Primitive Art

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Primitive Art


The concept of “primitive art” is partly a figment of the romantic imagination of the Western art world. A major problem of this field lies in the attempt to move from an ethnocentric preoccupation with primitive art to basic, anthropologically based studies of variations of the art of the world’s peoples. Leonhard Adam (1940, p. 30 in the 1949 edition) said that the mere foreignness of form and content of the various primitive arts serve to link them together in our mind for purposes of art criticism but that this linking is extraneous to the works themselves, being more a part of our attitudes toward them. The serious study of primitive art may be said to consist of attempts to delimit, classify, and understand the art of various peoples of the world in such a way that links other than those formed from our Western attitudes may be found between them.

The dictionary definition of the word “primitive” stresses the original, first, or root stages of development, and thus use of the term “primitive art” frequently connotes “early” art. However, most of what is generally considered as primitive art originated in the recent past in ethnographically known societies. Most of the primitive art objects in museums and private collections are contemporary with such modern European art movements as impressionism and subsequent developments, but prehistoric art, archeologically recovered and interpreted, is also primitive art. Although still small, the corpus of prehistoric primitive art will probably increase.

The peculiarity involved in calling recent and still-living peoples “primitive” and in knowing that the word can also have a historical meaning is a major source of discontent with the use of the term “primitive art” (see Haselberger 1961 for arguments on this topic and for consideration of alternate terms). But however controversial the term may be, it does refer to art objects and data centered on the art of various indigenous peoples of Oceania, the Americas, and Africa and on the prehistoric art of precivilized peoples. It has been suggested that “primitive art” be retained as a viable term but that the entity to which it refers be carefully delimited and denned. Primitive art is the art of societies that are typologically, rather than chronologically, primitive.

There seems to be no common denominator of form in primitive art. Adam (1940) and Firth (1951, pp. 155–182) make the points that primitive art is not uniform and that it has a great diversity of themes and styles, but that these styles and the differences between them are imposed upon the materials by Western observers. Firth finds that there has been little success in relating style of art to type of society and in relating differences of form and style to geographical or social differences (ibid., p. 170).

Nonetheless, there are elements of social structure that are common to all the societies from which the art comes. Primitive society as a type of society from which civilization developed was described by Redfield (1953, pp. 6–15, 22). In Redfield’s terms primitive societies are those whose communities are small, isolated, homogeneous, nonliterate, and lacking in full-time spe ialists. Art in primitive societies is produced by artists who work for an audience or public whose members know each other and share values. The relative isolation of such societies insulates the artists from the influence of foreign styles. The absence of literacy magnifies the importance of art, which in nonliterate societies often carries burdens of communication otherwise the concern of written documents, monument inscriptions, and the like. But most important, the art of primitive societies is the product of artists who are not specialists.

They seem to be semispecialists, in that they have learned to carve and paint and to do so better than other members of their society, but they still must participate in everyday economic activities in order to subsist. This contrasts with the situation of artists working in more complex societies, where full specialization occurs. Which are the societies from which the art objects now in museums and private collections come?

In Oceania, the primitive societies are those indigenous to Australia, Melanesia, Micronesia, Polynesia, and Malaysia whose cultures have not been significantly influenced by the extensions of Asian civilization into the Pacific area. In the Americas, they are those Indian societies of North and South America that were not influenced by the Andean and Mesoamerican civilizations. In sub-Saharan Africa, they are various indigenous peoples who were not influenced by extensions of Euro-Asian civilizations or by the several indigenous Negro states and kingdoms of the western Sudan, the Guinea coast, and the Congo region. In Asia (exclusive of the great Chinese and Indian civilizations), the Siberian tribes, the Ainu, central Asian nomads, and some of the marginal aboriginal peoples of south China and mainland southeast Asia may be considered as primitive societies. In Europe, paleolithic cave and portable art may generally be considered primitive art and so may that of neolithic peoples, except that certain neolithic cultures may be considered the beginning stages of European civilization.

