Articles Written / Boxing Angels: Artifacts and the Attempt at Order

For: Cultural Pacemakers: Art and Scholarship in Australia
State Library of NSW, Sydney 17 July, 2004.
A seminar presented by the NSW chapter of the Independent Scholars Association of Australia Inc. and the State Library of NSW.

This paper draws on: Lueckenhausen H.,‘Craft and Design in Museum History’, in Craft and Contemporary Theory, ed S Rowley,

What contribution can we, whether or not we are cultural ‘pacemakers’, make to realizing the desire for purpose and order, or conversely, to managing chaos and the fear of the unknown which all cultures share?
Historically, resistance to the new science of the enlightenment included fear for the loss of a sense of mystery about how the world works and how the paraphernalia of the material world may illustrate and celebrate that mystery. In some respects that fear remains an issue in modern industrial cultures.

To begin with, we have the primal wonder of the act of creating. One definition of the built and manufactured environment worthy of consideration is that offered by the American design theorists Buchanan and Margolin, who maintain that:
Design is the conception and planning of the artificial, that broad domain of human made products which includes: material objects, visual and verbal communications, organized activities and services, and complex systems and environments for living, working, playing, and learning1.
However we choose to understand 'the artificial', nothing is as wonderful as its coming about. The fear of the resistance to the enlightenment, that wonder which degenerates into curiosity will beget the mundane have not been realized. The history of men's and women's celebration of the sheer magical existence of the previously unimagined and the evolution of curiosity into a quest for understanding is in part the history of our material culture.

