- 1 The works are too numerous to cite them all. A few examples are Appadurai, 1986; Bonnot, 2002, 2014 (...)
1Pioneered by Kopytoff (1986), “the cultural biography of objects” has shown its heuristic potential and inspired numerous works that place the object’s change of status, indeed its empowerment, at the centre of their thinking, in fields as varied as the study of collections or of technical systems1. This change of focus shifts attention to what constitutes the object beyond its materiality and usage (Thomas, 1991). Objects circulate through different value systems, a transfer that is radical for those that interest us here, which came from “other” cultures and then became works of art. Tracking their displacements makes it possible to understand the processes that construct the “aura” which is indispensable to their new identity and the ways in which their value is enhanced in the spaces where these objects are negotiated.
- 2 In the context of a research programme financed by the anr (2008-2012): Himalart “ ‘Objets d’art’ d (...)
2This collection of articles lies at the intersection of studies on the circulation, transformation and classification modalities of art objects originating from the Himalayan regions and China2. More particularly, it explores value-creation processes at both ends of the journey that takes them to the West: at one end are local exchange platforms, markets and workshop, and at the other end are the collections and museums that consecrate them, in the West and in Asia. These two ends link two major events of their life: their genesis in a local market, and their temporary or permanent withdrawal from market circuits in order to join a collection or museum, where they are presented or classified.
- 3 In the Tibetan tradition, shambala is a “pure land”, a “hidden country” somewhere in Himalaya. The (...)
- 4 In his exploration of the “imaginative value” of goods on the market, economic sociologist Jens Bec (...)
3It is in a context of intense circulation of people and things, linked to mass tourism and the geopolitical situation of regions long closed to Westerners—and uncolonised like Nepal—that a new “Himalayan” aesthetic order was born. In this movement, so-called classical works of art, that is to say those presented in museums of eastern art, and more particularly Tibetan art, were re-evaluated and reconfigured (Lopez, 1998). In Asia, a history of art distinguishing “fine arts”—painting and sculpture—from the rest was established from the end of the 19th century, and then institutionalised. In this particular hierarchical configuration, “Himalayan arts” offer a good study framework, enabling an on-the-spot link to be made between the conditions surrounding the appearance of objects on the market, and the birth of new classes. The relatively recent opening (and closure) of Himalayan regions since the 1960s—a period of increased exchange with the West (particularly tourism, to which the circulation of objects is intrinsically linked)—offers an opportunity to closely focus on the material, social and symbolic conditions that are establishing a new aesthetic order. Furthermore, “Himalayan arts” is a recent label linked to the massive arrival of works on the market and the joint construction of a “transcendent landscape”, which they embody, as illustrated by the contributions assembled here. As the “roof of the world” or a “hidden land3”, this imaginary realm is conducive to contemporary dreams, but the Himalayan case also raises more general questions about the processes that create the artworks’ indispensable aura and determine their value4. These questions have been little discussed in relation to this part of the world where that which is considered “art” belongs to the established field of the history of “classical” eastern art, which is not very open to studies developed over the past twenty-five years on the status of objects.
- 5 See Boltanski and Esquerre’s study on the “collection form”, to which works of art are intrinsicall (...)
4From local markets to collections and exhibition displays, this volume highlights a constitutive feature of the transformation of things into works of art, namely the narrative and visual “packaging” that constructs their aura and the transcendent landscape they are part of. Furthermore, it reveals how these “narratives” develop, placing a spotlight on dealers, collectors and experts. Manufactured narratives that accompany the apparition of objects without history on the local market, exhibition or collection catalogues that introduce myths of origin as a means of validating their hierarchical classification, museum displays that materialise theories on the art: these procedures are indispensable to the process of establishing the objects’ value. They strip these objects of their production conditions, and especially of their status as financially and culturally negotiated objects. On the contrary, they reinforce the objects’ singular character, the foundation of their “authenticity”, without which they remain mere products, everyday objects or travel souvenirs5.
