Art, Observation, and an Anthropology of Illustration
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Art, Observation, and an Anthropology of Illustration

Max Carocci, Stephanie Pratt, Max Carocci, Stephanie Pratt

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eBook - ePub

Art, Observation, and an Anthropology of Illustration

Max Carocci, Stephanie Pratt, Max Carocci, Stephanie Pratt

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About This Book

Art, Observation, and an Anthropology of Illustration examines the role of sketches, drawings and other artworks in our understanding of human cultures of the past. Bringing together art historians and anthropologists, it presents a selection of detailed case studies of various bodies of work produced by non-Western and Western artists from different world regions and from different time periods (from Native North America, Cameroon, and Nepal, to Italy, Solomon Islands, and Mexico) to explore the contemporary relevance and challenges implicit in artistic renditions of past peoples and places. In an age when identities are partially constructed on the basis of existing visual records, the book asks important questions about the nature of observation and the inclusion of culturally-relevant information in artistic representations. How reliable are watercolours, paintings, or sketches for the understanding of past ways of life? How do old images of bygone peoples relate to art historical and anthropological canons? How have these images and technologies of representation been used to describe, illustrate, or explain unknown realities? The book is an essential tool for art historians, anthropologists, and anyone who wants to understand how the observation of different realities has impacted upon the production of art and visual cultures. Incorporating current methodological and theoretical tools, the 10 chapters collected here expand the area of connection between the disciplines of art history and anthropology, bringing into sharp focus the multiple intersections of objectivity, evidence, and artistic licence.

