Tribal Art

The Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, edited by Michael Kelly (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

Denis Dutton

Tribal art, also termed ethnographic art or, in an expression seldom used today, primitive art, is the art of small-scale nonliterate societies.  Some of the traditional artifacts to which the term refers may not be art in any obvious European sense, and many of the cultures where they occur may not strictly-speaking be tribal in social structure. The rubric nevertheless persists because the arts produced by small-scale cultures share significant elements in common. The tribal arts which have gained the greatest attention in the West come from the Americas (such as the Inuit, Southwest and Plains Indians, and isolated areas of Central and South America), Oceania (including Melanesia and Australia, Polynesia and New Zealand), and Subsaharan Africa. The characteristics which define a small-scale, traditional society are (1) isolation, politically and economically, from civilizations of Europe, North Africa, or Asia, (2) oral traditions in the absence of literacy, (3) small, independent population groupings, usually in villages of no more than a few hundred souls who live a life of face-to-face social interaction and informal social control, (4) a low level of labor/craft specialization, (5) subsistence by hunting, fishing, and gathering and/or small-scale agriculture, (6) little technology beyond hand tools, and that often of stone rather than metal, and (7) slow rates of cultural change prior to European contact. Of this list, small size, lack of written language, and isolation from large civilizations are the essential features of societies whose art is discussed here.

As the European interest in “primitive” art grew in the second half of the nineteenth century, attention was first captured by carvings and masks, as these were the easiest to transport back to the capitals of colonial empire. The arts of small-scale societies include, however, far more than transportable artifacts: musical and dance performance, oral literatures, textiles and jewellery, and relatively perishable or ephemeral arts, such as sandpainting and body painting. Cultures tend to specialize in some arts at the apparent expense of others; the Sepik peoples of northern New Guinea, for example, are renown for their wood carving, while their countrymen in the interior highlands hardly carve at all, but focus extraordinary care and attention on stunning body decorations. The acute aesthetic sensibilities of peoples of small-scale societies extend beyond crafted arts. Nilotic cattle herders of east Africa, such as the Dinka, have a refined sense for the natural colors and forms of cattle markings, around which they have built a subtle aesthetic vocabulary for critical discourse.

Whether such activities and artifacts amount to art at all in the European meaning of the terms is a question persistently raised in anthropological and aesthetic literature. Rudolf Arnheim has claimed that tribal art “is not made to produce pleasurable illusions,” but is “a practical instrument for the important business of daily living.” More recently, anthropologist Alfred Gell has argued that the importance of tribal art lies in its utility as a magical technology, rather than in its aesthetic appeal.  Thus the colorful appearance of a canoe may dazzle a trading partner, the decorations on an spear may help it find its target, or a carving’s importance derive from the fact that it is occasionally inhabited by a god or by the ghost of an ancestor; it follows that the European’s valuing of such objects merely because of their beauty would be ethnocentric. Gell’s emphasis on the remoteness of tribal arts from familiar, European aesthetic interests can be bolstered by considering some of the remarkable practices in the local contexts of tribal arts: for instance, malangan figures of New Ireland are sometimes unceremoniously burned following the ritual for which they were a centerpiece. 

Yet it is arguable that too much stress has been placed on the differences between Western and tribal arts. For instance, there are folk traditions in European Christianity in which an icon of the Virgin may temporarily be inhabited by her spirit, and it develops that New Ireland artists may have very good reason for wanting to burn a laboriously produced malangan, if the carving has in the course of a rite acquired potent magical powers which could be put to malevolent use were it not destroyed. Generally, it is difficult to find a practice involving tribal art in its original magical, religious, political, or entertainment context for which there cannot be discovered a plausible analogue involving acknowledged “art” products and practices in the civilizations of Asia and Europe.

Moreover, even when Westerners are ignorant of the original context of use of tribal arts, the immediately perceptible visible organization of a putative work of tribal art — color, imaginative representation, order and balance — seems often to mark its aesthetic status.  In this respect, what Robert Goldwater has termed the “directly visual” impact of tribal arts is no more mysterious (and no less powerful) than the encounters, however decontextualized, with fragments of ancient art works of the West. Furthermore, even the most culturally remote or naive audience will recognize a human face or human body in a work of art, and this can provide a point from where appreciation can begin (this fact may explain, incidentally, why the most desirable tribal carvings in the Western market for such art continue to be renderings of the human form).

The characteristics of the art of tribal societies have been catalogued by H. Gene Blocker.  According to him the tribal art object normally (1) is of aesthetic (sensual or imaginative) interest, (2) is made by a specialist producer of art, (3) is subject to critical appraisal, (4) is set apart from ordinary life, (5) represents the real or a mythological world or events in either literally or symbolically, (6) is intended to be understood as a symbolic or as mimetic representation, (7) involves the possibility of novelty within a tradition, (8) is made by a person often seen as “eccentric” or socially alienated within the indigenous context.  While one might might dispute the applicability of any of these criteria to every small-scale society (e.g. , carving is a special activity of an élite few in some Polynesian cultures, whereas in most of Melanesia virtually any man can try his hand at it), the list is nevertheless a useful reminder that tribal arts are very far from being crude or primitive in any aesthetic sense, but are the mature, fully developed arts of technologically less developed societies.

