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Phil White

Cultural Differences and Art

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The question that was posed by Janel regarding what started us on the road to carving and sculpture started me wondering about the issues that people face when working in an artistic style whose origins lie in a culture other than what they are born into.

 

For example, in Canada, it is considered a bit of a faut pas to work in the artistic style of the Natives (First Peoples) of the northwest coast, such as the Haida or Tsimshian, unless you are native. It is not illegal, by any means for a non-Native to do so, but they will never really be taken seriously by collectors, or especially by museums. However, it is my understanding that in the USA it is more accepted for non-natives to work in this style, as long as one is up-front about it.

 

When I first started carving, I was heavily inspired by this artistic style, and naturally began working obsessively to copy pieces as best as I could, then design work of my own. When I was about 17, I started selling my work in local galleries, and soon began to run into this resistance. Strangely, the most accepting people were the Natives, and although all of my work sold quite quickly, in two Native-run galleries, I began to realize that it would be a very hard go to make a living at it, or ever be respected, and stopped, more or less. However, I have always felt drawn to this form of art, and my desire to work in this style has never abated.

 

I have attached a photo of the last work I did in this style, for those who might not be familiar with it. This was a dagger that was done for an out-going CEO of the museum, as a retirement gift from the corporation. The materials are walrus ivory and abalone shell.

 

post-1087-1206395690.jpg

 

Among the membership of this forum, there are many who work in an artistic style that they have not been born into. Many of which have wholly embraced the artistic philosophy of their art, and dare I say have become masters.

 

My question to you is: Have any of you ever faced any similar difficulties?

 

Phil

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Hi Phil,

 

Really good question you are bringing up. By the way, I have been in love with your dagger handle ever since I first saw your first post.

As you have seen, I tend to use a lot of various cultural design in my beads - I have loved stone carvings and totems, etc. from around the world since I was a teenager and have been impressed with the similar aspects of line and treatments - I have also noticed the evolving designs in historical pieces resulting from the ancient carvers "borrowing" from other cultures they interacted with.

My take on the subject is that if I bring the design into my own conciousness and let it be assimilated into my subconcious and then allow it to emerge again in my art, then I am working in the right Way.

The second side of my Heron Bead design I posted in the design topic is a good example of me using the basic forms of the N.W.Coast Tribes to construct my original design of a heron and a salmon. I have had only positive reactions from Native Craftsmen to this sort of thing when I've met at shows. I have also had Academic Instructors tell me I was Stealing another Culture. I consider myself a Native Earth Human Being and feel no qualms about what I do. I have seen Spirit Deer in real life on two seperate ocasions and have had experiences in the Soutwestern Desserts that qualify me in my own mind to express the same Spiritual Awe of Nature as the Native Americans.

As to how the market is for this, I suppose that must vary quite a bit and I've never done well when I try to second guess what the "market" might want.

I also like to mix my styles as they want - my kayak graphics are a mix of N.W.Coastal and Celtic and they seem to blend just fine - by the way, I also love the New Zealand and Australian tribal designs as well as many others - and Art Nouveau come into the mix as well.

By the way, I am completely non Nationalistic or Patriotic as well, feeling the Universe to be too Huge and the Earth to be too small to get into such divisions.

 

Blessings to All,

Magnus

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Thanks Magnus,

 

I was hoping that you would reply to this thread, since it was your sketches that partly inspired me on this train of thought, so thanks for taking the time to reply. We are pretty much of the same mind on this issue.

 

I would be curious to find out if any of the netsuke carvers on this forum have faced these issues, or is it more accepted for Japanese art forms to be taken up by non-Japanese?

 

Phil

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Phil, Thanks for asking such a good question!

 

I like to believe that the work I do is not in a style of another’s culture. There are elements of what I do that are shared with Japanese netsuke carvers, from the past and contemporary, which may cause a relationship to be formed. Briefly those things are the scale of the work, an interconnection with nature’s creatures and plants, and materials. In all of my work over the past four decades, I have striven to not make work that is a derivation of style.

