‘Primitive Art’ Re-Evaluated in a Global Art Market

Richard Friswell
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cave painting

15,000 year-old prehistoric Altamira cave painting

In the 1990s, I recall watching Sister Wendy Beckett, the reluctant celebrity spokesperson for a popular PBS series on art appreciation. This sequestered nun, who for decades had lived under a vow of silence, had gained notoriety for her views on famous works of art and now stood in her nun’s habit waxing vociferously before the prehistoric Altamira cave paintings. Self-taught and passionate about the history of art, she gestured at the figures of stampeding bison and elk behind her and said, “These images are 15,000 years old. In the millennia that followed, art didn’t get any better than this, just different.”

In a few words, she summed up the argument for why we should not apply the word, ‘primitive’ to any artistic or material object from cultures far removed from our own tastes and values, simply because we do not understand them.

yombe maternity figure

Yombe Maternity Figure, Republic. of Congo, 19th century, private collection

On this, All Saints’ Day (November 1st), cultures throughout the world travel to cemeteries to celebrate the lives of deceased loved ones and ancestors, long-dead. It is a joyous event, with food shared and offered up and tender care given to the graves of the deceased. As hard as this may be to understand, are these rituals anymore primitive or morbid than our pagan celebration of Halloween the day before?

So, as we seek to understand the art and cultures of other peoples, especially in this period of inclusivity in our own history, where does the word ‘primitive’ fit in our lexicon—or does it at all?

pablo picasso

Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907; Museum of Modern Art, New York

Nineteenth century adventurism and usurpation of far-flung lands led to many abuses. Western cultural ethnocentrism and misogyny, combined with common practices of tomb raiding, careless and heavy-handed archeological ‘digs’, amounting to blatant theft of cultural artifacts, led to the unregulated and unquestioning sale of untold priceless artifacts to countless private collectors and newly-founded museums in many western countries.

These illicit activities had the effect of bringing to public attention new categories of art and artifacts that defied aesthetic understanding and categorization, under conventional Western terms. The word, ‘primitive’ was often used to describe objects of great inherent beauty and value, but, as it happened, just not to those currently in possession of them! It became a term that was applied to cultural artifacts that people were seeing, but not understanding. The rich symbolism, iconographic significance and ritualistic import of these art forms were left behind, as surely as the societies from which they had been taken.

Only with the increased awareness that the emerging field of cultural anthropology brought to the table in the mid-twentieth century, did questions begin to be raised about the possible inherent beauty and significance of these plundered treasures, culled from worlds so far apart and unfamiliar from our own.

H.W. Janson’s well-know text (1962 edition), History of Art, devotes nine full pages to a discussion of ‘primitive art’. Featuring mostly African, Inuit, Pacific islands and native American sculpture, Janson’s narrative is a compelling and useful read—because it offers what I believe is a helpful definition of what ‘primitive’ is and how it can be independently and respectfully applied to cultures, separate from their art forms, in various parts of the world.

karl schmidt-ruttloff

Karl Schmidt-Rottlull, Madchen aus Kowna, 1918, private collection

Thus, Janson defines ‘primitive’ in a social/cultural context as; “societies remote, isolated and set apart physically from the rest of the world; using Stone Age or ancient tool methods; rural and self-sufficient; tribal, not city-states; without written records, thus, ahistorical; static, not dynamic or progressively expansive; defensive toward outsiders and favoring ancestral worship.”

headstone wakefield

American graven image, sculptor unknown, 17th c., Wakefield, MA

This behavioral definition, while largely outmoded in today’s world of global interconnectivity, sheds light on a useful distinction between a particular set of shared cultural beliefs and behaviors that constitute a collective community identity, on the one hand, and the art and artifacts produced by those same societies, on the other. Though socially isolated, this particular definition does not detract from the fact that these ‘primitive’ communities may be capable of creating objects with all the inherent qualities of beauty, form and balance that rival objects more familiar to our Western eyes. Thus, primitive is a term reserved for the chosen lifestyle of selected cultures or peoples, not necessarily for their material output.

By the early 21st century, many art history texts had had relegated any discussion of ‘primitive’ to the primitivist movement of the early modern period. Then, artists like Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Henri Rousseau sought to capture the simplicity of form and composition seen in works from Africa, Columbian America and the pacific islands, as well as children’s art, folk and naïve art (now called ‘outsider art’) and even that of the mentally ill! Like other artists of that time (including Picasso), there was a shared assumption about the primal authenticity and purity of form that elevated these foreign objects to the realm of the mysterious and iconic—yet another likely disservice to their practical and functional indigenous origins.

So, elegant art and artifacts can emanate from so-called primitive cultures, although fewer such societies functioning in isolation from the rest of the world exist today. It is important to note however, that their art is not, by definition, primitive. Our view of it may be affected by our own ignorance or misinformation, but not necessarily by any limitation in their vision or ability to convey symbolic meaning through the objects they themselves value and revere.

by Richard Friswell, Editor-in-Chief

Check out this great discussion on ‘Primitivism” at: www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?historyid=ab19

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