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African Art as a Question Mark

Author(s): V. Y. Mudimbe
Source: African Studies Review, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Mar., 1986), pp. 3-4
Published by: African Studies Association
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/524102 .
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AFRICAN ART AS A QUESTION MARK


V. Y. Mudimbe
WhatI would like to presentis a broadtheoreticalframeworkwhich could
accountforthesignificanceof present-day
Africanculture,particularly
of Africanart,
I use this conceptin the precisesense
as a resultof a processof "aesthetization."
defined and illustratedby J. Baudrillard(1972) in his Pour une Critiquede
to the analysisof this concept,I
l'Economiepolitiquedu Signe.As a preliminary
wouldemphasizeF. Fanon's(1967) statementaboutthe ethnocentrism
of European
culture:"theunilaterallydecreednormativevalueof certainculturesdeservesour
carefulattention.One of the paradoxesimmediatelyencounteredis the reboundof
definitions."
egocentric,sociocentric
Africanculture,and more visibly Africanart, are historicalproductsof a
of concreterealitiesinto abstractcategories
complexprocess:the metamorphosis
the
transformation
of those realitiesinto cultural
and, complementarily, possible
with
a
In
financial
value.
other
African
realitiesbecome, within
words,
objects
of
are
frameworks,
anthropological
objects knowledge;they understood,classified,
and definedas culturalsigns from the perspectiveof the Westernculturaland
rulesof this
epistemologicaltradition.Subsequently,
accordingto the socio-cultural
new perspectiveandits matrixof culturalvaluesor, moregenerally,fromwhatis
consideredas a generalanduniversalsetof culturalvalues,someof theserealitiesare
given a financialvalue and, thus, become part of an economic process. Jean
Baudrillard(1972: 132-33) analyzes the ideologicalsignificanceof the general
processitself:
Dans l'ordre &conomique,c'est la maitrise de laccumulation, de l'appropriation
de la plus-value qui est essentielle. Dans l'ordre des signes (de la culture), c'est
la maitrise de la dpense, c'est-'a-dire de la transsubstantionde la valeur
d'6change economique en valuer d'6change/signe'a partir du monopole du code,
Les classes dominantes ont toujours -- ou bien assure
qui est decisive.
leur
domination
sur les valeurs/signes (soci6t6s archaiques et
d'embl6e
traditionnelles) -- ou bien tents (l'ordre bourgeois capitaliste) de d6passer, de
transcender, de consacrer leur privilege economique en privilege des signes,
parce que ce stade ulterieur repr6sente le stade accompli de la domination.
Cette logique, qui vient relayer la logique de classe ne se dfinmitplus par la
AfricanStudiesReview, Volume 29, Number 1, March 1986.

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AFRICAN
STUDIES
REVIEW

propri&"tdes moyens de production, mais par le contr6le du proces de

signification.

Thus, the conceptualframeworkof Africanstudiesis both a mirrorand a


terms"thedominanceof
consequenceof a hegemonicexperience,thatis in Gramsci's
one social bloc over another,not simplyby meansof force or wealth,but by a
social authoritywhose ultimatesanctionand expressionis a profoundcultural
supremacy(Andersen,1965:30).Fromthisperspective,one couldnotethat,as faras
Africanart is concerned,a majorphilosophicalproblemhas not yet been solved.
What is called Africanart covers a wide range of objects introducedinto a
historicizingperspectiveof Europeanvalues since the eighteenthcentury.These
various"objects"which,perhaps,werenot "art"at all, becameartby beinggiven,
anda potentialityforproducingandpossibly
an aestheticcharacter
simultaneously,
reproducingartisticforms.One could wonderwhether,understoodin theirinitial
formandsignificance,theywouldnothavecreateda radical"miseen perspective"
of
Westernculture.1
Thepresent-day
on the one
literature
on Africancultureandartis characterized,
on the linksbetweeneconomicpower,culturalsignsand
hand,by an overemphasis
politically dominantgroups; on the other hand, by an absence of serious
philosophicaldebate on the significanceof this culture and its art, and the
consequencesfor their meaning of integrationinto Western epistemological
categories.
One of the best ways of studyingthis questionwouldbe the analysisof the
andthelogicof culturalandartisticvalues,throughpayingcarefulattention
structure
to the processesof the metamorphosis
of values, the rules of their social and
instituionalproductionand, finally,the relationshipsbetweensymbolicvalue and
economic value in the exchangeprocess. Or, to put it in terms of a general
the establishment
of a frameworkwhich
anthropology
proposedby J. Baudrillard,
would explain norms of conversionof values by clearly distinguishingfour
"systems"or logics: the functionallogic of usagevalueandthe logic of its market
value,thedifferential
logic of the sign-value,andthelogicof symbolicexchange.
NOTES
1. See J. Baudrillard(1973)andMudimbe(1982:45).
REFERENCES
Andersen,P. 1965.TowardSocialism.London:TheFontanaLibrary.
Baudrillard,J. 1972. Pour une Critique de l'Economiepolitique du Signe. Paris:
Gallimard.
. 1973. Le Miroir de la Production. Casterman.

New York:MonthlyReviewPress.
Fanon,F. 1967.TowardtheAfricanRevolution.
Goody, J. 1977. The Domesticationof the Savage Mind. Cambridge:Cambridge
UniversityPress.
Mudime,V. Y. 1982.L'OdeurduPere.Paris:PresenceAfricaine.

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