On Anthropomorphism

In the March 2012 issue of the Art Bulletin, Notes From the Field discusses anthropomorphism. What is it? Is it a good term, or bad? Does it make sense in the modern world? Is it in the eye of the beholder, or can we define it in concrete terms? I am not a distinguished professor (if I can state the obvious), but I nevertheless am compelled to respond to some of the explanations presented.

I suppose I should begin by defining what I think anthropomorphism is, although given all the debate presented in the Art Bulletin I am beginning to doubt that any single definition is sufficient let alone if I will ever really know what it means. Carolyn Dean argues that “[t]o practice anthropomorphism is to employ a category that does not resonate universally.” While I understand her point (which we will examine below), I can’t say I agree. Anthropomorphism to me is the resemblance of humanity in a work of art and/or the implanting of human characteristics, ideals, etc. into a work of art. Perhaps the latter can be termed anthropomorphic meaning and the former is simply, anthropomorphism, or (physically) resembling humans.

Pedro de Mena, St. Francis (detail), 1663.

The first discussion, by artist Elizabeth King, discusses anthropomorphism as the notion that anthropomorphism is the physical resemblance of humans, and that we in turn respond to and recognize that resemblance.  Of a polychrome sculpture of Saint Francis, she writes:

“A small polychrome figure carved of wood, the saint stands in arrest on an ebony plinth, pale face suspended in the dark recess of the drawn cowl, glass eyes raised under real eyelashes, mouth open to reveal two uneven rows of ivory teeth (some missing), the teeth parted over a black interior. … One tooth caught a tiny highlight and glinted from within the mouth. You see this and catch your breath– then realize that the figure, too, is inhaling. … Sculpture can do this. It can take us from outside to inside. … We look at a little statue and say, ‘Oh, this is St. Francis receiving the stigmata.’ And our own mouth drops open. We are wounded.”

It’s easy to respond to something that we recognize as being like ourselves. St. Francis is human, after all, even if a saint. We see him catching his breath, responding and living within this small sculpture the way we respond and live, reminding us of the realities of faith.

But what about when the art we view is not so “human,” not so readily recognizable as being similar to us? Then again, who is “us“?

Carolyn Dean explains anthropomorphism from the worldviews of the Quechua speakers, who live in the Andes, and the Inca. For the Quechua speakers, anthropomorphism in “our” (or “Western”) terms presents itself as something unfamiliar to “us.” The Andeans

“[…] categorize human beings into complementary groups: ‘us’ and ‘those like us’.”A subcategory of these classifications is “other people,” who “did not share cultural beliefs and practices (including some linguistic commonality with ‘us’ and ‘those like us’).[…] Indeed, is the term anthropomorphic even helpful, since it suggests a unified category — that of human beings — that has not been significant to many Andean peoples across history?”

For the Quechua speaking people, then, anthropomorphism in its own way has been ubiquitous across their culture for centuries: human beings are called runa, and runa are categorized according to the above. Anthropomorphism isn’t a relevant term to art of this culture since they have their own set of criteria for determining what is and is not like them. Art historians of “Western” thought wouldn’t necessarily define anthropomorphism in this sense. Art displays anthropomorphic traits when it is simply resembling humans — there is no deeper distinction or division.

And this brings us to Carolyn Dean’s next point, that for the Inca, anthropomorphic qualities were seen in things that were inherently not human (by scientific terms), namely, in rocks:

“The Inka identified certain rocks as sharing many characteristics with human beings. Such rocks were sentient and had the ability to speak and move. They were said to eat and drink the foods and liquids humans eat and drink, dress in human clothing, and speak Runasimi. … Certainly [these rocks] could be described as anthropomorphic. Rather than pronouncing them as such, however, we may reveal more and be more accurate by defining them as Inka ‘insiders,’ understood by the Inka as being ‘like us.’”

Dean’s discussions of the Quechua speakers and the Inca beg the questions if anthropomorphism, like many things, is in the eye of the beholder, if its definitions vary by culture, if it’s even a wise or relevant term that art historians can use to describe human qualities.  I wouldn’t have understood rocks in Inca culture to have such qualities unless someone had told me. Someone did, and now that rocks are imbued with humanity, what is the signifier in art that denotes that I am looking at something anthropomorphic, like me?

Is anthropomorphism — humanity in art — simply not possible in a world that increasingly reduces things to scientific terms, as J.M. Bernstein toys with? He writes:

“Construals of modern science exist that interpret [enlightenment thought] as a form of anthropomorphism, but the dominant ideology of scientific naturalism wagers that truth is just the systematic overcoming of anthropomorphism until an absolute conception of the universe is achieved. From here, it becomes tempting to romantically stage the fundamental debate about the meaning of modern life as occurring between the artistic inscription of the unavoidability of anthropomorphism on the one hand, against the scientific project of its extirpation on the other hand; the triumph of the latter would be complete when even the human is understood in nonhuman — casual, mathematical, mechanistic — terms.”

Can or should we support “scientific naturalism” — taking anthropomorphism and its qualities, and trading them for a humanity that  is measured solely through science? What would become of art, that “natural abode of anthropomorphism”? Art is, after all, as Bernstein describes it “a moment in an endless effort to ascribe human form to the forever nonhuman, as if we could only make sense of humanity by seeing it projected onto what is patently other than human.” Art, as an inanimate object, isn’t human. Yet, we imbue it with human form, have it eschew human morals and beliefs, recognize it as being in a way “like us.”

But what happens when art, for its viewers, is human, or … divine? Jane Garnett and Gervase Rosser collaborate to discuss the miraculous image.  Miraculous images are found all over societies, on walls, in churches, in private chapels, in homes, causing the faithful to remember the power of these images and respond to the divine with thanks. Although I found the discussion slightly out of place in the consistent and thorough discussion taking place of “anthropomorphism” proper, the article was nonetheless thought provoking. The questions it addressed and raised were how humans respond to art, especially art that portrays a divine event, is itself imbued with divinity, and/or commemorates the faithfulness of the divine. Often, these images lend themselves to a communal yet private experience. For example, an effigy of the Virgin Mary was paraded through the streets of one village. In those moments, she was Mary, bringing with her all the virtues of her heavenly position. The effigy connected with the community as a whole and served as symbol of their collective faith but it also lent itself to private experiences of awe and worship with individual members of the community as they gazed up at her. Such experiences are not just for the modern world. In Baroque Spain, for instance, polychromed sculptures, usually specifically designed for procession, pasos, would be carried through the streets, with the community gathered. In ancient Egypt, too, similar processions occurred with divine art. Communities come together and recognize the common deity among them. They are often in human form — with human bodies and characteristics. They bleed and cry and gaze up in awe and yet there is something intrinsically otherworldly about them and in this way, they are not human. We, the viewers, are the lesser beings before these images, asking for mercy or aid or simply being struck with the sacredness of the image. We are wounded along with these images, as Elizabeth King wrote.

And after all of this, what is anthropomorphism, really?

I will never truly know, but I can grasp at it.