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Art Essay Example# Inuit Sculpture: Societal Impact
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The Inuit people are the native inhabitants of a wide area stretching from Greenland and East Canada to Alaska (these ethnic groups are now more commonly referred to as Eskimos). The Inuit art, and sculpture in particular, has been more popularly known as the legacy of Canada’s north. The Inuit sculpture represents a distinct form of art usually modeling a wide spectrum of subjects as diverse as family scenes and static vignettes, wildlife and nature, as well as symbolic and ritual themes. These pieces have traditionally been carved in ivory and whalebone, and more recently in stone of various hues, from soft gray to rich shades of green to almost black. Inuit sculpture is practiced across nearly thirty communities these days, which population comprises about 25,000 people .
The Arctic art dates back to the Dorset culture (c. 600 BC-1000 AD) which dominated the area in terms of ethnic and cultural representation alike. Among some of the culture’s particular features are the relatively significant presence of human subjects and themes, as well as spiritual and ritual content that played an important part. In the Thule culture that eventually crowded Dorset out, human and spiritual themes are present to a lesser extent [Eber 1989: 62-64]. The people of Thule migrated from Alaska c. 1000 AD, and are regarded as the ancestors of today’s Inuit. The Prehistoric period ends with the period of aggravating climate which started around the sixteenth century and overlapped with the early contacts with Europeans [McGee 1996: 91-98]. Those relations were grounded in trade, largely in the artistic objects which by then were beginning to assume the Western-style focus and detail.
The contemporary stage of the Inuit sculptural evolution begins in the 1940s and is marked by a new level of commercialization, whereby trade in Inuit sculpture constitutes an increasingly material proportion of the region’s exports. An ambitious programme aimed at promoting the cultural renaissance was largely stimulated by the prospects for alleviating the burden on the social security systems due to an economic revival (which issue was especially acute for the distant northern regions) . Interestingly, this commercialization stage may actually have not only augmented the conditions for craftsmanship to start blossoming, but ironically facilitated the transition in status from craftsmanship to art (international recognition, or the widening of the network captured by the particular artistic form may have reinforced the cultural constituent in the sculpture’s value, thus re-establishing it as art).
It should be pointed out that, homogeneous that the Inuit sculpture might appear, it actually represents a wide variety of distinct styles, thematic preferences and use of carving materials. At the same time, since it is rather commonplace for a family to have members in several communities, many communities exhibit marked similarities in stylistic patterns [Seidelman & Turner 1993: 44]. I would, however, argue that the particular distinctions observed can importantly be attributed to certain institutional as well as natural constraints. Thus, the more recent tendency has been a switch from ivory, horn, and whalebone more into stone. For one, stone allows far more degrees of freedom with respect to structural and spatial forms, let alone the constraints on size of the sculptures. However, as we have mentioned, the natural endowments were some of the constraints that determined the relative scarcity of carving material used. For instance, the more distant areas to the north have deposits of the gray stone, which is routinely processed and blacked before it is incised and carved. Moreover, while the process of carving has been honed over centuries and is quite straightforward, the scarcity of material poses the biggest challenge, masters having to travel long distances to obtain high quality material.
The institutional constraint largely having shaped the stylistic preferences also has to do with the choice of carving material, this time pertaining to the international restraints on the use of ivory, whalebone, and horn. Still, these are often incorporated as elements, even though Inuit traditionally remains a subtractive form of sculpture (i.e. shaping the space and volume by taking away negative spaces). One caveat would be appropriate here, however, referring to the pronounced or at any rate perceived hallmark of the Inuit art as one of minimum detail and negative space subtracted. That perception does not stand up either in terms of cross-community comparisons (as some communities, notably Igloolik, adopt very challenging standards of realism, minute detail and aesthetic charm) or as a long-term trend. Indeed, the long-run tendency at this point can be judged as gravitating toward more technically sophisticated yet ‘classically’ charming patterns and styles. Of course, the use and availability of material will likely remain to be a major underlying component of artistic leverage.
I would stress one other major upheaval that has paralleled the cultural and economic revival of the region. The commercial success acting to enlarge the network of international recognition has likely been the single most important determinant of ethnic identity also strengthening the ethnic and communal association and consciousness. A number of local residential and administrative areas have regained their historical names. That can actually be one instance of patriotic revival that, ironically, has little to do with moral concerns or otherwise challenges pertaining to the [poor] enforceability of collective choice. Moreover, these developments may be important evidence that common language is but one factor underlying the strength of ethnic network, the other possibilities involving the popularization of ethnic art by positioning it as in a sense ‘classic’ (relevant at all times) within the context of broader networks accepting it.
Among the challenges facing the recent artistic and commercial revival have been the frequent precedence of low-quality imitation, which not only acts to distort the distribution of surplus (so important for these remote regions economies), but also to undermine the prestige, reputation, and exclusivity of the authentic artwork. That, in my opinion, is a vivid illustration of the so-called ‘adverse selection’ at work . By that I refer to the phenomenon observed on some markets where, due to the incomplete information, the buyers are unable to distinguish between the superior and inferior value. Under a single average market price, the high quality feels under-appreciated and withdraws from the market, while the low quality has incentive enough to stay. The resulting adverse selection (or degenerate supply structure) may be remedied by introducing certification (aimed at correcting informational asymmetries and scarcity).
The Canadian government has already adopted a certification scheme by registering the igloo symbol as a trademark and quality hallmark. However, these novel trends should not be overlooked, as they will likely persist over a longer haul as an additional constraint or a parameter of the market. For instance, the presence of surrogate quality and the existing market for such quality will likely affect the competitive environment. That, in turn, might restrain the leeway in choosing the stylistic patterns and favorable subjects that the artists have thus far enjoyed. This environment might exercise additional pressure on the artists choice, over and above the resource scarcity and otherwise institutional constraints we have discussed above. However, while those restraints have remained largely neutral with respect to the macro level cultural implications, the distorted market’s most pronounced adverse effect might come in the form of a major qualitative shift in the cultural trends and standards, which might further compromise the width of the network that has been expanding so vigorously.
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