Art of the Day

30 Mar


Llama made of cast silver with gold and cinnabar. From Bolivia or Peru, found near Lake Titicaca, Bolivia. Inca, 15th century. Currently on view at the American Museum of Natural History, New York.

Notes from Stokstad & Cothren’s Art History, 4th edition:

When they arrived in Peru in 1532, the Spanish were far less interested in Inca cloth than in their vast quantities of gold and silver. The Inca valued objects made of gold and silver not for their precious metal, but because they saw in them symbols of the sun and the moon. They are said to have called gold the “sweat of the sun” and silver the “tears of the moon.” On the other hand, the Spanish exploration of the New World was propelled by feverish tales of native treasure. Whatever gold and silver objects the Spanish could obtain were melted down to enrich their royal coffers. Only a few small figures buried as offerings, like the little llama above, escaped the conquerors. The llama was thought to have a special connection with the sun, with rain, and with fertility, and a llama was sacrificed to the sun every morning in Cuzco. In this small silver figurine, the essential character of a llama is rendered with a few well-chosen details, but in keeping with the value that Andeans placed on textiles the blanket on its back is carefully described.


My comments:

The choice of the maker of this llama to express the essential character of the llama with “few well-chosen details” reminds me of the Modernist sculptor Constantin Brancusi, who said that “What my work is aiming at is, above all, realism: I pursue the inner, hidden reality, the very essence of objects in their own intrinsic fundamental nature; this is my only deep preoccupation.” It’s so interesting to see that at times artists from much older cultures than that of Brancusi approached art-making with similar goals in mind. Of course the purposes of this llama sculpture and others like it had purposes beyond communicating the essence of a subject, so in that way they are not completely parallel to Brancusi’s artistic motives; for the Incas, art was not for art’s sake.

But this leads us to another question: is this llama sculpture really art? Interestingly, it belongs to the collection of a natural history museum, not an art museum. And yet, it is not regarded, by art historians at least, merely as an artifact, but as an art object. Why is this? The question of what constitutes art is a debate that contemporary artists in particular love to bandy about through their artwork, but their art is not the only art that prompts this inquiry. Our very categorization of objects like this llama as art raises some interesting questions about why it is that we label this llama as an artwork. When we were trying to parcel out a definition of art in my art history seminar last semester, taught by Professor Cothren in fact, one student offered that the designation of an object as art depends on the maker’s intention. If this is so, can we ever be sure that the makers of this llama considered it art? Since “art” was much more integrated into ancient societies than it is now due to the homogenous nature of many cultures such as the Incans (who practiced one religion and one set of cultural traditions within their empire, something we certainly wouldn’t say about the United States), they did not talk about it in the same way that Western developed societies discuss it today. Because of this disparity in conception, it would most likely be impossible to know if the maker of this llama considered him or herself an artist and thought that this llama was indeed art.

So this leaves us back at square one, because we don’t know the artist’s intent with this llama, yet we still find it in an art history textbook. We can’t even say that art is that which has no function other than providing some sort of visual experience, because this llama served a very functional purpose as a burial offering. So it seems clear that we have to acknowledge that we look at art objects in a different way than their creators did; whether this makes our study of art history contrived in a way would be an important discourse in which to engage.

One Response to “Art of the Day”

  1. tara March 30, 2013 at 1:05 pm #

    I would have been interested to discuss this very topic with Dr Barnes. He seemed to have felt that art was everywhere in all objects and arranged his objects to show their influences on one another.

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