“Money cannot be the reason why you make art. Artwork can be sold and should be sold because artists need to make a living. But they should not, and should never, make art to make money. That kind of defies the entire purpose of making art. I said, I always say this and probably it’s important to take note of, it is that art is a mirror of the society [that produced it]. You want to understand the society, look at the art its producing. If it’s confused, if it is disoriented, if it is an art that is not representative of all ideas or of how people feel that it lacks substance. Then it is nothing. It’s wallpaper. We need to know that skill plays a crucial place in an inability to produce art which is what should be collectible which should be sold for money and on the wall. So not everything is worthy to be to be called art. And we need to understand that.”

Welcome to CultureMade: Heritage Enterprise in a World on the Move , an audio collaboration from the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, the American Anthropological Association and This Anthro Life Podcast

The above quote comes from Ruben Malayan, who shared with us his sincere and thought-provoking ideas of art, resistance, and remembrance. In this episode, we overview the subject of art as informed by representatives from The Armenian program and the Catalonia program of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. The above ideas on art put forth by Ruben Malayan encompasses the complex feelings, ideas, and understandings that art not only evokes within society but also those of who seek to understand art from a more holistic perspective. Yet, defining art is a complex task that anthropologists continue to debate and bring nuance to.

Calligrapher and Artist Ruben Malayan

Anthropology and Art: A Brief Introduction

According to Stuart Plattner, anthropologists were initially interested in studying art to produce taxonomies of artifacts, that is systems of classification, usually for museums and university collections. However, this view of art as object wasn’t without its critics. The decontextualization of art and artifacts tended to remove objects from the societies that produced, eschewing social relations that were otherwise entangled in the final product. 

Another issue with understanding at comes in the form of fundamentally different perspectives on its purpose. For example, while Western perspectives on art tend to emphasize the achievements of a producer, non-Western perspectives tend to emphasize community. The weight of this difference is most visible in the exchange of art. In this way, the commoditization of art is not universally desirable, at least not in achieving similar monetary ends or individual prestige.

The divide between Western and non-Western art is problematized further, notably by Alfred Gell who recognized “art” as an inherently Western category holding a position of privilege. That is, not every object gets to be considered “art” and, critically, what gets to be “art” is typically decided upon by Western society. In this way, terms like “primitive art” represent diminutive categories that infantilize non-Western cultures past and present. This perspective results from an inherent misunderstanding where the Western viewer of art fails to recognize, and often appreciate, the work, skill, and context of the cultures which generated it.

Art as a Movement

Art, as many have been made aware by the recent intended destruction of an original Banksy  (by way of the artist) at auction, is intimately connected to performance. The performativity of art is not something which is intrinsically meant to shock or dismay an audience, but it is meant to move them in some way. Recognizing this, many artists have used their skills to speak directly to political movements, evoke collectively held memories, and instill a sense of resistance. One such artist is Ruben Malayan. Rueben is an award-winning graphic designer, photographer, and director who is dedicated to making art with a message of remembrance and resistance in Armenia. His work as a founder of the Armenian Genocide Posters Project is a collective endeavor to create posters with an intended message on the collective refusal to forget past injustices:

“There has never been a better time to reach out, to pool the extraordinary young talents and passion of the descendants of survivors from across the world, and to make a peaceful, powerful statement.”

When we met with Ruben at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, he shared with us his thoughts on art and what it means for society. In Ruben’s own words,

“Mural art is based just basically… painting on big scale. And if you take Banksy, for example, there’s a fantastic artist whose work is always saying something is, saying something urgent, something important, something to think about, something that you might have been ignoring perhaps for the longest time just pretending [that] it’s not there. So, art is definitely one of the biggest changing gears of a society, and it needs to be that way. It’s the consciousness [of society]. I think it has to be, at least from my perspective.”

Art, Protest, and Resistance

Just in the months leading to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, protests had broken out in Armenia in an event which has come to be known as the 2018 Armenian Velvet Revolution. The protests were triggered by the appointment of Serzh Sargsyan as the Armenian Prime Minister, just eight days after his two five-year terms of presidency had ended. As written by CNN’s Laura Smith-Park, Sargsyan’s appointment “was seen as an unconstitutional power grab.” Overall, the protests remained peaceful, with the Sargsyan opposition calling for a peaceful campaign of civil disobedience. Sargsyan announced his resignation shortly thereafter.

