Last weekend, the neighbors' 3-year-old asked to help in the garden. His name is Nicholas, but you can call him Mr. Why. As in, "Why are your garden gloves purple?" "Why are we planting blue flowers?" "Why do your rubber boots have stripes?"
Like most toddlers, little Nicholas has some standard misconceptions about life. He's bought into the functionalist fallacy, in which you imagine that everything you come across is there for some good reason. And he's bought into the intentional fallacy, which says that you can get the final word on why something is there by asking the person responsible for it.
All of which, Nico's parents will be glad to hear, gives him promise as a future art historian.
This brings us to "Where Gods and Mortals Meet: Continuity and Renewal in Urhobo Art," an appealing new exhibition at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art. Some of his "whys" are behind that show.
Nico would have started out, like all the rest of us, amazed at the objects on show, and at the talents of the people who made them.
The Urhobo live in southwestern Nigeria, among the forests and waterways of the upper delta of the Niger River. They may have moved there from farther north, perhaps to get out from under the shadow and authority of the famous Benin kings. For the past few centuries, they've scratched out a living as subsistence farmers, but with enough spare time and surplus wealth to practice art as well.
Their craftsmen have made lovely, massive bracelets out of ivory, to decorate the leading women of their villages and let them show off their substantial means.
They've sculpted elegant wooden masks, pared down to capture the basic forms of the human face, then painted and polished to reflect the glow and beauty of freshly oiled, skillfully tattooed skin.
They've made moving statuettes of mothers carrying babies on their backs or in the act of nursing them.
And they've carved other figures meant to be imposing, even terrifying.
Small ones a couple of feet high look more or less like adult men on top, but at about the level of the crotch they become a giant maw with awful fangs or tusks. In these sculptures, abstract notions of male aggression and sexual hunger are given living force.
Other wooden figures, larger than life-size, seem all about asserting stable, impassible, monumental presence. An upright female figure, with the hanging breasts of maturity and the massive ivory ornaments of wealth, stares straight out at us. The weight and scale of her erect sculpture seem to parallel the weight and scale of her immovable authority.
Another standing statue renders a hugely barrel-chested male, with powerful arms, massive thighs and a penis to match. He also stares straight ahead; he demands reverence and attention, but doesn't seem about to return either to his supplicants.
Once little Nico had taken these in, he'd start asking the usual question, to the usual people: "Why," he'd ask the Urhobo, "is your art the way it is?"
In this exhibition, the curators have asked those questions for him, and display the answers in their wall texts and catalogue.
We hear about the functions of the objects in Urhobo ritual and life: how the female masks and figures are used to mark women's rites of passage; how the bestial male figures are used to help control and direct aggressive masculinity; how the monumental carvings conjure potent ancestors.
I don't doubt that if you ask the Urhobo what their art is all about, these are the kinds of things you hear. What I doubt is that getting an answer from the artists, or their patrons, means you've got a half-decent explanation of the art.
For one thing, this functionalist approach to explanation means that the art itself always gets subordinated to the uses it's put to: It implies that a culture's objects will always play second fiddle to the rituals, religion and metaphysics that they're supposed to serve and reflect. It's as though we valued Bach's Mass in b Minor as a device for saving souls. For another -- here comes little Nico's intentional fallacy -- the meanings that art objects themselves convey, simply because of what they are and how they look, get lower billing than their makers' talk about them.
People will supply some kind of verbal explanation for almost anything, if you insist on getting one. But that doesn't mean it hasn't been dreamed up on the spot. (We all know that answering "just because" can lead to a tantrum -- and what African carver would want to face an anthropologist's tantrum?)
The accounts that scholars have got from the Urhobo about art and their worldview sure sound off-the-cuff. They're full of inconsistencies, contradictions and terminal vagueness. One minute black symbolizes evil and negativity; the next, it's a sure sign of prosperous good health. One minute the spirit world is up above, where the highest dance steps can reach up to it; the next it's down below -- and later it's said to be level with the everyday and interpenetrating it. Sometimes there's a supreme being who is out of reach and far removed from daily cares; at other times he's a god who needs his anger calmed. The Urhobo seem perfectly happy with religious practices and thought that border on the casual; their accounts of their art seem similarly loose.
Maybe, like all the rest of us in daily life, the Urhobo don't really work with systematic explanations of what their world is like, and why. They mostly simply do -- they make their art, they dance their dances, they hold their festivals, they even perform rituals of one kind or another -- without talking it through. Whatever Plato says, an unexamined life may be life as it is truly lived.
Maybe the real meaning of an Urhobo carving resides, somehow, in the thing it is and how it came to be. By which I don't mean to invoke some kind of fantasy of universal abstract values, whereby an Urhobo statue of a nursing mother is "really" supposed to be a pile of cylinders and arcs and cones, attractive to all comers. I imagine that the meanings of an Urhobo work are many, and always flexible as different people take it in.
I imagine that the meaning is built up through the way the artwork looks like things encountered in the world and also different from them. (Like a man, but also like a vicious snout; like a village dowager, but also like a standing tree.)
I imagine that the meaning comes from how the object is rather like the artworks that have come before, but is also refreshingly distinct from them. The Urhobo themselves talk about how much they value originality in art.
I imagine that meaning comes from such things as how long a carving took to make, from who paid for it and from all the useful things its lump of wood could have been used for if it hadn't become art. Even from all the unmotivated choices and plain accidents that leave an object looking as it does.
And, of course, I imagine that all the varied meanings that reside in a work of art will also let it function in other areas of life: That a statue full of male aggressiveness will get caught up in the fervor of a war dance, as we see in footage in this show.
Maybe ritual and art are best conceived as parallel creative acts -- twin byproducts of Homo sapiens' advanced symbolic thought, bouncing off each other and gaining energy as they collide.
Humans are so full of spare ideas and mental energy that if you give them leisure time and some material to play around with, you'll soon get meaningful works of art -- and then maybe, rather later, a justification in words for what those objects are supposed to do and signify.
The funny thing is that we Westerners acknowledge that good art works will be slippery, versatile, even ineffable -- when it's our own art. Show us art from far away or long ago, however -- from an African village or a medieval church -- and we condescendingly imagine that its special weirdness is best explained in simple, functionalist terms.
And that we'll get such simple explanations if we ask around enough.
Where Gods and Mortals Meet, through Sept. 25 at the National Museum of African Art, on the Mall at 10th Street SW. Call 202-633-4600 or visit africa.si.edu. The museum is near the Smithsonian and L'Enfant Plaza Metrorail stops.