MATTERS OF LIFE & DEATH
But what is even more striking is that today, with so-called social media, modern civilisation has produced a technological means for giving the hostility of others an objective and sometimes fatal form.
Social media offers the illusion of sociability, but there is no sociability without the conventions of civility and the boundaries of privacy; in reality, it is a post-social environment in which people willingly expose themselves to the malice of others, given concrete and wounding form in words and images, amplified by the eyes of third parties and strangers; in which a person’s life dissolves into hysterical self-parading in the face of ubiquitous envy and ridicule. It is a world in which the word friend has become a verb, yet where every friend is, potentially at least, an enemy.
A third exhibition, Varilaku: Pacific Arts from the Solomon Islands, in 2011, considered the case of a particular cultural group in the South Pacific that had the peculiarity of being built around the practice of headhunting. The case was interesting because it was so unambiguous: this was a culture in which a youth could not become a man without killing another and collecting his head. The whole of the social fabric was based on this priority, and people lived in terror of raiding parties from a neighbouring community landing with the express aim of killing.
Yet this culture also produced some finely crafted objects and had its own cult of beauty, typically focused on the young male warrior rather than the women, whose role was more utilitarian. It was an exhibition that made one ponder the relation of violence and beauty, again holding up to us an image in which we could recognise, even in extreme form, something of ourselves. And it forced one to consider, too, another theme that is of urgent relevance across the world: at what point do particular cultures and belief systems overstep the bounds of universal principles of justice and human rights? Will a culture collapse entirely if a central but morally unacceptable element of it is excised, and does that matter?
Now a fourth exhibition is devoted to another South Pacific people: Kastom: Art of Vanuatu deals with a much less violent culture, but one that again is focused on the status of the male, and in which the object is to gain access to successively higher status levels throughout one’s life. Perhaps the thing that strikes us spontaneously about this system is the absolute lack of freedom or individuality it implies. There is not a choice of ways to live a meaningful or socially recognised life: there is only one path, a single way to social eminence.
But once again, whenever we look at an apparently simpler and more rudimentary culture with an attempt at sympathy rather than a self-assured conviction of our own superiority, we discover that it uncomfortably mirrors fundamental realities within our own lives. The simpler culture, in which certain features are more nakedly visible, can be like a fable revealing patterns that, in our own lives, we try to hide from ourselves.
How many of us in contemporary consumer society pursue a predetermined status path without considering whether we are sacrificing more important priorities?
In Vanuatu, the acquisition of higher status grades seems to be largely a matter of wealth, and of the amount of wealth that one is able to
Chubwan mask (15th-17th century), Pentecost Island