Volume 66 1957 > Volume 66, No. 1 > Maori decorative art comment, by Gilbert Archey, p 60-63
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- 60

IN “Maori Decorative Art—an Outline,” published in the last number of the Journal, Mr. T. T. Barrow covers a wide range of opinion and discussion, with citations from practically every contributor to the subject of the present century. When Mr. Barrow's paper first appeared, as an introduction to Dr. Renzo Padovan's Te Ika a Maui (1955), I found myself not so much in disagreement with his views but rather in some uncertainty as to what final conclusions he wished to present to us. This may have been because he definitely withholds judgment on certain issues; or it may have arisen, as it is felt by others than myself, from his practice of citation without quotation marks, though not of course without references, whereby it is sometimes not clear whether it is Barrow himself or the person referred to who is speaking. Possibly, too, it is this uncertainty that makes some statements seem in variance with one another; there are, however, some others that appear, at least to me, to require some elucidation, or even substantiation. I therefore offer the following observations and comments, seeking for myself a clearer understanding of the issues involved and hoping that this in turn may bring us closer to our mutual aim of agreement as to the origin and development of the content and form of Maori art and to a fuller comprehension and appreciation of what it achieved.

On page 311 Barrow writes: “The arts of the vast Pacific Area are as manifold as its races and the variety of art styles greater than in Africa … The most remarkable feature of Oceanic art is that regardless of long distances of time and space coupled with great racial and cultural diversity, the art forms exhibit an underlying unity.”

This is not quoted here as an instance of conflicting statements because, as is well known, arts can well have an underlying unity and at the same time present a variety of renderings of the basic style. Barrow instances this when he continues, p. 312: “The basic art trends of the three related Oceanian areas have been concisely formulated by Linton and Wingert as: (a) Micronesia—natural forms simplified with ornamentation growing out of function and technique; (b) Melanesia—natural forms exaggerated and distorted with rhythmic organic curved surfaces; (c) Polynesia—natural forms geometrized with intricate surface patterns. (Linton and Wingert, 1946:9.)

If however the “underlying unity” is to be found in the naturalistic basis posited by Linton and Wingert, we experience difficulty when Barrow then remarks, p. 313: “Maori art with its curvilinear style is variant from the usual Polynesian decorative manner which is basically rectilinear and geometric in concept” (italics ours). - 61 This it will be seen is quite at variance with Linton and Wingert's view of basically naturalistic arts become rectilinear and geometric by development.

Barrow had earlier (p. 305) put forward the concept of a rectilinear origin of Polynesian art: “The curvilinear style of developed Maori art would appear opposed to the basically rectilinear style of the parent Central Polynesian art” (italics ours). Here again one would have wished to see presented the grounds for the assumption that Polynesian art is basically rectilinear, and not naturalistic as Linton and Wingert state.

At this point we refer to Barrow's earlier use of “rectilinear” and “geometric” as interchangeable terms as a possible source of misunderstanding. These two can be very different things. Properly speaking “geometric” is just what it says, i.e. a pattern made up simply of lines, angles and circles—geometric forms; “rectilinear,” however, can be a pattern resulting from stylization of forms, plant or animal. A geometric art is based on and built up from geometry (it can of course be rectilinear, lacking circles or their parts); its geometric form is primary. On the other hand a style can become rectilinear secondarily, as almost certainly appears in Mangaian and Austral art.

Again, as a matter of definition or description one is surprised to read, p. 313: “Maori art is predominantly curvilinear, with considerable rectilinear elements, the latter evident in such work as the decorative borders of some cloaks (taniko) and mat designs.” Here is surely a “confusion of categories,” for carving and textiles have nothing to do with one another. They are separate media and distinct techniques; indeed they are separate arts in one of which, textiles, rectilinear forms are the only ones possible.

