Conditions of Modern Primitivism
The student who attempts to investigate primitivism in nineteenth-century reflections on art is faced with a strange dilemma. Primitivism, as we know, is one of the oldest concepts of mankind, but at the same time it is conceived as a characteristic of the modern world and its art. How do we understand this apparent contradiction? And what precisely is primitivism anyhow?
One might expect primitivism to be simple and easy to grasp. In fact, however, few concepts in our vocabulary are more complex and intricate. The notion of “primitivism” calls for explanation at two different levels: at one level, it is an objective statement of fact, testimony to a concern with something that is seen as primitive. On the other, the concept suggests an intellectual or moral attitude to, or appreciation of, what is described as primitive, seeing it as superior to one's own condition and thus worthy of imitation. In fact, the term “primitivism,” particularly with this suffix, indicates that some features of the “primitive” have been appropriated or are deserving of imitation.
Primitivism, one should keep in mind, is typical of highly developed cultures (whatever the latter term may mean). In a learned and enlightening work, two American scholars, Arthur Lovejoy and George Boas, systematically distinguished between what they called “chronological” and “cultural” primitivism.1 “Chronological primitivism” looks for the primitive in the earliest stages of history; “cultural primitivism” looks for the primitive in cultures that differ from our own, regardless of their particular stage of history. Using this distinction we can say that to be a primitivist—whether in the “chronological” or “cultural” sense—one has to be aware that one's own world and culture differ from those considered primitive. It is only in developed societies, in cultures that have produced a rich reflective life of the mind, that we encounter such awareness, and hence also primitivism.