5The contributions assembled here explore this packaging and presentation of art objects in exchange contexts, thus highlighting the interweaving of the narratives that envelop them as soon as they come into being, and the hybridisation of representations, intensified by globalisation and tourism. Their classification and name travel with them, witnesses and actors of an exchange between culturally distinct worlds. Thus transported, these things shake up the unstable boundaries of reception categories, revealing the power of their enveloping discourse, and showing how classifications are linked to market channels.
- 6 See Steiner (1994) for a study of local and international African primitive art markets and on Afri (...)
- 7 See for example Beckert (2010), Karpik (2007) on the economics of singularities, particularly the “ (...)
6Markets and channels of sale have been neglected by anthropological studies on “the art of others”6. On the other hand, and to bring out the symbolic components of economic theories of exchange, many works of economic sociology have analysed markets as “cultural constellations” (Velthuis, 2005), but these mainly focus on Western markets, and when they concern “art worlds” they primarily deal with contemporary art7. The studies assembled here centre on exchanged objects, local exchange constellations and the negotiations at play in these, placing special emphasis on object circulation conditions and their importance in the “creation” of works of art. Local markets are places that are not well known, so much is the commodity character and delocalised status of the art objects of “others” problematic, including for those who market these products.
- 8 On ethnic and tourist art, see the seminal works of Graburn (1976). See also Jules-Rosette, 1984.
- 9 The mandala or “circle” is a pattern and system for organising the world, in which the centre repro (...)
7The first three contributions (Bangdel, Dollfus, Krauskopff) are based on studies in local sales channels, shedding new light on the beginning of the “career” of objects that will become primitive, traditional, artisanal or touristic, and helping us understand the process of increasing the works’ value, separating it and placing it in a hierarchy. Phillips and Steiner (1999: 3) noted that so-called tourist art had received little attention8, but these products and their complex status are much better studied today. They are characterised by being created in series, something that devalues them, and by innovations that separate them from traditional arts, and even more from primitive art based on the timeless singularity of the works. Moreover, innovation establishes close links between this devalued art and “other” contemporary art as illustrated by Dina Bangdel’s contribution on tourist art in the Kathmandu Valley She plunges us into the abyss of the “inauthentic”, focusing on production workshops where tourists, dealers and artisans construct the “narratives of cultural encounters” that package these objects. Hybridisation and “inauthenticity” go hand-in-hand not just with the serial production of motifs preferred by buyers like mandalas9 or Buddhas, but also with contemporary innovations of religious paintings, by artisans who have become artists. These works, sometimes originating in the same studios, share the status of goods sold on the local tourist market. They are consequently devoid of the aura of authenticity of recognised Newar or Tibetan works of art in museums of eastern art—works which themselves have undergone innovations and have been commissioned from artisans.
- 10 I should add that this kind of headdress is also presented in a recently refitted room at the Natio (...)
- 11 The expression is borrowed from Derlon and Jeudy-Ballini (2011).
8Off in search of the origins of Ladakh headdresses (of innovations that have been instituted as traditional in certain museums), Pascale Dollfus leads us to the “curio” market in Leh, Ladakh, to auctions and online shops, as well as into the museums that have acquired them in France10. By tracing the history of these headdresses, she intercepts the discourse that accompanied the enhancement of their value and the more or less elevated prices that consecrated them on the art market, enabling them to enter museums and be recognised as “traditional art objects” and not “tourist” products. These contemporary innovations transformed into objects of timeless tradition defy categories, and their value rests on a “dreamed-up authenticity” (“authenticité rêvée”11). The discourse that singles them out as exceptional objects stems from a process similar to that of tribal or primitive objects: a myth of age-old origins is constructed for them. The ambiguous status of this head finery is also linked to its components, to being made of semi-precious stones whose value varies without any direct relation to their usage. Coral and turquoise once circulated from very far away before ornamenting the headdress of the peasants or nomads of the isolated regions of Ladakh. Today, the valuable stones can be resold in Kathmandu or China, and these headdresses can be refit with artificial gems from China. The contrast with the context described by Dina Bangdel is striking, illustrating the weight that narratives carry in the process of increasing the work of art’s value, and the symbolic value of the price in its authentication. In the world of art, there should be a separation between a work’s price and its cultural or aesthetic value. Yet as Olav Velthuis (2005) has shown in his works on contemporary art galleries, the prices of works, often “priceless”, have a “symbolic value”. Pascale Dollfus’s contribution offers a good example of these paradoxes.
