All distinctions are hard to maintain. So what?

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Posted by Steve Price on November 29, 1998 at 12:09:43:

In Reply to: "Ethnographic": An Attractive Distinction Hard to Maintain posted by R. John Howe on November 29, 1998 at 06:48:44:

Dear Friends,

It's all too easy (and not very productive) to get tangled up in our classification systems, the methods we use for making distinctions.
1. There are always gray areas, things that are ambiguous about which box they belong in. This isn't a very good reason for discarding a classification method, as long as most things fit into one of the categories most of the time. It's like abandoning the words "man" and "boy" because there are some male human beings who are right on the borderline of any reasonable definition of the words.
2. There can be ambiguity of which category something belongs to even when it doesn't straddle a border. This is common in rugs, and we generally just live with the awareness that it's true. In fact, most of the time it doesn't even make us uncomfortable. We know that date attributions have a very high level of uncertainty, but the best guess is a fairly reliable statement of probability that it's in the ballpark. The same is true of geographic or tribal attributions. The fact that something has all the characteristics of a 19th century Ersari asmalyk (like the one illustrated), doesn't prove conclusively that it's Ersari or 19th century or, for that matter, that it was used in the way we think asmalyks were used. On the other hand, were I a gambler, I'd feel pretty confident in betting that all of those things are true, being most confident about the asmalyk part, a little elss
so about the Ersari label, and a little less about the 19th century attribution. Does that make the system worthless or unmaintainable? I don't think so, as long as we remember the limitations.
3. Now we come to "ethnographic", which we might loosely think of as items whose aesthetic reflects that of the culture of the person who made it, rather than that of the person of another culture who, it was hoped, would buy it. Sometimes we can't really tell, but sometimes we can be very sure that an item is not "ethnographic" in that sense - workshop carpets are a good example - and as long as we are aware of our uncertainty, the tentativeness with which we make an attribution should not galvanize us into inaction.

Fire when ready.

Steve Price

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