Review of ‘What’s the Use of Art: Asian Visual and Material Culture in Context’

By Alison Carroll

What’s the Use of Art: Asian Visual and Material Culture in Context ed: Jan Mrazek & Morgan Pitelka, University of Hawai’i Press, 2008

What’s the Use of Art is a collection of nine scholarly essays by Western experts, plus an introduction and conclusion by the two editors, on valued cultural objects in India, Japan, China, Indonesia and Cambodia. It is held together under three groupings: Functions, Movements and Memories, though these slip away in reading the density of the essays themselves. More useful is the general overlay of the question of function and value of the objects, and how these are maintained both within these particular cultures and by outsiders, including of course the cultures of the writers.

As Morgan Pitelka says in the introduction, the objects of these Asian cultures are exemplars of the broader question of value of objects from different places, especially those which tend to ‘describe and value’ others (see Chapter 1).

Questions on the complexity of value weave throughout the book, with the different focuses – from Japanese disposable temple ceramics, to potent keris in Bali, to Angkorian royal inscriptions – and continually challenge our own positions. This was more rewarding than the more awkward overlay of the more truly Western concern with the art/craft nexus. These are objects of value, no matter how they are described, or used. Perhaps a better title than ‘objects of use’ might have been ‘objects of power’.

As some of the essays discuss, e.g. on Angkorian inscriptions, the word and idea of ‘art’ is long used in Asia, though in many places, such as Japan, the currently used word is a quite modern invention. While the newness of such words is often raised as an example of Western intervention, the discomfort with ‘art’ vs ‘craft’ rarely receives the emotional heat of such discussions in the West. I remember a leading Pakistani artist and curator, when asked about the situation of craft vs art in Pakistan, replying that there were many greater issues for debate and concern there than this.

This then is a concern of this book: that the debate about these cultures is so removed from those cultures. Where are the scholars, or at least the debate, from within these cultures? At least interviews with practitioners. A poem by Australian Aboriginal poet Anita Heiss comes to mind:

Aboriginal Studies
You ‘study’ us /Observe us /Analyse us /Write about us /You philosophise
/and scrutinize us /You lecture about  /and separate out /You debate and speculate,  /evaluate and investigate. /But who is it for, /If not for us? /When most of us  /can’t even read what you write /And don’t even  /know your words are in print? /And your royalty and lecture fees /benefit only you? /Do you really do it  /to educate others? /Really? /Now come on,  /Seriously – /Be honest, /You enjoy being  /the Patriarch or Matriarch /of your chosen field –  /The study of Aborigines.

Who indeed is the audience for this book? The complexity of the English for a start will preclude most (though not all) Asian readers. Surely this is an irony for a book about value and context.

Another concern is that it is a book about visual cultural objects with such poor visuals: no colour, small poorly reproduced b x w illustrations and not enough of them. When the authors are describing an object with great focus, let us all see it and try to evaluate its presence for ourselves. After the long story of Ganga Devi in Chapter 3, it would be good to see what she had actually done, as it would be to see Nyoman Erawan’s Ancient Time in context of Balinese symbolic belief, in Chapter 9.

As Pitalka says, there are multiple contexts of these objects and they change, including their place within museums. However, there is the implication that these objects find no adequate context outside their own, a thread through the book of regret towards change, and a note that these objects have had power that is unique to them (and stronger in Asian cultures than elsewhere, and something that is misunderstood elsewhere), that this power is being lessened and that this should be arrested. A memory of temps perdue.

Such positions immediately raise responses in the reader: I can think of the 18th century Korean scholar’s room recreated in the National Museum of Korea as a truly wonderful experience, furnished with treasures unlikely to be encountered by any but the very few elsewhere, or the tea-ceremony room in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, where ceremonies do take place, or the installation by Indonesian artist Dadang Christanto For those who are poor, for those who are suffering, made in 1991 and placed at the Queensland Art Gallery in 1993, which led to visitors both Indonesian and non-Indonesian leaving flowers in memory of loss of all sorts. Further, in this context, Mrazek’s words about the “exclusive visuality of the modern art object” (p.300) seems to preclude such works as Dadang’s from such descriptions.

Perhaps another way through this complex area for non-Asian readers is to have threads in the book – like the power of objects in Asia – linked to Western experience: lessening the exoticising ‘other’ element of the discussion. For example, other cultures, including Western cultures, do venerate objects. Think of those saints’ bones or flecks of holy cloth in European reliquaries, or the feet of Christ figures worn smooth in Italian churches with the prayers of the faithful. Think of the carrozas or special carriages in Manila streets, where the Virgin and her attendants, reclothed in new and splendid raiment, come out into public view, living in the hearts of all there.

The performative, the issue of the importance of time, and the process of cultural action is an area, I think, of difference in ‘Asia’ compared with the West. This is touched on in the book, and it would have been good to have more, or done more vividly. But a book about objects perhaps is antithetical to this. The importance of performance was strongly brought home to me watching Aboriginal artists from Arnhem Land in northern Australia make a sand painting in a Tokyo plaza. The two Aboriginal men ‘smoked’ the piece and slowly created their imagery in the trucked-in sand. It had strength and importance to them, and to the watching Japanese it was totally understandable: the process of doing was understood and respected. The Anglos watching were much less comfortable.

And indeed perhaps the degree in Asia of the belief in the power of objects or spirits themselves is a matter of difference from the West. I curated an exhibition for an Adelaide Festival Beyond the material world, where I asked contemporary artists from Asia whose work included a sense of the unseen powers of life to make new works, and published interviews with people in Asia about their belief in a strongly spiritual world. The leading artists from Japan, Korea, China, Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia all produced key works that had their acceptance of the ‘non-material’ unselfconsciously inherent within them. I suspect it would be difficult to have the same result in the West.

The individual chapters of this book are full of their own spirit, crafted with love by their authors and much of this is conveyed to the reader. I wished, for example, I had known what the inscriptions on the temples of Angkor had meant before going there, as they brought life to those huge, seemingly impenetrable faces. It is good to have access to essays of such knowledge, care and affection: objects of value themselves.

Alison Carroll is Director of Asialink Arts, University of Melbourne