Ruth B. Phillips: Piety and Propaganda.


For Ruth B. Phillips, the museum functions as a ‘diagnostic’ device for ‘Western modernity’ as it progressively displaces the religious sphere as the domain of art.1 In its place is erected a monument to secularism, the establishment of the nation state and the domination of indigenous people. This is the backdrop she draws for her polemical article “A Proper Place for Art or the Proper Arts of Place? Native North American Objects and the Hierarchies of Art, Craft, and Souvenir.” From her first sentences, Phillips spells out the ideological claim she’s staking. Note that she uncritically naturalizes ‘indigenous systems of spirituality, expressive culture, and value’ while insisting on the artificial quality of ‘idealist notions of art and scientific paradigms of objecthood’.2 In effect, ‘Western’ could be understood in her lexicon as artifice, variously regarded as a ‘mystification’ and ‘commoditization’ process. Therefore, when she comes to speak of cultural hybridization, a substantial part of what she is insisting on is the entrance of a previously non-capitalist culture into the international market. What her article struggles with is the nature of this reterritorialization.

Phillips grounds her arguments on two assumptions: That museums will remain ‘proper’3 places for art and that they are committed to inclusivity. The latter obligates the museum to be open, not just to Aboriginal objects, but to their makers’ understandings of how those objects function and are valued, both historically and currently.4 There are three divergent strains of Aboriginal art to take into account. First, the ritual art which briefly resisted entering trade. Second, practical arts which were meant to be used and decay (i.e moccasins). Third, and most predominant, art produced for the market. And yet, these distinctions are contingent, if not arbitrary. As she observes of “contemporary Mi’kmaq view[s] of authenticity […which accord…] an absolute value for the objects made by ancestors regardless of whether they were made for internal use or for the tourist trade”5 an attitude shared by the Iroquois.6 This flew in the face of many non-Aboriginal collectors who distinguished between an authentic (internal) art and an inauthentic (market oriented) one. Phillips’ work demonstrates that post-contact work had a highly active role in the expanding capitalist economy. According to the unstated implications of Phillips’ logic: If indigenous systems of culture and value are natural, it is because they are compatible with capitalism, therefore rendering capitalism natural as a result.

Phillips claims that the desire for ‘authenticity’ was rooted in a Victorian7 dread of impurity and hybridization8 (the latter of which she naturalizes without any substantial explanation). What Phillips omits here is both the context and meaning of these arguments themselves. She ignores that they were embedded within a discourse which was hostile to growing urbanization, the spread of capitalism and the destruction of traditional society. The Native was appropriated as an idealized model to be emulated for therapeutic value, something which Phillips is clearly critical of but does in equal measure, though to advance a rather different political agenda.9

Damning the dread of impurity, she celebrates the hybrid. Yet this is fundamentally rooted in a dread of purity, of seeing objects for what they are (dead matter), or what they could be (the fantasies of certain ‘Victorians’) rather than what select people like to imagine they are (the fantasies of elders and certain art historians). Phillips’ anxiety about this runs throughout the article. For instance: “…despite all the hypertext that might be fed into video monitors placed in public galleries – the auras of the objects and the inherent nature of the museum as ‘a way of seeing’ (Alpers 199 I) will always overwhelm story, song, and local meaning.”10 The museum is criticized for insisting on, and even producing, autonomy for the art object by dislocating it from meaning, therefore, demystifying it. Resorting to the cant that ‘First Nations … deepest roots are in the land’, she then insists that an ‘expressive space’ can be created around these objects, if only the gallery could become more open, more experiential.11 But this points to another problem: Given that she dispenses with her habit of using scare quotes, we can assume that Phillips really believes the museum either creates, or reveals, this ‘aura’ through the shift of context (or should we say its hybridization?). This results in the object taking on a quality very different from the fetish quality she wants to associate with it. Phillips, in expressing a revulsion toward decontextualization and the privileging of the eye, turns to fetishize the sensual realm of quotidian capitalism, whether that of White women or Aboriginals.

