A dialogue between Rob and Anatol on multiple lives and multiple disciplines.
A: How does your art training influence the way you think about anthropology?
R: What strikes me is that much of the theory, the general sensibility even, of contemporary art, and of avant garde history in general, is concerned with a kind of qualitative research of our basic humanity. I totally agree with what you’ve said just now, I went through all kinds of disillusionment with ‘art writing culture’ and even art itself, as it has become gutted of the spirit of the avant garde in general, I feel. But now that I’m firmly in an academic discipline, the social sciences even, I maintain now more than ever that literary, artistic, cinematic, musical and theatrical modernism remains the forefront of human knowledge. An absolutely brazen statement, but I think it’s true.
Someone who has paid close attention to (the right kinds of) art, literature, cinema and music culture and so forth in the mid to late 20th century, has an innate sense of many of the insights of contemporary anthropology. That’s because artists don’t laboriously articulate the visions they have in analytical language, they use their imaginations to express what are in essence deep ontological insights. We the audience then allow ourselves to be impressed by these insights, in our act of viewing, or listening. Berger’s Ways of Seeing, as you know, is crucial in contemporary aesthetic theory and is now a few decades old, yet it has much to offer contemporary anthropology too, particularly in sensory ethnography and in some of the ‘ontological’ work of recent years.
But more than just the literature and theory around art and aesthetics, it is, as you say, just the ability to relate to artworks and to enjoy and consume artistic culture which I think has a lot to offer. As such, I think exposure to and a keen enjoyment of aesthetic cultures are essential for an intelligent understanding of the human and non-human world.
But the culture of writing is what we’re talking about here I guess. What do you think about disciplinary schisms?
A: Schisms between disciplines or within disciplines? I do get frustrated by people not taking other disciplines seriously, or not trying to read very widely. I think a lot more people should have a better understanding of contemporary anthropology, but you can say the same about every discipline (be it physics, maths, law, geography, history, philosophy, gender studies, neuroscience, economics, biology etc etc.). I do sometimes worry about a lack of natural science literacy within the humanities and arts departments. I’m a big fan of interdisciplinary dialogue—though I understand that a lot of interdisciplinary research can lose the specificity or expertise that specific disciplines can bring.
Did you have a specific schism in mind?
R: I did in this context mean between art and anthropology, but yes I really agree that interdisciplinary dialogue is essential. I was talking this over with a visiting anthropologist recently, she was saying how another contemporary anthropologist was referencing something from Ancient Greece but got it totally wrong. Her husband is a Classics professor and realized as such, and they both remarked how pretentious it was, yet how no one seemed to notice because their/our anthropological peers aren’t expected to be versed in those kinds of studies. I went to a public Philosophy lecture here at Unimelb a few weeks ago on the subject of transformative experiences, and the visiting speaker, an esteemed Yale professor, seemed to be making claims in a parallel world where Arnold van Gennep’s rite de passage and Victor Turner’s subsequent work on liminality didn’t exist. It was in the same building as where I learned about those things!
In art school I guess we are really trained to try and look at everything, there are artists everywhere making work about everything, its amazing, and its common to meet artists who are experts in certain fields, and also common to meet artists who are real polymaths. They inspire me the most. But yes I find the lack of dialogue between philosophy and anthropology particularly fascinating, as if they are talking about different things – but that is a long historical story. This would include art history and theory, well versed in French philosophy, but often illiterate of anthropology – which I think has a lot more to offer, in so many ways. The artistic pursuit lends itself to anthropology and vice versa; art because of its imaginative and poetic ability to ask big questions, anthropology because of its basis in ethnography; the real world.