Research on art has witnessed considerable development over the last fifteen or so years, particularly regarding 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.
Human and social sciences have ceased to consider institutions as ‘given facts’ whose organisation and implications form the object of study. As a result, art has come to be viewed as a privileged – because relatively circumscribed – field to explore the development, negotiation and consolidation of institutional forms and trends in attitudes. Thus today, research no longer explores art as a self-contained discipline, but focuses rather upon the processes of ‘artification’, in other words the way in which a practice or product comes to be considered and categorised as subject to aesthetic judgement or, more generally, a particular type of emotional and cognitive attitude.
In parallel, anthropology and sociology have begun to look more closely at practices and forms of action and no longer concentrate on representations that supposedly gave meaning to artworks and, more generally, to artefacts. As a result, they have returned to the study of artefacts and techniques as mechanisms of mediation and/or as specifically intentioned ways of acting 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 and ways of acting upon others.
This reorientation happened to coincide with a change of perspective in 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.
Finally, we know that the production, exhibition and circulation of artistic artefacts are of central importance in establishing and manifesting collective identities. This is particularly true in a context where social relationships are increasingly becoming matters of cultural and/or ethnic identity. Tangible or intangible products likely to be categorised as ‘art’ have become the privileged emblems of a specific identity ‘essence’. Easier to monitor and negotiate than other cultural fields, they constitute the main focus of heritage creation operations that accompany 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 trend 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, are 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 a range of dynamic themes that are relevant to a wide spectrum of disciplines, including the role, functioning, and relationship with language of images and other perceptible forms of cognition and action; the mechanisms of institutionalisation responsible for creating fields, practices and categories of artefacts likely to be subjected to aesthetic judgement; the processes governing the development of collective identities and the political scenarios that emerge as a consequence; the relative interpretations of historical and present-day relationships between nation-states and cultural minorities and between dominant nations and dependent nations. Such questions are being actively explored today by historians, anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists, and art historians, and it is this field of research that the musée du quai Branly seeks to develop further. The fact that this remains a somewhat fragmented and insufficiently developed field of knowledge in many European countries and particularly in France, and the fact that different countries and disciplinary traditions remain ill-informed of what is happening elsewhere is even more reason for this discipline to be developed by the musée du quai Branly.