Skip to content

Art, anthropology and authority


“Most anthropologists are failed novelists.” I have forgotten where I heard this quote for the first time or who said so, but it is correct that many anthropologists hope to develop their literary skills. There is perhaps not much difference between anthropologists and novelists, or artists in general. Both anthropologists and artists, or at least most of them, wish to tell something about the world and in their products recreate the world. Both anthropologists and artists begin their exploration of the world by careful observation. Quite a few anthropologists love to experiment with the form in which they present their findings (unlike scholars in most other disciplines which work with fixed formats for articles) and this is especially true of anthropologists that use visual means.  

A month ago I was stimulated to reflect on the relationship between art and anthropology when I met a former student, who is now studying at the Gerrit Rietveld Art Academy in Amsterdam. At this point, I am brutally reminded of one of the differences between art and anthropology. As an anthropologist, I should anonymize my interlocutor, but an artist wants of course to establish her reputation. I choose a middle way and refer to her by her first name, Vivian.

At the art academy Vivian is known as “the anthropologist” and the honorific “the anthropologist” means in this context first and foremost that she has a keen eye for power relations and inequality, more than being sensitive to, say, everyday culture or social diversity. Three years ago she experimented with reversing the relationship between teacher and student and the way senior scholars or artists gather a following. Usually, teachers give their students instructions and if they are successful they create a school (for example the school of Rubens, or the Chicago School in sociology). Vivian wanted to play with this unidirectional relationship master-student, and “ordered” me (well, kindly asked) to make a piece of art for her. I had in my turn to order a piece of art from my former supervisors.

Vivian is still playing within her work with the themes of power and authority. She wrote an essay on ways in which creativity could be restricted by the awareness that in the end a work will be assessed by a teacher using predetermined standards. To liberate herself from this limitation Vivian had proposed one of her teachers to give her a guaranteed pass before she had even begun a new exercise. In the experiment, she would not have to worry about assessment rubrics and could let her imagination go wild. As a counter offer her teacher offered her to give a guaranteed failed to pass beforehand, which would have the same liberating effect. (I will not reveal the outcome of the negotiation; would Vivian accept a year delay in the completion of her studies at the Rietveld academy to gain her artistic freedom? What would you do?)

©Gerrit Rietveld Academie, Franzi Mueller Schmidt

Vivian and I met in the St. Nicolaasstraat in Amsterdam where she had an exposition, behind a dozen windows, Eight Cubic Metres. The exhibition consisted of two dozen drawings she had made together with a friend. An exhibition is usually made inside a building, but here the exhibition was on the façade of a building and could only be seen from the street. The drawings were in black and white to attract more attention in the noisy environment of colorful advertisements in the shopping street around the corner. The drawings tried to recreate the urban space on that spot, but I sadly felt they had limited power against the violence of the advertisements of the shopping street. Nevertheless, the drawings in black and white exercised a certain authority that the shop colored shop windows lacked. All drawings were, of course, hung at the back of the windows, but Vivian had hung one drawing against the glass in an attempt to attract extra attention from pedestrians passing by.

Also in this exhibition, Vivian experimented with power and authority. She and her classmate Jelly had made the drawings together as an experiment in “autonomy, control and visual dialogue”. One of them would begin a drawing and then the other was free to add her lines to the drawing. In most of the drawings they had added lines to the drawing of the other, but in one drawing the second artists had not added lines, but wiped-out lines. The result was a fascinating co-production of lines and surfaces. In some drawings, the lines blended harmoniously, in others a conflict seemed to have taken place in which the lines of one overwhelmed the earlier lines of the other. While I believed I recognized different styles but was not sure who made what, Vivian could of course exactly tell which line she had put on paper and which one Jelly had done.

I wondered if scholars would be able to work that way. Personally I already find it difficult to write a text jointly with a colleague. Writing a joint text, however, is a totally different thing than a joint drawing. In a text the second author will usually write with track changes and unwelcome additions or deleted words can be undone. One can also save a copy before handing over a text to a co-author to which one can always revert if the additions of the colleague are unwelcome. Would I be able to surrender so much authority to a colleague that a second author gets the freedom to change my text for good?

Freek Colombijn is head of the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *