Tribal Art and Artifact

Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 51 (1993): 13-21.

Denis Dutton

Europeans seeking to understand tribal arts face obvious problems of comprehending the histories, values, and ideas of vastly remote cultures. In this respect the issues faced in understanding tribal art (or folk art, primitive art, traditional art, third or fourth-world art — none of these designations is ideal) are not much different from those encountered in trying to comprehend the distant art of “our own” culture, for instance, the art of medieval Europe. But in the case of tribal or so-called primitive art, there are special complications. First, objects of tribal art are sometimes so strange to us that we cannot tell immediately whether they are intended to be works of art (or some local analogue of what we would call art) at all.1An African head-rest I once came across had an odd, extravagant extrusion which made the whole piece reminiscent of Arp. It seemed to my baffled, ignorant eyes to be much more than a mere head-rest, but I couldn’t tell what more it was supposed to be. Maybe that extension on the side of the object had some purely utilitarian function, acting as a handle, or perhaps it was a natural part of the original block of wood, left there merely because it looked nice to the eye of the carver. Though the head-rest seemed beautiful, I still don’t know if I was admiring as an essentially expressive object some simple item of practical use, or something that combined expression and utility.

We may add to such uncertainty the even more fraught issue of traditional or cultural authenticity. Small-scale traditional cultures world-wide are in decline, and their arts are deeply affected by the collision with powerful industrial societies. Where art works might in the past have been created for exclusively ritual or spiritual purposes, they are today increasingly produced for sale to tourists or foreign commercial buyers. Many such “made for export” works imitate traditional pieces, or in any event continue a ritual artifact tradition beyond the survival of the beliefs that underpinned it, indeed, beyond the life of the ritual itself.

Between the ends of these two continua — (1) purely utilitarian objects vs. art works and (2) tourist trinkets manufactured for an external market vs. authentic expressions of an indigenous aesthetic tradition — there will be any number of intermediate and overlapping cases, and it is the complexities of these middle areas that most interest me. There are carvings that to our eyes possess artistic or decorative elements, but which also have a primary practical value as tools (e.g., Sepik mallets with handles carved into crocodiles). There are also carvings which have a spiritual utility, for instance, carved figures meant to propitiate angry gods, heal the sick, or bring good luck (such carvings might be called spiritual tools). If we treat utilitarian objects — carving mallets or magic charms — as works of art, might we not be making some kind of category mistake, assigning to the category of art mere tools?

If we turn for a moment to the values of Western aficionados, curators, and collectors of tribal art, we encounter exactly these bedeviling questions. Western collectors are keen to distinguish the tourist art of tribal cultures from what is deemed “authentic” traditional art. They will often disparage tourist artifacts and reproductions of traditional works, while bidding up the prices of masks, pots, or carvings which they believe are old and were given ritual use by the people who made them. The perceptive tribal peoples who create these works have, of course, in many cases found this out, and so will go to elaborate length to imitate the effects of age or ritual usage; they may age their work, burying carvings, smoking baskets to a lovely patina, and placing masks near termite mounds for a few worm holes. In particular, the current situation in the African art market pits the skilled, more-or-less educated eyes of European buyers against the creative intelligence of African carvers who have developed on almost uncanny ability to manufacture convincing “old, traditional” carvings.2 As with the problem of forgeries and reproductions elsewhere in art, the question is whether what you think you see is what you actually get — and should it make any difference?

The blunders of well-heeled collectors in the treacherous African art market will not greatly disturb many aestheticians, but the underlying conceptual issues certainly should. While he has not discussed traditional work/tourist reproduction distinction, Arthur Danto has probed the difference between art and utilitarian artifact by asking us to consider two African tribes who live out of contact with each other on either side of a mountain divide.3 Each of these imaginary tribes produce both pots and baskets that are, whichever tribe produces them, indiscernible to our eyes. Their pots “have a certain squat elegance”: they are wide-mouthed, with patterns of semicircles around their necks. These two tribes also produce splendid and, again so far as we can see, indistinguishable baskets. Yet despite the external similarity of these pots and baskets, there is all the difference in the world between them. For in the culture of the Pot People, as one of the tribes is known, pots are rich with significance. God, in their cosmology, is a pot maker and, as Danto puts it, “this people can hardly look upon pots without feeling themselves symbolically present at the beginning of the world order” (p.24). Pots for the pot people embody and express a whole cosmology, and the potters who make them are honored as artists in their society.

