Article Critique: Art and Culture the Passive Aggressive Potential

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Art and Culture

The Passive Aggressive Potential of Collecting

Collections at first glance seem to be the epitome of passiveness; they quite literally sit there, sometimes doing their own collecting of dust bunnies, waiting for the crucial observer to stop by and value them. The idea of collections, however -- the rules that govern their creation and the discourse that may or may not come to be when they are observed -- these are anything but passive. In "On Collecting Art and Culture," James Clifford contends that collections are themselves artifacts of the society that did the collecting and the time period in which it was collected, and as such they are loaded with the value not only of their constituent parts but also with the value of their own creation. For Clifford, collections carry meanings from the past and the present. What Clifford does not do, however, is extend the value of collections into the future.

Clifford begins his discourse by referencing a poem by James Fenton, "The Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford." The poem traces a child's experience in a museum, and touches on a mystical and dangerous possibility offered by the collection. While the museum offers intellectual stimulation and satisfaction for morbid curiosity, it also provides entrance into "the kingdom of your promises / To yourself" (qtd. In Clifford 51), a place both Fenton and Clifford warn against entering. Clifford reads the subtle power of collections as a call to a sort of Jungian consciousness -- a "path of too-intimate fantasy…a forbidden area of the self" (51).

While Fenton's poem seems to describe an intensely individual experience, Clifford escalates this consciousness into an examination of collections as a revelation of what he calls "cultural 'selves'" (Ibid.). His essay unfolds as a discourse on the metahistory of collecting. After tracing and even mapping the rational matrix by which societal products are collected and classified in his "art-culture system," Clifford extends that rational categorization to collections themselves. Where individual artifacts are collected and valued according to their worth as artistic creations, their symbolic power as cultural representations, or their rarity as specimens of their kind, collections are valued as snapshots in time. Therefore, he argues, we must "resist the tendency of collections to be self-sufficient, to suppress their own historical, economic, and political processes of production" (59).

For Clifford, collections must not "suppress" the circumstances of their production because it hides their value as episodes along a chronotope -- specimens of the time and place of their creation, with all the cultural residue of that time and place. For some, however, collections possess a value far beyond their existence as specimens. Richard William Hill explores the active potential of collections as artifacts in his essay, "Getting Unpinned: Collecting Aboriginal Art and the Potential for Hybrid Public Discourse in Art Museums."

Hill speaks from his experience as a curatorial assistant at the public Art Gallery of Ontario, and unlike Clifford he takes a personally engaged view of collecting. He begins his exploration of the role of collections in public museums by recounting a childhood experience of bug collecting. When asked to select a bug for pinning, he found that he "had trouble getting [his] head around the idea that you would kill something simply so you could have it around to look at" (Hill 195). This… [END OF PREVIEW]

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"Art and Culture the Passive Aggressive Potential."  Essaytown.com.  October 24, 2010.  Accessed November 19, 2019.
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