In the west, the history of attempting to make sense of the material world includes the Cabinets of Curiosities, particularly those of Sixteenth and Seventeenth - Century Europe. Known in the German-speaking world as the Wunderkammer, The evocative word Wunder is most often reduced in English to the retentive, puritan-sounding, curiosity. I prefer to reflect the appreciation of the marvelous by calling them the Cabinets of Wonder.
Some of the primal, still current, motivation both for making and consuming (purchasing, collecting) can be read into these historical collections. The Wunderkammer offers an early mannered philosophical context for the physical (including the built) environment, which maintains contemporary currency. While four centuries of evolving scientific rationalism challenges previous, long held, beliefs about the nature of human endeavour, that challenge is itself inherited from the dialogue that accompanied those early collections.
Traditionally, what both maker and collector shared, was a claim to a place in the world order, not least, especially for the latter, a pre-eminent place. Creative professionals today, whatever they may understand the implications of their social, philosophical and cultural parameters to be, see their objects as markers of personal physical and intellectual space, to be protected or shared according to the desires and/or the discipline designation of the individual. Then as now, making (and in turn decorating) allowed individuals to personalize object and structure to give themselves an anchor in an alienating environment.
That sense of satisfying a primal human need to structure, organize and thereby increase his/her understanding of the world was shared by the owner of the Wunderkammer, the powerful (or at least power seeking) collector. In her paper given at a conference on Albrecht Dürer, Naturalia and Artefacta, Dagmar Eichberger agrees that 'By arranging and ordering those remnants of the real world, the collector defines man's place in the universe according to his own set of values and beliefs' 2. Categorization and cataloguing evolved to focus the collections on a range of purposes. Ranging from enjoyment of the bizarre and theatrical for their own sake to various models of artistic, philosophic and technological usefulness, the Cabinets occasioned dialogue which was as wide ranging, and sometimes as difficult, as the debate on art and scholarship has been in recent times.
In the new rationality of the Seventeenth Century, the Cabinet, or as the British Royal Society eventually termed its own collection, the repository, helped in the construction of a new taxonomy based on the idea of a supreme order of nature 3. The attempt to bond science and art, religion and knowledge, power and service, and not least, economics, into a grand pattern positioned natural science—first within unknowable divine intention and eventually in opposition to it. The church had a stake in supporting a linear, chronological view of history, a calendar of cause and effect that legitimated the continuum from the Old to the New Testament, from Genesis to the day of resurrection and atonement. It was thereby able to place itself and its authority firmly into the equation, the final, longed for result of which (redemption and release from the bonds of original sin), would not be realizable without its intercession. Ironically, a phenomenological view of the past effecting present consciousness eventually undermined church dogma as much as it was originally enlisted to support it. The 'grand pattern' became as much of a holy grail to the new religion of natural science as it had been to the old.
Three primary divisions, naturalia, exotica and artefacta cover further sub-categories. Curiosity and wonder combined in the collection of everything that was rare and new and (in the best circumstances) enlightening about the natural world. Naturalia encompassed specimens of rare plants, minerals and animals in what was supposed to be as unadulterated a form as was practical to maintain. The ethnographic material of the category exotica, all manner of artifacts from other contents, other cultures, had a more complicated set of attractions for the collector—especially royalty and the politically powerful. The symbolic value of 'possession' of the objects and icons of exotic societies as 'tribute' to a morally, spiritually and racially superior authority became intermeshed with the rationale for colonialism. The establishment of power over that which is held in symbolic or 'totem' form is a familiar theme from the tribute paid to the Pharaoh, through to the new year or birthday gift offered to the British monarch.
The third major category of the Wunderkammer, Artefacta, is that in which material and human skill are linked, both needing to be extraordinary enough to elicit wonder and therefore deserving of preferment. Similar considerations about the status of the material within that of the finished work that occupies the minds of contemporary practitioners were employed by collectors for their cabinets. A similar fine line between ceremonial or symbolic functionalism and actual primary use value that is part of the contemporary agonizing by practitioners over their professional classification, as artist, as craftsperson, as designer etc. existed then between what was 'discovered', and a whole new generation of pieces, each attempting to outdo the other and being created specifically for the collection. For one thing, as materials rich in mythology came to be realistically classified, for example the unicorn horn was identified as coming from the narwhal 4; as rare materials such as porcelain became more or less common; they were moved up and down the scale as their ability to induce wonder was reassessed. For another, the whole purpose and terminology of the collections themselves changed according to time, to place, and to the vagaries of opinion. The Wunderkammer at times became the Kunstkammer (art cabinet) or Schatzkammer (treasure cabinet). Where collectors preferred one type of collection over another, or when they classified their collections into two or more of these categories it could be difficult to decide into which the item of artefacta belonged 5. It's worth noting the contemporary parallels with the arguments between the advocates of clear Modernist categorization and those in favour of the less distinct overlapping in some of the 'Postmodernisms'.
The status of artefacta (later 'art') increased rapidly as illustrated by the relatively short period between the establishment of Peter the Great's pre-eminent Wunderkammer in the 17th century, and the building of the Hermitage, Catherine the Great's Kunstkammer of the 18th century 6. Catherine's attitude also reflected the doubts some commentators had from the earliest days of the cabinets about the claims for an overarching taxonomy and prefigured some 20th century doubts. Oleg Neverov, in tracing the history and fate of Peter's Kunstkammer reports that
Although an eager collector of works of art, Catherine evidently had no sympathy for the 'universal' type of Museum, which seemed to her an anachronism. She apparently said of Grogory Orlov's addiction to this kind of museum, 'I often quarreled with him about his wish to enclose Nature in a Cabinet—even a huge palace could not hold her. 7
Catherine was not the only one with doubts about the ability of a cabinet to contain any more than highly selective fragments and its worth noting that while the classic developments in collection and museological theory of the 18th and 19th century are often linked to Cartesian principles, it was Descartes himself who '…disliked the whole business of curiosity.' 7 An ongoing contemporary dialogue deals with attempting to understand the whole raft of complex sociological structures within which the 'created' object is needed, desired, conceived, evolved, produced and recognized. Again the primal fear can be re-awakened, that the boundaries of our perception will become so 'undefined', our understanding so generously all-encompassing that we will drown in a blancmange, unable to form a useful language with specific standards of value. With so many confusing and overlapping values, what criteria for assessment, for criticism, what parameters for curating, what anchors for teaching and training remain to us? What (if any) signposts to the understanding of material culture bequeathed to us by the empirical tradition of which the Wunderkammer is a part, remain useful?

Outsider objects
The Wunderkammer systematized its contents by the very fact of its existence. No matter how diverse or seemingly unrelated the parts, the physical fact of their being brought together turned the furniture into a rationalizing and unifying structure. The Kammer acted as do the service parts of grammar in a long sentence - it gave the subject and object intelligible structure. Today we no longer look so much to a collection (a system) for a manifestation of truth, a firm set of values, any more than we look to written language for an immutable reflection of its subject. We may still, however, attempt to canvas an agreed value and are accustomed to looking to the fact of the object for proof of its worth.