On the other side of the mountains live the Basket Folk, who make baskets that, for them, “embody the principles of the universe itself.” Their cosmology is built around the idea of the basket, and each of their baskets is an object of great meaning and spiritual power. Not surprisingly, their basket makers have a special place and prestige. The world, in Basket Folk mythology, is nothing more than a basket; basket makers “imitate God in His creativity,” as Vasari would have said.

The Basket Folk also make pots, as the Pot People manufacture baskets. Though Basket Folk pots are admired by ethnographers — even collected by aficionados in Zurich and New York, I would imagine — the Basket Folk attach no special importance to them: they are merely utensils, “of a piece with fish nets and arrow heads, textiles of bark and flax.” Similar is the attitude of the Pot People to their baskets: the tribesmen who make them are regarded as artisans, but not honored as artists in their homeland. Danto uses Hegel to make the contrast: the baskets of the Basket Folk “belong to what Hegel has called Absolute Spirit: a realm of being which is that of art, religion, and philosophy.” Their pots, on the other hand, “are merely part of what, with his genius for phrase, [Hegel] spoke of as The Prose of the World” (p.23). The exact reverse obtains with the Pot People, whose pots, indistinguishable from those of the Basket Folk, express “deep harmonies and correspondences in the universe” but whose baskets are simply items of domestic convenience.

 Presumably no one would have denied at any time in the history of the European encounter with tribal art that African or Oceanic weavers, potters, or carvers were craftsmen. It was at least as craft that their work was collected and found its way to the ethnographic museums and curio cases of the Western world. It remained, however, for the modernists early in this century to discover that primitive artifacts could also be art. (Or so a faintly self-serving modernist mythology insists: in actuality, there were people before Picasso & Co. who appreciated the genius of primitive artists.) Picasso discovered it in 1907 in the museum of the Palais du Trocadero, and Roger Fry discerned it again it at the Chelsea Book Club in 1920. As Danto puts it, “There, amidst what must have been taken as palpable evidence of the artistic superiority of European civilization and therein palpable justificatory grounds for cultural intervention, Picasso perceived absolute masterpiece of sculptural art, on a level of achievement attained only at their best by the acknowledged masterpieces of the Western sculptural tradition” (p.18). Fry, incidentally, went even further, claiming that the purely plastic sense of African artists was even greater than the English ever achieved.4

Yet one cannot discover what is not the case, so it makes no sense to find out that an object of mere craft — tribal artifacts — is a work of art, if it is not any such thing. This problem begins to loom when objects acquired from the Pot People and the Basket Folk are put on display in the Fine Arts Museum and the Natural History Museum. In Danto’s ethno-aesthetic fantasy, much of the Natural History Museum’s collection was acquired before the realization that primitive art embodied great aesthetic achievement; some of these pieces are still coveted by the Fine Arts Museum. In the public displays, however, everything is sorted out correctly: Pot People pots and Basket Folk baskets are housed in the Primitive Wing of the Fine Arts Museum, while pots of the Basket Folk and Baskets of the Pot People are displayed alongside other tribal artifacts in the Natural History Museum. The Natural History Museum does, however, present two dioramas of everyday life — tribesmen cultivating gardens, weaving, nursing babies — among the Pot People and the Basket Folk: “A basket from the Basket Folk and a pot from the Pot People are given a kind of privileged place in their respective dioramas (they are on loan from the Primitive Wing for this purpose), standing apart, perhaps objects of rapt attention on the part of the tribesmen garbed in the traditional regalia of Wise Persons” (p.26). A guided school group is shown both dioramas. A schoolgirl among them — incipient philosopher, she — proclaims that she can see no difference between the baskets venerated in the Basket Folk diorama and the baskets strewn about, some broken, all used, in the Pot People diorama.

The child is fobbed off with assurances that experts can tell the difference, but her problem remains: if we can’t see the difference, should it make any difference to us? Scientific criteria (which might distinguish between baskets by subspecies of grass, pots on the basis of the differential occurrence of rare-earth isotopes in the clays) are dismissed: even if we conceded the subspecies or isotopic differences, these cannot be the differences that make a difference to us. Yet the child’s question will, I think, touch a nerve with anyone for whom tribal art is important. Danto’s example in fact challenges the whole edifice of criticism applied to tribal art in the same way that its analogue and philosophic uncle, the problem of the indiscernible art forgery, does in the realm of domestic connoisseurship. To insist, as some rough-and-ready theorists have, that it can make no aesthetic difference whether an object of aesthetic pleasure is original or forged at the very least attenuates the relevance of the relationship between the work and its context of creation and between the maker of the work and its audience. In parallel manner, Danto’s little girl raises the possibility that what a pot or basket meant to a primitive tribe, or whether it meant anything at all, might be irrelevant to an aesthetic appreciation of it. And just as no one who has enjoyed and praised a fake or wrongly provenanced painting can avoid the forgery problem, so no one who has admired a work of tribal art, or been moved or thrilled by a mask or carving, can avoid the awkward questions: did it move its maker? Is it a good one in the tribe’s eyes? Is it a piece of special spiritual significance? Is it a purely utilitarian object? A piece of tourist kitsch?

