Art as Culture: An Introduction to the Anthropology of Art

By Evelyn Payne Hatcher | Go to book overview
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Chapter 5
Why? Social Contexts and Social Functions
The "why" of this chapter has to do with why art is a matter of culture, supported by society and of importance to it rather than a purely personal concern. Art is assumed to function to help hold society together, but there are differing viewpoints as to how this is accomplished. The main positions are:
I. Art helps hold society together because of its psychological functions -- essentially it acts as a safety valve, channeling discontent, disruption, and excess energy. The meanings of the forms have to do with psychological tensions, anxieties and frustrations because of taboos, conflicts and other points of tension in the culture. Art is life enhancing, making individuals feel more in harmony with everything, and so with each other. Happy persons are easier to get along with than unhappy ones.
II. Art helps to hold society together by the esthetic pleasure it provides, especially when people are gathered in large groups. It is a form of pleasure bond, important in encouraging the feeling of togetherness, "communitas". Meaning is derived very largely by association -- contextual meaning. The relation between (art) form and (social) function is not necessarily very significant, i.e., it is not the symbols that are important, but just the esthetic pleasure from the surroundings.
III. Art helps hold society together because it reflects and reinforces the relationships deemed proper in that society; art symbols are collective representations which by their form and content are shaped by and help shape the social order.

While different theories emphasize one or another of these positions, there is no reason why art cannot function in all of these ways, even simultaneously. Especially as there is more than one kind of "togetherness". The concept of "communitas" mentioned above is useful in this context; Turner contrasts the unifying emotion of communitas to the organized unity of the structure:

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