While fundamentalists may find this sort of fluidity confusing and ultimately threatening, it actually has the potential to do as much for the icons of our material culture as it has for every aspect of human culture - to allow unlike things to exist. The twin fears of, on the one hand, an overarching notion of truth, and on the other, an 'anarchic blancmange' can be calmed with a benign, much more democratic model for contextualizing object. Ultimately it is up to us to contextualize the paraphernalia of our environment, both natural and artificial, to make sense of objects as we fit them into our schemes, not the other way around. This allows for another, somewhat different role, into which the Wunderkammer (and its descendant - a contemporary working theory of how the ‘things’ we create fit) may be cast - not so much as a metaphor for the grand design but as a vehicle for lots of particular, perhaps even contradictory ‘designs’.
The bizarre and even the grotesque find a place in the (sometimes perverse) democracy of the collection. In the eighteenth century Frederick Ruysch created a series of tableau made up of parts of deceased infants, which at once, fascinate and revolt contemporary observers. In a discussion on the varied and sometimes opposing rationale offered for maintaining a cabinet, William Schupbach, in his book on some cabinets in European academic institutions, remarks that while some scholars did not disguise their contempt for '…unrepresentative or trivial fragments of nature which only wasted time…', there were others, '…whose desire for certain knowledge was not so consuming as to kill their appreciation of the old, the fragmentary and the enigmatic.' 8
The arts are much given to setting themselves up as the other; other to the banality of process, other to the drudgery of formalism, other to pedestrian and bourgeois thought. None-the-less, they exist within state and institutional systems within which today's heresy is framed and presented in tomorrow's academy. We are challenged to consider whether newness and difference are sometimes stage-managed by the contemporary arts within a safe neutered area they themselves have set up for playing at subversion. Validation is sometimes sought through rejection of the outsider. It’s relatively easy to identify and occupy a space from which any other art form, any manifestation of material culture, any scientific pursuit is rejected - is left outside. Sculptors, for example, speak of their marginalization within the fine arts, crafts people speak of their marginalization within contemporary attitudes to manufacture.
We need to consider the implication for our material culture of use of craft as a verb, in the sense of work, of skill - of doing, Susan Leigh Star, exploring the changing roles of craft skills and the diminishing place of 'materiality' in the study of natural history claims
In some ways modern science can be seen as the push to erase individual, craft skill from the scientific workplace, to ensure that no idiosyncratic local, tacit, or personal knowledge leaks into the product. Anyone should be able to reproduce scientific results if they can afford the equipment and follow the recipe. Research findings that are purely personal or irreplicable are just not science. 9
If we can stretch this metaphor a little further and equate the Wunderkammer with contemporary principles of understanding material culture, we can identify complementary forces. One is the homogenizing, naturalizing force which either accepts the object into the dominant theme or rejects it - i.e. leaves it outside. The other is of an enabling force which creates a space for the contemplation and protection of the unlike object. Contemporary museum/exhibition practice seems to eschew survey exhibitions as outdated manifestations of advantaging the hero object. Thematic purpose and a curatorial narrative now tie many, if not most exhibitions into a manifesto. A useful question at this point is - do those manifestos explain the object of wonder, or do they explain it away?

