PRINT March 1982


Man as Art

Man as Art: New Guinea, photographs by Malcolm Kirk, introduction by Andrew Strathern (New York: The Viking Press (A Studio Book), 1981), 143 pages, 92 illustrations, 62 in color.

SOME YEARS AGO A FRIEND gave me a copy of Self-Decoration in Mount Hagen by Andrew and Marilyn Strathern (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971). This marvelous bit of anthropology changed my thinking about clothing, sculpture, presentation of the individual in society, and ultimately the importance of decoration—not only in New Guinea but in the world at large. My only disappointment with the Stratherns’ book was its modest albeit informative illustrations. Many admirers of the art of body decoration have been waiting for a book that would do full visual justice to the subject. At first glance, Malcolm Kirk’s Man as Art: New Guinea looked as if it might be that book. Its only coffee-table predecessor was Irving Penn’s Worlds in a Small Room (first published by Grossman Publishers, 1974, reissued by Viking Press and Penguin Books, 1980), a section of which included a portfolio of photographs taken in New Guinea.

In 1970 Penn wandered into the highlands with his portable studio to photograph the tribal members for Vogue. He made a series of gorgeous black and white photographs bathed in luxurious indirect light, overflowing with detail preserved and translated into a fashion context (the only context in which we can unabashedly scrutinize the most intimate details of toilette without feeling snoopy). Penn managed to combine his incisive eye with a warm sympathy for the individual subjects. “I wanted to get past the purely costume part of the tribal dressing-up and see what I could of the people underneath.” My only problem with Penn’s photos is their intended distance from an indigenous social context. The people are presented as breathing objets trouvés. Yet Penn courts the power of this isolation and juxtaposes it against the dignity of the individual. Unfortunately, Malcolm Kirk has swallowed Penn’s formal assumptions without the humanism.

Man as Art really feels like three books. The first part shines with the excellent introduction by Andrew Strathern. (But why did the designer feel that Strathern’s name should be eliminated from the dust jacket?) The second part scintillates with the splendor of color photography turned toward the faces and bodies of New Guinea tribes-people (most posed like Penn’s subjects against seamless backdrop paper) and their superb art of body decoration. The third part brings up the rear with a series of artsy photographs of masks from museums and private collections. This catalogue of sepia-toned pictures of masks seems gratuitous; there is no point made about their juxtaposition with the live subjects, and I could make no inferences interesting enough to convince me of the validity of their inclusion in the book. Did some editor require more material? Or is this a justification of the artistic status of the live faces, just as we know the masks to be art by their canonization as collectibles?

Strathern’s text is the book’s most interesting ingredient. He emphasizes the complexity of social interaction necessary for these extraordinary decorations. The highland tribal structure in the region of Mount Hagen challenges our ideas of personal ownership. The highly prized feathers, shells, etc., are continually changing hands between families and clans. I’ll give (not lend, as Kirk’s notes mislead us to think) you my Saxony Bird-of-Paradise feathers this week, with the expectation that you will give me something equally or more valuable the next time when I need it for my getup. Social position is based on how successfully one can manipulate this system. There is no inherited wealth or private ownership; the entire social hierarchy is based on the skill of gamesmanship.

Strathern also makes clear the tremendous seriousness in every element of the costumes. In his informant’s words: “If they are bad, both men’s and women’s decorations, then it is true, someone does soon die after the dance is over. But if they are good, we shall not die, no one will die in the near future, nor shall we get into any trouble.” A tribal consensus as to each costume’s perfection depends on the refinement of each detail as well as the freshness and shininess of the materials. No flea market boas for this crowd. You might die.

Strathern feels that these lush New Guinea costumes offer us an interesting parallel to our own ideas of dress. He suggests that “A persistent feature of communication is the interplay between the assumption of group identity and the assertion that the person is nevertheless also an individual. Adornments and decoration in particular carry this ’load’ of sometimes contradictory meanings.”

Against this backdrop, Kirk’s pictures roll on and on. Every one is striking, elegant, and slightly mindless. One of my favorites is captioned: “Southern Highlands Province, Huli tribe, Paipali village, Tomyepe, male.” I ask you, is that bit of ostentatious documentation of any interest to anyone? Tomyepe stares out impassively, his pierced nose holding a long reed. The lower half of his face is darkened with charcoal (how do these guys shave, with clam shells?); ocher outlines eyes; shell, cassowary quill, and bead necklaces encircle the neck. Crowning his head is a magnificent crescent-shaped wig studded with gray moss, dried yellow daisylike straw flowers, and deeper purple ones that look like a lush bed of sweet allysum. Gray moss and iridescent turquoise feathers top this extravaganza, punctuated by a single yellow flower and a poof of rust, yellow, and black feathers. What magnificent use of color! (Any Fauve would agree.) The combination of materials from the realms of flora and fauna are an artful bouillabaisse, and offers a pointed lesson to those who might find Rho-plex the apogee of innovative materials.

As in the caption for Tomyepe’s photo, Kirk regularly declines to reveal the context for which the costume is intended. Is it for a fertility ritual, or a quick trip to the trading post? An extreme example shows a dramatic face mask with chicken feathers, pitch, teeth, and palm leaves. The piece radiates heathen exoticism. We are only told it is a mask. Period. What good does that do? When and where do you strut your stuff with a wild item like that? In contrast to Strathern’s rigorousness, Kirk’s attitude feels self-serving. Invading a tribal society of this sort without attempting to clarify further our understanding of its social structure feels like grab-and-run imperialism.

The single most curious aspect of the book is how completely Kirk chooses to ignore the themes of his collaborator. Indeed it is puzzling that they got together on this particular project at all. In his foreword Kirk tips his hand: “Unlike us, New Guinea people traditionally have had no access to artificial materials, which frequently are cold and impermeable. Instead, they utilize nature’s living, porous tissues, such as woods, grasses, and feathers, which impart warmth and vitality to tribal art.” Shades of the noble savage anyone? This natural-fibers innocence begins to sound like an overgrown, late-blooming hippy mentality. (A friend of mine once intoned her wish to have everything in her apartment hand-made. I asked her if she intended to throw out the fry pans.)

Questions: Why are over half of the 62 color photographs full-face close-ups which only show the face painting at the expense of the surrounding ornament? In his notes for one photograph, Kirk offers lengthy details about the headdress which he has cropped from the final presentation. Why crop it to start with? And why talk about it if it wasn’t interesting enough to leave in the first place? Why are seven of these close-ups duplications of the full shots we have just been shown on facing pages? It is true that the image is dynamic, but what more does the repetition tell us? Why on earth are less than a quarter of the shots of women, when neither Penn (who obviously adores women) nor Strathern (in Self-Decoration) had any trouble finding dramatic women’s costumes? And why do only three shots in the entire book show people in a non-studio context?

The remaining point I wish to raise is the wrong-headed title: Man as Art: New Guinea. First of all, it is sexist, but we will let that one go by. If the book was really about the human body as an art work, we might expect Pumping Iron or even Adelle Davis’ Let’s Eat Right to Keep Fit. Instead, what we find is a book about what people do to their bodies. Man isn’t art. It’s what man chooses to do that is art. The claim that this form of decoration of the body is art is easily argued. We are simply asked to view what is applied to the skin and hair, i.e. the body decoration, as the art form. A more apt title would be Body Decoration as Art. Too long? How about Decoration as Art? Oopsie, back to that taboo. It would seem that a publisher is more likely to go for a catchy yet incorrect title, rather than chance a more precise statement which might demean the prestige of the subject.

Robert Kushner