Mythologies of Tribal Art

African Arts 26 (1995): 32-43.  (Updated, with color and B&W versions of the famous 1950 E. Thomas Gilliard “Flashblub Girl” photograph.)

Denis Dutton


Forty years ago Roland Barthes defined a mythology as those “falsely obvious” ideas which an age so takes for granted that it is unaware of its own belief. An illustration of what he meant can be seen in his 1957 critique of the photographic exhibition, The Family of Man. Barthes declares that the myth it promotes stresses exoticism, complacently projecting a Babel of human diversity over the globe. From this image of diversity a pluralistic humanism “is magically produced: man is born, works, laughs and dies everywhere in the same way....” The implicit mythological background of the show postulates “a human essence.” Barthes exhorts us instead to probe beneath the facile implications of a universal human nature implied by the exhibition’s sentimental juxtapositions. We must try “constantly to scour nature, its ‘laws’ and its ‘limits’ in order to discover History there, and at last to establish Nature itself as historical” (1972:100-102).

Ozark family

Despite its facile charms, Barthes insisted that The Family of Man ignored the roots and reasons of diversity, as well as the political and economic conditions that create it, in favor of the comforting message, “We’re all alike under the skin.” The Family of Man had a potently relevant message following the genocidal horrors of the Second World War, but from Barthes’s perspective, it also expressed a complacent illusion of equality of power among the cultures it portrayed. In this sense, the exhibition embodied a myth worth challenging at the time.

Bechuanaland family

It is now two generations later, however, and critics who accept the importance of exposing cultural mythologies and covert ideologies have new work to do. One area of criticism that especially stands in need of fresh examination is the shell-pocked field where battles have recently raged concerning the status and understanding of tribal arts. Barthes’s reaction to The Family of Man is particularly pertinent in this regard, because much of what he says adumbrates reactions to the MOMA exhibition, “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art, over a quarter of a century later. That show too was denounced as complacently presenting, without regard to cultural difference, a timeless universalism — aesthetic, instead of moral (Clifford 1988:189-214; Foster 1985; McEvilley 1992:27-56). But a sea change in academic thinking separates Barthes’s critique of The Family of Man from the more strident critics of the “Primitivism” show. In the middle 1950s, Barthes was nearly alone in his dissent against a much-loved and widely praised exhibition. The generation of critics who questioned (or denounced) “Primitivism” represented a manner of thinking that had become a virtual academic fashion. Some of these later critics were arguing from a set of ideas that had themselves come to embody a virtual mythology in precisely the Barthesian sense. Their views presuppose and constitute, in point of fact, a New Mythology of tribal art — a prevailing set of presuppositions, prejudices, and articles of political and philosophical faith which govern many discussions of tribal arts and their relations to European criticism, art, and aesthetics. A contemporary anthropologist of tribal arts, for example, writes in a recent African Arts article on the authenticity of African masks and carvings, “That from an African perspective, these objects are not art in the current Western sense is too well known to discuss here” (Kasfir 1992:47). The phrase “too well known to discuss here” is symptomatic of a mythology. Barthes claimed his intention to unmask “the mystification which transforms petit-bourgeois culture into universal nature.”  Today, we should be just as willing to deal with those mystifications that transform prevailing conventions of academic culture into validated truth.

This vigorous New Mythology of tribal art takes on its life against the backdrop of what it posits as the Old Mythology. As with other ideologies, the New Mythology would no more describe its precepts as “mythology” than would the Old: both operate according to the familiar adage, “Your views are so much mythology; mine speak the truth.” Nevertheless, much contemporary theorizing and criticism about tribal arts is founded on a complacent acceptance of a substrate of givens and unsupported hypotheses which constitute the central tenants of the New Mythology. To be sure, not all of the theses of the New Mythology are false. On the other hand, not all of the beliefs the New Mythologists stigmatize as Old Mythology are false either. Independent, critical thinkers should want to choose the component ideas of these mythologies that are worth rejecting, preserving, or reviving.

The attempt to provide a disinterested assessment of these ideas is not easy in the present ideologically-charged and factious atmosphere. This indeed is part of the problem: so many contemporary theorists of tribal arts posit enemies who have it all wrong, in contrast to themselves, who have it right. This lack of any generosity whatsoever toward one’s perceived (or invented) opposition increasingly stultifies writing on tribal arts. The New Mythology finds itself expressed by a wide range of writers, including for example, the more vociferous critics of the “Primitivism” show, such as Thomas McEvilley and Hal Foster, James Clifford in his treatment of museums and ethnographic art, Arnold Krupat’s Ethnocriticism, Sidney Kasfir’s article, “African Art and Authenticity,” Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett on ethnography, Sally Price’s Primitive Art in Civilized Places, and Marianna Torgovnick’s Gone Primitive, and Christopher B. Steiner’s African Art in Transit.1


There are actually two phases of the Old Mythology to which these writers tend to react. What I will call premodernist or colonialist Old Mythology includes the elements of nineteenth-century imperialism — racism, contempt for “childish” primitive artifacts, and regard for primitive art as representing a lower evolutionary stage of human development, with missionaries burning “fetishes” and the wholesale looting of indigenous art, as in Benin. The later, more enlightened, modernist Old Mythology, exemplified by such figures as Picasso, Roger Fry, and the “Primitivism” exhibition itself, is from a New Mythological perspective perhaps even more insidious, because while it pretends to valorize tribal arts, it perpetuates acts of imperialism, appropriation, and ethnocentric insensitivity toward Third World peoples — all in the name of enlightened, magnanimous liberalism.2 The grounds for my three-fold distinction — between (a) premodernist or colonialist Old Mythology, (b) modernist and (c) New Mythology can be usefully developed in terms of following key ideas. Again, some these notions included within mythologies are entirely valid, constitute half-truths, plainly false; no one sets ideas has a monopoly on truth.

(1) According to the premodernist Old Mythology, at least as the New Mythology likes to imagine it, tribal artifacts werent works of art at all, but merelyfetishes,” “idols,” “fertility symbols,” “ancestor figures,” and the like, which colonialists collected as they might botanical specimens. The later, post-Picasso modernist version of the Old Mythology insists, on the contrary, that they are works of art, embodying universal aesthetic values. Curiously, New Mythology frequently sides with the colonialist Old Mythology by aggressively questioning the status of tribal artifacts as works of art: in the New Mythological view, the Old Mythology at least acknowledged difference. This convergence of opinion, however, is complicated. Philistine colonialists often regarded primitive artifacts as demonstrating little skill and no sense of form: the colonialists were applying nineteenth-century European aesthetic criteria to genres of work they did not begin to comprehend, and so were reluctant to call them “art.” The New Mythologists’ reluctance to identify tribal artifact genres as “art” is based on the notion that this would be hegemonic or imperialistic. Such reluctance is frequently supported by unthinking repetition of the folk legend that tribal peoples have no word that refers to what Europeans call “art.” Patrick R. McNaughton recognizes another aspect of this New Mythologists’ doctrine and has stressed the importance of challenging it, “because so many scholars still recite what has become a kind of maxim asserted by outsiders about Africans, that they unlike us treat what we call art as a functional part of life,” rather than something for aesthetic contemplation (McNaughton 1993:82).

