Friday, August 08, 2008

Maori Heads

This piece from the NY Times about return of Maori heads from France to New Zealand obviously raises a number of ethical issues. Also interesting in light of what I've been reading and thinking about recently though is the question whether they can be art.

Many tribal artifacts that were not intended as art, such as decorative shields intended to scare the enemy, are exhibited as art in Western galleries. Arguably their status is akin to Duchamp's readymades - i.e. they were not art until someone decided to exhibit them as such. Is this possible with human body parts?

I did have the idea that one could exhibit a human being (just a normal, living human - not doing anything special) with accompanied by Hamlet's "What piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world!" Would that be art?

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At 1:36 pm, Blogger Rob Jubb said...

I used to know the passage that quote comes from by heart - because Withnail rather theatrically quotes it at the wolves in London zoo at the end of the eponymous film, basically - and it seems a slightly odd one to accompany an attempt to claim that human beings are art, since Hamlet goes on to describe them as 'this quintessence of dust' - unless of course calling attention to that sort of thing was the intention. Also, I'm pretty sure that installations with someone living out their quotidian life have been done before. And wasn't the point about Duchamp that the urinal was in an art gallery, not a museum: the context is different, and since the context is everything here - it's only because it's in an art gallery that it's art - you wouldn't expect it to be art.

At 3:00 pm, Blogger Ben said...

It may have been done before, although I don't recall having heard of it.

As for the caption, well it would be open to interpretation, but arguably it's taking Duchamp's readymades a bit further - raising questions, for example, about the extent to which men are 'made' (nature or nurture, etc).

On some theories of art, the artist needs to have a proprietory right over the materials, so it may have to be the artist him/her-self that is the exhibit - though that would raise questions about self-ownership too.

At 8:23 pm, Blogger Rob Jubb said...

I don't think the 'piece of work' there is usually (now) taken to be a reference to humans being created by God, and the point that I was trying to make was that the tension in the passage as a whole is between Hamlet acknowledgment of the value of humankind yet his total disinterest in it. But anyway (and don't get me started on self-ownership).


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