Danto’s little fantasy is brilliantly provocative, but he makes a wrong turn in raising for comparison’s sake the celebrated Brillo Box. He supposes that “there is no greater difference between our placing Warhol’s Brillo Box in the sculpture wing of the same museum in which a ‘real’ Brillo carton is exhibited in the Gallery of Industrial Design.” But there is a crucial difference: in Danto’s fantasy the tribes are, ex hypothesi, unaware of each other’s existence. It’s not that the pot artisans of the Basket Folk decided to knock off a few pseudo-Pot People pots, just to send up or otherwise to comment on Pot People mythology. The Brillo Box analogy might hold if Warhol had, slaving away in his Soho studio and quite independently of having ever seen something similar at the grocer’s, come up with a painted box-like sculpture that said “Brillo” in bright letters. But that’s not the way it happened: while the tribes are entirely independent, Warhol’s art object is parasitic on a consumer artifact. Brillo Box could not otherwise be a comment on the commercial society in which it was created, which in part it surely is.

Danto also draws a parallel between on the one hand Picasso’s or Roger Fry’s excitement over African art and, on the other hand, Duchamp’s discovery, by such gestures as exhibiting a snow shovel, that the difference between being a work of art and being something else was not exclusively a matter of what meets the eye. This parallel is highly misleading. Picasso’s pointing to an African sculpture and saying, “That is a work of art,” would not be a move of the same kind as Duchamp’s pointing to a urinal or snow shovel and saying the same thing. Picasso and Fry thought that they could see, discern, what made those carvings works of art — they supposed they could see it in the formal or expressive properties of the carvings. Consequently, they held that African sculpture ought to be included the class of art objects that also included canonic European sculpture. Duchamp would presumably make no parallel claim about snow shovels. Through his gesture, Duchamp was in part questioning the very idea of our setting up a canon in the first place. Roger Fry, on the other hand, wrote of African sculpture as a man smitten. His interest wasn’t in the idea of a canon, which he wholly accepted: he wanted to see it expanded to included African art. There is no evidence that Duchamp was similarly in love with urinals and snow shovels, or that he had espied in them formal or expressive properties that the rest of us had been blind to, just as some ethnographers of the nineteenth century might have been blind to the exciting artistic achievements of primitive tribes (or so, again, our mythology has it). If the ethnographic works that excited Picasso were certifiably nothing but utilitarian artifacts to be classed with fish hooks and digging sticks, indisputably recognized by both primitives and Europeans as such, then Picasso’s “discovery” that they were “art” might indeed be rather like Duchamp’s discovery that snow shovels are art too — though in Picasso’s case, but not Duchamp’s, it would have been a mere mistake, since Picasso believed he could actually see powerful expressive properties in these objects. (Curiously, Danto remarks that Picasso “perceived absolute masterpieces” in African sculpture — or does Danto think he only thought he perceived them as masterpieces?)

I have not shown, and will not be able to show — against a persistent skepticism — that Fry and Picasso actually did see inherent aesthetic excellence, formal excellence, in African art. The aesthetic universalism they assumed cannot be supported by holding up individual art objects. It is logically conceivable that they were deluding themselves and that by calling the African carvings “art” they were merely effecting something akin to a Duchampian recategorization. Nevertheless, they themselves clearly thought they could see something which moved them in African carving, and this is enough to mark an important difference between Picasso and Fry with African art on the one hand and Duchamp with snow shovels and urinals on the other.


 In Danto’s narrative the little girl who cannot see the difference between the pots and baskets is assured that “experts” can tell the difference. But Danto never mentions who the relevant experts are; we are left with impression that they would be museum scientists or curators. He says, “It is important to the understanding of this problem that objects outwardly similar should be conceived of as so similar that it is impossible, or nearly impossible, to make the distinction on the basis of looks.” Disregarding that troubling “nearly impossible,”5 Danto goes on: “The distinction between works of art and artifacts, like the difference between works of art and simply natural objects, is unlike the differences that separate one artifact from another, or one natural object from another. Imagining things that you cannot tell apart dramatizes the difference between these differences. It would not be the kind of difference we want if it could be determined easily, or even with difficulty, where the difference lies by means of a physical inspection on the objects” (p.26).