(2) The Old Mythology essentialized the primitive, subsuming the endless variety of tribal cultures under a few crude stereotypes. The New Mythology, on the other hand, while eager to recognize the diverse and frequently unique characteristics that distinguish tribal societies, essentializes “the West,” creating, in an inversion of Edward Said’s familiar formulation, a kind of occidentalism. Thus, in the example cited earlier, Kasfir qualifies her discussion of authenticity with the remark that the artifacts in question should not be considered art “in the current Western sense.” The quaintness this last phrase should not go unnoticed: between Praxiteles, Donatello, Rembrandt, Judy Chicago, Duchamp, and Koons — not to mention the myriad genres European folk craft and popular art — there is no “current sense” of art, but various, radically different, rival senses of the concept, each partially implicated in competing social practices and theories of art. In fact, in its crudity, the very phrase, “the West” is the New Mythologists’ answer to “the Primitive” as term might have been used a century ago. The latter was a lazy and misleading way of lumping together such cultures as Hopi, Sepik, Benin, !Kung, and even the Aztecs, in some construals of “primitive.” The New Mythology lumps together twelth-century French villages, horror movies, the Industrial Revolution, the theology of St. Augustine, New Zealand public education, the international banking system, modern toy retailing, medieval concepts of disease, Thanksgiving dinner, e-mail, Gregorian chants, Linnaean botany, napalm, the Chopin études, and bar codes — as though the values and ideologies found therein can be subject to useful generalization. The New Mythology replaces one set stereotypes with another, equally banal set. 

(3) In the Old Mythology, precontact tribal societies were seen as largely isolated, unchanging, coherent, and unbroken in their cultural tradition. Colonialism was supposed to have destroyed the structure and belief-base of traditional tribal societies. The Golden Age of primitive aesthetic and cultural achievement, and hence authenticity, predates European contact. Postcolonial culture and artifacts are culturally inauthentic.”  The New Mythology asserts to the contrary that tribal societies never were isolated, were not necessarily “unified” or “coherent,” and underwent profound breaks in their traditions before European contact. Old Mythology’s “people without a history” view of the primitive was convenient colonialist construction. New Mythology responds to claims “inauthenticity” by variously claiming (a) indigenous belief systems were not destroyed but only occulted during colonial period, and are now coming again into flower; (b) what is truly authentic found in process mutual appropriation cultures; any event, (c) cultural values must always be defined people who hold them: therefore, whatever claim as is, ipso facto, authentic, whether traditional, postcolonial, or merely imported. Mythologies for most part agree that small-scale societies have been permanently altered obliterated encounter with West’s political systems, media, missionaries, technology, commerce, wage-labor, etc. New Mythologists, however, are especially keen to emphasize that this has involved imperialist domination and exploitation. More awkward for them are those less-desirable elements of culture change enthusiastically (and voluntarily) embraced many peoples: cigarettes, soft drinks, movies, pop music, and Jack Daniels. By stressing that tribal cultures borrow and are in a lively state of flux, The New Mythology places in benign perspective the obliteration (or active abandonment) of traditional values: all cultures, it seems, are being altered by history.

(4)  The Old Mythology, especially in its colonial form, held it unproblematic that traders or travelers might buy or barter for tribal artifacts. Alternatively, artifacts might be accepted as gifts. None of this disturbs the artifactsmeanings in the Old Mythology, and if anything the native should be thankful for receiving payment for the work before the termites got to it. The New Mythology sees buying, selling, and trading as essentially Western concepts. Even to accept these objects as gifts is to become, as Kasfir puts it, implicated in “the web of conflicting interests that surround them” (1992:42). There is hence no “noninterventionist” way of obtaining tribal artifacts, since somewhere in the scheme power relations will obtrude, leading the exploitation of the indigenous maker or owner of the object. In other words, the native always gets cheated. New Mythology seems to impute to pre-contact tribal societies a pre-mercantile edenic state, as though trade and barter (not to mention theft or conquest) of ritual or other valuable artifacts did not occur among these peoples until Europeans came along.

(5) The only reason to collect primitive artifacts, according to premodernist Old Mythology, was as curiosities, examples perhaps of an early stage of Social Darwinist development: they were to be placed in a cabinet alongside fossils and tropical insects. After Picasso & Co., Old Mythology proclaimed that primitive art embodied the aesthetic sensibilities found in all art, and therefore was as much worth collecting as Constables or Utamaros, and for precisely the same reasons. The New Mythology displays an oddly ambivalent attitude toward collecting. On the one hand, collecting is persistently disparaged, for instance as a “hegemonic activity, an act of appropriation...a largely colonial enterprise...the logical outcome of a social-evolutionary view of the Other” (Kasfir 1992:42). McEvilley speaks of “captured” tribal objects, a trope suggesting they exist in Western collections as prisoners or slaves (1992:64-65). Given the reprehensible nature of collecting, one would expect New Mythologists to demand that the trade in tribal art cease, but I have not encountered any such suggestions (except, of course, for the criminal trade in looted of antiquities; see Messenger 1989). Even those writers who take moral satisfaction from criticizing collecting appear themselves to have captured the occasional artifact.

(6) The Old Mythology often forbade on puritanical grounds taking pleasure from works of tribal art: the sexual element in tribal carvings offended missionary and nineteenth-century colonial sensibilities. In New Zealand, as elsewhere, genitals were hacked off Maori figures, and some overtly sexual carvings simply burned, lest prurient pleasure be aroused. The New Mythology replaces this attitude with a new and asexual form of puritanism. Enjoyment of any sort derived from the experience of tribal art is considered a cultural mistake at best, a form of visual imperialism at worst: “the colonialist gaze.” Angst-ridden New Mythologists are reluctant to record appreciation or enthusiastic emotional reactions to tribal artifacts. Thus Torgovnick heaps contempt on Roger Fry, among many others, for his “insensitive” and “racist” readings in praise of African art, but never provides in her own voice nonracist, sensitive readings to instruct us on how to do it right.4 Nicholas Thomas is simply bemused: of the museums crammed with indigenous artifacts, “carved bowls, clubs, spears, baskets, pots,” etc., he honestly admits that “I have never understood why people want to look at such things (although I often them myself)” (Thomas 1991:125-26). Christoper B. Steiner makes the bizarre claim that tribal artifacts are valued by Westerners as a way to “celebrate” the loss of utility the objects possessed in their original cultural contexts (1994:160-61). Other New Mythologists, James Clifford and James Boon (whose article title, “Why Museums Make Me Sad,” is clear enough), write about ethnographic arts with such a brooding sense guilt for the historic treatment of tribal cultures that no sense of joy or love of art is ever allowed emerge (Clifford 1988, 1991; 1991).