The points in time at which specific primitive peoples came into contact with civilized European, Asian, and African societies varied, and so the change from the isolation of primitive society to inclusion in the political and economic affairs of large, stratified states occurred at different times in different parts of the world. Utilizing social criteria for the classification of primitive art eliminates much ambiguity.

Anthropologists have often been interested, although marginally, in the art of the peoples they study. In late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century ethnographic studies, treatment of art went along with general concern with material culture. As more and more energy was diverted from studies of material culture to studies of kinship, social structure, political and economic systems, and value systems, this emphasis declined. Recognition was given to the conservative qualities of primitive art: it looks ever backward to what has come before, to antiquity, and in so doing, it incorporates glimpses of the past. Moreover, art is artifact, conscious and deliberate, so that locked into every art object are consciously determined images and forms, symbolic of ideas, events, and personages.

The basic ethnographic collections of material culture and art in the anthropological museums were made during the early and mid-nineteenth century through the first two or three decades of the twentieth. Private collections were also formed primarily during this period, some earlier, but they have been steadily absorbed by the museums. The primitive art objects now in the museums originated partly as curiosities brought back by travelers, colonial officials, and missionaries and partly through systematic collections by ethnologists and archeologists. They were displayed and sometimes studied as part of the cultures of the exotic peoples of the world.

It was in this period that the European modern art movement, although it had been evolving since the Renaissance, began to change very rapidly. Canons of romanticism and naturalism toppled, and Western art moved through a dizzying succession of styles toward increasing abstraction of form with a corresponding de-emphasis of explicit content. Schools, factions, and cliques arose and contended over the differing styles, each being put forward as the inheritor of the mainstream of European artistic tradition.

During the period from 1900 to 1910, as Western artists, art dealers, critics, collectors, and historians sought justification and rationalization of the radical new art forms, they began to make voyages of discovery, not to Oceania and Africa but to the exhibition halls of the anthropological museums where collections from those areas and from the Americas were readily available. The traditional arts of the primitive peoples were hailed as new discoveries, and their stylizations of form were pointed out as support for the radically stylized modern art. Primitive art was hailed as the brother of modern art.

Some of the forms of primitive art, notably African sculpture, found their way by this route into the works of Western artists such as Picasso and Braque. Art dealers traded in African, American, and Oceanic primitive art, and collectors purchased (at low prices) these “masterpieces” of primitive art. Interpreters of primitive art arose, not from the ranks of anthropologists but from the art world, and they emphasized form. There was little concern with contextual meaning or the relationship between the art objects and the culture from which they came. Meanings were read into the objects, regardless of historical justice.

Unquestionably the Western art world has focused great interest upon primitive art and attracted the attention of scholars. However, these nonanthropologically oriented art commentators have done little to increase understanding of primitive art. At the same time, unfortunately, the anthropologists have moved away from consideration of art, so that although there is some mention of art in ethnological monographs, it is rarely detailed enough to provide for significant analysis.

There have been pioneering studies, notably by anthropologists with orientations toward art history, but they have not been very penetrating. The usual combination of library and museum research is simply not sufficient; what is needed is art-oriented ethnographic field research. This field research must be carried out in reference to, and with inquiry about, specific objects and classes of objects presently in museums. This, of course, is the oftensounded call to study a living people before their culture changes, but for many parts of the world it is still a valid exhortation and will continue to be for some time to come.

However, unlike the kind of study that has been called for in the past, these ethnological studies could build upon the foundation laid by the vast museum collections of the world, most of which are catalogued but not adequately surveyed and cross-referenced. When the collected art of a given people can be dealt with exhaustively, it will then be possible to conduct field research that will help to classify such materials into style areas. Most museum collections contain a large number of specimens that are incompletely catalogued and either are without specific provenience or have erroneously attributed places of origin. A crucial task to be accomplished for previously collected specimens of primitive art is to extend attribution of provenience as accurately as possible. Ethnohistorical research could supplement study of museum collections by concentrating on the historical conditions under which the collections were made and on the sociocultural contexts in which the art itself was made and used. This kind of study would take into account the complex sampling of objects from different time periods and different subareas of the studied regions represented by museum collections.

