Christopher Steiner on African Art

Philosophy and Literature 18 (1994): 428-34.

Denis Dutton

Christopher Steiner tells of an episode he witnessed in an Ivory Coast market place. A young European tourist was examining a Dan mask he was keen to barter for his Seiko watch. “Is the mask really old? Has it been worn?” the tourist wanted to know. Meanwhile, the African trader who was considering the deal was passing the watch among his fellows, trying to make sure that it was authentic.

Elsewhere in the same bazaar, tourists eager to buy authentic trade bead necklaces presented another delicious irony. Glass trade beads were introduced into West Africa in the fifteenth century and have since functioned there as a medium of exchange and adornment, peaking in popularity perhaps a century ago. With a few exceptions, however, trade beads would today generally be considered as up-to-date by many African women as gingham dresses would be to Nebraska matrons. As Steiner explains, “although the consumption of European beads has diminished among Africans, trade beads continue to circulate along specialized routes of transnational commerce.... The same beads which for centuries were prized by Africans are now sought by those inhabiting the very shores from which the beads originated” (p. 127).

Christopher Steiner’s African Art in Transit (Cambridge University Press, $54.95) is about the misunderstandings and illusions that infect the encounter between African art and western commerce. Other writers, notably Sally Price, have treated this topic, but Steiner — who has obviously spent many a hot, dusty hour hanging around the bazaars of the Ivory Coast — is the only scholar now writing on African art who can claim to have systematically studied the hidden trade practices by which African art and artifacts reach the dealer galleries and living rooms of Europe and America.

He describes the physical layout of Ivory Coast bazaars, the major traders and their agents, their shops, galleries, and storehouses, and the mechanics of the market — sources of supply, commission systems, and bargaining techniques. A government-sanctioned syndicate of dealers prohibits carvers from coming directly to Abidjan to hawk their carvings on the street; this ensures permanent control by a group of middlemen of what is presented for sale to Europeans. The system has drained villages of their artistic wealth, been instrumental in creating whole new genres (such as the European-inspired emergence of decorated slingshots), and has led to the proliferation of outright fakes. The Africans’ brutality in bargaining, which sometimes includes humiliation, and their attitude toward other Africans, is perhaps the most disagreeable aspect of Steiner’s account. At one point he tells of a Hausa trader’s contempt for women in a Lobi village who were unwilling to part with their jewelry. “I saw women there wearing ivory lip plugs and huge bracelets,” the trader said, “but they wouldn’t sell them for any price. It just makes you want to grab them right off their body...they don’t even understand what it was they were wearing” (p. 65).

None of this will be welcome news for dealers and collectors who prefer to imagine that the objects they so value are offered to them by an innocent, premercantile world of primitive spirituality and tradition. Commerce in African art is highly organized from the African side. Gone are the days when European traders could cheat Africans of priceless treasures with the exchange of beads or trinkets, or easily rummage through the shop of an artifact dealer and “discover” an unrecognized gem in a pile of ordinary carving. It is far more likely that the European in Abidjan will pay an inflated price for a new carving that has been battered, sanded, smoked, and treated with potassium permanganate in order to make it look old. It may be covered with blood to mimic the appearance of having been utilized in a sacrificial rite — and don’t be surprised if that “gem” buried at the bottom of a dusty pile was carefully planted there. In the unlikely event that the carving really is old, the price will more closely reflect its value in Zürich or Chicago, not the amount which the original village owner received for it.

The whole disagreeable picture is important to know about, and Steiner deserves praise for his stamina in assembling this information and the care with which he describes it. On the other hand, there is no reason for Steiner to give his account in such euphemistic language: traders in this book are not faking or lying to ignorant tourists; they are “adding value to what they sell by interpreting and capitalizing on the cultural values and desires from two different worlds” (p. 14). He recounts how a Hausa trader shipped a consignment of stools to New York, allowing them to be picked over by one dealer. The trader then lied to keep this information from another dealer who was given a subsequent look at the merchandise: “the seller was communicating to the buyer” that no other traders had seen the stools which had just been sent to New York “by an old Dioula woman” (pp. 137-38).Communicating? — rather like my “communicating to the buyer” that he is the very first person to whom I have the privilege of offering these fine old diaries from the hand of Adolf Hitler. In a phrase that deserves an entry in the Dictionary of Political Correctness, Steiner at another point calls this “ethnic prevarication.”