9Works of art have the particularity that their absolute singularity detaches them from the status of goods, this status being neither permanent nor irreversible (Kopytoff, 1986: 75-76). Focusing on “Himalayan primitive art” objects, Gisèle Krauskopff examines their collection conditions and shows that their state as a thing negotiated on a local market is erased in proportion to the aesthetic recognition that will later determine their “price”. This silence disposes of the history, delocalisation and transfer conditions of the objects. Collected “in situ” according to the vocabulary of Western galleries, they were in fact acquired on the Kathmandu market from the 1970s in channels related to those of traditional, artisanal, religious or tourist art. Nepalese “tribal art” objects, which collectors would later promote to the rank of “Himalayan primitive”, circulated within a network of actors who also sold “curios”, crafts or devalued Tibetan art. This niche market was built on relics of the trafficking of Tibetan and Newar works of art, the exportation of which was prohibited from 1970.
10The juxtaposition of these contributions reveals the proximity of these objects in this Himalayan constellation of exchange. Certain intermediaries, like Tibetan traders, deal in all of these areas. Curio shops in Leh, Ladakh or those in Kathmandu offer a mixture of tourist objects, handicrafts, ethnic art objects, tribal or primitive objects and even “masterpieces”. The related logos on the shops of Leh Muslims, tourist art dealers and Kathmandu tribal art dealers attest to this sharing. In the 21st century, curios are still offered to foreigners, pointing to the importance of tourist circulation that, in this “postcolonial” era, plays an essential role not only in the appropriation of “objects of others”, but in the construction of an imagined Himalaya conveyed by “art objects”.
- 12 On the collector as narrator and the collection as “narrative”, see Bal, 1994.
11Gisèle Krauskopff studies the role of “hippy” travellers in the transfer of Himalayan art objects (artisanal, tribal or intended for eastern collections) and in the construction of the magical aura that enables these village objects to be separated from artisanal or folk products in order to create a “tribal art of Nepal”. She examines the transformation of this art into “Himalayan primitive art”, as well as the supporting role of the exhibition catalogues and collectors that have enhanced the value of these objects in the West by reinforcing their myth of origin, while also stripping them of their ethnographic rags. Selection processes subsequently narrowed in on masks and statues, as masterpieces. Later, collectors established narratives for their own collections, in close association with travelling dealers, attesting to the “authenticity” of the objects through their presence in Kathmandu12. They produced a particular kind of narrative of origins, in which the creator of the works was identified with a primordial artist and prototypical character, the shaman. This new value enhancement process—linked to the objects’ entry into the tribal art market—appropriated this still-living figure of the so-called tribal cultures of Nepal by reinventing it. The world of primitive art enthusiasts—contemporary aesthetes—triumphs by erasing the objects’ history, their mixed origins, and the political or commercial context of their genesis. As illustrated by Sylvie Beaud’s contribution on the circulation of terminologies attached to “Nuo masks”, these narratives obliterate the most rigid political boundaries between administrators of minority cultures in China and collectors of Himalayan primitive art, whose narratives have rubbed off on masks from China.
- 13 Used for the first time by James Hilton in his 1933 novel Lost Horizon to designate utopian place i (...)
12To raise tribal and primitive Himalayan works to the level of high art, they were aesthetically distinguished from Tibetan so-called “Lamaist Buddhist” art, to which they were closely related. Without looking back at the local market as a “cultural constellation”, one cannot fully understand the foundations of this distancing: the creation of a transcendent landscape and a new aesthetic ideal—“Himalaya”—which includes Tibetan art and shamanic primitive art. This primitive art of “Himalaya” (the change of spatial scale is significant) was subsequently defined as “other” in two senses: it is charged with the magical power associated with Shangri-La13, but it also disconnects from this in order to become “shamanic” and go further back in time.