(7) Colonialist Old Mythology held that though primitive cultures were to some degree capable of adopting Western technologies and manufactured articles, they could not possibly understand Western culture. In fact, having no adequate comparative perspective, the primitives could not even fully understand their own cultures. Their simple little societies were, however, transparent to the educated, sophisticated Westerner. New Mythology, on the contrary, contends that it is the “educated” West which fails to grasp the vast subtleties offered by tribal cultures, from ethnobotany and folk medicines to spiritual wisdom. Instead, the West ethnocentrically imposes on them its own categories, such as “individual,” “religion,” or “work of art,” when in actuality these concepts have no place in the cultural landscape of the Other. In the matter of borrowing, New Mythology holds that tribal artists are, in its preferred parlance, free to appropriate from European culture, infusing new tribal work with “transformed meanings,” fresh associations given to foreign elements introduced into a new cultural context. The reverse — Europeans borrowing from primitive arts — is to be discouraged. This inversion of the Old Mythology means that an innovative Sepik dancer who incorporates cigarette wrappers in an elaborate headdress is participating in an exciting fusion of cultures, while a Swedish office-worker who wears a New Guinea dog-tooth necklace is implicated in hegemonic, colonialist appropriation. Torgovnick presents as a frontispiece for her book a heavily ironic, not to say sneering, painting (by Ed Rihacek) of a stylish European woman in her lounge wearing sunglasses before a zebra-skin, surrounded by a collection of “primitive art.” In his derisory essay on the “Primitivism” exhibition, Clifford reproduces a 1929 photograph of Mrs. Pierre Loeb, seated in her Paris apartment with Melanesian and African carving. Clifford labels this as an “appropriation” which was “not included in the ‘Primitivism’ Show” (an curious observation inasmuch as this very photograph appears in the show’s catalogue). Both of these images suggest a kind of disapproval of European cultural appropriation that it would be unthinkable to direct toward their cultural inversion — for example, the 1970s posed village photograph Susan Vogel has published showing a Côte d’Ivoire man seated before a wrinkled, painted backdrop of an airplane with a cassette radio proudly displayed on his lap (Vogel 1991:29).

(8) The Old Mythology at its colonialist worst posited an ethnocentric aesthetic absolutism: advanced, naturalistic European art forms were, especially because of their naturalism, seen as demonstrating a higher stage in the evolution of art. Modernist Old Mythology retained the idea of universal aesthetic standards, but argued that tribal art fully met these criteria for excellence, which were formalist rather than naturalistic. In rejecting both these positions, some New Mythologists urge the abandonment of any idea of trans-cultural aesthetic criteria (which would be implicitly imperialistic) in favor of complete aesthetic relativism. McEvilley imputes to Kant an epistemology which “tacitly supported the violent progress of 19th- and 20th-century imperialisms” and justifies a view of the Western aesthetic sense as superior to that of nonwestern cultures (1992:98-99).5 The New Mythology owes its aesthetic relativism entirely to climate of poststructural ideology, rather than any empirical study tribal and other world arts.

(9) More generally, both colonialist and modernist Old Mythologies imply or presuppose an epistemic realism: they both presume to describe the actual, existent characteristics of tribal societies and their arts. Under the influence of poststructuralism, New Mythology often presupposes various forms of constructivism, the idea that categories of human existence are constituted entirely by our own mental activity: we “invent” or “construct” the “primitive,” tribal “art,” “religion,” and so on. The knots into which theorists become tied in trying to introduce such poststructural rhetoric into the study of tribal arts is illustrated by Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, who writes, “Ethnographic artifacts are objects of ethnography. They are artifacts created by ethnographers. Objects become ethnographic by virtue of being defined, segmented, detached, and carried away by ethnographers” (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1991:387) From her first sentence, a dictionary definition, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett deduces a constructivist howler: the trivial fact that ethnographers define the ethnographic status of artifacts does not entail that they create the artifacts. Nor do they create the artifacts’ meanings; it is the people being studied who determine that, and this awkward reality gets obviously in the way of attempts by New Mythologists to relativize cultural knowledge and meaning. Constructivism is a stronger force among New Mythologists most influenced by recent literary theory, and is less persistent among those who come from a background of academic anthropology. Despite their tendency to toy with the jargon of recent literary theory, anthropologists generally acquire a robust respect for independent existence and integrity of the peoples they study.

(10) Finally, premodernist Old Mythology, especially in its Victorian colonialist guises, preached the superiority of Western culture. It proposed to bring moral enlightenment to savages, mainly through Christianity, but also with science and modern medicine. In this, it stands starkly apart from Modernist Old Mythology, and even from some eighteenth-century explorers of the South Pacific, who claimed that the moral sense and intellectual capacities of primitive manwere at least equal to those of Europeans. The air smug moral superiority has returned with a vengeance with the arrival of the New Mythology, whose champions patronize, censure, and jeer at any Old Mythology text they find wanting. The New Mythology of tribal arts displays a sense of righteous certitude that would fit the most zealous Victorian missionary.


In some respects, the New Mythology’s frequent borrowing from poststructuralism and the general intellectual climate of postmodernism is healthy and appropriate. For example, the approach to tribal arts must necessarily involve “blurred genres” and fused disciplines, bringing together ethnography, art history, philosophical aesthetics, and general cultural, including literary, criticism. This is fully in the poststructural / postmodern spirit, as is calling into question the peculiarly European distinction between the so-called fine arts and the popular and folk arts and crafts, which normally has no clear application in understanding tribal arts. But there are other aspects of postructuralism which sit uneasily with the study of tribal arts.

One such notion is the pervasive poststructuralist attack on the authority of the artist or author in aesthetic interpretation. Barthes, whose thinking was again seminal in this regard, proclaimed the death of the god-author, along with the end of the ideologies of objectivity and truth, insisting that the meaning of a literary text is a critical construction, instead of a discovered fact (Barthes 1977:142-48). In the theory of literature and the practice of criticism such constructivist ideas have had their uses, liberating criticism from traditional demands to invoke authorial intention as a validating principle for critical interpretation. However, the poststructural abandonment of the notion that texts contain meanings placed there by their authors (which it is criticism’s job to determine) is only possible in a cultural landscape in which there is enough prior agreement on meanings to allow criticism to become thus freely creative. The poststructural death of the author could only take hold in literary theory because there was already in place an extensive tradition of interpretation of, say, Madame Bovary or Moby-Dick. These novels enjoy a canonical status as works of literary art: they observe the conventions of established genres and were written in European languages by recognized literary artists. The cultural conditions that form the context of their creation and reception is solid enough to enable a generation of critics — notably Barthes, Foucault, and Derrida, but also the New Critics of the Anglo-American world — to declare the hypothetical death of the author and advocate a liberated, creative criticism of jouissance.

But do these doctrines and strategies of contemporary theory provide useful models for the critical ethnography of tribal arts? Hardly. Poststructuralism’s image of the free-spirited critic at play in textual fields goes counter to one of the most strongly-held (indeed, in my opinion, indispensable) principles of the New Mythology: respect for autonomous existence of tribal artists, including respect for their intentions and cultural values. Declaring the death of the (European) author may be jolly sport for jaded literary theorists, but an analogous ideological death of the tribal artist is not nearly so welcome in the New Mythology, nor should it be in any anthropology department. The study of tribal arts — indeed, all nonwestern arts — cannot presuppose a sufficiently stable, shared background understanding against which one might declare artists’ intentions irrelevant or passé. Moreover, the New Mythology gains its sense of identity by pitting itself against what it takes to be the Old Mythology’s ethnocentric disregard not only for the intentions of tribal artists but for their very names as well. (Price 1989:66 calls this “the anonymization of Primitive Art,” and it was a major complaint lodged against the “Primitivism” in 20th-century Art exhibition; see McEvilley 1992:41). If such ethnocentrism is not to be actively encouraged, the tribal artist’s interpretations must enjoy special status, defining in the first instance the object of study. In order to respect the cultures and people from which tribal works of art are drawn, New Mythology must treat indigenous intentions — ascertained or, where unavailable, at least postulated — as constituting the beginning of all interpretation, if not its exhaustive or validating end.

