Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Is magic a function of art?

Joshua C. Taylor in a well-known article of 1974 in which he discussed Haida relief-carved chests and bowls argued that magic is a function not only of this art but of art today. I have always been intrigued by this thought and what it might mean. Although I don’t believe that we can control events through paranormal or mystical means I think that there must be something to this idea. Perhaps art does something that is analogical to magic, and it does so even if magic itself does not actually exist. But Taylor seems to mean different things by magic at different times in his article. One account he gives is that the Northwest Indian view of things allows for the possibility of combining static appreciation of forms with rhythmic experience. This seems like a combining of Clive Bell’s and John Dewey’s ways of seeing things. (It would make sense that neither theorist had it completely right and that they could supplement each other.) On another account, the Haida bowl is magical because it is animate (seems like a living thing, for example in having form that seems volitional) and because it is seen as both bird and bowl at the same time. (But how is this different from what Wollheim calls twofoldness and which is everywhere in the Western tradition?) Alternatively, one might think that Taylor is pushing in the direction of simply calling on us to pay attention to ritual background, in the way that Bell would have rejected, but that contemporary curators would praise. But oddly, he says nothing about ritual background after the one mention, and even suggests that we can appreciate the works without knowledge of the specific mythological background. Instead he focuses on formal features of the Haida artifacts, encouraging anthropologists and art historians to use the methods of analysis made available by contemporary developments in the arts when looking at these works. In this, he could be seen as transitional between Bell and contemporary contextualists. His starting point is certainly formalist, i.e. he begins with Worringer, an early 20th century art historian who thought that there were two principles of art in Western design: proportional relationship of clearly defined forms and continuity of the flow from one shape into the next. Taylor thinks that Haida design uses both principles which we should combine in perceiving them, allowing, as he puts it, being and becoming to live together. Of course this has been a goal in the West already, going all of the way back to Plato and culminating perhaps in Nietzsche who suggests a similar dualism and overcoming of dualism in his notion of the Apollonian and the Dionysian and their combination in Greek tragedy and Wagnerian music. But surely something new is present here. Taylor does add another element to the process: the frustration of moving from one form to the next gives rise to what he calls a hypnotic power. This is where he begins to speak of such things as magic and mystery. It also turns out that we are not just talking about dynamic vs. static but about formal vs. empathetic. Part of the magic of this art is that in this “hypnotic” experience one seems united with the object being perceived (a kind of Schopenhauerian moment). It is here that Taylor begins to talk about the artifact as being animate, or at the same time animate and inanimate, and of its undercutting assumptions about scientific and science-like distinctions that pervade our Western experience. Understanding of the rhythmic lines of Haida design is a matter of experience, of following them, and not of the categorization under concepts and figures more typical of the West. Taylor goes to great pains to distinguish this concept of design from any Western one, including the early 20th century one of denying the validity of decoration itself. In advocating learning from this art he seeks to undercut the distinctness of the very concepts of utility, decoration and aesthetic structure. These concepts are just too pragmatic, too analytical, on his view. Instead the Northwest Indian carver overcomes mind-body dualism and opens the gates to mystery. If we could just incorporate this way of seeing, he thinks, we could overcome some of our alienation and malaise. We could even feel a bond of sympathy with these artists. (It was 1974 and this was a very Hippie moment.)

I wonder whether Taylor might not pose an interesting opposition to Allen Carlson. Whereas Carlson believes the only proper way to appreciate nature is under the categories of science and common sense, Taylor allows that the perceiving of nature that is exemplified in the very construction and appropriate perception of these objects refuses to accept these categories and indeed introduces the ideas of magic and mystery which are unacceptable for our science and common sense. If we had to choose between Carlson and the Haida artist, is the answer obvious? Surely the Haida approach to nature would not be one of simply treating it as a work of art (in our sense of art). Nor would it be a matter of total engagement, as it does include this formalist element rejected by such engagement theorists as Arnold Berleant.

Joshua C. Tyalor. Art and Ethnological Artifact. in Aesthetics ed. Susan Feagin and Patrick Maynard (Oxford U. Press, 1997) orig. "Two Visual Excursions," Critical Inquiry 1:1 (1974) 91-7.

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