13Himalaya is a imprecisely defined intermediary space on the margins of India and China with their great traditions. Marked by its historically deep-rooted intermingling of religions and cultures, the Himalayan regions are divided into several states that have instituted “national arts” in museums alongside other religious categories that blur the terminology and classification of objects. Thus a “Tibetan” object will not be treated the same way in museums in India, Bhutan, Nepal or China. In the West, the same object will be placed either in an “art” museum or in a folk or ethnographic collection.
14The establishment of the category “Himalayan art”, encompassing the region’s various nation-states, illustrates the power of the narratives associated with this area, identified by its high altitude. The West has enveloped this “Himalaya” in an aura that erases its real contours in favour of an imagined world that, as the contributions in this collection show, permeates not only discourse on the arts of the roof of the world, but also exhibition displays. It is another illustration of the strong imaginary value attached to works of art, and more precisely of the need for a fiction and a landscape of meaning on which to base their value (Beckert, 2010). As Lopez has noted in his study on the fascination with Tibet, art enthusiasts’ increasing interest in Tibetan works has been accompanied by “a certain compulsion to interpret as a way of increasing value, a compulsion that has resulted in some of the theories of Tibetan art” (1998: 155). The “counterculture” movement that was so spiritually pervasive in the 1960s and 1970s influenced the construction of this world between a “pure land” or utopia and a place of more or less demonic, savage magic. But the creation of this imagined realm was rooted in a particular historical situation: the closing of Tibet and the opening of Nepal to tourism—a new incarnation of Shangri-La in the 1960s and 1970s—to which was added an intense circulation of works on the market with the Tibetan diaspora. Delocalised objects of many different origins became special vehicles of that transcendent landscape and of a new aesthetic ideal.
- 14 Elwin’s seminal work (1951) in this area and its cover was aptly illustrated by a painting.
- 15 See for example Tilche, 2015. See also the 2010 exhibition “Other Masters of India: Contemporary Cr (...)
- 16 Most of the showcase dedicated to India at the musée du quai Branly is made up of “tribal bronzes”.
- 17 On the creation of a Shangri-La for purposes of tourism and heritage in Yunnan, China, see Kolas, 2 (...)
15This Himalaya detached from the world—and apolitical in a way—separates it from its big neighbours, particularly from India, despite Nepal’s obvious links with this civilization (particularly in the Newar art of the Kathmandu Valley). And it represents a break from the past, when Tibetan and Nepalese works were measured against Indian art. This is no doubt why Himalayan art is mainly perceived as Buddhist. It is striking to observe that Himalayan primitive art, based on collections of wooden masks and statues, radically distinguishes itself from Indian tribal or native art, which promotes different works like bronzes and paintings, and is never compared with it14. “Folk” paintings, like the ones from Mithila that appeared in France around 1976, are one example; a more recent example is the turning-into-art of paintings by the Adivasi or by supposed natives, and their acceptance as contemporary art.15. As for Indian so-called “tribal” bronzes, they have a distinct history and were collected beginning in the early 20th century16. This boundary is so well-established in the primitive art world that a wooden mask found on any market will be integrated into Himalayan art and its collections, even if it comes from a village in India. However, primitive Himalayan masks and Tibetan masks, or masks with a “Buddhist affinity”, belong to the same collections. The power of the mythology built around Shangri-La is such that its incarnations travel successfully. It has recently become one of the notions used in the tourist market in China, as part of the process of patrimonialising minority cultures, as evoked by Sylvie Beaud in her contribution17.
16The representation of Himalaya as a “hidden”, timeless land is found in museums, exhibitions and writings on art from the roof of the world. The classification rhetoric in “Himalayan art” that has dominated in the West since the 1960s is that of a Buddhist (or “Lamaist”) art connected with an imagined Tibet that has elastic boundaries. The status of the art objects and their presentation in exhibitions is particularly revealing, as illustrated by Imogen Clark’s contribution. But this type of classification becomes problematic as soon as it is a question of national art, as shown by Élise Fong-Sintès’s contribution on the galleries of the National Museum of Kathmandu.