The importance of The Velvet Revolution was on Ruben Malayan’s mind when we spoke with him at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. For Ruben, this event drove home the importance of art, his work, and spreading awareness. When asked by Leslie Walker about his experience as an Armenian and his movement, Ruben responded:

“This recent and nonviolent revolution that occurred in Armenia, it was also a revolution for me because it was the first time that I produced art. As we went along with the movement, it’s incredible what has happened in Armenia. I mean like at this point we don’t even understand it fully. How profound is the change that occurred that was absolutely impossible just a year or two years? [In response to the revolution] I started to produce graphic posters, like a big scale, so that people could hold them during the closing intersections in a city trying to paralyze traffic. And it actually worked because we used no violence, and that disarmed the opposition. But it’s a revolution because I also applied calligraphy on a big scale. So now I printed some postcards. It’s nice just like they’re small, but they’re still powerful because of the mess.”

Ruben’s sentiments conjure the powerful words of Paula Gunn Allen, who famously said, “The root of oppression is the loss of memory.” For Ruben, the power in art is its ability to bring the community together and foster solidarity through nonviolent messages. Community cohesion through art, however, is understood cross-culturally. One needs to look no further than the performativity laden in folk festivals to find this.

Performance, Dance and Tradition

Tradition and Performance are intimately connected to culture and identity. Exemplifying this connection to tradition and artistic expression, we were fortunate to speak with a troop of Catalonian performers, the Gegantes de San Clemente de Catalunya. The performance and spectacle produced by the Gegantes can be best described as performers who wear large heads, kilikis, which might be thought of as large “puppets.” These kilikis (big heads) are important elements of festivities in many Catalan-speaking villages because the figures represent nobility and the patron saints of different towns.

Gegantes de San Clemente

For a brief history, the Gegantes de San Clemente were commissioned at the workshop Can Boter de Tiana, and baptized on June 19, 1993. The Gegantes represent two peasants who return to harvest cherries, the fruit that gives fame to the people. The name of the giant, Clemente, was chosen according to the patron saint of the town, Saint Clemente. And that of the giant, Roser, referring to the hermitage that is in the town and where the first Roser gathering takes place every first weekend in October.

Adam and fellow anthropologist Emma Backe had the opportunity to chat with Alex Garcia and Claudia Abellan, two of the geganters, that is Gegante performers, and learn more about their tradition. In Alex Garcia’s words:

“In Catalan, we call gegantes, the people who dance the Giants in the street, during the main festivities of town or village, we carry the giants and, especially in the main square of the town of the village. We do some dances to do well to celebrate the festivities, and because people could see it, I don’t know. The tradition has changed, we have the first reference of a giant in Europe is from the 15th century. So, we’re in that moment the giants appear in the religious processions and represents Biblical personalities. Nowadays the giants are completely different represents personalities important things about town. And this is one change that the meaning of the giants changed along their history and nowadays there are new things we do with the Giants. Some shows us or some Siasia performance with other groups of dancers on the stage or in theatre, with have music and another thing, but we also go around the street and in the parades that about the essential activity of the giants.”

Gegante de San Clement representing Labor

Continuing this thought, Claudia Abellan says:

“In general, we hope that people dance giants or in a group of giants care for this tradition and actuality because there are some groups or there are different types of groups of course. It’s like a little bit complicated the way that you have to represent this traditional culture, and we hope that people care about this tradition and this culture can play in the right way. This type of activity is possible.”

Gegante de San Clement representing Culture
Claudia explains the representations on the Culture Gegante to Leslie

Transmission of Culture: Intergenerational Training

Claudia’s sentiments on the representation of culture through performance strike at another theme present in the Folklife Festival, how is an artistic tradition learned and wat flexibility does it have to change? Speaking from his own experience, Ruben Malayan had this to say:

“I was lucky I was born to a painter. My dad was an artist, and I was born in a house you know filled with books about art, philosophy, history and a lot of literature… So actually, it was kind of a natural choice to study art I went on I did my first degree in painting, and then graphic art graphic prints like you know etching and all that technique. So, but then our family circumstances have changed.”

