Aesthetics-Criteria for Evaluating New Guinea Art-Oceanic Art Essay
Criteria for evaluating New Guinea art
I am adding this section to the website as a practical guide to viewing and evaluating New Guinea art as aesthetic objects. There are a number of excellent ethnographic accounts that detail how various New Guinea cultures produced and used their artifacts. But the artifacts themselves, so exhaustively explained, are assumed to be of uniform artistic merit. They are not...read more
There are many reasons why there is an almost fanatical focus on age when evaluating New Guinea art. First among these is the issue of authenticity. While the topic of authenticity gets batted around in academic circles as an outdated and vague concept, within the harsh reality of the marketplace, it is a clear-cut and essential factor. Authenticity boils down to artistic intention...read more.
The quality of clarity, like all of the aesthetic criteria I will undertake to describe, is very subjective. It is important to remember that pre-contact New Guinea cultures were without a written language, thus art served as a very real form of communication. The quality of clarity is the ability of a piece of art, through the power of its form, to communicate effectively. This results in a purity of composition and a lack of excessive surface decoration. In my experience many superior pieces of New Guinea art are able to communicate form through the barest essential sculptural elements. The following pieces are, in my mind, masterpieces of clarity. The mark of a true artist is the ability to do much with less...read more.
It would be hard to overemphasize the importance of color in virtually all areas of New Guinea art. For the Abelam, paint was the animating power of sculpture; without it, the carving was just a piece of dead wood. Paint was often ritually produced and magically empowered with pigments gathered from spiritually important places or plants. Sometimes the water used to mix the pigments was gathered from the subterranean holes of large land spiders, as these were thought to be conduits between the land of mortals living above ground and that of the ancestors abiding underground...read more.
An often-overlooked quality of great New Guinea art is its ability to provide the unexpected. While we find pleasure in symmetry and the careful execution of form, what often really excites us is encountering something different. A gifted artist comfortable and confident with the existing canon will often try to expand or deviate from traditional conventions to create something extraordinary. Astonishment and surprise can be an aesthetic experience when encountering an object that cleverly defeats our expectations...read more.
Technical virtuosity is the mastery over materials that comes from taking both the intent of the work and its execution very seriously over many years. The effort put into such a thing must befit the gravity of bringing to life a carving that will ultimately enable the owner, his family and the rest of the clan to survive and flourish. This heightened level of artistry manifests itself not only in a complex and technical masterpieces but also in the artist's ability to convey expression by using only the minimal amount of...read more
The affecting presence that is found in the best pieces of New Guinea art is the sense that the spiritual being originally manifested by the piece still lurks within. It is a presence that can be terrifying and menacing or intentionally subdued and restrained but is always powerful. It is the quality that looks back at you and tells you that there is something beyond the wood, the cane and the paint. It is the presence that made the piece effective in its original context and continues to draw us today. It is the feeling that we are in the presence of...read more
In my very first catalog in 2006 entitled "The Elegance of Menace: Aesthetics of New Guinea Art" I outlined six aesthetic criteria important in assessing the quality of New Guinea art. In this essay from the catalog of the following year, I wanted to continue to flesh out those characteristics that separate the great New Guinea art object from the merely good by suggesting one additional aesthetic quality for consideration. I call it the aesthetic of integrity. In reference to people, the term integrity refers to...read more