I take Danto to mean that the relevant difference here is a category distinction rather than a class distinction: the misclassification of artifact as art object is a category mistake for which perception — just looking — may provide no corrective.6 But the problem of perception seems to me much more difficult (or subtle) than Danto makes out. We can begin to see this by extending Danto’s dramatic thought-experiment. Let us grant that the little girl cannot tell, simply by looking, the difference between a Pot People pot and a Basket Folk pot. Neither, let’s suppose, can her tour guide, nor can the curator of the museum’s primitive wing, even when he is given a half an hour under good lighting conditions. But Danto has left out of the discussion what seems to me a crucially important group of potential experts. Can we suppose that no difference could be detected by Pot People potters themselves? Could we imagine Pot People culture just as Danto describes it — with its mythology, its significations, its sense of life packed into the concept of the pot, and incarnated in the individual pots of the tribe — and yet entertain the hypothesis that Pot People potters would themselves be unable to distinguish their creations from the utilitarian artifacts of a tribe over the mountains?

This question brings us to another respect in which Danto’s art/artifact problem resembles the forgery problem, as it invites the same response as Goodman’s first move on forgery. In the face of the claim that, in some hypothetical case, the difference between original and copy cannot be perceived, Goodman wants to know who it is that cannot see the difference, a “cross-eyed wrestler,” perhaps?7 Just because Danto’s little girl can’t seen the difference between the pots and baskets, and neither can you or I (assuming either that we are newcomers to this work or old hands), it doesn’t follow that nobody ever could see the difference. Specifically, I have in mind Pot People potters and Basket Folk weavers.

To treat of a priori possibility is a job of philosophy, and it would be wrong to fault a philosophical example just because it seems outlandish. Plato’s Gyges myth, Wittgenstein’s builders, and Daniel Dennett’s disembodied brains, despite their improbability, all have the capacity to instruct. Sometimes the instruction results from considering how it epitomizes or throws in sharp relief something in real life. But sometimes the value of an example comes from the way it dramatizes the very improbability or impossibility of the state of affairs it describes. Danto’s two tribes may have been invented with the intention to epitomize something real or possible, but they impress me as examples of the latter sort, for every aspect and element of my own experience of tribal art — both in museum collections and in fieldwork in the jungles of New Guinea — says that Danto’s tribes are humanly impossible.

They are, of course, not logically impossible, any more than the monkey of proverb (or a random letter generator) who types out King Lear on his word processor is logically impossible. But it isn’t bare logical possibility that makes Danto’s dramatic narrative so intriguing. For I don’t think there is anyone who has pursued an interest in any area of primitive or tribal art who has not at some time or other been caught out admiring some casually produced utilitarian artifact or bit of tourist trinketry as though it were a significant work of art. In many individual cases we will be uncertain about how to take a work: whether to cast it in the category of art or the category of artifact, or more commonly whether to consider a work as a tourist piece made for sale to outsiders or as a work of significant spiritual value to the people who made it. But Danto does not present us with a such mistake about some particular work. Rather, he describes a situation where a whole genre or tradition of tribal art is to our eyes indistinguishable from a genre or tradition of tribal artifact. That an art tradition might indiscernible from a utilitarian artifact tradition seems to me empirically unlikely, though not for the same merely probabilistic reasons that a monkey typing Lear is unlikely.

This issue hinges to some extent on how we understand human beings to be; how we understand the psychology of artistic creation and reception. If pots and their associated mythology have the place Danto describes them as having among the Pot People, and if the making of pots among them has developed into their most treasured art (it would have to be developed over time, over generations), then it is hard to suppose Pot People potters being anything but very meticulous about the construction and decoration of their pots. They would presumably work according to an evolved canon of excellence in pot design or decoration — pot making would be a central element in a whole culture, with much thought and worry going into obtaining the perfect clay for making them, firing them for the exactly right kind of finish.8 Why? Because people just behave in these ways when they create things that mean something to them. The evolution of arts is in this respect like the evolution of games. What starts out as a rudimentary matter of bouncing a ball against a wall might in time evolve into a highly organized professional sport, played under complicated rules. (Even the prisoners of Plato’s cave managed to develop an intricate science and competitive sport of shadow recognition.) What might begin as the production of a merely utilitarian object, such as a basket or pot, might, worked into a religion or mythology, develop into a highly sophisticated form of artistic expression. In the development of art, the movement tends to be toward refined distinctions, and more of them. Danto’s ethnoaesthetic fantasy has an initial plausibility — even appeal — because it reflects the experience of so many of us who have been confused (like the little girl or the curator) by individual instances of primitive art works and artifacts. Not knowing the genre and its established criteria for excellence, expressiveness, or meaning, we initially have trouble seeing the difference between inferior works (whether merely utilitarian, copies, hack tourist pieces, etc.) and good works in the genre. But given the way Danto constructs the situation — not in terms of individual mistakes or naiveté on our part, but in terms of whole indiscernible artistic traditions of the primitive tribes in question — we are left with a picture of the conditions under which people in tribal societies produce the art works and artifacts that is completely unreal.