This deep conflict between doctrines of the New Mythology and the poststructuralism it seems so eager to appropriate keeps breaking out despite efforts to paper it over. McEvilley and Clifford enthusiastically adopt the discourse of constructivism, so long as they are talking about how “we,” or “the West,” or the “omniscient” curatorial mind, constructs the generalized primitive, but New Mythologists are not nearly so keen to revert to constructivist parlance when it comes discussing the actual meaning of works of tribal art. Thus Kasfir asks, “Who creates meaning for African art?”, where “for” indicates “on behalf of,” implying that Western collectors and exhibitors make a meaning for African art to satisfy the Western eye and mind (Kasfir 1992:41). This, however, avoids the more obvious wording of the question, “Who creates the meaning of African art?” If there is any answer at all to this question, it must begin with the artists and cultures that produce the art. The West can “construct” in the poststructuralist manner to its heart’s content, but its understandings will always be about the indigenous constructions of the cultures from which African works derive. It is indigenous intentions, values, descriptions, and constructions which must be awarded theoretical primacy. If an African carving is intended by its maker to embody a spirit, and that is an ascertainable fact about it, and any ethnography that constructs its meaning in contradiction to that fact is false. Of course, ethnography need not culminate with indigenous meanings and intentions, any more than literary criticism comes to an end when an author’s intended meaning for a work of fiction has been determined. But ethnography has no choice except to begin with indigenous meanings, which it does not construct, but discovers.


Marianna Torgovnick’s work gives of sobering illustration of the problems of using poststructuralist strategies and attitudes to illuminate the relationship between the West and tribal cultures. If there is one quality which characterizes her book, Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives, it is a breath-taking (and single-mindedly poststructural) disregard for the actual human world outside of the texts she discusses. To demonstrate how “the West constructs and uses the primitive for its own ends” (1990:18), she critically analyses Henry M. Stanley, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Bronislaw Malinowski, Joseph Conrad, Michel Leiris, D.H. Lawrence, and Margaret Mead, treating all of these writers as though they were all essentially engaged in the same sort of enterprise. For example, the 1924 suicide of Roger Fry’s lover, Josette Coatmellac, is treated by Torgovnick as though it were an event in a novel about Fry; on the basis of the most feeble evidence, Torgovnick explicates the suicide in terms of gender politics and Fry’s enthusiasm for African masks. Her treatment of Malinowski, which includes a fantasy-digression “Malinowski’s Body,” is furthered by an analysis of the quite-ordinary cover design of a 1968 paperback reprint of The Sexual Life of Savages in which the “book’s title and the author’s name occupy fully one-half of the cover; the white background extends even farther, for perhaps three-quarters of the page. The author’s name penetrates the name of the book, a name which itself suggestions penetration....the hierarchy that structures the cover design is the male-on-top order of Malinowski’s culture”(p.7).

Torgovnick analyzes Roger Fry’s “Art of the Bushmen” (1910) and “Negro Sculpture” (1920). In my view, these two essays represent the most worthwhile elements of modernist Old Mythology in their sensitive and generous appreciation of African art. Though the essays are not culturally informed, they are as far from being Eurocentric as any writing possibly could have been in their day. Fry wrote about African art as a man who had just made a great discovery, or perhaps just fallen in love. Yet Torgovnick finds in these exciting essays “racist assumptions,” “a circle of erroneous racial thinking,” and “unacknowledged racism.”  If we read it “harshly,” one passage of Fry even provides “a rationale for the extinction of primitive peoples”(p.95).

For instance, the genocidal Roger Fry describes European artistic preferences, as he puts it, for “forms which appeared to us to mark the nobility of man,” preferences “dictated not by a plastic bias” — i.e., by purely sculptural considerations — “but by our reading of the physical symbols of certain inner qualities which we admire in our [European] kind, such, for instance, as agility, a commanding presence, or a pensive brow.” (One thinks, for instance, of Victorian public statuary.) The African artist, “either has no such preferences,” Fry continues, “or his preferences happen to coincide more nearly with what his feeling for pure plastic design would dictate.” This passage, says Torgovnick, “manages to endow even the failings of Western art with virtue: ‘we’ fail in certain sculptural attempts because ‘we’ value a noble image as ‘they’ do not seem to do. Significantly, ‘we’ add ‘pensive brows’ while they (less rational, ultimately less intelligent, as our colonialist psychology will have it) do not seem to value, even understand, the demands of rationality or intelligence”(pp.91-92). Fry’s point should be pluperfectly clear to any reader: Africans have a sculptural sense superior to Europeans. And yet Torgovnick distorts his observations into a denial of African intelligence, when in fact his whole intention is exactly the reverse.

There is another stunning reversal in Torgovnick’s condemnation of Fry for repudiating any analogy between African art and European children’s art. As already noted, the view that primitive societies represent an early stage in the evolution of humanity, the still-living childhood of man, was in Fry’s time a widely-believed tenet of colonialist Old Mythology, along with its corollary was that primitive art should therefore be understood like European children’s art. Fry therefore begins the 1910 essay by repudiating this idea, stressing instead the aesthetic gifts of Bushmen — again, superior to Europeans — in rendering the movement of animals with “photographic verisimilitude.” The Africans, Fry explains, show a representational power so sophisticated that Europeans have only come to understand it since the advent of photography. Indeed, Fry says, those “who have taught drawing to children will know with what infinite pains civilised man arrives at this power.” But Torgovnick claims to see through Fry’s argument: “The analogy between Bushman art and childish art is rejected, but its persistence shows its power and suggests its truth.” Torgovnick is reminded of Iago’s warning to Othello not to be jealous: “repetition can give fictions or hypotheses the status of truths”(p.96). By protesting that African art is not childish the wily Fry — the Iago of modernist Old Mythology — is subtly convincing us that it is.

Torgovnick’s trashing of Fry as “racist” and Malinowski as sexually obsessed reveals a willful misreading of older texts that is not uncommon among New Mythologists who take their inspiration from poststructuralism. Torgovnick demonstrates not the slightest interest in assessing the accuracy of Malinowski’s ethnography or of trying to understand the subtleties of Fry’s response to African art. For her, these authors are well and truly dead, and can therefore be typecast into the roles required of them by the New Mythology. “Roger Fry” for her actually is an invention — an ugly, racist apologist for genocide, whose misbegotten interest in African art somehow “precipitated”(p.104) the suicide of the innocent Josette — as is “Malinowski,” who becomes another vehicle for her to denounce made-up Old Mythology via ever more wild fantasies and speculations. Once adrift on the textual seas of poststructural literary theory and criticism, anything goes. Torgovnick thus reproduces a 1928 photograph of a young Margaret Mead standing in a posed position with her arm around a Samoan woman friend. To Torgovnick Mead’s pose “seems homoerotic”(p.238). To other eyes it will seem nothing of the sort, but here as throughout, Torgovnick is less concerned to find out about her subject, than in the best poststructuralist spirit merely to invent it.