 

When I began as a carver by line drawing on stoneware pots, then exploring shallow relief carving in that medium, I was taking inspiration from nature. Moving forward, I wanted to use more detail, and porcelain became the medium, using a celadon glaze to enhance the imagery. I developed a carving style in porcelain, one that explored the intertwined layers of foreground, middle ground and background, with positive and negative (into the background) image layers. When subjects, such as tree frogs and toads, began to grow out of the shallow-relief porcelain carvings, to become 3-dimensional features, a new sculptural emphasis and direction to my work commenced. Porcelain work ended in mid-1995 when I had begun a new carved-porcelain piece, which cracked after hours of carving time. I threw that piece away, picked up a small piece of boxwood and began my work as a wood carver.

 

The audience at shows often needs to place my work in reference to their own experiences, relating it to Chinese or Japanese, because of the porcelain and celadon materials, or Japanese netsuke. The subject matter and carving style were never derived from historic or contemporary works, having been inspired by what surrounds me in my rural setting. I went to museums to see what had been done, and never tried to emulate the technique or subject matter, so I was always a little offended when my work did not stand out as separate from the viewer’s experiences. I learned to not expect the majority to see the difference, and to appreciate those who took time to look beyond the color of the glaze and into the story of the composition.

 

Now, with wood and other materials as my medium, the stories continue as my carving style evolves. I still strive to not emulate historic carving style or subject matter, though certain techniques, such as ukibori (which is not limited to Japanese netsuke carving, but is a technique used by many wood workers outside of Japan in various applications and scale) have been useful.

 

I have always felt as though I have worked outside of the parameters of truly useful netsuke, even when I try making real netsuke. In the same breath when describing my work, I will often say small sculptural pieces, or netsuke-like sculptural pieces that have no cord attachment accommodations (himotoshi). After comments from multiple western netsuke carvers at one netsuke convention showing (one even offered to take her tools and put himotoshi in each of my pieces), I have periodically tried to follow the rules for compact parts, small scale, balance, etc., but continue to not emulate historic works and continue to feel like I am working outside of tradition.

 

The connection to nature, the scale, certain techniques relate the work I do to true Japanese netsuke, but I am completely self-trained, and am the first to say that most of what I do does not meet the criteria for netsuke. Others who view the work feel compelled to relate what they know to the pieces they see before them, to try to help themselves to understand it. It is human nature. My job when showing what I do, is to help the viewers to see what is in each piece, to make it unique in their experience, and to bring them closer to the subjects and subtle stories, and to bring out their own quiet memories they may have (or wish they had) from time spent outdoors.

 

 

Janel

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"Is it more accepted for Japanese art forms to be taken up by non-Japanese?"

 

I don't know how to answer that except to think upon how the world's artists have learned from the multitude of art forms from all the world's cultures, and have done their own works, whether in homage to the true source or to hybridize it or to strive for a unique but related, expression. Trying to define what might be accepted is difficult, because ultimately the audience determines that. We as artists, are part of the audience.

 

Each non-Japanese artist who learns from Japanese art forms learns, to a greater or lesser degree, an amount of respect for the tradition and the individual artists’ or school's style. To benefit from training with a Japanese artist would likely offer a greater degree of comprehension and respect for that knowledge having been passed on, which would likely endure through the person's life and work. To learn vicariously, through meeting and conversing with Japanese netsuke-shi, handling netsuke, reading and visiting museums, one can also gain respect for the history and tradition, though the knowledge of a singular experience and focus may not exist or flavor one's work in a similar fashion to the artist who has trained with traditional artist.

 

Is it acceptable for non-Japanese to take up Japanese art forms? That is a big question. There are conversations on the International Netsuke Society web forum regarding just this topic. It has been going on for decades, since western carvers began to explore netsuke carving and trying to sell their work to the antiquities collectors. It is a little like the topic, is it art or craft, but with a little different flavor. I don’t have the answer, but with my work, perhaps I am working towards a solution.

