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What's the Use of Art?

What's the Use of Art?: Asian Visual and Material Culture in Context

Copyright Date: 2008
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  • Book Info
    What's the Use of Art?
    Book Description:

    Post-Enlightenment notions of culture, which have been naturalized in the West for centuries, require that art be autonomously beautiful, universal, and devoid of any practical purpose. The authors of this multidisciplinary volume seek to complicate this understanding of art by examining art objects from across Asia with attention to their functional, ritual, and everyday contexts. From tea bowls used in the Japanese tea ceremony to television broadcasts of Javanese puppet theater; from Indian wedding chamber paintings to art looted by the British army from the Chinese emperor’s palace; from the adventures of a Balinese magical dagger to the political functions of classical Khmer images—the authors challenge prevailing notions of artistic value by introducing new ways of thinking about culture. The chapters consider art objects as they are involved in the world: how they operate and are experienced in specific sites, collections, rituals, performances, political and religious events and imagination, and in individual peoples’ lives; how they move from one context to another and change meaning and value in the process (for example, when they are collected, traded, and looted or when their images appear in art history textbooks); how their memories and pasts are or are not part of their meaning and experience. Rather than lead to a single universalizing definition of art, the essays offer multiple, divergent, and case-specific answers to the question "What is the use of art?" and argue for the need to study art as it is used and experienced.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6558-0
    Subjects: Archaeology, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-ix)
  4. [Map]
    (pp. x-x)
  5. INTRODUCTION Wrapping and Unwrapping Art
    (pp. 1-18)

    Tea bowls, perhaps the most beloved objects in Japanese tea culture, are carefully wrapped to honor them and shield them from the everyday world.¹ A Raku tea bowl dating to the late sixteenth century, for example, might be stored within a pouch (often made of imported fabric) that both robes the piece in an appropriately dignified manner and protects it. The bowl in its pouch would be contained in turn within a handmade, fitted wooden box, the lid of which often bears a signed, calligraphic inscription on the underside recording the poetic name of the tea bowl, the maker or...

  6. Functions

    • ONE From the Living Rock: Understanding Figural Representation in Early South Asia
      (pp. 21-45)

      It has become a commonly accepted truth that the meanings attributed to objects are not inherent to the objects themselves. Rather, the meanings that are associated with any item or work of human creation are the result of cultural and historical processes through which that significance has been constructed. Even those special objects that are identified as works of art are by no means exempt from this process. The designation “art” often carries with it certain connotations of use and function that stem from culturally specific (primarily the post-Renaissance West) notions of exhibition and status. As such, a work of...

    • TWO Disposable but Indispensable: The Earthenware Vessel as Vehicle of Meaning in Japan
      (pp. 46-76)

      This chapter will draw upon fieldwork experiences in Japan in the 1970s to articulate an alternative definition of the meaning of ceramics in Japan — as unglazed, unadorned, disposable vessels central to concepts of personal, community, and national well-being. It was while researching historical Japanese stoneware (one of the sorts of Japanese ceramics usually understood as culturally important) that I stumbled upon the enduring yet nearly invisible significance of earthenware, as components of ritual cycles and protective performances associated with shrines and temples.¹ I also found that these surviving ritual usages paralleled the vestiges of the once-commonplace use of earthenware dishes,...

    • THREE From the Wedding Chamber to the Museum: Relocating the Ritual Arts of Madhubani
      (pp. 77-99)

      The first original works of South Asian art I ever purchased were three small greeting cards, painted by hand on rough textured paper. I was a graduate student in Toronto on a tight budget in the mid 1970s, and the cards cost only $2.00 Canadian each. They came from the Maithili region of Bihar, the gift shop proprietor told me, and were examples of an ancient tradition of painting among village women there. One depicted a female with four arms, her face in profile with one huge eye in the center, and billows of bright wavy patterned fabric. A second...

    • FOUR In the Realm of the Indigo Queen: Dyeing, Exchange Magic, and the Elusive Tourist Dollar on Sumba
      (pp. 100-126)

      Textiles are one of the most developed art forms in eastern Indonesia, but they are also deeply enmeshed in traditional culture — steeped in ideas of mystical powers, poisons, and witchcraft, as well as healing, midwifery, and ancestral blessings. On Sumba, an island between Bali and Timor at the southeast edge of the archipelago, the craft of indigo dyeing is one of the “blue arts,” related to herbalism, abortion, and the managing of female sexuality and reproduction.¹

      The occult powers of “tradition” are often opposed to the supposedly “rational” new forms of power of modernity. I argue that at least on...