The sharp practices are only obscured by Steiner’s insistence on such prettified, tricky vocabulary: “To satisfy demand among certain Western clients for strong evidence of age and ritual use, traders replicate the shiny, worn patina which results from years of object handling” (p. 140). But this is verbal sleight of hand: the clients don’t merely want evidence of age, they want (unless they themselves are crooked middlemen) that the mask actually be old. If you are looking for evidence that a painting is a Vermeer, it won’t do for me to sign “Vermeer” at the bottom and tell you, “Now you have your evidence.” Steiner is describing an intricate system of artistic fraud, and while few of us will lose sleep over the investment missteps of rich tourists, there is no reason delicately to disguise what’s going on: Africans are as clever con men as anyone else.

All of Steiner’s scorn is reserved for Europeans, who usually come off as fools or villains. With regard to European modernism, Steiner says, “Twentieth-century artists reclassified African art in order to validate, and even heighten, their own modernist enterprise.” The possibility that they might have found African art objects stunning, beautiful, or somehow spiritually powerful does not arise. Consider what Steiner has to say about colon figures, carvings (usually faked these days) of colonial whites, or of Africans in Western dress. According to Steiner, “colon figures are interpreted by their [European] buyers as a celebration of modern Western expansionism” (p. 154). Their appeal, Steiner argues, is similar to that of the “safari look” marketed by fashion designers of Banana Republic and Ralph Lauren. In Western eyes, then, these items “pay homage” to the conquest of the continent.

But there is no reason to suppose that a tourist who buys what appears to be an old African statue of a colonial administrator does so out of nostalgia about the good old days of Leopold II. Were that so, it would follow that colon figures would be valued even more than “pure” African figures produced at the same time or in the precolonial past. They are not, and in fact the interest in them, as Steiner indicates, is relatively recent. While many naive buyers probably misunderstand the cultural significance of these pieces (particularly the Baule figures so carefully researched and discussed by Philip Ravenhill), they are able to recognize, at an uncertain level of sophistication, the carvings’ intrinsically African character.

How much more is required to legitimate a tourist’s interest in a carving, or in what the tourist perceives as the cross-fertilization of radically different cultural traditions? Consider miniature paintings of British envoys made in the courts of Mughal potentates, Japanese renderings of Admiral Perry and his men, or Maori representations of early New Zealand settlers. It is implausible that the fascination of these products of culture contact derives from a “celebration” of imperialism. (I have a Maori colleague with an interest in early Maori portraits of Europeans; be assured, she does not celebrate these works as icons of European expansionism. Similarly, my own curiosity about New Guinean Christian art, especially Sepik crucifixes, does not stem from approval of the spread of world Christianity.) Steiner’s explanation of the appeal of colon figures strikes me as simple-minded in the extreme, having the advantage only of according with his determination to cast all European pleasure in African art in the worst possible light.

Steiner’s almost exclusive focus on cut-throat bargaining, paltry or unpaid commissions, and cheating leaves one wondering what aesthetic values, if any, could play a role in these strange goings-on. At one point he mentions authentically antique carvings as “the category of goods which interests serious (i.e., investment-oriented) African art collectors...” (p. 33) — as though “serious” African art collectors care about nothing but market price or return on investment. In the pages of African Art in Transit all Westerners are either sophisticated investors buying on the cheap to make a financial killing, or shallow enthusiasts who are as excited by African art as they are by anything in the Banana Republic catalogue. This not only underrates the intelligence and sensibilities of Europeans, it also denies the African artists the power to create objects that can claim our attention in any way not determined by their monetary worth or their value as icons of exoticism, primitivism, or colonialism.

Steiner attempts to spell out the basis for this view in his concluding pages, “African Art and the Discourses of Value.” He relies heavily on Pierre Bourdieu’s idea that works of art fulfill neither technical nor aesthetic functions, but fit the requirements of “the class structure that.underlies the consumption and appreciation of art” (p. 161). He also appeals to James Bunn’s confused speculations about “tools” becoming “art” by displaying themselves as “failed metaphors.” The essential point Steiner derives from these sources is that “the disavowal of use value is a prerequisite for admitting what has the potential for being utilitarian into the realm of aesthetics” (p. 161). So what? Maret Oppenheim lines a teacup with fur, thereby rendering it functionally useless and at the same time transforming it into a work of art. Display cases also make tools (utensils, weapons, etc.) unusable, while museum walls recontextualize objects, alienating them from their original purposes, secular or sacred. In fact, as the Africanist Susan Vogel has remarked, “Almost nothing seen in museums was made to be seen in them.” Steiner treats this as though it were big news, reporting that “African art objects in the West are divorced from their proper functions and original meaning” (p. 161). Indeed they are; and so with every medieval Christian painting on the white walls of a public museum, and every Persian carpet in a parlor.