 

Janel

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Janel & Magnus,

 

Thank you so much for your thoughtful replies. I had hoped that you both would reply, as it was your postings that started me thinking about these issues, yet again, and I have the utmost respect for both of you. As you can perhaps sense, this is an issue that I have been struggling with for many years, and your words have given me much to think about.

 

Phil

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Hi Phil,

 

I did not think about your own situation when I wrote the above. If you see and are then able to create in the style of the knife handle above, why should you not explore the style further? Are you adding your own experiences, or stories to the compositions? That you are passionate about this is important. With your experience and abilities, your vision and passion, why hold back? Let others deal with the negative aspects they conjure up, while you grow and bring beauty into the lives of people who see and respect what you are doing.

 

Janel

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In the same vein as Mike's thoughts, how do non Japanese tsuba makers consider their use of the art form. How about those who create sword furniture and whole Japanese style swords? There seems to be a strong example there, where the respect for the form and history is firmly planted in the style and format, with much room for the contemporary makers' vision and creativity to explore within the framework laid out by the originators. Do they also bear the weight of the audience for not being native to the cultural style when doing their contemporary works?

 

Janel

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Hello Phil,

 

I am new to this group and in perusing the site came upon this discussion which has long been an internal one for me.

First though let me compliment you on the piece pictured. It is beautifully done and a compliment itself to the originators of that style. Also I believe your concern on this subject speaks well of your ethics.

 

For a while now I have been intrigued by the concept of searching out an iconography which speaks to my roots, my reality as it were and what I've come to is that we are so removed by technology and modern society from our basic nature and so inundated by "artificial" imagery that the ability to express societal or cultural beliefs and/or concepts in basic images are now the domain of the graphic designer and advertizer. I've many books on indigenous peoples and ancient cultures from all over the world and I study them knowing (hoping?) that design elements will find their way into my work. As I don't work in a figurative style though and often distort the original to a point of abstraction, there is little chance of my being accused of "borrowing" from outside of the boundaries of my culture. I must confess the one representational jewelry piece I did was a bolo with a Haida style Raven with the Moon. I've always felt that as the NW peoples began trading (marketing) their pieces as soon as the Russians and Japanese showed up, they sort of placed their imagery in the public domain. I do not mean this in a disrespectful way at all I love their imagery and am very grateful for their so thoroughly diseminating their designs. This, juxtaposed with the Iriquois False Faces which members of that Society do not like to see even photographic reproductions of, or the Dineh (Navaho) Sand Paintings which are ceremonial and sacred and so should not be considered for source material by one outside of those cultures, etc. So, I would say that so long as one does not try to palm their work off as "Native" made (and where would that benefit one?), and so long as there is a respect for the culture from which one is borrowing ( and not a romantic respect but one bred of educating one's self as to the boundaries of decorum) and finally as your talent allows for you to, as stated above, so compliment the originators of that style. Carve on...

 

A note of interest perhaps; I was recently intorduced to an interpretation of an ancient "Classic" Chinese Text which is a travelogue of sorts, dating from as far back as 2250 B.C.. These describe mysterious journeys "across the Great Eastern sea" i.e. through the North American west from modern Canada into Mexico including what is now Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico and Manitoba, Canada. Who's to say what imagery they may have left behind. See also Fred Ward's article in National Geographic (Sept '88?) "Jade" with the side by side comparison of celts of Chinese and Central American manufacture; tough to tell the difference. Ultimately, we're all One.

 

Sincerely,

 

Tom

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Hi Tom,

 

Thank you for your thoughtful comments. My personal style has really moved in the other direction, that is to say, towards the realism end of the spectrum. Although I hhave no real desire to throw myself back into this style, I am still tempted from time to time.

