I was just curious if anyone had good recommendations on methodological approaches to the ethnographic study of art and artists. Are there any works that have struck you as particularly useful? I am working with artists in theater, and am always on the lookout for new ways to think about my approach. I'm reading Fabian's Power and Performance, which has some provocative insights, but I would like to delve into this more deeply. 

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Hey.

Maybe you could look at Geertz's "Art as Cultural System", where he talks about art in terms of his definition of culture: symbolic actions, interpretation, thick description etc.

More recently Alfred Gell's work on art and follow up at the UCL material culture group (Pinney, Miller etc)

Also the edited books of Arnd Scheiner & Christopher Wright both on contemporary art, anthropology and ethnographic practice.

Yet I think that interesting approaches on art, some using ethnography, come from the "new sociology of art". You might find useful the works of Natalie Heinich, Georgina Born, Tia DeNora, Albena Yaneva or Antoine Hennion. Maybe a look at earlier sociological work (Bourdieu, Becker) and some of the post-Bourdieu theories/methodologies (Latour, Boltanski) would be interesting as well.

For a pop ethnography of the arts check out "Seven days in the Art World" by Sarah Thornton.

While Fabian's Power and Performance is quite good, as is Remembering the Present, the two volumes edited by Arnd Schneider and Christopher Wright (Contemporary Art and Anthropology, Between Art and Anthropology) might be worth looking at. Both are focused on the relationship between anthropology and art, with many insights into their respective methodologies and avenues for collaboration (most of the studies are on visual arts).

Sorry, but for my money, performance theory is a bunch of crap.  Stay away from it.  It really has no explanatory power.  You will wind up with really bad American readings of Lacan if you stick to performance theory.  I am speaking, for example, of the work of Judith Butler. Need I say more?

You study or studied at Rice.  Go meditate in the Rothko chapel.  That will give you some ideas.  Dominique DeMenil knew what she was doing with her collection.

Also, go study, and study in detail, the work that the old Rice professor of art history, Thomas McEvilley, did in the early 1980s in "Art Forum."  McEvilley used some interesting Frankfurt School readings to take down the really, really ethnocentric exhibit that Stanford-educated K Varnedoe foisted upon the NY art world at the time. Although trained as a classicist, McEvilley has as good a critical ethnographic eye as any anthropologist.  Probably better than most.

Lastly, here is something to consider.  Read these two bodies of work against each other, and read them very closely against each other: Luc Boltanski's Love and Justice as Competences and Luc's brother's Christian's works on any and every thing.  Luc is a philosopher/sociologist.  He is superb.  His brother Christian is self-taught and explores the historical uses of memory without resorting to any sort of ahistorical pity party notion of trauma like you will find among American artists.  Or most of them.

Hope that this is food for thought.

Thanks so much for those suggestions; I will take a look into Boltanski & Boltanski. I agree with your assessment of  performance theory a la Judith Butler--I never found it to be particularly helpful, mostly because I am interested in performance qua performance and not using the language of performance to analyze everything else. 

Jacqueline Mraz said:

Sorry, but for my money, performance theory is a bunch of crap.  Stay away from it.  It really has no explanatory power.  You will wind up with really bad American readings of Lacan if you stick to performance theory.  I am speaking, for example, of the work of Judith Butler. Need I say more?

You study or studied at Rice.  Go meditate in the Rothko chapel.  That will give you some ideas.  Dominique DeMenil knew what she was doing with her collection.

Also, go study, and study in detail, the work that the old Rice professor of art history, Thomas McEvilley, did in the early 1980s in "Art Forum."  McEvilley used some interesting Frankfurt School readings to take down the really, really ethnocentric exhibit that Stanford-educated K Varnedoe foisted upon the NY art world at the time. Although trained as a classicist, McEvilley has as good a critical ethnographic eye as any anthropologist.  Probably better than most.

Lastly, here is something to consider.  Read these two bodies of work against each other, and read them very closely against each other: Luc Boltanski's Love and Justice as Competences and Luc's brother's Christian's works on any and every thing.  Luc is a philosopher/sociologist.  He is superb.  His brother Christian is self-taught and explores the historical uses of memory without resorting to any sort of ahistorical pity party notion of trauma like you will find among American artists.  Or most of them.

Hope that this is food for thought.

