artefacts from their original cultures -- scientific collecting and looting. We know that either of these labels can be applied, with different values attached to them, even if the objects themselves are the same.
In particular, ethnographic objects can be both art or objects for science. There seem to be several binaries at work, instead of more complex classifications -- for example, it is rare to see ethnographic objects as technology. A diagram is provided based on Greimas's structuralism on page 57 [it is a kind of elegant two by two table really, with two main poles: 'authentic and inauthentic' versus 'masterpiece and artefact'. It becomes possible to place a number of terms such as connoisseurship in the diagram -- knowledge of authentic masterpieces -- and to show a number of possible roles for museums as opposed to tourist collections, or objects like fakes and curios]. Economic factors are important in classification, especially if there are only limited stocks from vanished cultures. The categories can shift: for example 'beautiful' objects can migrate into the category of 'masterpiece'. The judgments are often 'formalist' rather than 'contextual', although objects can be seen as metonyms of wider cultural categories as above.
Possible changes over time include artefacts becoming art -- as old green glass Coke bottles have done. Another example is the modern Haitian 'primitive' painting [maybe some Australian Aboriginal art souvenirs too]. These artifacts still seem to borrow an aura from the exotics who produce them. Nevertheless, these transitions are only possible if they are made legitimate by claims of authenticity -- they can be no movement towards art without such legitimation (58). [More recent examples of the movement between artefact and art include how technology becomes 'design', or how 'anti-art' revalues reproductions, as in Warhol or Duchamp]. In such movements, a similar process of abstraction and revaluation is involved -- hence the art- culture system. Other objects are excluded or transformed -- for example, religious objects have to be transferred to the 'general aesthetic realm' before they acquire value (59).
Sometimes there is an open acknowledgment that an object has changed categories, sometimes even seen in the history of the museum [the debate about the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum is a good example -- visitors can decide for themselves if these objects have been collected or looted]. This might be a sign of increasing self-consciousness about classification.
Finally, visitors themselves are capable of recontextualising and reclassifying objects. Despite attempts to scientise them, ethnographic objects can become 'our own fetishes' (60), and visitors can find them to be sources of disruptive fascination [and if they are visitors from looted cultures, they might find them to be particularly offensive].
Turning to anthropology, we know from things like Margaret Mead's field notes that anthropologist must attempt to manipulate cultures in order to classify them [the quoted field notes express annoyance at mixed cultural categories in Melanesia, where some of their inhabitants had clearly been affected by Western missionaries]. Trying to develop the notion of culture in this all-embracing sense involves a kind of collection, including the usual attempts to represent, which are always selective, and an attempt to draw boundaries around particular cultures. This effort is often associated with rescuing declining cultures, keeping what is 'best' or 'traditional': these categories are an invention of the outsider. Often, hybrid cultures are ignored. Those where locals have come into contact with Western cultures are seen as corrupting, with no apparent input or interest from indigenous peoples themselves, and no possibility of 'learning to play, and play with, the outsiders' games' (62) [another Clifford piece offers a literal example of how Melanesians used cricket as a kind of parody and festival].
A whole list of key terms such as 'culture' are involved here. Culture is always associated with 'art', and is connected in a system as above. Although care is often taken not to distinguish between high and low culture, there still are important categories of judgment -- 'coherence, balanced and "authentic" aspects' are valued compared to their opposites (62).
There is often an assumption that cultures are timeless and conveniently separated, so that indigenous peoples cannot collect from other cultures, nor can they leave or enter western society. One Melanesian who went on to become a lawyer and wrote to her both surprised and disappointed Margaret Mead. [Another startling example is provided in another Clifford piece, when the Pilgrim Fathers were lucky enough on landing to encounter a native American -- Squanto -- who had recently visited Europe and spoke reasonable English!].
We know from Williams that there is a background [of social distanciation] to notions such as art and culture, which are seen as natural, creative and spontaneous as opposed to the levelling and vulgarising tendencies of mass society. Non-European cultures have been revalued in the postcolonial phrase, but they are still not equal. Descriptions of their value still reproduce Williams's categories, and some of them have been borrowed directly from Arnold! (64): non-European cultures have been described as representing structures of feeling, as satisfyingly coherent, as ordered, organic. These sentiments helped primitive objects become art, which in turn finally permitted their entry to museums. [Bourdieu suggests that some implicit labout theory of value may be at work here too -- elaborately decorated works of 'primitive' art clearly represent hours of skilled and somehow more genuine labour as opposed to mass production etc]
The notion of authenticity is an important category as well, in that it assumes there are some underlying characteristics of Man. Like all discourses,, the discourse of authenticity produces both truth and 'blindness and controversy' (65). It seems to be a much less stable discourse now after globalisation and the displacement of the West as the centre of the aesthetic and cultural judgment: postcolonial criticism and the rejection of the imposition of Western values have assisted.
Bakhtin uses the term 'chronotype' to refer to an imaginary location where stories take place [for example a golden age]. Levi-Strauss's essays, including Tristes Tropiques include such chronotypes --'specific places... appear as moments of intelligible human order and transformation, surrounded by the destructive entropic currents of local history' (66). Thus Levi-Strauss saw New York as a particularly significant mixture of ethnic groups and social worlds. Anything was available for sale, including primitive masterpieces. There was a sense that these were both available but also vanishing. Surrealists in particular loved collecting them, including objects that had been discarded by official museums. They were engaged, in effect, in a struggle to found a category, and to develop a value for ethnic arts. Objects were rescued and revalued, but only as 'sublimated art' (69) -- or by anthropologists attempting to establish an archive. They were seen as particularly threatened by the new American mass culture which was also evident. They therefore became an allegory for the fate of the world itself [a particualrly French worry about US culture might be detectable too?]. Levi-Strauss himself also collected neglected volumes of American anthropology journals as a record of this vanishing world. Apart from other distortions, this perspective fails to see the potential and the practice of renewed and revived ethnicity in the USA [instead of the 'melting pot' that many social scientists at the time saw as inevitable and as highly valuable].
We should now attempt to avoid classifications of objects according to their authenticity and its disappearance. We need to display instead the work of 'current convention and contestation' (71). It is now possible, for example, to rediscover the local and ethnic meaning of artefacts gathered in museums using descendants of indigienous people who originally possessed them. This would not be an attempt to relocate them in a simply authentic setting, since interpretations of present ethnic minorities are still modern, and they would still be attempting to insert objects into new notions of tradition. There are now lots of new claims to repossess ethnic objects, to deny that they exist only as art or archive. This brings hints of other histories. The whole basis of the museum is now under serious challenge. One response has to develop indigenous people's museums, with hired anthropologists and professionals to collect and display according to indigenous categories. Museum works are sometimes now used by indigenous people in cultural acts as well as displayed.
Classic ethnographic texts themselves are now objects for collection, seen as a result of particular historical circumstances, as 'tribal' products of local civilisations .
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