An Analysis of the Primitive in Art and Anthropology

In Of Interest, Uncategorized on August 10, 2011 at 2:00 pm

MoMA's Controversial Exhibition

Shelly Errington, Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz and specialist in visual cultural anthropology, reflexively analyzes Western art historians in her essay, “What Became Authentic Primitive Art?” (Cultural Anthropology: 1994). She critiques the notion of Authentic Primitive Art and as a western, ethnocentric ideological construct and problematizes hierarchical arrangement of such non-Western artifacts. She argues against dominating themes of ethnocentrism in Western art by analyzing exhibits of Primitive Art, which she incriminates as the source of non-Western “otherization”. Specifically, she argues against “Art by Appropriation”, stating that “the vast majority of objects found in fine arts museums were not created as ‘art,’ not intended by their makers to be ‘art’,” rather, these artifacts exist independently of the Western Museum proper (Errington: 202). Instead, Errington advocates for cultural relativism in lieu of Western ethnocentrism in the appreciation of non-Western artifacts.

Primitivism as a category of art could not exist without the troublesome dichotomy between Western and non-Western traditions in art. Idealizations of an “untouched” culture, “uncontaminated” by Western influence shape the interpretations of non-Western art as pure, but less civilized, and thus primitive. It is this notion of the “primitive” in art that mirrors former anthropological representations of “our origins” in less ‘civilized’ cultures. Inherently, these objects differed largely from the Western “civilized” (read: white) definition of art that dominated aesthetic theory in the 19th and 20th centuries. Reminiscent of Lewis Morgan’s theory of ethnical periods, the argument made in both art history and early anthropology is one of stratification of the more “civilized” (white) against the “primitive” (non-white). Morgan also suggests that the “primitive” peoples are genuine indications of (white, civilized) past—that such a culture has developed more slowly and therefore are static representations of our former selves. It is this fascination with the origins of our culture that drove the 19th century obsession with Primitivism, Errington argues.

The MoMA exhibition “takes us backwards through time to our origins. It moved from a specific point in historical time, the early 20th century, into the realm of pure form and spirit, and finally into the mythical realm of the purely authentic, where the sprit of the Primitive, rather than simply material objects, informs the creation of art” (Errington: 219).

This system of stratification places Western standards of beauty and composition as the best, most accomplished art. Errington calls this “the naturalistic prejudice”, in which High Western art is based on mimicking reality whereas Primitive Art reaches the border as a ‘stylized’ and ‘abstract’ version of Western naturalism. It is this “unstated and largely unconscious link in the West between the permanent and the civilized, the durable and ‘high’ civilization and arts” that serves as a foundation for prejudice against non-Western culture as a whole (Errington: 205).

This assumption of the universality of High Civilization is a major point of contention in anthropology. Depicted in Laura Bohannan’s “Shakespeare in the Bush”, ethnocentrism, or the belief that one’s own culture is the standard that may be applicable to others, is exemplified though her frustration with the inability of the Tiv to understand “Hamlet”, something so basic yet crucial to an English-speaking person. This exemplifies Arrington’s critique of the Western criteria for non-Western art, in that it was judged by “how closely they approximated the formal qualities, the ‘look,’ of high modernist art,” moreover, how well Primitive Art mimicked Western traditional masterpieces (Errington: 215).

The domination of mimetic theory (imitating reality) in Western art history immediately marginalizes non-Western art that does not conform. Despite the fact that the two geographically and culturally isolated traditions of art evolved independently of one another, the Western tradition of art is seen as the standard, the non-Western as the deviation. This parallels Bohannan’s initial supposition of a universal culture, exemplified by her assumption that the English language and one of its masterpieces, “Hamlet”, could withstand cross-cultural translation. Errington also comments on the institutionalization of such ethnocentrism in reference to the Rockefeller wing of Primitive Art. She criticizes “the lack of cultural specificity of the labels, the use only of English-language terms (ritual, ceremony, initiation, etc) and the failure to explicate the purposes and sociology of these ‘ceremonies’” as highly ethnocentric (Errington: 212).

In conclusion, Errington proposes that one solution to ethnocentrism in Art is cultural relativism, in that artifacts should be interpreted within their own cultural context. She argues that the lens through which Western art historians view the artifacts of non-Western cultures is incorrect, assuming that mimesis is the ultimate goal of all art. Rather, non-Western art should not be seen “non”-anything. In order to avoid the marginalization of art from Africa, Oceania, Asia and beyond, one must not seek to categorize based on Western notions of Art, but rather to seek the beauty and the purpose of art in each individual culture.


Errington, Shelley.  “What Became Authentic Primitive Art?” Cultural Anthropology.  Vol. 9, No. 2 (May 1994): 201-226.

Morgan, Lewis H. “Ethnical Periods” Ancient Society. 1877


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