Torgovnick reaches a nadir in her interpretation of a well-known photograph she says she first came across in the Margaret Mead Hall of the American Museum of Natural History. Torgovnick reproduces it, with the caption, “A visual pun — on the young girl the forms of breasts”(p.80). In her reading of the photograph, the girl is “smiling broadly at the camera in the classic welcoming ‘aloha’ way.”  This “pubescent” girl “holds in each hand the tips of palm fronds — this is perhaps a photograph meant to evoke a fertility or initiatory ritual.” According to Torgovnick, “individual fronds, stripped from the trees, form the girl’s elaborate necklace/breastpiece/blouse. From the tip of each frond in the breastpiece dangles one of the photographer’s light [sic] bulbs.”

A New Guinean girl holding pandanus stalks. Draped around her are ribbon necklaces with used magnesium flashbulbs. Photograph by ornithologist E. Thomas Gilliard, 1950.

As Torgovnick explains it, “the bulbs function here as a kind of visual pun, exploiting the visual image’s power to say things by juxtaposition that would be unacceptable to put into words.” The flash bulbs “suggest, on the young girl, the forms of breasts she does not yet have, replace them in a metonymy both verbal (bulbs/boobs) and visual. The bulbs may have come — probably did come — from the camera taking the picture. Is this ‘culture contact’ or ‘cultural hegemony,’ ‘sexual politics,’ even, at the most extreme view, ‘child porn’? The photograph suggests an uneasy crossing of all four”(p.79).

Torgovnick’s elaborate interpretation raises far more questions than it settles: is this little girl, apparently a Melanesian wearing a New Guinea bilum, saying “aloha”? Do her gestures suggest a fertility ritual? What of the sinister suggestion that she is presented in this photograph as an object of sexual interest? In point of fact, the reality behind this photograph is completely different from what Torgovnick represents. In 1950, the then Assistant Curator of Birds for the American Museum of Natural History, E. Thomas Gilliard, mounted a large expedition into the Wahgi Valley and on to Mt. Hagen in New Guinea. This was exciting, largely unexplored territory in those days. The Australian prospector, Michael Leahy, had only found the Wahgi, with its many thousands of Melanesian inhabitants, in the mid-thirties, and further exploration had been delayed by the war. In order to collect specimens, Gilliard and his partner, Ned Blood, had to enlist the expert help and guidance of many hundreds of local people. As Gilliard put it in his National Geographic summary of the expedition, “these intelligent people had a comprehensive knowledge of the local flora and fauna” (Gilliard 1951:668). Between April and August, 1950, the expedition collected 1,500 bird specimens (including twenty previously unknown species), as well as 900 mammal, 650 flowering plant, and 500 butterfly specimens.

The expedition was about collecting plant and animal specimens, but in the usual National Geographic style it is the New Guineans who steal the photographic show with their display of skilled, highly imaginative body decoration. Gilliard’s photographs were fascinating when published, and age has only enhanced their charm. As he depended on locals for specimens, he had a problem to pay them fairly. Money was of no use to them, so he resorted to a medium of exchange that has been employed for centuries in the South Pacific, by the Chinese long before Europeans: trade beads (now, as then, still eagerly sought for adornment). When his beads ran low, he paid children who collected for him with used flash bulbs strung on colored ribbons. Gilliard’s photograph shows one of the collectors, an apparently enthusiastic little girl who must have been an assiduous plant hunter, since each of her screw-type flash bulbs is strung on a separate red satin ribbon. There are no palm fronds whatsoever in the picture.

The little girl, being a Melanesian, would not be smiling in “the classic welcoming ‘aloha’ way.” (Why “classic”? Where has Torgovnick seen this classic “aloha” before — Honolulu airport? Hearing “aloha” from a Melanesian is about as likely as hearing “shalom” from a cowboy.) Equally ludicrous is the suggestion that the photograph means to evoke a “fertility or initiatory ritual.” In actuality, this child is neither welcoming doughty explorers nor engaging in a fertility ritual: the little girl has found two excellent specimens of young pandanus trees — they are screw-pines, not palms — and she is presenting them to Gilliard, for which she has just received, or is about to receive, yet another flash bulb on a ribbon. Naturally, she is beaming with happiness. (Gilliard, a world authority on New Guinea birds, especially birds of paradise and bower birds, was later Curator of the Ornithology Department at the Museum. He died in 1965. The little girl would now be middle-aged, and it wouldn’t surprise me if at the bottom of some trunk in a village near Mt. Hagen there isn’t still an old, screw-type flash bulb and a bit of faded ribbon.)6

There is a real human joy in Gilliard’s wonderful image, and Torgovnick’s bulbs-as-boobs, fertility-ritual, child-porn interpretation consciously intends to kill it dead. By stigmatizing the picture as pornography, she transmutes it into evidence for her version of the New Mythology. The fact that she could present such a grotesque misreading of Gilliard’s photograph without bothering to check a single fact about it signals that she is no more interested in the life or art of New Guineans than she is in giving a serious assessment of Roger Fry’s, Bronislaw Malinowski’s, or Margaret Mead’s contributions of understanding nonwestern art or culture. All that counts in Torgovnick’s New Mythology is that everyone else’s interest in “primitive culture” is misguided, corrupt, or ideologically incorrect. Such distortions as hers are inevitable in a poststructural intellectual climate which, throwing ethnographers together with novelists as inventors of the primitive, extols the construction of fantasy-interpretation over the hard slog of empirical research.7

The original color version of E. Thomas Gilliard's photograph of a New Guinea girl.



Patrick McNaughton has recently called in the pages of African Arts for scholars concerned with tribal arts to turn more of their attention to recent work in aesthetic and cultural theory. He argues that too many art historians and anthropologists have in the past naively accepted as unproblematic notions such as “description” or “objectivity,” ideas which become what he calls “naturalizing ideologies” of the profession and need therefore to be challenged. But if scholars take McNaughton’s advice, I hope it won’t be to replace one set of unreflectively accepted mythologies with another.

For example, he cites issues raised by the extent to which the meanings of social life involve adherence to rules. This is an important area, because a couple of generations of anthropologists were trained in an atmosphere which naturalized the idea that strictly adhered to social rules discouraged innovation in tribal art, with artists merely following ancient formulae, etc. As McNaughton discovered early in his field research, however, rules among the Komo could be followed or neglected: “They could be used as social resources to garner authority. Or by breaking them they could be used as social resources to garner authority. Komo leaders and mask dancers could become famous by following the rules, or by not following the rules.” He concludes that rules and norms “have a subtler status, subtler meaning, than a frequent over-emphasis on them suggests.” Exactly: no intelligible form of human life can be adequately accounted for merely by explicating a set of rules; life is carried on in observing, breaking, and ignoring rules, and these phenomena cannot be accounted for by a set of meta-rules which govern when rules are to be broken or norms violated. If there were such a higher set of rules, the same problem would apply to them (when can they be observed, broken or ignored?), and then to the meta-meta-rules, ad infinitum. The same issue can be raised not only about Komo masks, but about every other art form, for instance, the history of the classical sonata, where some composers flourish by following rules of form, others by breaking them.