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Drawing as method
The question of expression when using art as a research method in anthropology: Notes for the anthropologist-artist
Paola Tiné
Visual methods in anthropology have become increasingly popular in recent years, and much reflection has been carried out on what art can add to social research.1 In fact, the connubium between art and anthropology opens up to new methodological and epistemological queries, such as how specific themes should be communicated through the means of visual methods.
Some general criteria to establish the anthropological validity of visual work have been defined by the American Anthropological Association (AAA). By polarizing art and anthropology as two distinct disciplines, these guidelines affirm the importance of ethnography as the necessary link between them. According to these specifications, ‘visual media convey critical forms of knowledge that written accounts cannot’ and ‘the content of ethnographic visual media is necessarily based on research’ (Society for Visual Anthropology [2001] 2015). Moreover, the AAA states that ‘while ethnographic media provide access to visual and acoustic worlds of practice and belief, they also make available opportunities to contemplate and experience the relationship between theory and observations from the field’ (Society for Visual Anthropology [2001] 2015). In sum, following these orientations, to be academically and anthropologically valid, a work of art has to be the result of ethnographic research conducted in the field with classical qualitative methods. The follow-up analysis and production of visual material can be a very useful resource, if appropriately used, in developing that ‘thick’ understanding (using a term coined by Geertz 1988), which is proper in an anthropological inquiry.
While the importance of ethnography as a background to artistic productions has become established, at least theoretically, in anthropological works using visual arts, a reflection of the interrelation between the ‘content’ of the study and the ‘form’ used for the purposes of representation is generally absent in such attempts. This meta-reflection is particularly lacking in projects that include experimental techniques such as drawing,2 painting, sculpture, installations and so on, in comparison to works that make use of photography and video. That is to say, the expressive potential of art is not explored in any depth, revealing an underlining assumption on the superiority of anthropological epistemology over artistic research. In the same way, research-led projects coming from the world of art that call themselves ethnographic, systematically lack an anthropological theorizing. In short, while art and anthropology are often associated, one of the two is often simply accompanying the other, as if it were an interesting experiment, usually lacking in meaningful reflection on the methods and possibilities of both disciplines and their potential to develop any interconnectedness.
This essential epistemological fracture between art and anthropology is particularly evident in those cases in which artistic works are created by collaborating artists rather than by the researcher themselves.3 While photography and video-making are historically established tools in the hands of anthropologists, and many reflections have been carried on the partiality of vision and the way in which the camera lens selects and shapes reality from the eyes of the researcher,4 it is not yet clear how collaborative works can reflect the ethnographer’s point of view when they are created by others. It is now time to further explore the practice of the researchers creating such works by themselves and, more importantly, to speculate on the ways in which these artefacts can produce significant theoretical contribution to anthropology. In this chapter, I address this debate, noting that it has already been invited by both critics in the fields of art and anthropology.5
I argue that the anthropologist-artist should reflect upon and explain how it is in each case study that the chosen form of representation contributes to shaping the content, that is how the visual works add theoretical information to the research. In this way, I draw from a concept that I have called elsewhere ‘art-tool’ (TinĂ© 2019), by which I refer to visual work that acts not only as an illustrative tool but also as an important instrument of research, providing significant contributions to anthropological enquiry by enriching the specific research themes explored. The researcher should reflect on their own role as an artist, to give the reader a sense of how they are using the selected creative methods, and how they situate themselves in the peculiar context of each research project. Drawing from the Greimasian notion of plastic and figurative components in visual arts (meaning the content and the form expressed through lines, colours and spatial organization; see Greimas 1989), I argue that the authorial ‘voice’ of the anthropologist-artist should also involve a meta-reflection over plastic representation. That is, the visual expedients used to express certain ideas should be made clear, and the author should explain if and how these visual methods have contributed to their own understanding.
Through this endeavour, it is possible to depart from a mere illustrative approach to art towards one that adds something new to traditional research methods, namely an interpretation, expressed visually by the researcher. To demonstrate these points, I will briefly discuss some case studies from my doctoral studies in Nepal, in which I explore domestic conflictuality and transitioning notions of love and parenting through the application of selected visual semiotic constructs, drawing from both explicit local and Western visual epistemologies. Before that, however, it is important to understand the role of interpretation and representation in modern anthropology and to reflect on the role of the anthropologist as an author, as proposed by Clifford Geertz (1988).
The art of anthropology
The crisis of representation
At the beginning of the anthropological discipline, visual methodologies such as photography and video were used as scientific evidence, an assumption that was challenged from 1930, with increasing debate over the partiality of photographic images constructed by the maker (see e.g. Harper 1998). Simultaneously, the idea of anthropology as a ‘positivistic’ discipline started to be questioned. In the late 1980s, Marcus and Fisher ([1986] 1999) coined the term of ‘crisis of representation’ to account for the inadequacy of ethnography and how it had been utilized so far to express the complexities of human social worlds. Thus, the problem of anthropology became a problem of expression, in which the researcher’s authorial voice entered the very debate about the expressive possibilities of the discipline. This new reflexivity, which was encouraged by the spread of feminist and postcolonial studies, became a crucial element in Clifford Geertz’ speculation on the notion of ‘writerly identity’ (1988: 7).
According to Clifford Geertz, ‘anthropology should be seen as a kind of text in which the anthropologist is a creative author’ (TinĂ© 2021a: 59). The construction of the ‘writerly identity’ (Geertz 1988: 9) can be problematic due to the epistemological preoccupation to ‘prevent subjective views from colouring objective facts’ (1988: 7). For Geertz, the resistance to the notion of authorial voice was based on the ‘confusion, endemic in the West since Plato at least, of the imagined with the imaginary, the fictional with the false, making things out with making them up’. According to him, these resistances need to be overcome to develop an anthropology as ‘comparable art’ (1988: 139–140). Geertz’ proposal marked the epistemological passage of anthropology from a scientific discipline to an interpretative one. The problem of expression can thus be seen as pertaining to the transition from data collection to elaboration, interpretation and representation.
The anthropologist-author becomes an artist when artistic methods of expression are used. In this endeavour, a ‘responsibility’ of expression arises. That is, visual methods in anthropology involve the same expressive questions encountered in both artistic and anthropological fields, and the researcher has the responsibility to explore how these intertwine not only in practice but also in theory.
In and out of the field
Visual methods in the field can include the use of drawings in diaries, video and photography for data collection; portraiture of interviewees;6 photograph elicitation (Collier and Collier 1986); and delegation of the camera to the informants.7 On the other hand, the use of visual methods in post-fieldwork generally consists of documentary video productions, photographic reports, and installations. After the fieldwork, the researcher has to analyse the data and produce insights from the acquired information, thus adding an interpretation. The passage from the rough material to a meaningful text, through theoretical sampling and comparative literature analysis is the most difficult part of anthropological research, and probably the most misunderstood (Banks 2008; Mac Dougall 1997). As I observed elsewhere, ‘this is the passage from ethnography, seen as the collection of material and data in the field, to anthropology per se,8 seen as the analysis, interpretation and presentation of the research material’ (TinĂ© 2021a: 59). This needs to be accomplished in a way to ‘convince the reader that we have understood other “forms of life”, showing that we have truly been there’ (Geertz 1988: 4).
Post-fieldwork productions are not only the equivalent of raw data but also re-created with specific communicative intentions, to serve the anthropological need of expression and communication of findings. While this endeavour can be seen in ethnographic documentary making, in which the editing process necessarily involves the analytical effort of the maker, visual arts, such as drawing and painting, have not received the same theoretical and practical dedication and have more commonly been used in the field as a part of the note-taking process. While a selection of these images in the ensuing analysis and dissemination is already a kind of analysis, the creation of new visual work, and a reflection on how this communicates relevant insights that contribute to the text and not simply accompany it, is not yet common in anthropology. In the next section, I will explore the notion of voice as encompassing interpretation and positionality and offer some insights on how we can add reflexivity within the process of expression.
The authorial voice
The notion of voice in anthropology is recurrent in the reflection on interpretative authority and in the relation between the researcher and the people that are researched. As noted by Appadurai (1988: 16–17):
much fieldwork is organized talk, and the ethnographic text is the more or less creative imposition of order on the many conversations that lie at the heart of fieldwork. But in fieldwork there is a curious double ventriloquism. While one part of our traditions dictates that we be the transparent medium for the voices of those we encounter in the field, that we speak for the native point of view, it is equally true that we find in what we hear some of what we have been taught to expect by our own training, reading, and cultural backgrounds. Thus our informants are often made to speak for us.
That is to say, the authorial voice involves an interpretation in which positionality plays a crucial role. This refers to the ways in which the researcher’s background affects their perspective, but also their relationship with the informants. Anthropologists nowadays agree that interpretation derives from this encounter of epistemological ‘positions’.
In artistic enquiry, the search for an artist’s voice generally refers to the unique style of an artist. However, artists also acknowledge that the voice changes according to the object. This was, for example, a reflection made in 1923 by Pablo Picasso, who said ‘whenever I had something to say, I have said it in the manner in which I have felt it ought to be said. Different motives inevitably require different methods of expression’ (quoted in Chipp 1968: 265). Following this line of thought, it is the responsibility of the anthropologist-artist to carry a meta-reflection on the link between content and the form chosen for expression, a link that should be made clear from the author to the viewer.
Plastic representation
The concept of plastic representation helps us to reflect on two questions: Which technique/style is used to express what? And, consequently, what does art add to the specific theme discussed? In Greimas’s elaboration of analytical tools for visual semiotics, composition, lines and colours (followed by a topologic, eidetic and chromatic description) are the most relevant plastic aspects, which serve to express the figurative element (see Greimas 1989). Drawing from this approach, we can move forward to encompass other aspects and embrace all of the expressive potential of art. Some o...

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