Thanks to everyone for all the great suggestions so far. Even a cursory look at some of the names has turned up some articles and books that look really helpful. I feel like it's quite easy to find works of theory about the connections between art and anthropology, but it seems like you have to dig a bit harder to find works dealing more explicitly with methodology and how to approach ethnographic work with artists as informants. I had checked out the edited volumes by Schneider and Wright a couple years ago, but wasn't thinking about methodology at the time so it's definitely worth going back to them. 

Here's a book review I wrote on Between Art and Anthropology which does include some methodological discussion.

I would be very careful about using Geertz.  He is very psychological and ahistorical.  And, based on what I saw when I did fieldwork in Morocco in the mid-1990s, it appears that Geertz may have collaborated with the CIA when Geertz did fieldwork in Morocco. The one good thing about aesthetics that Geertz did, however, was to put the philosopher Nelson Goodman on people's radar screens.  For my money, however, Bourdieu had a much better grasp of Nelson Goodman.

Here is a suggestion for a good historical way to approach trauma.  Study Didier Fassin's and his co-author's The Empire of Trauma.  It is a good application of Foucault's methods to the study of trauma.  It takes as its object of study, or, at least, as one of its objects of study, the world historical pity party created by psychiatry in historical constructions of trauma.  That is why I would stay away from Geertz.  He imports psychology rather than making it an object of inquiry. 

As for Fassin and his co-author, their reading of Foucault is not the Foucault that is not useful, for example, in works on governmentality.  Governmentality was really just bad demographic transition theory with none of the good neoclassical or other critiques to be had.  Too bad a whole industry of American scholars who don't know a thing about demography didn't pick up on that.  Nor is The Empire of Trauma the not helpful reading of Foucault that you will get from the manipulations of Foucault by those he worked with at the U of CA at Berkeley--B. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow.  Rather, Fassin and his co-author are the real thing.

Next, you may find, since you are interested in theater, that many of the authors that others in this discussion have suggested will give you a dramatic structure that, whether they will admit it or not, replicates Aristotelian aesthetics.  That really will not be helpful for you.  I am talking about the idea of catharsis, etc.  I am also talking about the idea that ritual has predetermined beginning and end points.  You see this, for example, in Victor Turner. 

As much as I love the work of Latour, I believe that his notion of the obligatory passage point fits in here as well.  A way to think beyond this folk heuristic of dramatic structure may be derived from a body of history/historiography in France called evenemental history.  Otherwise known as the history of the event.  Sally Falk Moore was interested for a time in the study of the event.  But she never questioned beginning and end points.  If you can't read French, but you are interested in pursuing this inquiry, I would suggest the work of the cultural historian Bill Sewell.  He has dealt with French event history models in a telling way. 

Hope that some of this is useful.



Than Vlachos said:

Thanks to everyone for all the great suggestions so far. Even a cursory look at some of the names has turned up some articles and books that look really helpful. I feel like it's quite easy to find works of theory about the connections between art and anthropology, but it seems like you have to dig a bit harder to find works dealing more explicitly with methodology and how to approach ethnographic work with artists as informants. I had checked out the edited volumes by Schneider and Wright a couple years ago, but wasn't thinking about methodology at the time so it's definitely worth going back to them. 

It may be useful to remember that while every temporally delimited event will have a beginning and an end, what goes on between the beginning and the end may not be the change in status envisioned in classic discussions of rites of passage (Van Gennep, V. Turner) or the conflict, climax, and resolution envisioned by classic ideas about drama (Aristotle, et al). Thus, for example, the basic ritual form in Chinese popular religion elaborates a transaction: the god, ghost or ancestor to whom the rite is directed is invited to partake of offerings of food, a petition asking for a favor is the second step, followed by divination to determine the spirit's response; these steps may be repeated until the desired response is obtained. The ritual ends with the god, ghost or ancestor being sent off. It is at this point that offerings of spirit money are burned, to restore the proper distance between worshipper and spirit. This basic form can be elaborated in many ways, depending on the status of the spirit being addressed. For a more detailed description, you can see my article John McCreery "Negotiating with Demons: The Uses of Magical Language" in american ethnologist, No. 1, 1995.

Hi John: This is interesting.  But when I read it against the work of the anthropologists who do/did work in China whose work I am most familiar with--George William Skinner and Michael Puitt (sp?), I need some more explanation. Oh, and let's not forget Granet.  How could we?

I also need some more explanation when I read what you have written against the newer readings of Marcel Mauss in France.  And when I read it against Bourdieu's more traditional reading of Mauss.

