Thinking with Things: Toward a New Vision of Art
What is "art"? Why have human societies through all time and around the globe created those objects we call works of art? Is there any way of defining art that can encompass everything from Paleolithic objects to the virtual images created by the latest computer technology? Questions such as these have preoccupied Esther Pasztory since the beginning of her scholarly career. In this authoritative volume, she distills four decades of research and reflection to propose a pathbreaking new way of understanding what art is and why human beings create it that can be applied to all cultures throughout time.
At its heart, Pasztory's thesis is simple and yet profound. She asserts that humans create things (some of which modern Western society chooses to call "art") in order to work out our ideas—that is, we literally think with things. Pasztory draws on examples from many societies to argue that the art-making impulse is primarily cognitive and only secondarily aesthetic. She demonstrates that "art" always reflects the specific social context in which it is created, and that as societies become more complex, their art becomes more rarefied.
Pasztory presents her thesis in a two-part approach. The first section of the book is an original essay entitled "Thinking with Things" that develops Pasztory's unified theory of what art is and why we create it. The second section is a collection of eight previously published essays that explore the art-making process in both Pre-Columbian and Western societies. Pasztory's work combines the insights of art history and anthropology in the light of poststructuralist ideas. Her book will be indispensable reading for everyone who creates or thinks about works of art.
one medium to another, from three dimensions to low relief, and so on. I am calling these transformations “translations” to indicate both the continuity and the magnitude of the changes. The term “translation” puts the emphasis on the translators who were charged with finding idioms in the language of the current time and practices for the language of the past. Translation may try to minimize change, but change is unavoidable due to new circumstances. Translation is an outwardly conservative
irrationality. Things stand in as problematic a relationship to other modes of communication as “primitives” to the “civilized”: they are much maligned. It was my aim to sketch some aspects of the world of 001-015 pasztory_ch01 03/17/05 02:01 PM Page 5 Introduction to Part One things and our thinking with them both prior to writing and in our everyday world now. This is a huge subject that I do not claim to exhaust, merely to put on the map. Given all these agendas, Part One is short. I am
also the subsequent comparison of brush and pen. The bathrooms are good too. 6. Norman Yoffee, “The Late Great Tradition in Ancient Mesopotamia” (paper presented at College Art Association meeting, New York, 1990). 044-051 pasztory_ch05 03/17/05 02:17 PM Page 44 5 SUPERPOSITIONS Figure 5.1 Panel of superimposed engravings in the Sanctuary of Les Trois Frères, Ariège, France. Drawing: Janice Robertson. 044-051 pasztory_ch05 03/17/05 02:17 PM Page 45 LIVING FOSSILS The notion that our
new types of objects. The chief may wear headdresses and pectorals in the form of masks in materials like jade and ivory. Figures with masklike heads may represent deities. In the Mesoamerican state of Teotihuacán, stone masks were not meant to be worn by humans but were probably a part of deity/ancestor images. Funerary masks are common in ranked societies. Many Maya glyphs are in the form of masklike faces that can be related to earlier deity masks. While this evolution of the mask by
works have in common is that they are nonclassical. This attitude makes it possible for Moore to adopt some aspects of preColumbian art. He can borrow a male ritual altar figure and transform it into a reclining female nude within the Western tradition without feeling that this might be inappropriate (Fig. 12.4). Moore visually refers to Mexican sculpture as a new authority for the kind of “universal” art he hopes to create. Mexican sculpture and eleventh-century Yorkshire art now replace