scientific orientation

Masque anthropomorphe Krou, Côte d'Ivoire, fin du 19ème siècle © musée du quai Branly, photo Patrick Gries, Bruno Descoings - Click to enlarge, open in a new window
Masque anthropomorphe Krou, Côte d'Ivoire, fin du 19ème siècle © musée du quai Branly, photo Patrick Gries, Bruno Descoings

Research on art has seen very considerable development over the last fifteen or so years, particularly as regards the opening up of renewed dialogue between anthropology, history, and art history. This transformation may be explained by the combination of a number of different factors.

For human and social sciences, which no longer saw institutions and structures as ‘given facts’ whose organisation and effects it was simply a matter of studying, art came to be viewed as a privileged –because relatively circumscribed – field for in-depth exploration of mechanisms of emergence, negotiation and consolidation of institutional forms and grammars of attitudes. Today, therefore, research no longer focuses upon art as something fixed, but rather upon the processes of ‘artification’, in other words the ways in which a practice or product comes to be seen and categorised as calling for aesthetic judgement or, more generally, a particular type of emotional and cognitive attitude.

In parallel, anthropology and sociology began to look more closely at practices and forms of action, no longer concentrating upon representations that supposedly gave meaning to artworks and, more generally, to artefacts. As a result, they went back to studying artefacts and techniques as mechanisms of mediation and/or as specifically intentioned ways of taking action upon others from a distance. In brief, the pragmatic and performative aspects of the arts are now taken into account; they are no longer just systems of signs, but also and more importantly systems of relationships, means of acting upon others.

This reorientation happened to coincide with a change of perspective on the nature of cognition. It is no longer taken for granted that thought is above all propositional in form, and the role of perceptible images and forms structured into mental and affective processes has become an increasingly frequent subject for both psychological and anthropological research.

Masque de façade Chambri, Papouasie-Nouvelle-Guinée, début 20e siècle © musée du quai Branly, photo Patrick Gries - Click to enlarge, open in a new window
Masque de façade Chambri, Papouasie-Nouvelle-Guinée, début 20e siècle © musée du quai Branly, photo Patrick Gries

Finally, we know that production, exhibition and circulation of artistic artefacts have become of central importance in formation and manifestation of collective identities in a context where social relationships have increasingly become matters of cultural and/or ethnic identity. Tangible or intangible products likely to be categorised as ‘art’ have assumed special importance as being emblematic of a specific identity ‘essence’. Easier to monitor and negotiate than other cultural areas, they are above all else the subject of patrimonialisation operations accompanying contemporary identity claims. The reorganisation of ethnological and ‘primitive’ art museums currently underway throughout the Western world is both a symptom of and a powerful driving force behind this general movement of appropriation of cultural goods. At the same time, exchanges, borrowings and transpositions of artefacts, forms, styles and meanings, in short the crossbreeding of hitherto separate Western and non-Western traditions, is accelerating and increasing to such an extent that classic distinctions between traditional and ‘modern’ art forms, between popular art and academic art, and between ‘ethnic’ art and so-called international art have become blurred, confused, and turned on end.

For all the above reasons, the arts and everything connected with them have now become a fruitful area of study for human and social sciences. The field brings together, in ‘living colour’, a range of themes of interest to a wide spectrum of disciplines, including the role, functioning, and relationship with language, of images and other perceptible forms in cognition and action; the mechanisms of institutionalisation by which areas, practices and categories of artefacts likely to be subjected to aesthetic judgement are created; the processes governing formation of collective identities and the political scenarios thus engendered; and the historical and present-day relationships between nation-states and cultural minorities and between dominant nations and dependent nations, as they may be interpreted in the patrimonialisation policies of one or the other party. Such questions are being actively explored today by historians, anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists, and art historians, and it is this field of research that is to be further developed at the Musée du quai Branly, all the more so because it is still a somewhat fragmented area of knowledge, where each country and each disciplinary tradition remains ill informed of what is happening elsewhere, and is insufficiently developed in many European countries, France in particular.