Consider the case of Sepik carvers of New Guinea. They too produce both works of spiritual and magical significance and works of pure utility. Some of their utilitarian carvings are nonetheless highly expressive. There are canoes with nothing more than a “nice line,” undecorated earthenware pots or wooden carving mallets, but you’ll also find on the Sepik canoes with elaborately decorated prows, elegantly embellished cooking pots, and carving mallets with handles representing snakes. There are ancestor figures and healing charms whose significance limited to appeasing some spirit. And finally, with immense areas of overlap and ambiguity, there are carvings done for tourists or overseas buyers.

Naive judges, Europeans new to Sepik art, will naturally miss great deal of what can be seen in it. But if they persevere, they will discover a world of difference between a carving of a human form done to sell to a tourist and one made to please or appease a god or the spirit of an ancestor. The tourist will see the initiation scars on the front of the figure, but won’t notice if they are omitted from the back, and the carver knows this. In the mind of the carver, however, the ancestor spirit will notice the absence of dorsal scars, as the spirit will also know if the carving is painstakingly fashioned from a hard wood, such as garamut, or is produced in a soft, easy-to-carve wood (this affects both the durability of the piece and the detail the carver is able to attain). The spirit may prefer a very large carving, and is not concerned whether it seriously taxes a twenty-kilo luggage limit. If a Sepik carver is working to please a spirit who in principle knows everything about the carving, he will bring to the job a sense of intense purpose which, or so the Sepik themselves claim, will show itself in the resulting piece. This is not, in the minds of Sepik people, a matter only of the ritual occasion of a carving and the personal conduct of the carver: it also shows, as it is supposed to show, in the perceptible qualities of the finished art work. To the educated Sepik eye, the Sepik connoisseur, such inner qualities are as evident in the outward appearance of Sepik carvings as, for example, qualities of passionate intensity are evident to Westerners in the painting of van Gogh. Anyone, Sepik or not, can be skeptical about the seriousness of supernatural intent of a carving; but in most cases questions will no more naturally arise than they do in questioning van Gogh’s seriousness of purpose. Moreover, Sepik criteria of artistic excellence are in principle available to anyone with the time and will to learn to perceive; they are not monadically sealed in Sepik culture. (If they were somehow unlearnable, they couldn’t even be taught to the next generation of Sepik carvers.)

Again, there remain close parallels with the forgery problem: there are many celebrated cases of forgeries that so closely resemble original art works that they may be indiscernible to some viewers, as well as many forgeries that fit with apparent perfection into some recognized oeuvre. The forgery problem is thus both philosophical and practical, and interesting philosophically because it is also practical. But with forgery, the question is limited to individual or localized cases; there does not exist anywhere an established tradition of forgery and forgers producing, parallel to an “authentic” art tradition, works indiscernible from their prototypes.9 Moreover, the works of Danto’s tribes are independent of one another, while the concept of forgery requires some notion of parasitism (just as Brillo Box involved reference, rather than independent invention). Mistakes, either in distinguishing tribal art from tribal artifacts, or in distinguishing originals from fake paintings, are constantly being made. But as I’ve pointed out, Danto’s narrative does not present us with a single such instance; rather he wants us to entertain the idea of a whole utilitarian artifact tradition that is indistinguishable from a whole expressive art tradition.