  7. Movements

    • FIVE Plunder, Markets, and Museums: The Biographies of Chinese Imperial Objects in Europe and North America
      (pp. 129-141)

      One of the recurring features of European imperial warfare in the nineteenth century was plunder. In Africa, Asia, and the Pacific, the armies of European nation-states sacked the royal palaces and cities of the defeated, often focusing special attention on the regalia and symbols of rulership. Objects seized through warfare invariably found their way back into Europe, circulating through art markets and into private collections and public museums, or placed directly into the regimental headquarters of the conquering armies. Some of these objects remain where they were deposited over one hundred years ago. Others have been recirculated through markets, museums,...

    • SIX Situating Moving Objects: A Sino-Japanese Catalogue of Imported Items, 800 CE to the Present
      (pp. 142-176)

      (A)lthough I may deserve to be punished by death because I did not remain in China for the full period expected of me, I am secretly delighted with my good fortune to be alive and to be able to import these [Buddhist] teachings, so difficult to obtain.¹

      With these words the Japanese monk Kūkai (774–835) introduced to his emperor a new body of Buddhist teachings, the Esoteric (or Mikkyō) tradition. When Kūkai set sail in 804 for Tang China with a diplomatic mission, he had only recently been accorded official clerical status. Nonetheless, his religious devotion and knowledge of...

  8. Memories

    • SEVEN Angkor Revisited: The State of Statuary
      (pp. 179-213)

      Cambodia’s kings are forever returning to Angkor. The foundation of the Angkorian empire was itself constituted by a spectacular return, a return that set the cycle in motion, to deeply mark the Khmer collective memory for centuries to come.¹ In a remarkable discursive return to roots, an eleventh-century court Brahman recorded in stone the legendary return of an exiled prince to Cambodia in the eighth century.² This was Jayavarman II, who, our early historian tells us, concluded a series of military campaigns with a series of religious campaigns, claiming to restore order to the land and then reclaim the throne....

    • EIGHT An Ancestral Keris, Balinese Kingship, and a Modern Presidency
      (pp. 214-237)

      Malaykeris, the double-edged ceremonial daggers that have been such popular exemplars of the region’s court cultures, typically have been displayed in museums and books as artful heritage objects, admired for their ornate sheaths, bejeweled hilts, and the nickel-iron laminations of their blades. But in their presentations as art and culture objects, they are divorced from their particular histories, including the very stories of their acquisition often through the conquests of colonialism or collectorism.¹ However great the appreciation for their once-upon-a-time role in local culture,² they become frozen in foreign time and space, objects uprooted from the mutually constitutive socioreligious contexts...

    • NINE Raw Ingredients and Deposit Boxes in Balinese Sanctuaries: A Congruence of Obsessions
      (pp. 238-271)

      Judging from a rash of reports in theBali Postduring an extended bout of fieldwork in Bali from 1990 to 1991, the looting of shrines appeared to have become a recurrent pastime. Descriptions of the stolen articles given by distraught temple priests and villagers usually included small gold, gilded wood, or coin statues. Infrequently, mention would be made of deposit boxes or clay containers and their ingredients. The thefts were almost always blamed on outsiders (wong jaba) from the neighboring islands of Lombok, Madura, and Java. Rumors circulated that some looters caught in the act came to violent ends,...

  9. CONCLUSION Ways of Experiencing Art: Art History, Television, and Javanese Wayang
    (pp. 272-304)

    A thing, such as an art work, is perceived and experienced differently by different people and in different situations. This obvious fact, and the fact that art history makes people experience things in specific ways, is often concealed by the pretension of the discipline that its way is the most informed and objective way of seeing art. This chapter shows the limits and prejudices of art historical vision by reflecting on a particular Javanese artistic and cultural phenomenon,wayang, which can be preliminarily glossed as shadow puppet theater. Delicately carved and paintedwayangpuppets are presented as “art objects” in...

    (pp. 305-308)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 309-317)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 318-318)