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  • Heavy Traffic
  • Denis Dutton

It was the Reverend Sidney Smith who said, “I never read a book before reviewing it; it prejudices a man so.” Thirty years ago that remark was still a joke. These days, it’s a downright plausible idea, one with a distinctly postmodern ring. If the objects of experience are nothing but constructions, inventions of our cultures and mind-sets, that must go as well for all the books we read—including those books which urge this fact on us. To read them is to construct them, to write them for yourself. But wait—that can’t be a fact, because facts are just prejudices too. Takes your breath away to realize how far scholarship has come.

These thoughts drifted through my mind reading The Traffic in Culture: Refiguring Art and Anthropology, edited by George E. Marcus and Fred R. Myers (University of California Press, $48.00 cloth, $17.95 paper). It comprises a long introduction plus eleven chapters which “explore the boundaries and affinities between art, anthropology, representation, and culture, casting a critical, ethnographic light on the art worlds of the contemporary West and the ways they give value to cultural form—in short, a “‘traffic’ in culture.” It is not easy to make out a consistent thread in the essays themselves. Carol Vance offers a fine discussion in the form of four small essays on censorship, the NEA, Jesse Helms, and so forth. There is no discernible connection with anthropology, and I cannot see why these pieces are included. Nancy Sullivan, described as a Ph.D. candidate in Fred R. Myers’s NYU anthropology department, struggles with her cumbersome account of the artworld in the last generation. Again, I can detect no hint of how anthropology has helped her understand the artworld. Hal Foster makes a cameo appearance of only a few pages, a kind of postmodern arabesque with lots of big words. Christopher B. Steiner revisits material [End Page 283] presented in his book, African Art in Transit, which is squarely in the field, and Steven Feld agonizes about appropriation of world music into commercial music business while telling some interesting tales about a radio program he produced of music from Papua New Guinea. The feminist Judith L. Goldstein does a late-capitalist, “late-postmodernist” job on women’s makeup, with much reliance on Fredric Jameson but no anthropology I can discern, despite the fact that she gave a version of it at an American Anthropological Association conference. If we really have reached “late-postmodernism” we can only be thankful. Molly H. Mullin’s account of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century enthusiasm for American Indian artifacts, on the other hand, may begin with clichés about “élite responses to the rise of consumer capitalism,” but it soon settles down to a solid account of the people and problems of trying to achieve recognition of Indian handicrafts as art. This was made possible, we learn, by much devoted work from people who were multiculturalists before the word existed, white Americans whose actions were based on a love of Indian cultures and arts, rather than postcolonial theory and the school of resentment. All the issues of art vs. craft, the relation of tourism to artistic development, authenticity, and so on, were raised in the 1920s and 30s, with sophistication not often seen today.

But to figure out how it all is supposed to tie together, we have to turn to the book’s explanatory introduction. This is so turgidly vague that when I was done I felt like invoicing the authors for my time. These pages are peppered with half-assertions I’d half want to dispute if their meaning were plainer, and a few that are plain enough to be flat-out wrong. Among many examples: “Ironically, the very category of ‘art’—as opposed to ‘the arts’—goes unexamined in its own hierarchies of sense, so that various forms of popular performance, in which disinterested contemplation does not necessarily reign supreme, are excluded.” Excluded? Notice that irritating passive voice: who, I’d like to know, has left popular performance unexamined and excluded? What are “hierarchies of sense”? The sentence carries no reference. In...

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pp. 283-297
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