Why? What you are doing  really sounds like exchange theory tout court.  And that is about all it sounds like.  Exchange theory.

You propose that "the basic ritual form in Chinese popular religion elaborates a transaction...this basic form can be elaborated in many ways depending on the status of the spirit being addressed." And then you propose a form of exchange whose shape  you assert does not basically change.  Is that what you meant?  If so, that really gives pause.

Lastly, and I hate to say this, when I look at the date of the article, I am reminded of how much "negotiating" this and that there was in American anthropology when you wrote this.  There was the "negotiation" of gender, for example.  There were other types of "negotiation" as well.  A lot of this work seems to have an unfortunate lineage that can be traced "Bargaining for Reality," a piece of American ethnography done on Morocco well before the nineties. 

Don't you think that the idea of negotiation itself should be up for grabs? Just like the notion of exchange?  That is what the French have tried to do with the more evolved work that rethinks Mauss.  Don't you think it is a more interesting question, in fact, to put the shoe on the other foot with the notion of negotiation as a heuristic?

Why, I think we should ask, was American anthropology, under the guise of  the "negotiation" of this and the "negotiation" of that willing to give us a world full of traders? Seriously.  That's about what you get with the notion of negotiation.

It is a legal notion.  Why, I think one should ask, were all kinds of American anthropologists ripe to project a folk legal heuristic on everything that they touched at a certain point in the history of their discipline?

This is not an untoward question.  One can ask it about certain strains of phenomenology as well.  For example, In his preface to his little work on Heidegger, Bourdieu noted that Derrida's reading of Heidegger was nothing more than the logic of litigation. Boom.  What a take down for the whole industry of deconstruction.  The idea of "interrogating" a text, as if a text were a party to a legal case rather than a historical artifact. Boom.  Bourdieu hit the nail on the head with that one.  but what he could have done, was to go further.  He could have given the same hat check job to Levinas and his conception of the importance of a witness.  After all, the notion of a witness is also a notion from law.  So the question then becomes, why do these folk notions of  law enter in to phenomenology.  That is a question that, I think, parallels the use of "negotiation".  Why a legal folk heuristic? Why?

Jacqueline, I trust you will not be too offended if I read your remarks as typical of a certain kind of continental thinking that will read a title, note a date, and spin a elaborate fantasy that assumes that French theory is the pole star around which all debate revolves. Your suggestion that the use of "negotiation" in my title reflects a moment in the history of American anthropology is interesting. The facts of the matter are, however,a bit more complex.

Consider, first, what goes on in the exorcism described in the paper. The healer's client suffers from a problem attributed to the Ho-hia*-di-a (good brothers), a euphemism for unnamed ghosts described in terms that suggest gangsters operating a protection racket. In act one, the healer presents himself as a third party speaking on behalf of the client, who is prepared to make appropriate offerings if the ghosts will go away. In act two, the healer consecrates a substitute, a straw doll on which the client's name is written, instructing it to identify itself as the client when it gets to Hell. In act three, the healer invokes a powerful demon-destroying god, a heavenly general with vast spirit armies at his beck and call. The message to the ghosts is clear--this is an offer you cannot afford to refuse. Act four at first appears to be a bit of comic relief,but is central to the ritual. The healer lights a bonfire of spirit money, to which he keeps adding more spirit money until the moonstones used for divining the ghosts' response indicate that they have accepted the offer. Only then, in act five, does the healer take on the mantle of divinity, seize the images representing the ghosts and the substitute, pass them over the client's body and consign them to the fire, while chanting that they must now go away,far away. "Negotiation" seemed to me to be a fairly accurate description of what I observed.

In the paper I examine these events and the language used by the healer from three perspectives. The first was suggested by S.J. Tambiah, who proposes that magic is a performative act, where performative issued in the sense proposed by J. L. Austin, in How to do Things with Words. The second was suggested by James Fernandez's proposal that metaphor is a way of moving pronouns (place-keepers for the persons to which they point) around in multidimensional cultural spaces. The third was Marc Bloch's assertion that formality in ritual is a way of asserting authority and limiting the options of those to who the ritual is addressed; accepting the language, they accept its implications.

