The Primitive and the Authentic

Modern art and the primitive

The course materials mentioned briefly the ‘primitive’ and the influence of it on Western modern art as a search for basics and simple authenticity. Tribal art and especially exotic tribal art was attractive to artists in the late 19th century. Inspired by anthropology, natural science e.g. Darwin, and circulation of Japanese wood prints artists as Paul Gauguin tried to escape modernization in urban Paris in the hope to find new inspirations from ‘primitive’ and exotic environments.

Pablo Picasso embraced a ‘raw’ primitivism in his painting Les Demoisselles d’Avignon, 1907, inspired by African tribal masks. Both were on show in juxtaposition at MoMA in the exhibition Primitivism in 20th Century Art; Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, 1984-5

The press release for the exhibition mentioned that the ‘term “primitivism” is used to describe the Western response to tribal cultures as revealed in the work and thought of modern artists. ‘ (The Museum of Modern Art, 1984). Foster criticised the exhibition for its suppression of the ‘imperialist precondition of primitivism’ (Foster, 1985, p.47)

The MoMA exhibition is one example of popular shows that juxtapose Western Art with ‘primitive’, exotic, and tribal art in a sense of conveying meaning through affinity and difference. Another aspect criticised by Freeland as well as Foster is the de-contextualization of artwork e.g. when Richard Long’s Mud Circle is placed alongside an Yuendumu Aboriginal ground painting in Paris, 1989 (Freeland, 2001, p.50). The different cultural contexts are replaced by formalist approaches. Foster argued that the misreading of those exhibitions is between expressive articulation and ritualistic, apotropaic, decorative or therapeutic meaning. (Foster, 1985, p.50)

It raises questions of cultural appropriation, post-colonial art reception, and how tribal art or folk art can be understood in contemporary context. Also it questions whether different cultural artefacts can be considered either as a causality or affinity. And whether the Western definition of art is appropriate at all.

What makes me wonder how to compare modern Western Art with other cultures. Why not to compare modern Western Art with e.g. medieval art of even ancient Western art? Why not to compare modern avant-garde art, or just art as such, with folklore? I am curious to understand the reasons for that. Folklore and former Western art are as much influenced by local stories, spiritual and religious elements as those of other indigenous cultures. This surely moves away from art history towards anthropology and sociology. But would a perspective on the  tradition of a specific culture be less valuable?

One key aspect are signs: The examples of Picasso’s Les Demoisselles and African tribal masks can make it clear that affinity and formal aspects of signifiers do not need to resonate with cultural codes and paradigms (ibid, p.49) For me this seems to be quite obvious, as linguistic signifiers in French are at times very different from English signifiers (the wordplays by Derrida in French language are just showing that these are hard to translate in other languages)

The ‘primitive’

It is a social construct, a binary opposition to civilised, developed, educated. In colonial imperialist context ‘primitive’ was considered as the opposite to Western Enlightenment i.e. nearly all other cultures. Often associated with indigenous cultures. In Western reception these cultures are either exoticized or seen as fetishes.

There might be other aspects to the primitive, more to do with human conditions and subconsciousness. The primitive, the primordial, and unmediated view on humankind? This may lead to art movements as ‘Art Brut’, a term coined by Jean Dubuffet for art done by outsiders e.g mentally sick people (see my blog post here)

It also relates to Newman’s essay ‘The First Man was an Artist‘  in which he described the unmediated, primordial ‘poetic gesture’ of the ‘original man’, a blueprint of the primitive.

Cultural appropriation

Exchange of cultures and cross-fertilisation of cultural elements did not happen only with the rise of the term ‘primitive’ and  late 19th and 20th century artistic interrogations. It happened in ancient Greece (influence of Egyptian sphinxes) and in Japan with Zen-Buddhism (as a mix with external Buddhism). Questions by anthropologists on how much indigenous culture can be seen as ‘innocent’ cultures and whether they should be protected by Western influence in their development, e.g. Lèvi-Strauss or impact on Aboriginal art (Freeland, 2001, pp.51-54) are claiming a post-colonial attitudes of superiority.

Nowadays, it is still argued with the legitimate rights to appropriate indigenous ‘art’ elements for Western artworks. Western postmodern art is characterised by hybrid styles of intertextual appropriations of past art movements, pastiche and irony. What makes inter-cultural, intertextual appropriations so challenging for acceptance? Perhaps, this is just my personal feeling. Surely something to research deeper.

