H. Gene Blocker on Tribal Art

Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 53 (1995): 321-23.

Denis Dutton


The Aesthetics of Primitive Art, by H. Gene Blocker. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1994, 330 pp., $34.50 paper.

At one point in this provocative book, H. Gene Blocker asks what, after all, we are trying to accomplish in the study of cultures as remote as those presented by tribal Africa, Mesoamerica, ancient Egypt, or neolithic New Guinea. “Ultimately,” he suggests, “it is to see their world as a possible human perspective.” We cannot become them, but we can try to understand how their world might make sense to them — and sense to us, could we but share their values, beliefs, and sentiments.

This requires, he says, an initial point of contact. If we have absolutely nothing in common with a people, then we shall never begin to comprehend their meanings and lives. One of the best hopes we have for an opening to a tribal culture is that culture’s art. Given the amount of time anthropologists have spent describing the intricacies of every other aspect of culture, it is surprising how little attention has been given to art. Over the years, I’ve developed a habit: when I pick up a new ethnography, I turn to the index and look for the word “art” (or “artifact,” “carving,” etc.). Often the word does not appear; frequently it directs the reader to one or two pages, when artifacts are mentioned in passing for their ritual significance or trade value. This occurs even in cases where the culture may, outside of the circle of anthropologists, be famous for its art work.

There are some deviations, and one thinks of such names as Fagg, Newton, Bascom, Cole, Firth, and others, but they are outstanding exceptions in a discipline that has not cared much for art. Even among these scholars, discussion tends to be tied to specific cultures or, at best, genres of ethnographic art. In this respect, Blocker’s book is a brave and welcome departure. He attempts to give the broadest possible view of the art of small-scale societies, and how we might come to understand and enjoy it. As an aesthetician, he asks if primitive art is primitive (answer: yes), if it is art (also: yes), what its aesthetic criteria are, and how we can apply critical standards to it. Throughout, Blocker refuses to compromise to academic fashion in his views or choice of language. This is in some ways regrettable. For example, the unfashionable term “primitive” is likely to make this book a target of ideological attack by theorists who will interpret Blocker as ethnocentric or colonialist in his attitudes. Nothing could be further from his intention: Blocker is merely recognizing that there exist small-scale, preliterate village societies who use relatively uncomplicated (often non-metal) technologies, have little strict specialization of labor, and considerable integration of religious, political, and familial life. They are “primitive” in the root sense that they represent an earlier stage of human development through which modern society may have passed in its historical evolution; they are not primitive in any sense necessarily implying crudity or lack of sophistication in art or many other aspects of life. Despite Blocker’s benign intentions, however, it is an unfortunate fact that in many parts of the world, both in the West and in the indigenous societies it studies, the word “primitive” is a term of abuse (in New Guinea, I have heard it used as such even in Melanesian pidgen). The very insistence on the use of the word is sure to repel many in Blocker’s audience who ought to study this book.

If so, such readers will have missed one of the most worthwhile discussions of ethnographic art ever written. In claiming the status of art for the objects of his study, Blocker summarizes eight features “usually associated with art” and normally absent with nonart: (1) the object is appreciated aesthetically, (2) it is made by a skilled professional or semi-professional, (3) it is judged by critical and aesthetic criteria, (4) it is set apart from everyday life, (5) it often involves a representation of some feature or experience of the world, (6) it is regarded as have been intended to be aesthetically enjoyable, or as a symbolic representation, etc., (7) it it created in a genre or tradition, and may show innovation and novelty when viewed against its background, and (8) its maker may be considered a creative innovator, or perhaps “eccentric, or a bit socially alienated.”

In any of these respects, it can always be said that they do not have our sense of “skill,” “professional,” “representation,” “novelty,” and so forth, but even our own intracultural disputes about the meanings of these terms do not keep us from using them in aesthetic discourse. The concept of art itself, Blocker says, “is very fluid and open-textured. Ranging from craft to original idea, traditional to creative, utilitarian to non-utilitarian, it is not clear within our own language how much innovation is required, or how traditional a thing can be, or how expressive and how mechanical the artist can or must be to qualify as art” (pp. 138-39).