But, as Ruben continued, it became clear that having artists as parents was not the only life experience from he draws his inspiration or artistic direction.

“In 93 we left Armenia. We went to Israel because my dad needed medical treatment. Actually, I was 21, so my life kind of changed. [It] took a completely different turn and I ended up in Tel Aviv which is a fantastic city for foreign artists filled with Bauhaus architecture and, you know, a lot of interesting stuff. So, I started working as a graphic designer because that was a natural choice. [I] always loved poster design and I started working… And basically, for about 25 years I’ve been practicing graphic design.”

For Ruben, life experience, an unexpected opportunity, and a desire to create pushed him to develop his skills as an artist. Looking forward to his students though, Ruben is more focused on the development of individual craft. On teaching, Ruben says this on taking calligraphy students with minimal to no prior experience.

“Even though you know you draw well does not necessarily mean know[ing] how to do this [calligraphy] well. Because it requires a muscle memory. It just don’t have it yet. And of course, if they do not know how to draw, and if they try this, that will come about very quickly. But the little kids, for example, kids, say 16, 17, I need to go down to the level of explaining to them why this line under this angle is not beautiful. The line under this angle is more beautiful than it is beautiful she says, “Yes.” I say, “Explain it to me.” She cannot. Why is it beautiful. I’m asking, “Is this ugly?” She says, “Yes.” Explain it to me. She cannot explain it to me. So, you need to go down to the golden section, to the rules of proportion, to that level to explain to them the visual world. If it’s harmonic if it’s dynamic, expressive…”

When speaking with Claudia and Alex, the Gegantes Dancers, their responses to learning and transmitting traditional knowledge was somewhat different. Emma Backe asked Claudia and Alex how they became involved in their art. In Claudia’s words:

“We have different stories because, for example, my parents started a group of giants over in Catalonia. In my city, for example, since I was born [there] and I am there inside the group, I’m enjoying the traditional culture. But I started dancing with giants when I was 16. So now, for example, I have been dancing with giants since five years ago. So, this is my story. It is that my parents started, and I get involved in a group.”

Giving his answer, Alex continued:

“And my story is when I was a child I liked very much to see the Giants and I play Giants at home with the chairs. I take it then I dance on it and my mother take  me to a group of my town and, [ever] since I have four or five years, I go with that giants group up in my town.”

When asked by Adam on the transmission of tradition with the Gegantes Dancers, Alex and Claudia expressed that there was an active awareness to cultivate a safe and expressive place for all ages to play an have fun. By involving a large group and minimizing critical corrections, they facilitate an environment where kids can come to embody being a Gegante in their own way. Expressing this, Claudia says”

“We have like kids that they play the Giants or big heads too. And we have like all people that comes and care and take care of the group, or we have young people that plays with giants or, there are in our group in particular, no but there are a lot of people that play music too in the group, and it’s like so a group with a lot of different ages, and it’s so interesting to me to be with them.”

Art, Intent, and Making Value Over Money

When looking at the emergence of art in the human past, a theme seems to hold true that with more art there is more time to make art. In making this association, it is hard not to see a connection between art and money in a broad sense. But as Adam and Claudia discussed, art isn’t just a product or a means to pay rent. Festivals like that involving the Gegante Dancers of San Clemente do balance economic and ritual activities. As Claudia says in relation to the festival, “we try to do the things that people can be interested in.” Without value, social or economic, there runs a risk of a tradition-breaking down. This statement reflects the opening sentiment of Ruben Malayan who expressed his understanding that “Money cannot be the reason why you make art.”

In their reflections on art and anthropology, Howard Morphy and Morgan Perkins reflect on the social and economic values placed on art. They assert that the value placed on art overlaps well with two views on the term “culture,” being the lifeways of society, their ideas, and knowledge, and the view of high culture – the internal products (or internal ideas surrounding external products) that society will collectively imbue with aesthetic value and hold in high esteem. This second view or art and culture, as Morphy and Howard recognize, “may have been a factor in the discomfort that some anthropologists felt about the term.” This discomfort of Morphy and Perkins is similar to that of Ruben Malayan.