Cultural identity 

Ricoeur argued 1962 that in order to survive in a word of disorientation ‘each culture must be grounded in its indigenous tradition’ (Foster, 1985, p.69). A perspective most relevant to hybrid identities in our global world of migration and relocation. The greek term ‘diaspora’ highlights the relevance of local communities in living in their cultural traditions abroad. Those can be Jewish around the Globe or the Amish people living in the Midwest in USA. But also other groups and people keeping their cultural and self-identity around the globe. Being myself an expat in my past, with short terms of constant relocation, I can truly relate to the alienation effect abroad and the search for comfort and home.

Cultural reception / example Bourdieu and Kabylia

I came across the article by H. Roodenburg about the anthropologist and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1932-2002) who made fieldwork studies of the Algerian Kabylia tribe in 1950-60 around the time of the Algerian Independence war (Roodenburg, 2004). One key question explored in this article is the way we perceive other cultures and how we apply possibly a logocentric Western perspective on our reception.

Bourdieu’s point was to de-stabilise the Western cultural assumptions by ‘de-familiarising the familiar in our own society’ (ibid, p.222-224). His intention was to rehabilitate the Kakylians from a ‘racist tradition’ (ibid).

The main argumentation is around the term habitus and hexis, the first the Latin and the second the Greek word for habitus (bodily condition). Bourdieu’s conception is one of a difference between bodily schemata and pre-reflexive bodily dispositions in contrast to linguistic conditions and significations. It is related the Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology and conceptions by Diana Taylor of differences between archive (inscriptions, material) and repertoire (body, gesture, posture). Both are different in the ‘means of transmitting knowledge’ (ibid, p.220) and to generate memory of the cultural conditions.

The key point is that cultures need to be understood in context of social pre-reflexive patterns that are embodied as a ‘doxic experience’ without explicit expressions (ibid, p.223). Roodenburg argued that Bourdieu was not that successful in de-mystifying the Kabylia as Bourdieu was taken the bodily social conditions (repertoire) isolated from the written tradition (archive) in that culture. Roodenburg criticises that cultural reception should consider the contemporary culture in the present and to not mystify an ancient, pre-written, ‘innocent’ culture.

Hermann Bausinger did see three approaches in studying cultural elements (ibid, pp.223.224):

  1. To consider the origin of the cultural element in the past and to deduct meaning from that origin (e.g. the way th Brother Grimm were approaching it)
  2. To consider the origin of the cultural element in the past and to focus on the present context
  3. To consider the cultural element as fully belonging to a contemporary culture

The last one reminds me of the article by Williams (1993) ‘Mirrors without Memories: Truth, History, and the New Documentary’ where she explored postmodern documentary and expressed the notion that fragmented memories of the past can only be evoked in the present, not to experienced directly.

I find the notion of embodiment in relationship to social practices and memory intriguing and it brings me back to me earlier inquiry in embodied meaning.


  • I was fascinated by the article by Roodenburg on Bourdieu and the difference between language (verbal or written) and bodily dispositions as a social and cultural condition. I can sense that this is a common aspect across cultures, Western, African tribes, Aborigines, or Japanese Zen Buddhism.
  • Taylor’s conception of archive and repertoire as a difference in transmitting knowledge seems related to Deleuze’ conception of the potentiality and future becoming through immanent actualisation of an experienced life.
  • I find that an interrogation of the ‘primitive’ in a wider context challenges not only Western art conceptions, but also the logocentric semiotics related to Saussure and Derrida focusing on linguistic arbitrary signs as the main drivers for creating meaning.
  • I have the feeling that inter-cultural, intertextual appropriations are more challenging for acceptance than intra-cultural appropriations e.g. postmodern art. An aspect I need to research deeper.
  • At the end the question unanswered is “What is authenticity?” End of the 19th century artists made an effort to seek out for an unmediated, primordial expression that were believed to be more authentic. The various approaches in studying cultures as well as art highlight how different perspectives provide different meaning. Thus, I would tend to say that authenticity is deferred, as Derrida expressed it with différance.  One cannot reach the bottom of it, there will be always another approach and perspective. Or to say it in Deleuze words ‘only difference are alike’.


  • Foster, H. (1985) ‘The “Primitive” Unconscious of Modern Art’, in: October. [Online]. 34,  pp. 45-70,  Available from: [accessed 08 Sep 2017].
  • Freeland, C. (2003) Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction, Very Short Introductions, paperback ed. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press Inc. .
  • Roodenburg, H. (2004) ‘Pierre Bourdieu: Issues of Embodiment and Authenticity’, in: Etnofoor. [Online]. 17(1/2),  pp. 215-226,  Available from: [accessed 10 Sep 2017].

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