I had the great good fortune to receive an advance copy of Howard Morphy’s latest monograph, Becoming Art: exploring cross-cultural categories . This new book is like a river stone, its arguments polished by years of being turned over in the author’s mind, flashing with brilliance; it is an opportunity for extensive and satisfying contemplation and of great utility to students of aesthetics and epistemology, anthropology, art theory and history, and cultural studies… in Becoming Art Morphy looks at ways of integrating Yolngu systems of thought into broader, more world-encompassing (i.e. cross-cultural) perspectives. Readers new to Morphy’s work will be delighted by an erudite but accessible introduction to Morphy’s research. Whereas the earlier works were undoubtedly written for an audience of anthropologists, I believe that Morphy here seeks to reach a broader audience, much as the book itself looks to move the world of the Yolngu into a larger arena.
The nominal focus of the book is Yolngu art, which Morphy has studied for thirty-five years. However, its scope is vast, comprehending in its well-illustrated 200 pages many of the questions raised in the compendious The Anthropology of Art: a reader that Morphy edited and published last year. He asks us to question overly narrow definitions of art, especially what he terms the “exclusionary rules” by which the Western category of “fine art” is determined. In doing so, he charts an understanding of art across cultures that will allow us to better understand the art of the Yolngu.
In order to understand the trajectory of Indigenous Australian art, it is important to consider the kind of thing art is to the producing societies and how that influences the relationships that Indigenous Australians see between artworks and the conclusions that they draw from those relationships. By making Indigenous art discourse part of the data of art history and critically examining the ontological concepts and their relationship to practice, we should become aware of conceptual similarities and differences between different traditions. And in the case of different art traditions that occupy the same temporal space we should be able to better understand how they articulate with one another–in the case of Aboriginal art, how Indigenous artists embrace contemporary Australian art worlds.
Or as he aphoristically sums up a fundamental principle early in the book, “there is a dialectic between common humanity and particular ways of being human. It is the common humanity that creates the possibility of anthropology; it is the diversity of humanity that makes it necessary.”