It was common practice among early Pueblo Indians, as well as many other indigenous peoples the world over, to “kill” a pot or other ritual object when it was no longer deemed to be part of the life of the family, clan, or larger community. A hole would ritually be drilled through its base, and this “living being” would then be considered to have “died.” From this we can deduce two things: first, much more than plants and animals were (and still are) considered to be alive by many indigenous people, and two, objects created by and for people could take on a spiritual life of their own.
The issue, which may appear quaint or odd to so-called modern people, still in fact resonates today. Just last week, for example, the French auction house Drouot sold off dozens of Native American objects, most of them belonging to the Hopi Tribe, in spite of the pleas and the lawsuit brought by both tribal elders and US government officials. The 70 or so objects, mostly masks, that were auctioned off realized $1.2 million. One mask alone, referred to as “Mother Crow” brought in over $200,000. The objects had been “removed” from the Arizona reservation in the late 1930’s or early 1940’s. How, why, or with whose permission, or lack thereof, is not clearly known.
Auctioneer Gilles Neret-Minet, as reported in an LA Times article dated Saturday, April 13, 2013, entitled “French Auction Defies Tribe,” said that he was “happy that French law had been respected.” No mention was made of “Hopi law,” but we can surmise that the tribe was not as happy about the outcome of the matter as was Monsieur Neret-Minet.
One obvious question all this raises is, when is an object considered a piece of art (an “object d’art”), and when is it considered something legitimately held sacred by people, and therefore removed from the world of market-based negotiations? Would it be all right with Drouot, for example, or with the French Government, or with people in general to sell the Shroud of Turin as a piece of art, rather than holding it, as many believe, to be the sacred and inviolable image of Jesus, imprinted by Christ, Himself, on the way to Calvary?
Enlarging the question somewhat, we can ask ourselves what actually constitutes art, and what constitutes the sacred? Is there, indeed, a difference between the two, and if so, what is that difference? We could even extend the questioning to ask when is something merely decorative, and when is it thought of as “high art”? Some museums have whole sections dedicated to the so-called “Decorative Arts,” which suggests that curators and art historians the world over do see a difference. That essential difference, as many would maintain, seems to hinge on whether or not the object could have been considered “useful” in some way. In other words, “high art” is not useful, at least not in the everyday sense of that term, and is instead considered as a thing apart from the quotidian. And yet a priceless Greek amphora, let us say, marvelously preserved and beautifully painted (i.e. “decorated”), would probably not be considered to be merely “decorative art.” This is so, even though its original use was merely as a kind of vessel to hold wine or some other such commodity. Can we conclude then that it might not be thought of as “merely decorative” because of the antiquity of the object, or its market value, or simply because people the world over perceive it to be a thing of surpassing beauty?
The walls separating these various categories, in other words, are not as clear-cut as they would at first seem. Many anthropologists and students of world culture have noted that even the word “art” itself is not a term that exists in the lexicon of the majority of indigenous peoples. That is to say, things are not made by them for the sole purpose of sitting on a shelf, or merely to be hung on a wall, but because they are organic participants in the spiritual and the psycho-social lives of the people. In many traditional instances, masks were ritually “put to bed” after particular ceremonies in which they were worn, and during which the individual wearing the mask became one with the spiritual being it embodied. There the masks remained until, in due course of time, the moment came for that spirit to again reappear and assist the tribe in some specific way.
It was only as societies became organized on a grander scale that objects were begun to be made by specialists, and eventually by “artists,” who later came to think of them as expressions of their own private and personal artistic vision. But note even here the use of the word vision. And does that not in some sense harken back to the ability to “see” into another world, another dimension, another reality, akin to but different from our normal world, and which can either help or hinder the life of the individual or the community? As recently as the nineteenth century, for example, monastic painters creating Russian icons would never dream of signing their work. That was because it was considered a sacred task, not a “personal expression,” and the “object” created was in some real sense the embodiment of the holy image it portrayed. The same could be said regarding so-called religious art in virtually every culture of the world.
To the modern mind, art today is mostly about either the private and the personal, or the political. And we do not claim that it represents, or certainly that it embodies, anything more than its creator meant. That, and of course, any interpretation and speculation either on the part of art experts or of the public in general as to its meaning. In most cases, though, that representation is not normally thought of as sacred. Why? Perhaps in part at least because we have lost the knowledge or the feel of the sacred in today’s world. And it has been replaced by – might I even say reduced to? – the manifestation and the insight of a given individual about him or herself.
Even so, it is not at all unusual for people to think of contemporary artists as gifted in some special way, as possessing insights and perceptions that go beyond the ordinary. Great art, as least as I understand it, both plunges to the depths and rises to the highest heavens. It cuts through and helps us to experience a profundity of feeling that is beyond what any of us can normally experience or express in our everyday lives. And I am not talking here only of the plastic arts, so called, such as painting or sculpture or even film, but of music, literature, theater and dance, as well. The best of the best embodies something that it alone can express, and only in its unique way, which can then reach across the unspoken divide between its own vision, transferring itself into the hearts and minds and spirits of those viewing, or otherwise experiencing it.
And is this so very different from the great “Mother Crow” mask of the Hopi, ignominiously sold in a recent Paris auction? In one sense, and perhaps taken to the extreme, could we not even say that no art ought ever to be sold, since it is (ideally) the embodiment of a particular vision of that which is beyond price. Of course, we all know that this is not the modern world we live in, and that artists also must provide for their own living and make their way in the world. I only mention this at all in order to highlight the fact that all true art is, or can in some sense be, sacred.
One of the great ironies, not to say discourtesies, of the story of the sale of the Hopi masks is that tribal tradition never even allowed photos to be taken of them. Again, it should be emphasized that, at least by the Hopi, these are not considered “art.” They were never meant to be objects hung on a wall and admired; they are the embodiment of otherworldly beings, who have come to us in order to help in some specific way. The LA Times article itself, in fact, even references that these masks were to be kept out of public view, and that it was considered “sacrilegious even for pictures of the objects to be shown.” And yet – and yet – there at the top of the article, proudly displayed, if I may say so, are four photos of the very masks themselves! What are we to make of this? Is it merely an example of ignorance, or of arrogance or even provocation, or of some subtle, but deliberate, kind of editorial statement on the part of the paper about what art ought to be?
One way or another, the more general question remains, whether art is a private and personal expression of the individual who creates it, and who can therefore sell it, or otherwise dispose of it, since it belongs to that creator her or himself. Or is it an unspeakable and ineffable representation of a higher order that both permeates and transcends the day-to-day reality we live in? Is it, in other words, sacred or profane, decorative or of a higher order, societally or self referential, or is it revelatory of some unexplained and unexplainable metaphysical/spiritual essence? Or, yet again, some highly idiosyncratic, mysterious and mystical combination of any and all of the above?
Perhaps, in the final analysis, the answer depends on what you think of yourself, of the world you live in, and of what you believe exists, or does not exist, beyond the boundaries of the everyday sphere we normally think of as home.