Out Of Many: Religious Pluralism in America
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Cannibal Culture

Deborah Root, in her book, Cannibal Culture: Art, Appropriation, and the Commodification of Difference, critiques what she calls cannibal culture, the consumption of images and symbols of difference by the West (her term). She argues that the West defines the Other and through that definition contributes to the consumption, absorption, and commodification of the images and symbols of the Other. In her critique, she claims that the West controls what is considered different, foreign, the Other and through this control deforms the original meaning of the work. About this she writes: “Other cultures become signs and fragments of a world destroyed in advance and of a difference and authenticity that could be aestheticized and consumed in the West.” (Root, ix) And she is even specific about methods of achieving this, “People are stripped of their art and ceremonial objects so that Westerners can look at them in conveniently located museums.” (Root, 31)

Indeed, this approach is foundational to many of the modernist masterpieces. An early example of this kind of consumption and absorption is Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, in which he incorporated African masks that he saw in the ethnology museum into a classic modernist painting whose subject is the problematizing of the aesthetic presentation of the nude woman. The elisions that Root discusses appear clearly in this painting: not only to erase the origin of the masks but also to incorporate that image into the painting as a way to make it dissonant and unfamiliar. The ever-rebellious Picasso also combined in this painting ethnology and fine art, sculpture and painting, to produce this emblematic modernist painting.

So, consider:

  • How do we look at categories of art?
  • Why do we put some artifacts in the Art Institute of Chicago and others are displayed at the Field Museum of Natural History?

Works Cited and Consulted

Deborah Root, Cannibal Culture: Art, Appropriation and the Commodification of Difference. Denver, CO: Westview Press, 1998.