However, scholars who might wish to pursue McNaughton’s neatly expressed questions about the meaning of human action in order to understand why Komo masks or Mozart sonatas can be in their vastly different ways so haunting and powerful will find precious little help in recent theory as practiced by figures he names: Foucault, Lacan, and their epigoni who “do theory.” What is needed is basic philosophical and aesthetic analysis which refuses to nod chummy agreement toward any knee-jerk ideology, especially including the ideological preoccupations and agendas of the New Mythology of tribal art.8

Instead, we should systematically defy all mythologies, new and old — and, while we’re at it, defy and eschew the jargon and willful obscurity which so often replaces hard thinking in theoretical writing. McNaughton’s passing confession, “Komo masks are one of my favorite things,” scary and beautiful, should remind those of us who study tribal arts why we ever gravitated to this field in the first place: the beauty of these objects, and the creative power of peoples who make them. Our goal should be to challenge clichés and shibboleths from whatever source, in order to see, feel, and understand the art of tribal societies as clearly as we humanly can. The alternative is delusion and more ethnocentrism.9


1. McEvilley lumps together colonialist and modernist Old Mythology as a single target: “The passing of Modernism means the passing of the mentality of the colonial era....” He speaks of “the Modernist myth which justified colonialism” (1992: 85-86). Modernism’s relation to colonialism is in fact exactly the opposite: it was modernism, for instance in Fry’s essays on African art, that called in question colonialist prejudices of European cultural superiority.

2. For an refreshing discussion of some forms of Occidentalism, see Gewertz and Errington 1991.

3. For a succinct summary of this point, see Vogel 1991. Susan Vogel continually proves herself to be an astute and independent writer on African art, completely resistant to clichés and stereotypes of mythological thinking, old and new. Meaning and authenticity are also discussed in Dutton 1993a.

4. Arnold Krupat’s Ethnocriticism (1992) applies the spirit and letter of New Mythology to written Third World or ethnographic literatures. His book is an unrelenting political attack on the West for misconstruing or paying insufficient attention to these literatures, but it contains surprisingly few passages of close criticism, either pro or con, on the “ethnic” literatures Krupat’s ethnocriticism is supposed to elucidate. It appears the danger of getting his ethnocriticism wrong was too much for Krupat even to want to try; for more on “ethnocriticism,” see Dutton 1993b.

5. It is particularly specious to saddle Kant with the charge of aesthetic imperialism, inasmuch as Kant set himself directly against conventional eighteenth-century views that Europeans (usually, going back to the Greeks) had established universal principles of ideal beauty (1987: 79-84). The beautiful, Kant held, can never to be reduced to a specifiable ideal. He thought that the basic mental equipment that makes aesthetic appreciation possible was, like the grounding of practical reason, shared by all human beings, and that therefore cross-cultural aesthetic appreciation was possible. Though Kant has nothing to say about “primitive” aesthetics, his comments on intracultural differences in taste indicate his sensitivity to attending to the requisite cultural background for artistic judgments. His aesthetic theory nowhere entails that one culture’s ideal of beauty would be better than another’s or that Europe’s is the best of all.

6. My thanks to Barbara Mathé of the Photographic Collection and Mary LeCroy of the Ornithology Department of the American Museum of Natural History for helping me trace the background of Gilliard’s photograph.

7. By regarding all intellectual material as so much disembodied text, poststructural critics manage to absolve themselves from engaging the subject-matters of the texts they analyze. For an elaboration of this point, see my initial review of Torgovnick, discussed along with Sally Price’s Primitive Art in Civilized Places (Dutton 1991). As careful ethnographers, Gewertz and Errington are also sensitive to Torgovnick’s glib tendency to construct the object of her discourse: “the textual focus Torgovnick adopts has the political implication of rendering virtually irrelevant to us the lives that actual — nongeneric — ‘others’ in fact lead. Her view, that our renderings of them determine their existence for us, establishes them as products of our imaginations” (Gewertz and Errington 1991).

8. Winch (1992:40-65 and passim) presents a stimulating discussion, based on Wittgenstein, Lewis Carroll, and Michael Oakshott, of what it is to follow a rule. Winch’s is the kind of authentically philosophical “theory” that really does throw light on the issue McNaughton raises. Umberto Eco’s lucid writing in the semiotics of art is another valuable resource in understanding general issues of style and change in art (Eco 1989). In his recent philosophical examination of these issues, anachronistically entitled The Aesthetics of Primitive Art, H. Gene Blocker presents a subtle and sophisticated analysis of creativity, novelty, and rule-following (1994: 154-66, passim)

9. My thoughts on these issues have been greatly stimulated by the audiences who responded to early versions of this article at the University of California, Santa Barbara, UCLA, and the Claremont Graduate School.


References cited

Barthes, Roland. 1972 (1957). Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang.

Barthes, Roland. 1977. “The Death of the Author” (1968), in Image/Music/Text, trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang.

Blocker, H. Gene. 1994. The Aesthetics of Primitive Art. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America. [Reviewed by Denis Dutton in Philosophy and Literature.]

Boon, James A. 1991. “Why Museums Make Me Sad,” in Exhibiting Cultures, Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine, eds. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press. [Reviewed by Denis Dutton in Philosophy and Literature.]

Clifford, James. 1988. The Predicament of Culture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Clifford, James. 1991. “Four Northwest Coast Museums,” in Exhibiting Cultures, Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine, eds. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press. [Reviewed by Denis Dutton in Philosophy and Literature.]

Dutton, Denis. 1991. “Bookmarks” (essay on Price 1989 and Torgovnick 1990) Philosophy and Literature, 15,2:379-90.

Dutton, Denis. 1993a. “Tribal Artifact and Art.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 51,1:13-21.

Dutton, Denis. 1993b. “Bookmarks” (essay on Krupat 1992), Philosophy and Literature, 17,1: 189-92.

Eco, Umberto. 1989. The Open Work, trans. Anna Cancogni. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Foster, Hal. 1985. “The ‘Primitive’ Unconscious of Modern Art,” October, 34: 45-70.

Gewertz, Deborah and Frederick Errington. 1991. “We Think, Therefore They Are? On Occidentalizing the World,” Anthropological Quarterly, 64,2: 80-91.

Gilliard, E. Thomas. 1951. “New Guinea’s Paradise of Birds,” National Geographic, 101: 661-681.

Kant, Immanuel. 1987 (1790). Critique of Judgment, trans. Werner S. Pluhar. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Kasfir, Sidney Littlefield. 1992. “African Art and Authenticity: a Text Without a Shadow,” African Arts, 25,2: 41-53.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. 1991. “Objects of Ethnography,” in Exhibiting Cultures, Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine, eds. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Krupat, Arnold. 1992. Ethnocriticism: Ethnography, History, Listerature. Berkeley: University of California Press. [Reviewed by Denis Dutton in Philosophy and Literature.]