Another general statement that one would wish to be clear about occurs on p. 314: “In spite of its curvilinear element Maori art is distinctly Polynesian in character. Also, like Melanesian and Micronesian art, Polynesian art conforms to a general Oceanic type.” Here two questions need to be asked: (a) In what respect is Maori art distinctly Polynesian? and (b) What is this “general Oceanic type?”; what are the characteristics that constitute it and by which it may be recognized? Unless we know this we cannot know what it is that we are discussing. Barrow also speaks of “parallel art motifs to be found throughout Oceania” and the “strangely linked art areas within and without Polynesia.” In the absence of reference to specific instances of these widely general statements we are in no position to judge the validity of the assumptions they express. The plastic arts are visible objects and it should be possible, as it is indeed necessary, that we should have clearly before us the visible physical characteristics that constitute such generalities as the “underlying unity” of Polynesian arts and those that make them a part of this “general Oceanic type.”

A further comment may be permitted on our attitude in general to the arts, or on what it is that constitutes our response to them, and here again we may need to consider the terms we use and the meanings they - 62 hold. For example, our initial agreement with Barrow's observation that “fullest appreciation or judgment of Maori art can be gained only by approaching objects aesthetically,” receives a check at the very word “aesthetically,” and particularly by his further, “aesthetics or that aspect of philosophy which deals with the beautiful is not science.” My own comments here are as much an attempt to clarify my own ideas on the point as to understand those of others—a kind of thinking aloud, and my first inclination is to demur at aesthetics being termed non-scientific.

A work of art should undoubtedly be looked at (or listened to) with imagination and intuition sympathetic to the feelings that were part of the artist's own accomplishment. But to stand before a work of art in intuitive appreciation is one thing, while to examine it more closely in an endeavour to discern what forms or features give it the quality or qualities that move us, is another, to do which satisfactorily involves our moving across from the humanistic mood to the scientific. It is true that the qualities of a work of art may not be measurable but they are none the less objective; Barrow, himself, observes (p. 327) that early Maori carving has harmony and balance and that its surface decoration remains subservient to form instead of encrusting and obliterating it as in later work.

But, returning from this little aside on aesthetics as science, there is no doubt as to what Barrow means, and we agree fully with him that our first approach should be the non-scientific one of reception and self-identification with the artist's mood, through which we may, indeed, hope to achieve our “moment of vision” before it.

And we might well continue with Barrow's thought, and even go further, to the realization that as soon as we begin to regard a work of art aesthetically (sensu scientiæ), that is as soon as we begin to be consciously and objectively aware of our own emotional reactions towards it, at that moment, and to the degree of our emotion-awareness, will our primary emotional feelings be diminished. The appreciation of a work of art is a gestalt that dissolves as we analyse it; the analysis is of aesthetic value only to the extent that it heightens our subsequent awareness or sharpens our perception and intuition as to the nuances of form before us.

It is not only in art criticism or judgment, but also in creative art itself that this may be true. It was von Kleist was it not who said, though I do not know where, “To understand one's own motives is to suffer loss of vitality, clarity and imagination.”

The point I would make is that our approach to art should be in both moods alternatively, but first for the immediate experience of its aesthetic power or influence. When next we examine it with the more exacting eye of analysis we achieve on the one hand the means for a subsequent clearer, enhanced “humanistic” vision of it, and on the other a technical awareness of its parts and qualities. We are still in this latter “scientific” mood when we try to determine and understand its definitive aesthetic attributes.

- 63

It is of course traditional in art criticism for presentation of the qualities of a work to be expressed, as far as may be, in language appropriate to the aesthetic response it engenders, though there be few critics who can match poetry with prose that re-echoes its quality. But in the more academic fields of discussion, such as of art origins, history, development and affiliations, where aesthetic response gives place to explanation, it is a help if we can avoid misunderstanding. In our comparisons, therefore, specific instances to which ready reference can be made will carry explanation better than general statements with their inherent assumptions that are not themselves discussed. It is in the hope that the uncertainties I have referred to may be resolved that I submit these comments.

  • BARROW, T. T., 1956. “Maori Decorative Art—an Outline.” J.P.S., Vol. 65, No. 4, 305.
  • PADOVAN, R., 1955. Te Ika a Maui. A portfolio of Maori art.
  • LINTON, R. and WINGERT, P. S., 1946. Arts of the South Seas. Museum of Modern Art, New York.