Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Re-use in art and politics

Julia A.B. Hegewald and Subrata K. Mitra have edited a ground-breaking volume on a topic I am also working on since some years, namely the re-use. By this term they indicate all sorts of new usage of previous materials. Re-use can be done by reducing the previous materials to their basic constituents (e.g.: re-use of Indian jewelry by melting the gold and produce new jewels out of it) or by significantly taking their history with them (e.g.: re-use of a Jaina statue in a Vaiṣṇava temple to show that the Jainas have been subdued).
Since Hegewald is an art-historian and Mitra a political scientist, the volume interprets the topic of re-use along the lines of art-history and social sciences. Bridging disciplines is in itself one of the qualities of this book, and it requires courage and openness.

The basic idea of the book is the focus on re-use from history of art (where we all know of columns of ancient temples being reused for later buildings) to politics. Further, the book adds a social-sciences interpretation of re-use as a key to deal with the integration of the past or foreigner and as a litmus test to check the level of anxiety felt by a group of people in regard to the past/foreigner.
Chapter 1 is a summary of the other chapters, and is useful insofar as it interprets them in the light of the general idea. In this way, the chapters (which are sometimes not directly about re-use) can be re-read in a way which is perhaps more interesting to the reader. The editors add little or no critical comments to the summary, but the few they add are enlightening. For instance, in fn. 18 they indirectly criticise Nayak's construction of a "pure" folk art in Orissa, contrasted to today's commercial developments of it (see below).
Hegewald and Mitra's contribution in Chapter 2 is very interesting, since it shows how a social-sciences approach can throw light on the re-use in art history. The first parts (on Jaina temples) are really enlightening, whereas the later part (on Jagannātha) is slightly less focused on the topic of re-use.
A much more important lack of focus affects many other contributions, which, interesting as they are, seem to be only a posteriori related to the topic of re-use. An interesting exception is Nick Barnard's contribution on the re-use of Indian jewels in UK during the Empire. Prasanna K. Nayak's depiction of a golden age of pure folk art in Orissa clashes (in this writer's opinion) strikingly against the volume's stress on re-use as a neutral category and goes back to the stereotype of the "good old times".
In general, the other contributions are interesting and well-documented, but, as already hinted at, less closely related to the topic. The introductory chapter is the best way to connect them to the topic.
In sum: a MUST for everyone interested in this less-studied topic.

For a summary of my own research on the topic of re-use (of texts), see this post.


Eisel Mazard said...

I have never encountered this particular connotation of the term "re-use" (not even in the context of art history and museum-work). Perhaps it is a new fashion.

You may not be aware of the old-fashioned meaning of "populism" in art history. In English, populism was formerly used to mean the ideological assertion of a type of authenticity (in the manner that you complain of as "re-use) such as establishing a standard of "true folk art"... entailing problems of who are the "true folk" and who are not, in various nationalistic contexts.

Admittedly, this is very confusing, given the other (political) meanings of the term populism.

By coincidence, one of my recent blogicles (scil. blog+articles) discusses the extent to which the European tradition of painting (and "high culture") encourages us to "situate the past in the present". This isn't precisely what you mean by "re-use", but you'll see what I mean from the illustrations alone:

elisa freschi said...

Dear Eisel,

yes, I did not know about this use of populism and it seems to fit nicely in the picture. By the way, I changed the first lines of the post and I hope it is now clearer.
Last, I read the blog-article you refer to. It is a pity that I could not find a way to interact with you directly on your blog/about it.

Eisel Mazard said...


My blog now has a "question box" (almost the same thing as a "comment box") at the end of every (new) article.

e.g., scroll to the bottom of:

All of those questions/comments will reach me (regardless of the box you type it into).

You may or may not enjoy that article I've just linked to, as it has as much to do with Sanskrit as it does with Pali (and it relates to our remarkable ability in Pali studies to completely disregard the related etymologies of Sanskrit words, when it suits us).

If you're having trouble with trolls, you might consider switching to the same system, as discussed here:

elisa freschi said...

Eisel, I like the comments, because they make the blog resemble a little bit more to a forum (if you are wondering why I do not have a forum, then, just check the many posts discussing how I have been trying and trying…and failing:-( ), with conversations being accessible to everyone and not just to me. I also like the fact that readers can engage in conversations among themselves. Trolls are a risk, but I prefer facing it than avoiding comments altogether. But I like the idea of the question box, thanks a lot! I will try to add it myself.

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