McEvilley, Thomas. 1992. Art and Otherness. Kingston, New York: McPherson & Company.

McNaughton, Patrick R. 1993. “Theoretical Angst and the Myth of Description,” African Arts 26,4: 14f.

Messenger, Phyllis Mauch (ed.). 1989. The Ethics of Collecting Cultural Property: Whose Culture? Whose Property? Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Price, Sally. 1989. Primitive Art in Civilized Places. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [Reviewed by Denis Dutton in Philosophy and Literature.]

Steiner, Christopher B. 1994. African Art in Transit. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [Reviewed by Denis Dutton in Philosophy and Literature.]

Thomas, Nicholas. 1991. Entangled Objects: Exchange, Material Culture, and Colonialism in the Pacific. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Torgovnick, Marianna. 1990. Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Vogel, Susan. 1991. “Digesting the West,” in African Explores: 20th Century African Art, ed. Susan Vogel. New York: Center for African Art.

Winch, Peter. 1992 (1958). The Idea of a Social Science and Its Relation to Philosophy. 2nd ed. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.


Just before “Mythologies of Tribal Art” appeared in print, the editors of African Arts sent the manuscript out to commentators in order to publish responses to it. While I am unfortunately unable to present these responses, which appeared in Fall, 1995 number of the magazine, here is my rejoinder to them. — D.D.


Thanks very much to Philip Dark, Sidney Kasfir, Barbara Miller, and Christopher Steiner for their thoughtful reactions. It is apparent, and something of a surprise to me, that we all share more than a few views in common. But as I pointed out in the article, the New Mythology is not a list of ten commandments agreed to in writing by all the figures I named. Nor are all the tendencies I pulled together under that rubric in my opinion false: while rejecting many of them, I would enthusiastically align myself with a few. I plead not guilty, however, to the charge that providing such a disparate list of adherents to the New Mythology is a strategy similar to Torgovnick’s throwing together novelists, art critics, and anthropologists. My list includes writers who — some more, some less — buy into a set of specified presuppositions and attitudes about ethnographic arts. Torgovnick lumps together novelists and anthropologists so she can say that they all “construct” the primitive. However, despite the defects of Malinowski’s ethnographies, they do not belong in the same category with the fictional entertainments of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Just because treating as fictional entertainments everything from Homer and Special Relativity to the Vietnam War is the current fashion in English Departments, that’s no reason for anthropologists and art historians to adopt it as strategy.

This opinion lies at the core of my argument against the application of textualism, poststructuralist style, to the study of ethnographic arts, and Miller’s comments certainly help highlight our differences. She agrees with me, citing Foster and Owens, that the “death of the author” is the single most essential idea for the postmodern debates of the last decade. She then goes on to say that the death of the author “has led to the realization that Western cultures are one among many.... ” This remark expresses the usual overblown sense of the importance of theory. People in the West do have a better sense today that there are other cultures, but this owes immeasurably more to television, jet planes, and the National Geographic than it does to the poststructuralists and their rarified literary theories (speaking of which, I must state, contrary to Miller’s suggestion, that my knowledge of the relevant texts is first-hand, and not through a distorting secondary literature). One can vaguely associate the death of the author in criticism with the death of colonialism, for example, but then one can also associate it with the death of the mom-and-pop grocery, the death of radio serials, or the death of fish-tail Cadillacs. Such associations are not necessarily causal: they may be mere fantasy and free association.

Miller is perhaps too fond of association, as her frequent resort of contemporary artists indicates. For example, my reference to a Swedish office worker who might wear a New Guinea necklace has nothing to do with racist knick-knacks or Carrie Mae Weems’s criticisms of them. The importation of elements from one culture to another can involve contempt and amount to theft; it can also be both a fair exchange and a mark of authentic respect. (There are women reading this who happily wear jewelry from third-world cultures; they are not on this account colonial / hegemonic / racists). Miller wants partially to excuse Torgovnick’s grotesque reading of Gilliard’s photograph by arguing that it “reflects a secondary cultural frame” of the late 1980s and early 90s: child pornography, censorship, Mapplethorpe, and policies of the National Endowment for the Arts. Meaning “shifts through time and across contexts,” which explains, Miller says, why “Torgovnick’s focus on the photographer’s documentation of the young girl’s ‘precocious sexuality’ overshadows the original cross-cultural exchange.”

Is this then what we’re come to: don’t worry about what the photograph actually meant in its original New Guinean context — it’s the present American obsession with nudity, child pornography, and NEA funding that really counts? I would not call this inadvertent ethnocentrism: it is ethnocentrism as deliberate policy. In fact, speaking as one who knows New Guinea to some extent, I would deny absolutely that there is any hint of “precocious sexuality” documented in Gilliard’s image of the beaming little girl. The only eroticism is imposed on it by Torgovnick’s reading. Miller’s claim on the authority of Raymond Williams that we cannot step out of our “cultural ideology” sounds suspiciously like an excuse: since we’re all damned to be ethnocentric, don’t even bother to avoid it — by, in this case, researching the history of the photograph or trying to find out where it was taken, under what circumstances, and to decode its New Guinea cultural features (the bilum, the girl’s probable age, the species of the plants, why she’s so happy, etc.). On the other hand, if we’re all locked in a cultural prison, then fantasy and free association, Torgovnick style, will be as adequate as any other ethnographic method.

This brings me to the precise point where Miller accuses me of fantasy, of producing an “Occidental” construction when I wrote, “The little girl would now be middle-aged, and it wouldn’t surprise me if at the bottom of some trunk in a village near Mt. Hagen there isn’t still an old, screw-type flash bulb and a bit of faded ribbon.” In actuality, New Guineans do store keepsakes in trunks, although I don’t really think it likely that any of Gilliard’s flashbulbs have survived in this way. But a rhetorical point is fundamental to my speculation: Gilliard’s photograph portrays a real human being, one quite possibly alive and carrying memories of Gilliard and his expedition. Her smile at that unique moment in 1951 meant something to her — expresses something, trivial or not — and her image should not be treated as a disembodied text upon which we spin out our ethnocentric, not to say dirty-minded, obsessions a half-century later. As see this not only as an ethnographic imperative, but a moral one as well.

Speaking of morality, for a moment I was gratified to see Steiner condemn Torgovnick’s “basic ignorance of historical and ethnographic facts” till I realized that he himself does not appear certain whether such “facts” exist. He quotes my claim that any ethnography would be false were it to construct meaning in contradiction to, say, knowledge that an African carving was intended by its maker to embody a spirit. When I refer to knowledge of such indigenous artistic intentions as a putative “ascertainable fact” he inserts a sic into the quotation, as if to mark a misspelling or lapse of taste for which, since these are Dutton’s words, he is not responsible. Finally, he makes clear his embarrassment at stumbling on such an awkward word: I fail acknowledge that objects take on altered meanings in new historical and cultural contexts, shown, e.g., by George Boas’s discovery that the meaning of the Mona Lisa was different for succeeding generations that viewed it. But don’t we all know that? I myself would have referred not to George Boas but to George Steiner’s remarks on how the meanings and values of the Iliad and the Aeneid were altered for the generation that endured the Second World War (1969:26). It is the same with any significant work of art; some philosophers, David Hume, for example, would argue that the ability of speak across generations and cultural boundaries with different messages is precisely what defines significance in art. Nevertheless, even the Mona Lisa had to have a continuous, unchanging identity of paint and wood (“facts) for Boas to know he was writing about different ways of seeing (“interpretation”) the same painting. (It is not just the history or cross-cultural movements of art objects that unfold in this way; in degrees tiny or large, the meaning of, for example, the attack on Pearl Harbor alters every day. Underlying those changes is a foundation of “ascertainable fact”: one Sunday, ships exploded, people died, and it wasn’t an American bombing practice gone dreadfully wrong.)