 

Your comments regarding international stylistic influences are very astute. There are many similarities between the style of the northwest coast, and those of other pacific rim cultures. RE your comment about Chinese legends of voyages to North America, you may be interested to know that fragments of an ancient Chinese pot were discovered on an Inuit archaeological site in northern Canada.

 

Phil

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Hi Tom,

 

Thank you for your thoughtful comments. My personal style has really moved in the other direction, that is to say, towards the realism end of the spectrum. Although I hhave no real desire to throw myself back into this style, I am still tempted from time to time.

 

Your comments regarding international stylistic influences are very astute. There are many similarities between the style of the northwest coast, and those of other pacific rim cultures. RE your comment about Chinese legends of voyages to North America, you may be interested to know that fragments of an ancient Chinese pot were discovered on an Inuit archaeological site in northern Canada.

 

Phil

Hey Phil,

 

About those Chinese travelogues. I've yet to read the book "Pale Ink" by Henriette Mertz but I was informed that she painstakingly researched the routes and landmarks described in one of the books and has posited, somewhat convincingly I'm told, that the travels were quite real. Oh, the stories that pot could tell...

 

Tom

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Hey Phil,

 

I realize this is an older post, but it is one that I strongly relate to, as cultural influences far removed from my own heritage, have always had a profound influence on my artistic expression. I feel it is important to approach cultural styles and practices with respect, like a guest, adopting the valuable aspects, in order to further honor the source. There is no new thing under the sun, even though there may appear to be cultural divisions, what is practiced now has been, borrowed, blended, fused, forgotten and found again. Culture is a transient thing, and only when it is flexible enough to change with the age can it survive. Man's most unique and powerful tool is the ability to learn from the experience of another, and other cultures often provide us completely new ways of looking at things. I think it is all about sharing and respect, two wonderful aspects of humanity.

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This is a very interesting thread that I followed earlier but didn't have the wherewithal to jump into at that time. Everyone has made such useful and understanding comments. Thanks for your comments Steve and for bringing it up again.

 

Really fantastic dagger handle Phil! I think you got it!

 

I grew up in central Washington State and lived in the Puget Sound area during the formative years of my art interest. I always felt a strong heart connection with indigenous people there and their art, especially of the Northwest Coast tribes. When I learned engraving and wood carving I longed to create some work in the Northwest Coast style but was aware of the tenderness around non-native artists working in this style. I had mixed feelings about it and went to talk to Bill Holm who was curator at the Burke Museum at the Univ. Of Washington. Bill is, I think, totally "non-native" but is a seminal figure in the Northwest Coast scene for his scholarship and artistry of Northwest Coast native art. His book, An Analysis of Form(1965), jump-started many(including me) into a deeper exploration of the form-lines and patterns of the genre, and is considered a standard text. See more HERE

 

Bill advised me that he thought one should make what they were moved to, but that it could be difficult, culturally, to have your work accepted in some circles, especially the commercial. He had definitely experienced this first-hand. I was going through a difficult few years at that point and for various reasons never followed up at working in the style, which I somewhat regret, although earlier I had done some leather embossing.

 

Another complicating factor for me is that many contemporary Northwest Coast art pieces have a living ceremonial presence in a contemporary culture of which I am not a part. These objects are infused with esoteric ceremonial meaning and convey, among other things, the inherited social status of their owners.

 

We all spring from indigenous ancestors. The fact that some cultures are presently closer to their indigenous roots, should not, I believe bar others who have a longing to deepen that connection. It's clear that feelings can be tender around "ownership" of tradition and I understand taking pride in one's cultural heritage. I can also understand an indignation around having your traditions wrenched away from you, but I believe our indigenous nature is universal and available to all, and will not be diminished by inclusiveness.

 

I am continually taken-aback by the acceptance my work finds among Japanese artists, scholars and collectors. The rare ones who seem to find something objectionable in my Japanese flavored work are those who seem to have an agenda that is threatened by my somewhat hand-built unorthodox success, and eclectic technique, which I'll be the first to acknowledge is not limited to traditional Japanese methods.

