Rachel majored in art in college, and grew up thinking about art. But in my interview with her, she said, “At some point I found myself feeling really separated from the so-called ‘art world.’ Nothing really resonated with me.” Then she ran across the work of LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner, and also ran across Nastja’s solo work. “Coming across Nastja’s work for me . . . I haven’t really seen any other work like hers that I’ve connected with so much.”
I agree with Rachel. While I find a number of very different artworks emotionally compelling, little has resonated with me as much as the work of the three artists. A lot of what the “art world” says is great makes little impression on me at all. Rachel and I are not alone. A great many people – those I’ve described as #TribeLRT – feel drawn to the work of the three artists.
This, too, is appropriate, given anthropological research on tribes. Anthropologists note that different tribes sometimes find meaning in different works of art. Members of one tribe might find meaning in a work of tribal art that few from distant societies would see. This is not to say that distant people from different societies can’t find the tribal art beautiful or largely accessible. Rather, the idea is only that the majority of people from those distant societies miss something. So too, we might imagine that members of a tribe might themselves fail to connect – or at least connect as well – to a distant society’s finest art. It seems that we can identify members of different tribes and societies by the meaning and significance they do or do not see when they look at an array of different artworks. No doubt, these identifications would be very rough and imprecise, and might not always be crystal clear about the tribe to which a person belongs. But we could nonetheless draw a rough societal map on the basis of art appreciation and the identification of meaning and symbols.
Consider how differently the Yoruba people living in Nigeria from 1950-1970 viewed and judged art from how many in Europe and the States do. Even the way that they conceived of the notion of line was shaped by their cultural experiences. Historians note that the Yoruba people associated lines with the notion of civilization. In their language, “civilizing the country” literally means “drawing lines on the face of the earth.” Some of the Yoruba people arranged for lines to be sliced into their cheeks. They allowed for these lines to be noticeably scarred over, and the lines were meant to indicate their lineage and social status. Further, they used the same verb for the act of opening marks on a face as they did for the act of opening roads and boundaries in a forest – civilizing the land. Historians and anthropologists argue that these facts informed, if not consciously than at least indirectly, the way in which the Yoruba people viewed the lines involved in their artwork. When they see a sculpture and consider its lines, they have a sense of the sculpture’s meaning that few else would. Further, if we didn’t know what culture a person belongs to, but we did know how all of the ways in which she views the lines in tribal art, we might be able to accurately guess whether or not he belongs to the Yoruba culture. People from different cultures view art differently, at least in very subtle ways, and the way each person sees art is often indicative of his society.
In a metaphorically-similar way, I contend that when those who belong to #TribeLRT engage with the work of LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner, they find meaning and value in the project that others might not. Consider the radically different ways in which people have approached the work of LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner. Some people, when they attended another of the artists’ projects titled “#IAMSORRY,” treated it like a joke or like pure spectacle, and, because they had no intention of being vulnerable or making a connection, they saw very little meaning in the work. Other people, in contrast, found the project deeply moving and personal, probably because they went into the project with trust, vulnerability, and openness to connection. What causes some people to connect and others to see everything with a closed-off, ironic eye? I’ve come to think that some people have abilities and sensibilities which other lack – the ability to open up to certain kinds of projects, and a sensibility that encourages them to do so.
To better understand the kinds of sensibilities people can develop, which affect how they view art, consider the work of artists in fifteenth century Italy. Very often, Italian artists intended for their art to appeal to merchants and professional men. These were the kinds of men who would commission works of art from artists. They were the source of the artists’ livelihood. Art historians note that merchants and professional men from that time period tended to share certain common skills and experiences that impacted how they interpreted and perceived works of art. Art historians further suggest that many successful artists made work that appealed to those common skills. Merchants might not be consciously aware that viewing art was exercising skills they had acquired in the workplace. But even if they were unaware, they would still particularly enjoy works of art that exercised those skills, and would be more likely to commission work from those artists.
At that time, merchants needed to be able to look at different barrels of goods and quickly determine the quantity of goods in each barrel. In the fifteenth century, barrels were not all of uniform size. Different barrels were unique, and held different amounts. So merchants could not rely on any quick calculation to determine the quantity of goods when they looked at, say, a dozen barrels. Instead, they first needed to look at each unique barrel and determine how much it contained. Then they needed to add together the quantity of goods contained in each differently-sized barrel. Before becoming professional merchants, boys would often attend secondary schools where the focus was commercial mathematics, which was drilled into them and enabled them to do the complex math required in their jobs. Almost every mathematical handbook required students, for example, to calculate the surface area of a pavilion.
Art historians and anthropologists suggest that the merchants’ hardwired education and ability to gauge barrels must have affected the way they view art. For instance, when artists included images of pavilions in their paintings, it was as if they were inviting their audience – if unconsciously – to use the skills they had acquired in school which were now required in their day-to-day lives. This claim – about sizing-up pavilions – might sound like a bit of a stretch. Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine that merchants, who are so heavily trained to naturally calculate volumes and surface-areas, would view paintings the same exact way the majority of Americans do. When they see a barrel or a pavilion in a painting, their interpretation of it and way of approaching it will inevitably be shaped by their life experiences and skills.
Suppose we know of a man. But suppose we have no idea when he lived or where. He might have been alive in fifteenth century Italy, he might have lived in seventeenth century India, or maybe he was from an entirely different time and place. Still, if we came to know how he views and interprets an array of different artworks, we might also offer a good guess about the society to which he belongs. If he interprets art one way and sees meaning in certain artworks that others miss, we might guess he was a fifteenth century Italian merchant. If he interprets art another way, and sees different meanings, we might guess he lives in Nigeria in the 1970s. People from different tribes and societies have different skillsets, and different sensibilities, which lead them to view the same art differently.
Hypothetically, we could, at least very roughly, distinguish between tribes and societies by determining how their members view art. So too, if we were to determine that a certain group of people found special meaning in an art project that many others miss, we would have reason to wonder if that group is its own tribe. That group would have an ability – to recognize that special meaning – that others lack. Their sensibility would be different, and they would see the world differently as a result.
The participants in #TribeLRT are all people who are particularly drawn to #TAKEMEANYWHERE, and who were open to it – and found meaning in it – that many other people might have missed. So we might tentatively be inclined to assign them a group identity, and to say that – at least metaphorically – they belong to a common tribe. They have an ability and sensibility that others lack and, in the context of #TAKEMEANYWHERE, formed powerful connections between themselves which others might never have experienced.