And so with African art works which end up in the West: if we can know that a carving was intended by its African maker to embody a spirit, we owe it to ourselves and to him first to take that fact into account in any valid ethnographic interpretation. This certainly does not entail that artistic intention is ultimately decisive or will determine an eternal meaning for the carving in other contexts; and anyway, artists lie, get confused, forget, tell ethnographers what they think they want to hear, etc. Nor are such intentions even recoverable in many cases: would it were that hermeneutic / aesthetic / ethnographic inquiry were as straightforward a matter as, in Steiner’s metaphor, finding sunken ships! But Steiner cannot have it both ways: he cannot fault Torgovnick’s “basic ignorance” of facts, and then instruct the rest of us that “ethnography need not end (or for that matter, pace Dutton, even begin) with the ‘ascertainable fact[s]’ drawn from an original moral universe.” To the contrary, the ethnography of African art must begin with human acts undertaken in the original moral universe of African artist — which is their construction, not ours — if we are to grasp their achievement. Marianna Torgovnick has already given us a good idea of the alternative: fantasy and free association.

I’m glad Steiner has introduced into the discussion his recent African Art in Transit, as it illustrates both the virtues and pitfalls of his approach. I heartily recommend Steiner’s book to anyone who wants an insightful overview of how artifacts circulate through the art markets of the Côte d’Ivoire, mainly through the hands of Hausa traders (and their agents and runners) who wholesale to European merchants and retail to the tourists. A more depressing spectacle is hardly imaginable, with rampant cheating, faking of artifacts, and brutal “bargaining” between powerful traders and powerless suppliers. But there are ironic and funny touches too, such as a European trying to trade a Seiko watch for a carving, each party warily eyeing the other’s merchandise to make sure it is “authentic.” The world he describes is indeed one where interpretations of artifacts are “volatile and unstable,” where “objects hold different meanings to different people (both inside and outside the indigenous culture).” Steiner’s West African art market retains only one stable value: money (see Dutton 1994).

But what does this have to do with Steiner’s basic claim here that “indigenous intention” does not need to be accorded theoretical primacy in a hermeneutics of African art? In his book, Steiner does not accord indigenous intention a secondary place; he conspicuously ignores it altogether. Completely absent from his discussion is any account of origins of art objects in villages beyond Abidjan, the “moral universe” of the creators of these objects, or the objects’ uses in local life and religion. We are told of the contempt that Hausa traders, good Muslims, have for the village “animists” who produce the carvings, but Steiner himself tells us nothing about the carvers. At the other end of the chain of production and consumption, Steiner portrays Western buyers as shallow enthusiasts, even less culturally aware than the traders with whom they deal. He essentializes “serious” collectors of African art as “investment-oriented”; they are described by him as hypocrites whose “connoisseurship” entails disavowal of the financial value of the objects they pursue. His cynicism toward the West’s involvement in African art is manifest, for instance, in his characterization of European interest in colon figures as “a celebration of modern Western expansionism.” Steiner says that like “the ‘vintage imperialism’ or ‘safari-look’ created by fashion designers at Banana Republic and Ralph Lauren, the art market traders in Côte d’Ivoire are constructing a marketable fantasy of colonial experience.” Western ownership of such figures signifies “the reappropriation of Africa”; they are prized because they pay “homage to the conquest of the continent.” As one with a general regard for the arts of culture contact (Sepik crucifixes, Mughal images of British envoys, Maori pictures of European settlers), I was personally surprised to learn that my minor interest in colon figures stemmed from nostalgia — also minor, I hope — for the good old days of Leopold II.

On the evidence of African Art in Transit, all Western interest in African art is for Steiner reducible to some combination of greed, exoticism, primitivism, and colonialism — which is why I consider the book a prime example of the New Mythology. I see Steiner’s position as radically underrating not only the intelligence and sensibilities of Europeans, but also the capacities of African artists to create works of immense aesthetic, emotional, and spiritual power — a power so enormous that it can reach across decades and across cultures to touch peoples (not just Europeans) in ways they might not fully grasp. That is what happened to Roger Fry in 1920. In a word, he found the African works on display in the Chelsea Book Club beautiful.

So at last we come to the dreaded B-word, virutally banished from the vocabulary of the the New Mythology, and it is no surprise that Steiner terms my invocation of it “banal.” What I call banal is the total reduction of African art to the status of a commodity within the operations of a market, particularly a market as odious as the one Steiner describes. Serious research into African art, he claims, cannot limit itself to gazes of rapt admiration and mere celebration of art objects. Quite so, which is why I recommend his book’s detailed descriptions of art merchandising in Côte d’Ivoire.  But serious research which avoids aesthetic questions or (worse) falsely reduces them to something else, is just as empty, because it evades confronting artistic values that explain the existence of that market in the first place. When Steiner writes that “the African art trader is a cultural mediator between two groups brought in contact through common economic pursuits” (1994:155) he is engaging in precisely this kind of reduction and evasion. Reversing his final statement, I’d declare that to ignore intrinsic aesthetic values of African art which emerge from a cultural background including spirituality, play, ritual, morality, and, yes, even the economic demands is to miss the point completely. To talk of beauty in this domain is not a mystification; it is the elimination of beauty from discourse on tribal arts, or the treatment of it as either an incidental by-product of economic forces or as a cultural projection by Europeans, which is the ultimate act of mystification. Such strategies render the whole field incoherent.

Sidney Kasfir’s complex approach to African art has much to recommend it. I leave it to readers to study her commentary, since it would be tedious to catalogue my many “Yes,” and “Yes, but...” reactions to her. She insists that I have distorted the meaning of her statement that many African objects are not art in “the current Western sense.” I accept Kasfir’s point, especially as she graciously accepts so many of mine. (My backdown can be seen as further evidence that the author is indeed not dead: she is alive and kicking rather hard.) Particularly to be relished is her story of Samburu’s perplexity in the face of the Anthony Caro sculpture. Under the circumstances, her answer – “just something interesting to look at” — is a pretty good way to handle her friend’s question, “What is ‘art’?” I’m glad Christopher Steiner wasn’t around to take the question. (Steiner: “Just something to buy and sell, or to invest in.” Samburu: “Then if that’s art, why’s it sitting out on the lawn? Hasn’t it been sold yet?” Steiner: “


Dutton, Denis. 1994. Review of African Art in Transit, by Christopher B. Steiner, Philosophy and Literature 18, 2:428-34.

Steiner, George. 1969. Language and Silence. Harmondsworth: Pelican.