Wonder Reinvested
One aspect of the categorization of the Wunderkammer into the primary divisions of naturalia, exotica and artefacta that retains contemporary relevance, is that the need to categorize objects as being one or the other (i.e., in determining in what way they differed from one another), begged the complementary question of how they were related. Scientific and philosophical enquiry represented only part of the reasons for setting up collections, but nonetheless they created a context of the familiar against which to code the unfamiliar and celebrate (and possibly preserve) a sense of wonder.
Admiration and wonder of naturalia progressed, in many instances, into a preference for artefacta in which equally wondrous art and skill overlaid the natural. Dagmar Eichberger, found that,
It appears that some of these collectors did not treasure naturalia in the first place for their scientific value, that is as geological, zoological or biological specimens, but rather found pleasure in representations of controlled and ordered nature, which gave new meaning to these rarities. This could be achieved either by integrating them into a narrative context or by turning them into seemingly functional objects such as a scientific instrument or a containing vessel. 10
Thus human endeavour was placed inextricably into the equation and the centrality of the human being in the big picture - the 'great metaphor', was affirmed.
Therefore, if we can credit the Wunderkammer as having been a major historical vehicle for the development of scientific taxonomies and philosophical thought, we can accept it as a precursor to the value systems we now use in the Western world to map material culture. It then seems no more difficult to credit it as a historic precursor to postmodern theories of complex networks of contextualization, than it does to scientific rationalism and the Cartesian perspective.
By completing the triangle between naturalia and artefacta, and the third primary category, exotica, we can recognize earlier, institutionalized attempts to categorize the uncategorizable. Again, then as now, the search for the pattern was only possible by accepting the complementary process of recognition of those things that elude the pattern. We are familiar enough with the negative manifestations of exclusion, it’s easy to recognize in many manifestations of group identification, indeed of tribalism. Whether it is ethnic or aesthetic cleansing, if everything that is identifiable as essentially other can be excluded, what is left must belong. However the model of re-mapping material culture that I am contemplating here, which involves breaking the distinction between the natural and the artificial and interfacing it with the exotic, the other, is not only as likely to celebrate the marvelous, but also to look for it in the familiar. It seems to me that the aspects of creative practice that explore the Wunderkammer triangle, that elicit a sense of wonder at the nexus of the natural and the artificial may well redefine the distinct categories into which the creative disciplines have been fitted by a dominant contemporary Western culture.
Let me finish with a mirror image. Certain manifestations of logging, and most manifestations of wood chipping involve the translation of the precious natural into artifact. For the most part, this is ubiquitous and sometimes easily expendable product, and is a good example of making the extraordinary ordinary, of robbing material (and process) of most of its potential to elicit wonder. Along with the classic quantitative issues of preservation and conservation (de-materializing quantitatively), value adding through creative practice is about re-materializing qualitatively. It’s not only about using less but also ensuring creativity and innovation add provenance, and therefore longevity to the material. The challenge this poses is to sidestep being overly mystical about material, a charge often levied against crafts practitioners, and to re-invest material culture with icons of wonder, with iconography that explores the continuum from naturalia to artefacta.
The context within which this issue now needs to be explored is one where material culture manifests as a prime anchor for human beings in a sentient world. The development of technologies is accelerating at such a rate that we may have created a generation for whom the only satisfaction is contemplation and expectation of the next development. Virtual reality may be outstripping material reality in that technologies not yet invented are already obsolete in the popular imagination of film and digital media. The question I ask myself is - can wonder be re-invested into the familiar via creative practice and skill, a newer, richer idea than that of a service industry or process. Can we locate an eco-creative ethos within a culture still capable of sparking wonder in material efficacy?
1 R. Buchanan and V. Margolin, Program statement for the conference, 'Discovering Design', cited in V. Margolin, 'Design History or Design Studies: Subject Matter and Methods', Design Issues, vol.11, no.1, Spring 1995, p.13.

2 D. Eichberger, 'Naturalia and artefacta: Dürer's drawings and the concept of nature in early private collections'. Paper presented at conference, Albrecht Dürer and Cultural transformations in 16th Century Germany, Melbourne, University of Melbourne, 1994, p.11.

3 M. Hunter, 'The cabinet institutionalized: The Royal Society's "repository" and its background', in O. Impey (ed.) The Origins of Museums: The Cabinets of Curiosities in Sixteenth and Seventeenth - Century Europe, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1985, pp.164-165.

4 O. Impey, 'Introduction', in Impey, The Origins of Museums, p.3.

5 Impey, Introduction, pp.2-3.

6 S. J. Gould, 'Dutch Treat: Peter the Great and Frederik Ruysch', in R. W. Purcell and S. J. Gould Finders, Keepers. Eight Collectors, Pimlico, London, 1993, pp.13-14.

7 O. Neverov, 'His Majesty's Cabinet and Peter 1's Kunstkammer', in Impey, The Origins of Museums, p.60.

8 W. Schupbach, Some Cabinets of Curiosities in European Academic Institutions, in Impey, The Origins of Museums p.177.
9 S. L. Star, 'Craft vs. Commodity, Mess vs. Transcendence: How the Right Tool Became the Wrong One in the Case of Taxidermy and Natural History', in A. Clarke and J Fujimura (ed.) The Right Tools For the Job, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, p.275.

10 Eichberger, Naturalia and Artefacta, p.5.