 

The essence of cosmopolitanism is not knowledge and experience, but I think, simple respect for the inherent dignity of everyone. This will carry one much further than an exhaustive knowledge of language, customs, etc.

 

If I were to make an object in the Northwest Coast style, I would do my best to infuse my own iconography into it, and have it relate to my own personal relationship with numinous nature. I think one could hardly go wrong with this approach.

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Jim,

 

Thanks very much for your reply. I am very familiar with Bill holm's work, and quite interested that you discussed this with him. I have had similar discussions with Dr. George MacDonald, author of many works on Haida art, who owns the dagger. I used to work for George, and he encouraged me a great deal along these lines.

 

Although I have no intention of persuing any further works in this style, it does continue to influence my work. I was brought up in an environment where this type of work was present. My father was from the west coast, and we visited regularly. This was the first style of carving and sculpture that I knew, and I began to create works like this (sort of) when I was 7, and began selling work in galleries of the same style, slightly more refined, when I was 17. Interestingly enough, it was two native-run galleries thart were the most accepting of me and my work. The only resistance that I ran into to speak of was from non-native commercial dealers. A sort of reverse racism, really, that completely put me off of working in this style. In any case, life evolved, I went off to study art conservation, and landed a job working for a national museum, where I was exposed to the works of various cultures, and I never really seriously looked back.

 

Funny thing, this topic came up in conversation with a friend of mine during a lengthy car trip last week. We were off to lecture for the afternoon at the same college where I studied conservation. Then I came back to two new posts on the topic.

 

Perhaps someone is trying to tell me something.

 

Phil

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Hi Phil and all other TCP members,

 

Thanks for showing us your beautiful knife handle. I like the abalone inlay work that gives the piece just the right amount of sparkle. I tried inlay work many moons ago and, as a result, appreciate artists who have the skill to do fine inlay.

 

As has already been mentioned artists absorb styles from many cultures and this includes Native Americans artist. In the Southwest, Native Americans jewelers still work silver and turquoise; however, some employ modern and abstract designs. Check out native work in Southwest Art magazine. In the Northwest, Native Americans who once only had Red and Black pigment to color totems now use a wide palette of acrylic colors to adorn totems. I have also seen Northwest Native Americans who work in glass in place of wood. And once I read an article about a Native American stone carver who studied in Paris.

 

I'll admit it, I have copied Northwest totems and also Southwest Kachina dolls. These pieces decorate my den. I quiet that "Your not a member of that culture" feeling by learning about their culture and appreciating their art forms. However, I also enjoy doing my own work.

 

However you express your artist talents, enjoy your great gift without concern of interloping on another culture. Art is universal.

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Quote -- E George

However you express your artist talents, enjoy your great gift without concern of interloping on another culture. Art is universal.

 

Well said.

 

If it wasn't, then only deer could carve deer antler, only frogs could carve frogs.

Let us not forget the creepy crawly things that scurry in the dark. (No -- I was not refering to our politicians).

 

Artwork -- belongs in the light regardless of your hand, heart or soul.

It is a language in itself.

One that most understand at a glance.

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It is a complex question, all right.

My own views on this are rather influenced by the fact that I have had a long-standing interest in art history as such. For one thing, I would mention that this whole obsession of "original" art is very much limited to only a very few places, and very few cultures. We happen to live in one of those ages, and some of those cultures where it is the situation.