Yet, even as Halle (1993) has recognized, this second view of art remains telling of the culture that imbues it with social capital, instilling certain objects with meanings that act as markers of status. Even so, it isn’t always clear who values different works of art for their aesthetics, their economic or social values, or perhaps something else, a feeling, which escapes description.

Art is complex. Though what counts as art within a society is often recognizable to insiders, the rationale as to why is often much more difficult to discern. Anthropology, at its best, can help us explore the complexities of art. Through critical dialogue, anthropologists can ask what it means to experience art from the vantage point of different cultures and explore the messages that the artist intended to convey.

Podcasting the Smithsonian Folklife Festival

The purpose of this series is to create narratives linking the diverse peoples, perspectives, and activities across the Festival from a series of micro ethnographies like those above. The open format interview style allowed participants to define in their own words the relationships between their artisanship, musical ability, or experiences and the ways in which migration and movement shape their lives. Conversations with curators and other researchers supplemented the interviews with Festival participants and helped us to identify the research involved in selecting participants and the presentation of cultural heritage for the Festival. This approach allows us to foreground a central or thematic conversation and to narrate events and activities at the Festival that listeners can paint in their minds as if they had been there to experience it.

About our Guests

Ruben Malayan is an award-winning artist, photographer, and art director. His career in graphic design spans over fifteen years – crossing over into the fields of calligraphy and typography. Ruben is the founder of “Armenian Genocide in Contemporary Graphic & Art Posters” international graphic design competition. Presently Ruben is running master classes and workshops of Armenian Calligraphy as well as teaching Motion Design, Typography and Post-production course at TUMO Center for Creative Technologies (Yerevan, Armenia).

You can learn more about Ruben from an NPR interview at [https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2018/07/03/625387573/why-writing-the-word-freedom-is-more-powerful-than-typing-it]

His work at [https://armeniancalligraphy.com]

And his poster project at [https://armeniangenocideposters.org/]

Alex Garcia and Claudia Abellan are Catalonian performers with the Gegantes de San Clemente de Catalunya. You can learn more about them at the website: [http://webs.gegants.cat/santclimentdellobregat/historia/] and follow them on Facebook at:

Leslie gets ready to walk as a Gegante

References in this Episode

Howard Morphy and Morgan Perkins eds., The Anthropology of Art: A Reader (2006), Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Stuart Platner, The Anthropology of Art, in Ruth Towse ed., A Handbook of Cultural Economics (2003), Edward Elgar Publishing Limited.

Alfred Gell, Art and Agency (1988), Oxford University Press.

David Halle, Art and Class in the American Home (1993), The University of Chicago Press.

From CNN on the 2018 Armenian Velvet Revolution: [https://www.cnn.com/2018/04/26/europe/armenia-protests-explainer-intl/index.html]

About Our Hosts

Adam Gamwell is the co-host and executive producer of the This Anthro Life (TAL). Adam holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology from Brandeis University. He founded and produces narrative media out of Missing Link Studios.

Ryan Collins is the co-host and editor of This Anthro Life (TAL). Ryan holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology from Brandeis University.

Leslie Walker is the project manager of the Public Education Initiative at the AAA. He served as a special guest host, collecting stories during the Folklife Festival the forthcoming podcast series with This Anthro Life.

Emma Backe is a This Anthro Life affiliate and prolific blogger at The Geek Anthropologist. Emma is also a Ph.D. student in Medical Anthropology at the George Washington University and independent consultant, focusing on the intersections of international development, global health, reproductive health justice, gender-based violence, and the politics of care.

Contact Us

Contact Adam and Ryan at thisanthrolife -at – gmail.com or individually at adam -at- thisanthrolife.com or ryan -at- thisanthrolife.com

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Music Credits in this Episode:

Lancefield – Love Jones
dazed by Jeris (c) copyright 2012 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial  (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/VJ_Memes/39456 Ft: airtone
  • with drums, on episode
dazed by airtone (c) copyright 2012 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial  (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/airtone/39444