Phillips’ concerns could also be formulated with the question: Is there a real difference between tourist souvenirs and what’s shown in museums? The answer for her is yes. The museum offers a sterilized symbolization while tourism provides a reproductive simulation. It is the former she wishes to displace. The ‘open’ and ‘experiential’ ether which she often alludes to can be further gleaned from one of her article’s confabulations. A primary tenet of her argument rests on the assimilation of craft practicing women around the world. She introduces this by approvingly quoting a Victorian woman writing about the needle work of Aboriginals as if they were all simply ‘consumers caught up in the domestic project of beautifying the home…’12 This relates to the attitude of pre-Victorian collectors, those who did not care about the ‘uncontaminated’ quality of Aboriginal art. They didn’t even care if the work was made by Aboriginals or ‘Quebec nuns and … well-born European women’13, only that it looked ‘Aboriginal’. It’s the look that provides the experience. But if the producer doesn’t need to be either authentically or actually Aboriginal, then what’s the point of the general argument? Has Phillips not reduced it to a set of styles within a genre which can readily be utilized by domestic economies (crafts) to enter into the international market? The answer is yes. This is further suggested by her conflation of women around the world and across classes, which commits a similar kind of essentialism to that which she criticizes in ethnological collectors.14 It is this pseudo-romantic essentializing that Phillips props up against the traditional museum. But is there any real basis to these arguments if she is not appealing to a greater ‘authenticity’ or authority?

“Over and over again, when elders visit museums they emphasize the holistic meanings of objects,” Phillips hammers away. “These statements, I believe, belong to our particular historical moment, a time in which we are involved in a restoration, and a reinsertion of personal and communal histories that have been erased and cancelled by the assimilationist dogmas that conditioned the lives of the elders who speak to us, and that prevented the orderly handing down of community tradition and memory.”15 Yet how can you hand down traditions and memories which have been erased and cancelled? This slipperiness, due to Phillips’ penchant for hyperbole and lack of clarity, is one of the rhetorical problems that persists in her work. She oscillates between badly articulated generalizations and personalized anecdotes. In both cases, they operate to be emotionally affecting rather than concretely significant. But this is her point. What she proposes is recreation, both in the sense of a kind of tourism and a re-creation, albeit in contemporary terms, of a past which may (or may not) have been. The imperative of such recreations is the gratification of the present. It all curls back to what something is for the viewer and the demand that objects, spaces or experiences, be used to express and fulfill their needs.

Ultimately what it comes down to is this: Phillips wants to dismiss the traditional museum for insisting on a nineteenth concept of self-coherency (isomorphic with the nation) in favour of one co-extensive with the hybridism of globalist capitalism (internationalism) which she grafts onto the domestic. All of this is another way of saying that Aboriginal art is just another commodity whose power to stimulate or simulate experience has been underexploited. For its producers it is, and since contact has been, simply another form of tourist souvenir; and on the side of its consumers, a tourism for empaths rather than aesthetes. It is precisely this which ‘belong[s] to our particular historical moment’ since the power of globalized capital is not in objects but in the conjuring and marketing of ‘dematerialized’16 experiences.

1 Phillips, Ruth B., “A Proper Place for Art or the Proper Arts of Place,” e.d. Jessup, 45.

2 Ibid., 45.

3 Ibid., 46.

4 One should observe that she never notes how discordant these two things may be. Instead, she implies a nearly ahistoric consistency predicated on ethnicity.

5 Ibid., 49.

6 Ibid., 50.

7Her use of the term ‘Victorian’ is problematic since most of the sources she cites in this regard are carefully selected from disparate cultures and political situations.

8 Ibid., 45.

9It’s also worth noting her lack of contextualization and criticality of the culture of tourism in Canada. In material terms, the quest for the ‘authentic’ and for that of ‘dematerialized’ experience were almost identical. See Patricia J. Jasen’s Wild Things: Nature, Culture, and Tourism in Ontario, 1790-1914. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995) for a discussion of this. In practical terms, what Phillips is arguing is that museums should aim to be more like tourist getaways or theme parks.

10 Phillips, Ruth B., “A Proper Place for Art or the Proper Arts of Place,” e.d. Jessup, 67.

11 Ibid., 67.

12 Ibid., 61.

13 Ibid., 58. In relation to this point, Leslie A. Dawn’s National Visions, National Blindness: Canadian Art and Identities in the 1920s. (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2006) should be consulted. Through a careful sifting of exhibition reception in the 1920s Dawn demonstrated, somewhat unintentionally, the degree to which the art of the Group of Seven met derision from Europeans (particularly the French) for being ‘primitive’ and rural while the works of Aboriginal artists were praised for being completely compatible with the tastes and desires of cosmopolitan imperialism.

14 Phillips, Ruth B., “A Proper Place for Art or the Proper Arts of Place,” e.d. Jessup, 58.

15 Ibid., 65.

16 Ibid., 64.


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