17Imogen Clark examines the religious rhetoric surrounding “Tibetan art” in British and American museums through an exemplary display: the Tibetan altar installation, both a sacred space where certain dignitaries can officiate, and a separated space for visitors. She analyses this sacralisation, conceived as an immersive exhibition technique, which she views as related to earlier ethnographic presentations. Between the vision of the Tibetan diaspora and that of the West, these museum installations reveal the power of these objects, fetishes of a lost country, and the political dimension of the issues that surround them, and probably also certain aspects of Tibetan Buddhist proselytism in the West. Exhibition displays have materialised “theories” on Tibetan art that express Western beliefs and by extension the value placed on these images (Lopez, 1998).
- 18 Most of them collected after the 1934 earthquake that ravaged the Kathmandu Valley, alongside ancie (...)
- 19 On the difficulty of determining the Tibetan or Newar origins of Buddhist works, see for example Pa (...)
18In an entirely different context, that of Nepal and that fragile nation’s identity issues, Élise Fong-Sintès examines a troubling, if not paradoxical museum configuration: the installation of a Buddhist art gallery in the late 1990s at the national museum of that former Hindu kingdom (whose ideology was promoted in all societal bodies before the regime change in the 1990s that led to the fall of the monarchy). The art objects of this gallery have the virtue of narrating the nation’s history, placing Nepal at the heart of the Buddhist world. But in another paradox, this new narrative does not erase the earlier royal and Hindu narratives of the “national art of Nepal”. The decentring and re-centring thus carried out manifest an internal and external political re-appropriation of discourse constructed elsewhere (in Japan and the West), in the particular context of the international aid system and the promotion of a Buddhist Asia. Élise Fong-Sintès’s contribution provides another illustration of the ambiguity attached to the characterisation “art of Himalaya”. In the oldest building established before Nepal opened to the outside world, where the most beautiful (mainly Hindu) works of art are exhibited18 in order to glorify the nation-state of Nepal, a small gallery of “Himalayan art” exhibiting bronzes and thangka paintings is relegated upstairs. Apart from the fact that we are probably dealing with customs seizures from the 1970s, and that the classification of these portable works is problematic19, this marginalisation contrasts with the establishment of the Buddhist gallery in another building of the same museum in the late 1990s, under quite different political and international circumstances. The tantric Buddhist identity underlying the establishment of a Himalayan art in the West is reflected even in this museum subject to erratic supplies.
- 20 And more recently on coloring books sold to stressed passengers on subway stations or trains.
19Some objects more than others represent Himalaya as a utopian realm of transcendence, travelling between categories and between distant worlds. The mandala, a circle or classification scheme, appears on the paintings appreciated by tourists in the Kathmandu Valley. This is the predominant choice (along with Buddhas!) of those who consume tourist paintings on the Kathmandu market (Dina Bangdel). It is also recurrent in exhibitions of the “sacred art” of Buddhism throughout the world20. There is not a single exhibition that does not manifest the Western appropriation of this figure, including in displays that transform the museum space into an initiatory journey towards the “pure land” of Buddhism. It is therefore unsurprising that part of the exhibition of the Buddhist gallery at the National Museum of Kathmandu, financed by Japanese people, is dedicated to a mandala that places Nepal at the centre of a Buddhist Asia.