From these indisputable facts, Steiner draws a bizarre conclusion: “When collectors or tourists ask a trader in the market place what function an object has (or had) in its indigenous setting, they are not asking the question in order to replicate its use in their own environment...” — and how, pray, could they do that? Convert to an African religion? Set up a diorama in the den? — rather, Steiner tells us, “they are seeking to uncover the function of the object in its prior ‘life,’ thereby allowing the obsolescence of its past to testify, and indeed to celebrate, a loss of utility and functional value” (p. 161). But then why ask for the information in the first place? Just hang it on the wall, and call it “Useless Thing.” Is ordinary tourist curiosity about how people lead their lives, or where objects come from, or what meaning they have, not even possible? In Steiner’s stated opinion, the collector/tourist wants only to “celebrate” the fact that an artifact has lost its utility. There is no apparent advantage to such a thesis, except that it once again casts the European into the role of the idiot.

I am dismayed by Steiner’s performance. He is obviously one of the sharpest young minds to apply itself to the commercial aspects of African arts. He may not know as much about the art trade practices of the Ivory Coast as the most experienced dealers, but he must know more than almost any other academic writer. African Art in Transit presents a wealth of useful information for anyone who wants to learn how contemporary artifacts are marketed, how genres (those slingshots) can be virtually invented, and how the preconceptions of Westerners are exploited by clever salesmen. How exasperating then, that this is not enough for Steiner: he must follow Bourdieu in denying the reality of aesthetic value and trying to reduce all Western interest in African art to economics, or a “celebration” of uselessness, or even more incredibly, nostalgia for colonialism. Such routine applications of Bourdieu’s cynical value-constructionism can be used on any large-scale human enterprise, especially if it involves money: religion, medical care, law, education. But is this exclusive concentration on self-interest (or class interest) an adequate way to describe such institutions and activities?

Consider health care, which involves vast social structures, research programs, and technologies — buildings, equipment, people, and money. Can one argue that health-care systems exist solely for the economic advantage of their participants, as though actually finding a cure for childhood leukemia doesn’t count as a goal valuable for any other reason than the fact that someone might make a buck out of it? Of course not; life and health are the fundamental values that justify having health care systems in the first place. The problem with the Bourdieuist obsession with money and class is that it authorizes the cynical dismissal of the value questions that underlie such economic structures as those involved with religion, health, art, education, government, sport — even love. By chanting with Bourdieu the mantra that it’s all prestige, class, and money, Steiner gives comfort to those reluctant to face the fraught philosophical issues: Does African art have real aesthetic value? Can we understand and appreciate it? These are complex and wonderful questions, but there are no answers to them in African Art in Transit. The reader is merely given a catalogue of excuses for not asking them.

The failure to address these questions, or tacitly to endorse predetermined answers to them, is tied to Steiner’s limited cast of characters. His playbill includes European dealers, naive tourists, the Ivory Coast men who sell to them (many of these are Muslims who view village animism with contempt), their assistants, including door-to-door salesmen and craftsmen who “age” carvings, and runners who can source supply at the village level. Missing completely from this book, however, are the original village artists who create the carvings and villagers who might in some cases use them for religious purposes. Also missing are Westerners of some sophistication — scholars, museum goers, readers of African Arts — who enjoy looking at African carving but who may never plan or hope to own (“invest in”) a single piece. In other words, Steiner has taken a chain of production/consumption, cut off the ends, and written only about the middle. His is a book essentially about dealers and money.

Like Sally Price, to whose Primitive Art in Civilized Places he frequently alludes, Steiner presents sweeping philosophical theses about the value of art that are never tested against serious, sustained criticism. Rather, they are continually asserted along with extreme, one-sided examples which would support them. By all means, let it be acknowledged that Steiner’s examples are fascinating and make his book very much worth reading. His thesis, however, will not begin to persuade until he can deal with counter-examples or counter-arguments which will occur to his informed readers. When he is still claiming on the last page that European aficionados of African art “deny completely that their cultural capital is consecrated by, and deeply embedded in, the wider economy,” I can only wonder who he must mean. Do we need to be reminded that old Benin bronzes are enormously valuable? And if the answer is, “No, we all know that many African objects are extremely expensive,” does it follow therefore that anyone who peruses the pages of an African art book, magazine, or exhibition catalogue with awe and admiration is actually responding to the imagined price tags of the objects pictured? This is absurd.

According to Steiner, “The mystification of value that Marx analyzes so brilliantly in the context of later-modern industrial capitalism, has in its post-modern manifestation become nearly a parody of itself.” In my view, the mystifications of the value of African art are all Steiner’s. There are people who reduce all questions of value to dollars and cents. In ordinary parlance, they’re called philistines. In the realm of aesthetics, such reductionism is frequently termed “brilliant Marxist analysis.” I think ordinary parlance has it about right.

Copyright © 1994 Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.