WHAT'S THE USE OF ART? — Asian Visual and Material Culture in Context, edited by Jan Mrazek and Morgan Pitelka. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2008, 314 pp., with illustrations, $58 (cloth)

The question is rhetorical, that is, uttered for effect, to make a statement rather than to obtain an answer. It was first heard in 2001 during a discussion of the Annual Meeting of the Association of Asian Studies when Jan Mrazek suggested bringing together Asia experts to produce papers on the relationship between the function and the objectification of Asian art.

As phrased by Robert de Caroli, one of the authors in this resulting volume, the question refers to "the commonly accepted truth that the meanings attributed to objects are not inherent to the objects themselves." Original meanings ignored, the meanings now associated with the object (shard, pot, statue, painting) have been constructed. They are now associated (in museums, particularly) with notions of status, exhibition, display.

Or, as Richard H. Davis asks in his paper, what happens when "local decorative traditions, intended solely for domestic viewing, become accessible to a broader audience of art viewers and collectors?"