Studies of the sociocultural contexts of specific art objects, forms, and styles should focus carefully upon the art as part of a larger system. In other words, specialized, anthropologically based study of art is needed, which would seek data about art and its contexts from a number of different societies and strive to place such studies in a comparable conceptual framework. A facet of the anthropological study of art in its social context would be that the phenomenon could be dealt with in its own right and as actually found, rather than ethnocentrically, or as primarily in relationship to the art of Western society. Previous ethnocentric studies have warped our view of primitive art, so that its concepts and forms always seem to be exotic variations on our own art. Western concepts of art for art’s sake, the marginal position of artists in society, and the emphasis on a conscious, verbalized aesthetic criticism are often brought up in considering the art of a primitive society, as though these were universal features of art. Actually these may well turn out to be very special aspects of Western art and perhaps of the art of other civilized societies.

General archeological research will obviously increase in areas whose prehistory is now virtually unknown, such as Oceania and sub-Saharan Africa. As the boundaries of ethnographically known primitive art are extended into prehistory, it is possible that presently known styles and areas will take on different significance. Indeed the very notion of primitive art as a field of study may give way to an amalgamation and synthesis of traditional art history and the study of primitive art, so that comparable regional histories of art will be established. Perhaps from such a base, increased knowledge of the common denominators of all art will become possible.

Phillip H. Lewis


Adam, Leonhard (1940) 1954 Primitive Art. 3d ed., rev. & enl. Baltimore: Penguin.

Boas, Franz (1927) 1955 Primitive Art. New ed. New York: Dover.

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Douclas, Frederic H.; and Harnoncourt, Rene D’ 1941 Indian Art of the United States. New York: Museum of Modern Art.

Elisofon, Eliot; and Fagg, William B. 1958 The Sculpture of Africa. New York: Praeger.

Firth, Raymond W. (1951) 1952 Elements of Social Organization. New York: Philosophical Library. → A paperback edition was published in 1963 by Beacon. See especially Chapter 5, “The Social Framework of Primitive Art.”

Gerbrands, Adrian A. (1956) 1957 Art as an Element of Culture, Especially in Negro Africa. Leiden (Netherlands): Brill. → First published as Kunst als cultuur-element, in het bijzonder in Neger-Afrika.

Guiart, Jean 1963 The Arts of the South Pacific. New York: Golden Press.

Haselberger, Herta 1961 Method of Studying Ethnological Art. Current Anthropology 2:341–381. → Includes comments and a rejoinder by Herta Haselberger. A bibliography appears on pages 381–384.

Leuzinger, Elsy (1959) 1960 Africa: The Art of the Negro Peoples. New York: McGraw-Hill. → First published in German.

Linton, Ralph; and Wingert, Paul S. 1946 Arts of the South Seas. New York: Museum of Modern Art.

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New York, Museum of Primitive Art 1960 Bambara Sculpture From the Western Sudan. Edited by Robert Goldwater. New York: The Museum.

Redfield, Robert 1953 The Primitive World and Its Transformations. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press.

Schmitz, Carl A. (1960) 1963 Wantoat: Art and Religion of the Northeast New Guinea Papuans. The Hague: Mouton. → First published as Beiträge zur Ethnographie des Wantoat Tales, Nordost Neuguinea.

Symposium On The Artist In Tribal Society, London, 1957 1961 The Artist in Tribal Society. Edited by Marian W. Smith. London: Routledge; New York: Free Press.

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Wingert, Paul S. 1962 Primitive Art: Its Traditions and Styles. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.