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Art vs Artifact

APRIL 29, 2020

The way we label things can heavily influence the ways we perceive them. 

Think about the importance of addressing people with the correct pronouns, or why some artists would rather leave their works untitled. But we can ask the same question in a larger sense: How do we perceive objects differently when we call them artworks, as opposed to artifacts? 

We start by exploring the first questions that come to mind when trying to determine if something is art or an artifact - and diagnose problems with each one of them. 

1. How old is it?

By “artifact”, people often picture Indiana Jones digging up old caves and temples - emphasis on old. Indiana Jones wasn’t looking for the diamond skull or the ancient scroll because they look pretty, but because they are rare remainders of a bygone civilization. In that sense, much of what makes artifacts interesting is that they were rescued (in many cases literally from the ground) from being forgotten, that it’s a link to ways of life otherwise unimaginable. 

(above) One is from 200 BC, the other from 2020 - can you tell which is which?  ‍
Counterargument: Art involves time, too. 
But surely, we have objects that are equally old and mysterious in art museums. Greek statues that have been shattered and eroded by time, now put together carefully by conservationists, for example. That’s more than 2000 years old. If that’s not old, what is?  In fact, most art museums have a team of conservationists because most artworks are old enough to require some repairing or even entire reconstructions.  

2. How do we study them?

It is commonly believed that artifacts are studied by archaeologists and artworks by art historians. Supposedly, archaeology is a science that tries to clarify what happened in the past using clues from artwork. For example, the Bayeux Tapestry played a key role in explaining how the Norman Conquest unfolded - it literally looks like a comic strip, too! 

On the other hand, art history is more about the styles and aesthetic value of objects - for example, how landscape paintings (shanshui) in the Tang Dynasty functioned as a measure of an aristocrat’s culturedness and polished soul.   

Counterargument: What about the huge overlap?
But is their work that different? The fact that many colleges offer Art History and Archaeology together as one major should provide a hint for how similar they are in practice.  One major overlap is provenance, a fancy term for figuring out the place and time the object comes from. Because no matter what you’re trying to do with the object, the first thing you need to do is know its origin. After knowing the era and geographical location, art historians go one step further and try to figure out who exactly produced it - this is called connoisseurship.  Imagine that we didn’t know where Van Gogh’s Starry Night came from. It would mean drastically different things to assume that it was made in the 18th century Europe (as we know now), than say, 600 BC in the Middle East. If the latter were true, we may have to rethink everything we know about the ancient Middle East. So yes - even artworks involve a lot of science in the beginning.   

3. Are they in a museum or an art museum?

Okay, then. It’s hard to draw an objective line between art and artifact. But surely we can’t display all the objects in human history in one location, so we’ll have to categorize for the sake of convenience. This is how we have natural history museums and art museums in separate locations - think the difference between Smithsonian and the Met.  So their difference might not be in what objects they are displaying, but the way they explain it in the exhibition context. The Smithsonian and the Met both have mummies. But the Smithsonian places it among Egyptian houses, hunting tools, and examples of grains they would have consumed, so that it shows you a picture of how Egyptians lived. The Met places it among other mummies, focusing more on how the decorative patterns on the case have changed, and how that reflects changing religious beliefs etc.   

Counterargument: The division can exclude certain cultures.
What we think contemporary art looks like is still based on Western standards. Textiles and woven baskets produced by First Nations artisans don’t shout “contemporary art” to most people, although they carry great value in their respective communities.  So when we include totem poles at the natural history museums but not in art museums, we may be making a dangerous implication that the societies that produced totem poles do not have art per se. To correct this misunderstanding, curators have been organizing exhibitions featuring contemporary Native American artists, showing that cultural minorities should not be shoved into the “artifact” category just because they challenge our preconceptions of what fine art looks like. 


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