By and large, my own opinion is that the importance accorded to "originality" of one's work is very much tied in with market considerations of the time and place involved. It seems to have very much less to do with aesthetic considerations. In passing, let me mention such examples, as, starting with the Ancient World, the Syrian inspired Egyptian carvings; the Egyptian inspired Syrian carvings; Celtic work in the style of Rome; Scythian work in the style of Greece; Persian and Turkish work in the style of Europe, Renaissance European work in the style of China and Japan; Japanese and Chinese work in th style of Europe; Both these also doing an enormous amount of work in the style of their own, but of a very much earlier age, which has nearly always been a no-no in Europe. Turning to later styles there are the modernist borowings from African art, and Art Nouvou, which was influenced to a very high degree by Japanese art as much as by generally any kind of European folk tradition. The main point from all this is that they didn't seem to mind all these borrowings at all. My sneaky suspicion is that the reason simply is that there was no such thing a copyright. You got paid for what you made, not for what you claimed are your rights. (I know, this is a more than slightly cynical point of view, bringing everything down to the level of "market", but then I never said I agree with this kind of attitude.)

All in all I also feel that there is a too high preponderance of "artists" who are more than a little slack on the craftsmanship side. They tend to be the most vocal about the inviolate importance of "originality". In my observation, artists with a high degree of craftsmanship tend to feel much more relaxed about this whole copyright problem.

Ah, well, just my 5 cents' worth. Hope I haven't opened a whole can of worms.

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There are a few points I'd like to add here. The first is about cross-cultural influences and 'rip-offs'. While the latter is a no-no, except for making copies for the purposes of study and the need to be upfront with buyers/dealers/museums, etc., who happen to like them, it's the former that really interests me. Cross-cultural influences have always taken place, but to work exclusively in the style of another culture while not being fully aware of all the subtleties of that culture as expressed in its art forms, seems a little crude to me. Up to taking up netsuke-carving, I'd always worked in a European tradition, though with a keen interest in other cultures, but now, it seems, I'm working in both cultures at once and it's got a little confusing, though some of my questions have been answered on other threads.

 

The questions lead onto a second point. When you come across skilled carvers from another tradition, to what extent do you follow their tradition in order to learn the basics? Previously, I've always started from being trained in the basics and then branching out into my own experiments and styles. With netsuke-carving, I seem to be doing both almost from the beginning. Whether that's to do with having already gained confidence in other art forms, or not, or being more confident about experimention now I've passed into old age, I'm not sure, but I do have a strong feeling that I don't necessarily want to work in the Japanese tradition in the long run, though I'm more than grateful that I can benefit from the expertise held within it and am willing to study Japanese netsuke and make some students' copies when I sense that's the way I need to go. Somehow, it seems, I'm fast-tracking, but need to check in to see if I'm pushing things too fast, or whether that's OK.

 

Perhaps all this is reflected in my third point. There have been a few periods when miniatures were prominent in European art - illuminated manucripts and books of hours, English alabasters and ivories, Russian painted boxes, snuff boxes, etc. - but none that seem to have had the standing that netsuke had/have in Japanese society, or lasted for any great length of time, apart from jewellery. Neither were the European miniatures necessarily exclusive to one nation. Nor is there much European expertise available. Perhaps it's the display of concentration on, and expertise in, netsuke over a number of centuries in Japan that draws present day European cavers to the Japanese tradition.

 

For myself, I've loved miniatures ever since I was a child - netsuke, 'matchbox' toys, snuff-boxes, lead soldiers, miniature books, manuscript paintings, etc. Thinking about it now, it's the delight in small worlds, exquisitely executed and their entirety holdable in the palm of a hand that started me off on this path, anyway. Am I playing God? :wacko:

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Guest Clive
There are a few points I'd like to add here. The first is about cross-cultural influences and 'rip-offs'. While the latter is a no-no, except for making copies for the purposes of study and the need to be upfront with buyers/dealers/museums, etc., who happen to like them, it's the former that really interests me. Cross-cultural influences have always taken place, but to work exclusively in the style of another culture while not being fully aware of all the subtleties of that culture as expressed in its art forms, seems a little crude to me. Up to taking up netsuke-carving, I'd always worked in a European tradition, though with a keen interest in other cultures, but now, it seems, I'm working in both cultures at once and it's got a little confusing, though some of my questions have been answered on other threads.

 

Freda.. I'm not quite sure I understand precisely what you mean by "the style" of another culture. Could you elaborate?

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