The Aesthetics of Primitive Art is in part autobiography, recounting Blocker’s long experience getting to know West African art, beginning with his first lecturing assignment at Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone in the 1960. His collecting finds, and his mistakes, both in West Africa and later on in Central America, reflect the experience of almost anyone who becomes immersed in any art form as critic, aficionado, and collector. In some of these passages, such as his description of how cheap and easily obtainable fine Mayan artifacts were in years past, he opens himself to easy attack by recent theorists who disparage collecting as imperialistic. But his reflections of collecting should give pause to any thoughtful person. He points out the damage done, for example, to ancient burial sites by collectors who were no better than thieves. Even today, armed gangs arrive at remote Central American sites in helicopters, armed with machine guns and heavy cutting equipment to remove old stonework for sale abroad. Yet such crimes should not obscure the fact that many ancient and recent ethnographic works have been salvaged and preserved solely through the enthusiasm of collectors who possessed a better aesthetic eye or sense of historical interest than colonial administrators, missionaries, or even some anthropologists: “It was the collector who, in the early years [of colonial contact], preserved objects of primitive art which otherwise surely would have been destroyed” (p. 173). And destroyed if not by zealous missionaries or uncaring colonialists, then by the weather and the termites. As late as the 1940s, Blocker explains, “the only people who cared enough to find out about, collect, and preserve primitive art and to establish and articulate aesthetic critical standards for primitive art were amateur collectors” (p. 174).

Blocker makes intriguing observations on the subject of authenticity and fakery in African art. He recounts some of the problems he encountered in the field trying to establish accurate provenance for objects. Rules are of limited value: as soon as one adopts the rule that, say, tourist pieces are made of the softer woods, with hardwoods reserved for works intended for local use, one encounters soft-wood pieces of unquestionable authenticity, and hardwood tourist carvings. But such questions of what is essentially detective work fade into much more subtle issues of aesthetic sensibility: “genuine pieces almost always have a recognizable air of superior quality about them that not even the best fakes can capture.” He compares the situation with the difference between contemporary Dixieland jazz set against pre-Swing era traditional jazz of the sort one hears in rare old recordings: “the spiritual intensity...the sense of integrity and authority, and of absolute command over expression” is lacking in the recent product. “For all their skill, the new [carvings] are flat, dead, and slick” (p. 186). Blocker says that a good question to ask, confronted with a piece of doubtful age or provenance, is “Could anyone today do anything that good?” And if the answer is no, then by all means buy it, even if it is not genuinely old.

A recurring theme in The Aesthetics of Primitive Art is the importance of understanding how aesthetic excellence is achieved relative to the demands of a genre. Blocker explains — quite accurately in my experience of ethnographic arts — that external information about the demands, norms, conventions, etc., of a genre must become so familiar to the observer that “they fade into the perceptual background” of aesthetic experience. The aesthetic experience/judgment seems as though it were a matter of direct perception, but it is not — it is “the product of a great deal of looking, handling, reading, discussing, questioning, and intellectual worrying” (p. 189). “Only on the basis of wide experience with a given kind of art can any genuine connoisseurship and critical facility develop” (p. 237).

The appreciation of ethnographic arts recognizes three areas of response: the formal (a work’s immediate, sensuous properties), the stylistic (which is relational, a matter of fitting a work into a style or genre), and the symbolic or iconographic (roughly, the work’s reference). The ability to see a work in terms of these three aspects is not an instant experience, it is an achievement, requiring sensitivity combined with years of familiarity. The greatest works of primitive art are, of course, not primitive at all in their ability to combine to the highest degree these three aspects. If this sounds very much like our understanding of so-called Western art, that is because all art to varying degrees displays these features. The initial appearance of non-Western ethnographic arts may be strange, inviting speculation that its meaning will be forever shut off from European comprehension. But this is no more true for the arts of Africa and Oceania than it is for Etruscan or medieval French art. Some things we’ll never understand, but it is only a want of information or imagination that keeps us in the dark.

H. Gene Blocker has written the finest purely philosophical investigation of ethnographic arts so far to appear in print. He tackles all the right issues, and his writing is a model of clarity. It is a shame, therefore, to have to add that The Aesthetics of Primitive Art is not a well organized book, has no index, and that it is littered with typographical errors. Two of the overlong chapters should have been subdivided and condensed and some repetitive material omitted. With such a wealth of insight, this book deserves a second, corrected edition.