Anthropology can both limit the speculations of philosophers and enrich them as well. With this enriching potential in mind, let us consider for comparison’s sake another philosophic thought-experiment, but one rooted in the actual experience of New Guinean and other Oceanic peoples in this century. Although this pastiche is extreme to the point of caricature, it describes in every one of its details facts and events observed by me and by ethnographers who have worked in the Pacific region. Imagine again two tribes (the word “tribe” is not strictly correct in Oceania. The first, whom I’ll call the Jungle People, produce carvings which they believe — when those carvings are seen at night in flickering fire light in the cavernous Spirit House — to come alive as the spirits of the dead enter into them. The Jungle People’s carvers, who use tools of stone and bone, are specially revered by tribe members. They produce a great variety of carving, mostly involving human and animal forms. The tribe particularly values carvings made of the hardest old woods of the ancient tropical rain forest they inhabit; they believe too that the gods respond especially favorably to carvings that are difficult to make. Now-and-again their carvings are produced in secret and hidden in the jungle where they are found by children, with the word put about that they were left there by the gods. The Jungle People pray to these carvings, and cover them with pig fat, or blood, or semen, in order to energize them spiritually to bring about healing or luck in hunting expeditions. As they are still isolated from Western civilization, the Jungle People have no access to representational images other than those their own carvers produce: they have never seen either pictures or carvings of other cultures, except the similar carvings of nearby tribes. They themselves have no tradition of two-dimensional painting or drawing. Their carvings, even when realistic to our eyes, are indelibly stylized in that peculiarly elongated Jungle People manner. Occasionally, the Jungle People form raiding parties to steal especially powerful carvings from neighbors. Over generations, many people have died in these raids. The carvings are very important to them.

Now as it happens, there is another tribe, historically and culturally related to the Jungle People. We know they are related because their language and system of mythology are similar to the Jungle People’s, as was their sacred and decorative carving prior to their first encounter with an Australian patrol officer in the middle 1930s. They live where they have always lived, near the mouth of a river on their large South Pacific island. Thirty years ago, in 1962, a Club Med was built next to their village, and although they still have their traditional name, they now whimsically call themselves the Tourist People. They no longer pray to their carved idols and would be terribly embarrassed at the idea of smearing carvings with blood and semen, because they have all become devout, somewhat prudish, Christians. They still, however, produce their “traditional” carvings, all of which they sell to the Club Med visitors. Using carving tools of German steel on soft woods, they are able quickly to manufacture large numbers of carvings which they usually shine with shoe polish or urethane varnish. (Most of the tourists expect “primitive” carving to resemble their stereotypes of shiny African ebony carvings; though the Tourist People never shined them before European contact, they are delighted to do so now.) They are able to live comfortably on a government welfare benefit (the government is supported by mining royalties, as parts of the country are rich with gold deposits), so much of the extra money earned through carving goes into the purchase and rental of tapes for their video units. (There is no broadcast television on the island, but every household has a television and a video playback device. Hong Kong kung-fu movies, dubbed into Melanesian pidgin, are especially popular.)

Now let us suppose that no one can tell the difference between the carvings of the Jungle People and the carvings of the Tourist People.... But wait: how could we imagine that carvings produced in such completely different contexts could be indistinguishable? Of course, we might well suppose that an occasional piece of Tourist People carving produced by an old carver in the traditional style, or by a clever young carver using a traditional model, might, at least to a tourist, look like a traditional Jungle People carving, or might be to most — or even all — eyes indistinguishable from Tourist People carvings produced prior to Club Med. Individual cases, perhaps; but general indiscernibility between whole genres of Jungle People and Tourist People carving? Step out of the philosopher’s study, and the prospect seems so unlikely as to be barely conceivable.


In concluding his essay, Danto insists on a conceptual distinction between art and artifact which would seem on the face of it to be in agreement with what I have described so far about both the (real) Sepik peoples and the (imaginary) Jungle/Tourist People. Artifacts are not problematic for Danto, as they are defined and understood in terms of the system of means and ends into which they fit. Art objects are altogether something else. He says that an artwork is a compound of thought and matter. The material thing makes the thought. What makes the artworks of Africa different from those of Greece are the hidden things they embody or make objective, giving them a presence in the lives of men and women. The works have a power artifacts could not possibly have because of the spiritual content they embody. An artifact is shaped by its function, but the shape of an artwork is given by its content. ... To be a work of art, I have argued, is to embody a thought, to have a content, to express a meaning, and so the works of art that outwardly resemble Primitive artifacts embody thoughts, have contents, express meanings, though the objects [i.e., artifacts] they resemble do not.

Even if we accept (as I do) Danto’s characterization here of the difference between art and artifact, he has still constructed a situation in which individual objects will be distinguishable as one or the other to the mind, not to the eye: the difference is not something we can be sure we ever perceive. He says that if the utilitarian artifacts of primitive cultures resemble works of art in our culture, they are not for all that works of art and “the resemblances are aesthetic illusions.” My point — made with the help of my imaginary example as a response to Danto’s imaginary example — is to deny that this illusion is a threat to our general understanding of tribal art, even though, as I have allowed, it may loom in the case of individual objects. When it comes to the general response to primitive art, we can see the difference.