In my conclusions, I observed that most of the language used in the ritual in question was less a performative act than an attempt to negotiate the conditions under which the words spoken in the final act would appear to be a performative act. The ghosts, having accepted the offerings, had also accepted the relationship that empowered the healer to command that they leave his client alone. Fernandez's ideas draw our attention to the way in which the identity of the healer shifts from act to act, from neutral advocate to master of his creation (the substitute), to disciple of the powerful god, to one of the guys (come on brothers, I’ll toss in a bit more, OK?), to asserting divine status in his own right. Following Bloch, we can then observe that the degree of formality, the register in which the healer speaks, varies from act to act, peaking in act two and act five, where the healer asserts his authority most strongly,and dipping to its lowest level in act four, where he makes his final offers to the ghosts.
Like the blind men who touched the elephant, the theorists have each gotten hold of a particular part of the animal. Combining their observations, we begin to see the whole more clearly.

I certainly do not think that French theory is any sort of pole star around which debate revolves.  Just the other day I was thrilled to see, for example, a painting that Giacometti did in the early fifties of a Japanese philosopher.  It was a nice reminder for me, as I told a friend who accompanied me to the museum where this painting is hung, that although the French sometimes think that they own Europe's relationship to Japan as far as cultural matters go, that, in fact is not the case. 

I love what Barthes did on Japan, and this despite that I respect Bourdieu's critique of Barthes.  And I love  French cineaste Chris Marker's work on Japan. But Giacometti's embodiment of existentialist philosophy in paint, and his doing so with a Japanese subject, was proof in the pudding for me that all things a la francaise and French theory, in particular, are no pole star. 

We could get on the subject of Derrida and his U.S. exemplars, especially Avital Ronell, as yet more evidence against any sort of French pole dancing.  As far as Derrida goes, Michelle Lamont put his label to bed, as far as I am concerned, with an article that she published in a sociology journal in the US in the late eighties.  She showed that his work had a market--and a non-rigorous intellectual market at that-- in the US; and that otherwise it would not exist.  Ronell--I call her work "take two Avital and call me in the morning"--has done strange stuff a la Derrida, as far as I am concerned, that is another reminder that French theory is no pole star. 

I will never forget a book of hers that purported to explicate something having to do with Kafka by showing that a university course on Kafka was situated on a course catalogue page--this may have been at U C Irvine, but I am not sure now--on the same page as a course in something like entomology.  You know--bugs, Kafka's metamorphosis, and an academic course on bugs.  That is just bah hum bug as far as I can tell.  And it flew under a strange banner of an American reading of French theory. 

I went to U of Chicago and so would prefer not to take Fernandez's name in vain.  Let's just say that if you want US work on metaphor, there is a scholar who used to be and may still be at U VA who did excellent work on metaphor.  I could look that up for you.  Marshall Sahlins directed my attention to it when I studied with him.  It is excellent and it is not French. 

As for your assertion about the blind men who touched the elephant, and different theorists each having gotten hold of a particular part of the animal, it sounds to me like you are making salad dressing, quite frankly.  If you think that Bloch, Fernandez, and Austin give you a good salad dressing for ritual, then that is fine.  I was just suggesting a certain historicization of one's own heuristic devices might be in order.  And, for my money, French social theory, when read correctly, is still the best way to do that.  Derrida and his progeny aside. 

I could go on all day about Sartre's "Search for a Method," and how the little passage in that book about the actor who embodies different social positions as the actor makes his way across the stage, a passage that is redolent of a little known article by Luc Boltanski on what he called the multi-positional habitus that Bolatanski wrote when he was still working in Bourdieu's atelier, is probably more of an apt heuristic for the ritual that you are describing than is the hodge podge of Fernandez, Austin, and Tambiah.   But I won't.  Because then you would just accuse me of French pole dancing.  Still, that is another tack I would take.  I would seriously read Sartre's passage and Boltanski's work on the multi-positional habitus against your salad dressing.   For me, it would be more revealing. 

Here is an expired Groupon offer for pole dancing in Paris that I tried to get a friend to buy for his wife back in November 2011.  Maybe this is the best example of French pole dancing that I can find.  Courtesy of Pink Paradise, vive la France!:

Pour Noël, la suprise ce sera vous : bougez avec sensualité à deux pas des Champs Elysées avec 1 ou 2 cours d'1h de Pole Dance, danse Burlesque... dès 19 euros à la Pink School, l'école de l'emblématique Pink Paradise Elle était jeune. Elle était agile. Elle était folle. Vulnérable. Vénéneuse… Je ne me lassais pas de la regarder se mouvoir autour de cette barre, perchée sur de hauts talons et moulée dans un micro short … la cheville fine, la taille marquée, les attaches délicates et graciles…... Deal épuisé !- 58%

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