Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Primitivism and Humanist Teleology in Art History around 1900

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Primitivism and Humanist Teleology in Art History around 1900

Article excerpt

The following text deals primarily with the writings of two art historians: Karl Woermann und Ernst Grosse and how they conceived of art. Their texts circle around fundamental divisions: the difference between animals and human beings, between peoples of nature and peoples of culture, between primitive tribes and civized societies. These divisions are symptomatic of notions of art around 1900. Under the influence of ethnology as a discipline and within the period of colonialism, art history opened itself towards the integration of the arts of nonEuropean people. Under which conditions, with which terms, which considerations or hierarchies - in short: under which epistemological conditions did Non-European art become part of European knowledge? Posing this question, one is confronted with some contradictions: art was considered to be the marker which divides mankind from the animal kingdom. Humanist teleology, i.e. the belief in the necessity and capablility of human development as a fundamental division from lower species provided the argument for this distinction. But exactly this very same teleology also implied that even if art was considered as common to mankind, not all people were regarded as equal. The following deals with the place of art of nonEuropean peoples within the science of art, aesthetics and art history around 1900.

1. Allochronic logic

The fact that at around 1900 the art of non-European people, especially in Africa, Oceania, Polynesia or Australia, was regarded as primitive, did not simply lead to the widely researched primitivisms in European art. But also the primitive was the mode under which these arts were discussed as art at all. The notion of the primitive around 1900 can be characterised by at least two aspects numerated by Johannes Fabian in his groundbreaking book Time and the Other. How Anthropology makes its Objects from 1983: the primitive is a Western, spatiotemporal category of thought and it served as an instrument of domination in the course of colonialism.1 Wheras Fabian refered to anthropology the same applies to (art) history writing, if we follow Fabian or authors like Valentin Mudimbe.2 Both state that colonialism should not just be seen in direct relation to the possession of colonies since the 1880s or as a concrete expression of colonial thinking, but also as an epistemological configuration in the way knowledge about other cultures was produced. Ulrich Pfisterer in his text on 'Origins and Principles of World Art History: 1900 (and 2000)' wants to free late nineteenth-century art historical studies from the 'banner of "postcolonial studies"', so as to draw a 'more complex picture' using cultural anthropology and psychology.3 Whereas certainly cultural anthropology and psychology, like folk psychology, are very important for art history around 1900, I would like to argue that they are not an alternative to postcolonial thinking, since they were deeply affected by the epistemological hierarchy which postcolonial scholars like Fabian or Mudimbe have been pointing out. The folk psychologist Wilhelm Wundt, for example, adopted the then standard history of development, thinking that mankind developed from a primitive stage towards humanity. In his Völkerpsychologie (1900-1920) he defended a linear history of progress, according to which humanity developed in a sequence from the 'primitive' to the 'totemist' age, to the 'heroes and Gods,' and finally reached 'humanity.' 'Primitive man' here is the wild man: but the 'wild man is essentially an animal with some human qualities.'4

Having examples like this in mind, one can counter postcolonial studies by stating that it was the constructions of history and concepts of art and value in art history that classified Western culture as inherently more valuable, placing the arts of other cultures and societies on the level of pre-art, primitive art, or art's beginnings. Here, art history conforms to the allochronic logic discussed by Fabian, which basically consists in denying conevalness to Europe's 'others': [. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.