The Jungle People’s and the Tourist People’s carvings express different ideas at the very least; in Danto’s way of speaking, the Jungle People’s carvings are used by the Jungle People to express deeply-held ideas about their lives, their mythic history, the ghosts of their ancestors, and their values. The Tourist People's carvings do none of this. In fact, in the respect to which the carvings are mere items of merchandise, they probably express very little at all. With both Danto’s tribes and my own, there is at least agreement on what we call “art,” as opposed either to utilitarian artifact or tourist kitsch: we agree so far that art objects are those apparently formally significant objects which express or embody ideas. The difference is that Danto, under the spell of Duchamp and the art theory that has followed after him, and affected by the particular fallibility of naive Westerners in spotting distinctions between authentic masterworks of primitive art and mere artifacts (or kitsch), has tried to construct a picture of the situation in which perceptions is no help at all. To the contrary, I think trained perception, the ability of tribal peoples themselves to see systematic differences between art and artifact, and the ability of the informed eyes of Westerners also to learn to perceive differences, is the key. Tribal art works are in general works of skill which are intended to delight (or dazzle or frighten) the eye; there are no tribal Duchamps or Warhols in New Guinea or elsewhere in the realms of primitive art. (I say this despite having once seen a splendid old New Guinea fighting shield that had affixed to it part of a soup can!)

In her introduction to the catalogue for the exhibition “Art/artifact,” in which Danto’s essay appears, Susan Vogel criticizes him on related grounds. She says that to describe an art work as embodying thoughts and expressing meanings, while sound enough, does not in the African context distinguish a nonaesthetic lump of clay “at the center of a shrine [which] may be most highly significant element there, even when flanked by sculpted figures.”10 The clay embodies profound meaning, but unlike the figures around it, is nothing to look at. (Vogel also mentions that the host is the most meaningful, yet nonaesthetic, element of an elaborate Catholic alter.) “Danto’s definition,” she says, “holds true of African works of art, but fails to separate them from much else in the culture. It leaves out the aesthetic dimension.”

Vogel’s remark about leaving out an aesthetic dimension emphasizes the importance of the African art work as something to be experienced perceptually. Many highly significant objects (e.g., the Catholic host or the relic bones beneath the alter) are not for all that worth looking at. In the world of African or primitive art, in which objects are, in Vogel’s words, “embellished, decorated, beautified,” at least partly for the sake of pleasing perception — either for ourselves or, as is often the case on the Sepik, for hovering spirits, who also see — neither the provocations of Duchamp and Warhol nor the insights of the aesthetic theories which they provoked, will have much application, if they are relevant at all. Most primitive artworks capture attention not only because of the ideas they embody, but because they are made to look beautiful (or striking, shocking, grotesque, etc.). To deny the crucial and determining role of discriminating perception (as opposed to conception) in understanding primitive art would amount as well to a denial that people with little or no knowledge of a primitive culture could actually perceive artistic qualities in primitive art, unless they were given independent evidence of the fact. (If perception is potentially as irrelevant as Danto’s narrative suggests, and if Picasso and Fry were right about the greatness of African art, then it follows they were, as culturally ignorant observers, only right by accident.)


In “Appreciation and Interpretation,” an essay written not long before his “Artifact and Art,” Danto has argued that the very existence art objects depends on interpretation. He claims that “interpretations are what constitute works,” and that it follows from this that there are no works without them and works are misconstituted when interpretation is wrong. And knowing the artist’s interpretation is in effect identifying what he or she has made. The interpretation is not something outside the work: work and interpretation arise together in aesthetic consciousness. As interpretation is inseparable from work, it is inseparable from the artist if it is the artist’s work.11

When Danto wrote this, he had in mind, as he so often does, Duchamp’s Fountain.12 But even if we allow that this account is correct as a general description of the relation between interpretation and art, Danto has misapplied it to the understanding of primitive art. Fountain, to be sure, can only be understood in terms of its constituting interpretations — especially Duchamp’s own interpretation, to which Danto grants privileged status. The same, so far, applies to the tribal artist. But as Vogel clearly senses, Danto has missed something. As Danto himself insists (specifically against claims by George Dickie), Fountain was not by Duchamp’s own interpretation an essentially perceptual object. How it looked didn’t count; or, its constituted meaning as a work of art was in part a matter of its looks not counting. African artists, along with Sepik artists, create works for the eye. That these objects are intended to amaze, amuse, shock, and enchant is part of the artistic interpretation that constitutes their very being as works of art. Danto’s constituting interpretations in his ethnoaesthetic fantasy stand, like Duchamp’s, independent of perception: for all their artistic differences, the works of the Pot People and the Basket Folk end up as indiscernible. In contrast, the actual constituting interpretations of tribal artists normally entail perceptual distinctions. Learning a primitive art genre is thus not, pace Danto, a matter of acquiring knowledge of a cultural context into which objects can be set (and distinguished as artifact or art); it is a matter of gaining cultural knowledge in order to see aesthetic qualities which have intentionally been placed in the objects to be seen. An obvious empirical corollary to all this would be that the genres or objects that mean the most to a tribe will usually be the very ones in which the most perceivable content is packed; sacred ancestor carvings will be richer in their connections to a cultural background and provide a more powerful visual experience, than digging sticks or cooking pots (unless, of course, they are special pots or magical sticks). Despite exceptions such as the lump of clay cited by Vogel (which isn’t a work of art in any event), this is generally true of every primitive culture of my acquaintance.

