What’s the Use of Art? Asian Visual and Material Culture in Context

Morgan Pitelka and Jan Mrázek, eds. What’s the Use of Art? Asian Visual and Material Culture in Context. University of Hawaii Press, 2007.

From the tea bowls of the Japanese tea ceremony to television broadcasts of Javanese shadow puppet theater; from Indian wedding chamber paintings to art looted by the British army from the Chinese Emperor’s palace; from the adventures of a Balinese magical dagger to the political functions of classical Khmer images – what do all these, and the other case studies in this book, have in common? These examples show art as it is involved in the human world. They show art as it is used and experienced by people.

This book is born out of the authors’ sense that dominant concepts of art and established methods of studying art objects are inadequate for understanding local artistic practices in Asia and the rest of the world. Orthodox notions of art not only contribute to the misrepresentation of Asian (and other) art and people in scholarship, museums, and classrooms, but they also fuel the commodification of culture in the art market and the widespread looting of art. The modern notion of the "art object" usually implies a static, visual entity, complete in itself, whose primary function is aesthetic. The phrase suggests a sense of permanence and authenticity, and implies distinctions between art and non-art, visual and performing arts. The “art object” has no practical use, but rather an inner essence or meaning that is independent of context. This volume challenges these basic post-Enlightenment values and assumptions by examining Asian “art objects” in their contexts, with particular focus on their functions, movements, and memories. 

The in-depth case studies from East, South, and Southeast Asia explore how “art objects” function and exist in ways that expand our understanding of the roles of art in culture. The chapters consider “art objects” in the ways they are involved in the world; how they function and are experienced in specific sites, collections, rituals, performances, political and religious events and imagination, and of course in individual people’s lives; how they move from one context to another and change meanings, functions, and values in the process (for example, when they are collected, traded, looted, or when their images appear in art history textbooks); and how their memories and pasts are or are not part of their meaning and experience. Offering multiple, divergent, case-specific answers to the question “What is the use of art?” rather than leading to one single universalizing definition of art, the book argues for the need to study art in the way it figures in a human world and in the way it is used and experienced by people. While all the essays focus on different parts of Asia, a goal of the book is to help to broaden and de-colonize our understanding of what art is, and to assert the need to go beyond established ways of thinking about art in English language scholarship


Acknowledgments ix

introduction | morgan pitelka

Wrapping and Unwrapping Art 1


one | robert decaroli

From the Living Rock: Understanding Figural Representation in Early South Asia 21

two | louise allison cort

Disposable but Indispensable: The Earthenware Vessel as Vehicle of Meaning in Japan 46

three | richard h. davis

From the Wedding Chamber to the Museum: Relocating the Ritual Arts of Madhubani 77

four | janet hoskins

In the Realm of the Indigo Queen: Dyeing, Exchange Magic, and the Elusive Tourist Dollar on Sumba 100


five | james l. hevia

Plunder, Markets, and Museums:

The Biographies of Chinese Imperial Objects in Europe and North America 129

six | cynthea j. bogel

Situating Moving Objects:

A Sino-Japanese Catalogue of Imported Items, 800 CE to the Present 142


seven | ashley thompson

Angkor Revisited: The State of Statuary 179

eight | lene pedersen

An Ancestral Keris, Balinese Kingship, and a Modern Presidency 214

nine | kaja m. mcgowan

Raw Ingredients and Deposit Boxes in Balinese Sanctuaries: A Congruence of Obsessions 238

conclusion | jan mrázek

Ways of Experiencing Art: Art History, Television, and Javanese Wayang 272

Contributors 305 

Index 309