20Tracking art objects in exchange situations brings to the forefront the creation of hybrid objects and classifications, born of the meeting of actors with different motives. In Africa, the example of the “Mangbetu art” of Zaire shows the emergence of a hybrid art, born of the meeting between the first Westerners, local royalty and talented artists doing commissions. Testifying to a moment in the history of these contacts, the production of this art stopped in order to become tradition (Schildkrout, 2000). The contributions by Pascale Dollfus and Dina Bangdel demonstrate the importance of innovation dynamics and, with regard to contemporary paintings, they show the emergence of a contemporary art closely linked to handicrafts and tourist art. Newar artists once roamed around different places doing commissions for Tibetan pilgrims or monks as well as for local believers, producing bronzes that circulated among these worlds before being classified with difficulty in museums. Similarly, before the opening of Nepal, and well before tourist art was developed in Kathmandu, Newar goldsmiths created jewellery and decorative works for the local aristocracy, inspired by foreign models or by the Victorian taste that prevailed at that time in British India.
21This collection shows how narratives that increase the value of artworks develop through exchanges and hybridisation, accommodating multiple definitions. This being the case, what determines whether an object is “authentic” or “inauthentic”, terms that are used by several contributors: “dreamed-up authenticity”, authenticity linked to an imagined past and a faraway world, authenticity because the objects are freed from the state of market goods, the authenticity of emotional attachment...?
- 21 “Entangled objects” (Thomas, 1991).
22The role of objects is obvious in intercultural meetings between distant worlds. They are “entangled”, to borrow Nicholas Thomas’s expression21. The same object is not only the medium of different perspectives, but is also the site of a negotiation of notions and discourses that envelop it and increase its value. Sylvie Beaud’s contribution shows how the “primitive” notion is constructed through the circulation of certain artefacts: “Nuo masks”, classified as “living fossils” in China—an oxymoron that came from the outside—and “primitive works of art” in certain collections in France. Placed at the centre of this volume, between studies on markets and museum collections, this contribution illustrates the journey taken by notions and names, caused by the circulation of objects. The author tracks changes in the meaning of the term nuo (exorcism, theatre masks, theatre of exorcism, etc.) that accompany the displacement of masks and their presentation at festivals and exhibitions in France, in certain local museums or in primitive art collections. These masks seem destined for a “touristic” future in China. However, the theatre masks in the collections of the musée du quai Branly were recently rechristened “nuo”, thus becoming infused with a timeless magical aura. And as is the case of Nepalese and Tibetan artefacts, the very colourful dixi Chinese theatre masks are excluded from this aesthetic order.
23In Himalaya, one single object can be the medium of different beliefs; the same image can be venerated by those practicing different religions with different names, regardless of its plastic form: rough stone or anthropomorphic image, invisible object or visible object. Until recently, at the National Museum of Kathmandu, visitors made offerings to the exhibited divinities, holding their material presence in higher regard than the various religious and aesthetic discourses. Conversely, the contributions in this collection show the importance of the narratives that envelop and sanctify the “art object” in the West, and the close links between systems that increase commercial and aesthetic value.
- 22 On “the collection form” as a new form of capitalism, see Boltanski and Esquerre, 2014, 2016.
- 23 On storytelling techniques in marketing and more generally the establishment of a “new narrative or (...)
24The placement of objects in a collection22, the displays in exhibitions, and the narratives and writings of collectors play a decisive role in constructing the aura of works of art, and their identity by extension. These narratives ensure the works’ unique character and their incommensurability, reflected by the value attached to them (in both senses of the term). Does this express the need for a fiction, or can it be interpreted as an echo of the invasion of narratives in other contemporary market spheres23?
25At the beginning, I evoked the key idea of a “biography of objects” that, in the case of “other” objects, unfolds through displacements effecting radical identity breaks while obliterating the production conditions of these artefacts. Then what is there in common between a ritual dancing mask and the primitive mask that has become a valuable object on the art market? Is it the same object despite the emphasis that collectors place on its material and its authenticity? Its metamorphosis into an “art object” not only proceeds by means of cultural “delocalisation”, but also through how it is handled on a now-globalised market, as a diversely re-characterised market good. However, the break is not simply a matter of commodification (a notion that is avoided by collectors because of its strong moral connotations). “Art things” are not all the same, confirming the importance of the procedures and narratives that package and isolate these goods which have become “incommensurable”, while at the same time allowing them to be placed in collections and classified in new and different aesthetic orders.