Since Danto is willing to give primacy to the artist’s interpretation as constitutive of the object in the case of Duchamp, the same courtesy ought to be extended to his two imagined tribes. His failure to interrogate the indigenous artists and connoisseurs of these tribes as to whether they can perceive differences that escape Western curators and school children might be construed as ethnocentrism. But this would be fatuous: it is hard to know what it would be for a philosopher to be ethnocentric about an example which is the product of his own fertile imagination. Danto, after all, is the chief European administrator and exclusive ethnographer of the territory which includes the Pot People and the Basket Folk. Nevertheless, I am certain that if he would allow more anthropologists into the area, these tribes might have a yet another story to tell.13




1. I reject as of little consequence the question of whether a people can be said to have art if they have no word for what we Europeans since the seventeenth century have called “art.” Neither the ancient Greeks nor Sepik carvers past or present had a word that translates as the modern English “art.” Nevertheless, the Greeks had art, and the Sepik have it. For an explanation why, see H. Gene Blocker, Primitive Art (New York: Haven Publishing, 1991).

2. For an extensive treatment of the issue of fakes and authenticity in tribal art, see a special number of African Arts 9 (April 1976), devoted to the topic. For a summary of clever techniques for manufacturing “old, authentic” tribal art, see Alain Schoffel’s “Notes on the Art Fakes which Have Recently Appeared in the Northern Philippines,” in Tribal Art, the Bulletin of the Musée Barbier-Mueller (1989, no. 1): 11-22.

3. Arthur C. Danto, “Artifact and Art,” contribution the exhibition catalogue for ART/artifact (New York: Center for African Art, 1988), pp. 18-32.

4. Roger Fry, “Negro Sculpture,” in Vision and Design (London: Chatto & Windus, 1923), pp. 100-103..

5. This is the only point at which Danto suggests the someone might be able to tell the difference; so doesn’t say who.

6. For a discussion of the class/category distinction in criticism in connection with the hermeneutic circle, see Denis Dutton, “Why Intentionalism Won’t Go Away,” in Literature and the Question of Philosophy, ed. A.J. Cascardi (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987).

7. Nelson Goodman, Languages of Art (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1968), p. 101.

8. What would happen were a tribesman from the Basket Folk wander over the mountain and stumble on the Pot People? Would he wonder where the Pot People got all those baskets? Would he report back home on the shameful way they treat baskets?

9. Last year I saw a sketchy television report of a Japanese group announcing plans for a multibillion-yen museum near Tokyo to exhibit painted copies (not photographs) of Western art masterworks. I expect most Westerners would view such an enterprise as a travesty of an art museum. If the report was accurate, the plan suggests cultural confusion on the part of the Japanese organizers.

10. Susan Vogel, “Introduction,” in ART/artifact (New York: Center for African Art, 1988), pp. 11-17.

11. Arthur C. Danto, “Appreciation and Interpretation,” in The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), p. 45.

12. For an acute analysis of Danto’s use of Duchamp, as well as Duchamp’s use of the urinal, see John Brough, “Who’s Afraid of Marcel Duchamp?”, in Philosophy and Art, ed. Daniel O. Dahlstrom (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1991), pp. 119-42. Danto’s near-obsession with objects indiscernible from art works is also commented on by David Novitz in his review of The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art, in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 46 (1987): 307-309.

13. I have learned much about these issues by spending time with carvers of the Sepik River of New Guinea, especially Petrus Ava, Pius Soni, and Leo Sangi of the village of Yentchenmangua. It is my hope that nothing I have said here is false to their artistic practices and ideals: outboard motors, cassette recorders, and weird American religions may have penetrated the jungles of northern New Guinea, but the readymade hasn’t arrived there yet. I have also been both stimulated by a response to these ruminations by Michael Kelly, before a typically gracious audience at the 1991 meeting of the American Society for Aesthetics. Thanks too to my friend David Novitz for his incisive comments and suggestions.