A new BBC series on the arts of Oceania is a useful reminder of issues around culture and, perhaps less obviously, different theories about the nature of people. The Level 3 module Advancing social psychology (DD317) discusses culture, including the sometimes problematic assumptions that derive from classic psychological studies of 'other' people that were conducted in countries under European colonial rule. The BBC series aims to avoid these assumptions but still raises issues that are interesting to consider. In this week's blog for DD317, Stephanie Taylor reflects on culture, art and individuals.
One recent programme in the BBC series on Oceanic art followed Yolngu Aboriginal people from Northern Australia as they made a traditional musical instrument, a yidaki (often referred to as a didgeridoo). The instrument is a long wooden tube and the making process began with a group of people searching in the forest for a suitable tree to carve it from. One man explained their belief that the yidaki in a certain sense already exists and is calling to the searchers to be found. He also said that they needed to find a tree which had been eaten out by termites and the film showed him hitting at trunks with a machete, to check whether they had a hollow sound. The search therefore seemed to combine a kind of thinking that might be associated with a traditional cultural belief (the yidaki calling out), with a more pragmatic evidence-based practice (testing for a hollow trunk). The latter might be dismissed simply as common sense but it also derives from experimental science and can be understood as part of the culture that dominates contemporary Western societies, including Australia and the UK.
Both these examples of culture, the Yolngu Aboriginal and the contemporary Western, combine a way of thinking with ways of living and doing things. In that sense, the two cultures appear equivalent and it can be argued that the Yolngu Aboriginal people, as 21st century Australians, belong to both. Certainly the programme shows the yidaki-makers comfortably combining old and new, for example, when they use modern tools but traditional colours and designs in the making process. However, in Western societies there is a general tendency to attribute a lower status to traditional cultures and even to assume that these are what the term 'culture' refers to. One reason is that Western societies value innovation whereas traditional cultures, by definition, are assumed to resist change, holding onto the past. Cultural 'authenticity' is often assumed to depend on a lack of innovation. This can create a kind of trap for indigenous people, as if they must choose between living separately from contemporary society, in order to preserve their culture, or else abandon that culture completely.
In addition, 'culture' is often associated with determination, as if the people who belong to a traditional culture maintain their ways of thinking and living without reflection or choice; there is an assumption that they simply think and do what the culture dictates. Culture is also linked to a lack of individuality, whereas Western societies tend to prioritise individual rationality and autonomy. Yet these associations and assumptions can be questioned. Western societies do possess a culture of their own, as already noted, and this includes 'common sense' ideas which are usually accepted without question; Western people do not always act rationally or autonomously. On the other hand, it is entirely possible for people of a non-Western culture to respect tradition and collective values with awareness and full understanding of possible alternatives. (Indeed, the 'preservation' of a traditional culture can become a political strategy by which powerful individuals manage an entirely contemporary conflict, for example, around the rights of women or the possession of property – but that is a subject for another discussion.)
These points are of particular interest in relation to the yidaki makers because of the significance for art. The Western image of the artist is of an individual, possibly working within a particular period or school but ultimately transcending it. His work is his own - the image is masculine, even if all the artists are not. The work he produces is identified with his name, and usually marked with it. But if an artist belongs to a traditional culture, there is a tendency for the artistic practice or process of making not to be attributed to individual intention or decision or vision. Instead, the 'art' is seen merely as the expression of the culture. The work is not identified with the maker. The image of the individual artist is replaced by the image of the cultural representative.
This way of thinking about traditional art has of course been challenged. As just one example, the work of Aboriginal artists is now credited to individual makers as well as the traditional culture they identify with. However, similar problematic assumptions continue to be extended in subtle but definite ways to other artists who are marginalised within larger Western societies. For example, Black artists can find that their work is viewed mainly as a statement of their colour or ethnicity, and then potentially dismissed as political rather than artistic, as Sonia Boyce has discussed recently with reference to UK art in the 1950s https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2018/jul/30/whoever-heard-of-a-black-artist-britains-hidden-art-history Similarly, the US artist Jean-Michel Basquiat was deeply frustrated that his work referring to race, and racism, carried a diminished status, as if he had produced it almost instinctively, as an expression of his cultural experience. And women artists can find that their work is categorised in a similar way, so that references, for example, to sexuality or maternal feelings are reduced to a kind of outpouring of womanness and therefore a lesser achievement than the supposedly more considered work of male artists.
This blog has moved some distance from the conventional concerns of social psychology but shows some of the new directions opening up in the field. Social psychologists at the OU have formed a new research group, CuSP (Culture and Social Psychology) http://fass.open.ac.uk/research/groups/cusp. DD317 presents some alternative theories of culture and of the extent to which we operate, in art or in life, as original individuals or representatives of our society and culture(s). To learn more about DD317, you can also look at the new Open Learn course course DD317_1 Social psychology and politics: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/health-sports-psychology/social-psychology-and-politics/content-section-0