Aspects of Primitive Art

Aspects of Primitive Art

Aspects of Primitive Art

Aspects of Primitive Art

Excerpt

The three papers that make up this volume, given as lectures at the invitation of The Museum of Primitive Art, represent three points: Robert Redfield comes to primitive art through his life-long major interest -- the relativity of cultures. He here discusses, for art, the same problem he had analyzed more generally elsewhere, of how the observer external to a culture can penetrate and achieve sympathetic understanding of that culture while still preserving the values of his own tradition. Melville Herskovits speaks as a field anthropologist aware from long experience of how art's economic and social setting varies from culture to culture, and of the importance of these variations for the resultant styles. Gordon Ekholm explains the methods and attitudes toward art of the archaeologist, for whom art is part of that continuum of artifacts, ranging from potsherd to temple mound, which enables him to reconstitute the history of vanished cultures.

The three papers, then (which have been printed and illustrated in their original lecture form), are indirect, rather than direct, discussions of primitive art. By inviting three distinguished anthropologists to discuss the arts of primitive man as they see them, the Museum--as a museum of art--wished to stress its belief that the factual methods of interpretation and criticism long employed in the more traditional fields of art can be extended to primitive art as well, that the shock of discovery which for a time separated the "scientist" and the "art-lover" is long past, and that here too understanding is the basis for appreciation.

The Museum would be the first to grant the paradoxical nostalgia implied by all three authors: the best setting for any art, they seem to suggest, is the total context of its own culture. (And were one to insist upon it, how little of the world's art could be known at all!) Failing this, works of art must be shown accompanied by the artificial props of maps and photographs and texts, aids to understanding, and so to appreciation as well.

But a museum of art also believes the reverse to be true-- appreciation is one path to understanding. The anthropologist and the archaeologist (at least in their professional roles) tend to forget that works of art are not only illustrations of myth and legend, magic and religion, but also their veritable embodiments. These are the objects men had around them, the concrete images in whose shape and form and color were visualized the past histories and the living presences of gods and ancestors. If, in Robert Redfield's terms, we can by intellectual effort partially realize the "transcendent values" of these images, we can also become permeable to their "immanent values," and so approximate the direct visual impact these works of art originally had. In the process, we go beyond the distance usually associated with "aesthetic" contemplation; since through it we absorb their human and emotional intention. And this is the purpose of The Museum of Primitive Art: to produce the occasions of such permeability for its public, and by showing the arts of cultures so different from their own Western tradition, to widen the horizons of understanding and enjoyment.

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