An imaginative challenge to the claim that the artistic status of tribal artifacts is necessarily perceptible in visible form has been mounted by Arthur Danto, who suggests a thought experiment: imagine two tribes, the Pot People and the Basket Folk, both of whom produce what are to European eyes indistinguishable pots and baskets.  In the minds of these tribal peoples, however, there is an enormous difference between Pot People pots and Basket Folk pots (and conversely with baskets), for the pots are works of art, embodying deep symbolism for the Pot People, whereas they are mere utilitarian artifacts for the Basket Folk.  Since this is for Danto a conceivable situation, it follows that for these imagined tribes, and possibly generally as well, the status of an artifact as work of art results from the ideas a culture applies to it, rather than its inherent physical or perceptible qualities.  Cultural interpretation (an art theory of some kind) is therefore constitutive of an object’s arthood.

If supportable, Danto’s thought experiment would have important implications for the Western encounter with tribal arts, for it would follow from it that knowledge of the cultural context of, say, an Oceanic ancestor figure was not merely an enriching support to the immediate aesthetic impact of the object.  Rather, its original culture would exhaustively determine whether the object was art at all; appreciation of formal aesthetic qualities in the absence of considerable cultural knowledge therefore risks being completely delusive.  However, it is difficult to imagine circumstances where something like Danto’s example could actually exist.  Those works of tribal art which embody dense cultural meaning are in small-scale societies normally ones into which are invested the greatest care, craftsmanship, and critical discernment.  In Danto’s example, even though we can well imagine Europeans might find it difficult or even impossible to distinguish between Basket Folk baskets (works of art) and Pot People baskets (utilitarian craft objects), it is hard to envision the situation where the basket weavers of the Basket Folk would not be able to tell the difference (I might mistake a Terborch for a Hals, but it is unlikely Terborch or Hals ever did so).

Nevertheless, Danto’s approach to the problem of cross-cultural aesthetic understanding, even if overdrawn, is a useful reminder of the importance of cultural knowledge in grasping works of tribal art. As they are deeply embedded in their cultural contexts, tribal arts are governed by systems of rules as complex as those that govern Western art forms. Moreover, it seems probable that societies which lack writing as a means of recording information and tradition invest art works with a greater density of meaning than literate societies.  It may also be the case that an isolated society that has no access to alternative visual representations outside of its own art may develop highly sophisticated and aesthetically powerful stylizations. It is perhaps for this reason that many judges from both within and outside small-scale societies have remarked on the degradation of tribal arts once they come in close contact with industrial societies.

Whether such a view is fair to indigenous artists or instead represents ethnocentric prejudice is a topic of fierce debate. Many knowledgeable collectors and curators of tribal arts wish mainly to acquire and display works made in a traditional style for a traditional religious or social use which are thus designated “authentic.” The market in tribal art therefore places a premium on African masks that have been used in a dance, Philippine carvings encrusted with years of oil and blood offerings, or decorated New Guinean fighting shields peppered with arrowheads from combat. At the same time, contemporary tourist or “airport” art made explicitly for sale to foreigners is passed over as inferior, since it does not reflect the indigenous values of the society, but only the demands of an alien market. This Western valorization of authenticity has been sternly criticized by Larry Shiner, who argues that it “is not merely an ethnocentric reflection of the modern discourse of Fine Art; it is also a piece of ideology, an unintended justification of a continuing exploitative power relation.” Westerners fantasize that old, authentic works were produced by tribal artists in the unspoiled, edenic state of such societies prior to colonial contact. Yet as Shiner points out, there was a healthy circulation of ideas with much artistic and cultural borrowing in tribal societies before European contact; the fact that tribal artists now borrow from the West itself is a continuation of an authentic tradition of cultural exchange. Such a value system works against contemporary indigenous artists, unless they become adept at producing the countless faked “old” masks and carvings which have flooded the tribal art market in recent years. 

Yet while it may be unjust that the airport art of developing societies should be disparaged by those more wealthy cultures that brought the airports in the first place, it is not unreasonable that historians and collectors should retain an abiding interest in the art of small-scale societies as they existed before the onslaught of the consumer economies of colonizing powers. The passionate, imaginative visions of tribal arts, expressing as they often do modes of life and thought which have been abandoned since contact with Western culture, have significantly expanded the West’s notion of how art can mean. For those in the West willing to open their eyes and minds, they offer a wondrous gift.  



Abusabib, Mohamed A.  African Art: an Aesthetic Inquiry.  Uppsala, 1995.

Arnheim, Rudolf.  Art and Visual Perception.  Berkeley, 1966.

Blocker, H. Gene.  The Aesthetics of Primitive Art.  Lanham, Maryland, 1994.

Coote, Jeremy and Anthony Shelton, eds. Anthropology, Art, and Aesthetics New York and Oxford, 1992.  Includes articles by Ruth Barnes, Ross Bowden, Raymond Firth, Alfred Gell, Susanne Küchler, Robert Layton, Howard Morphy, Jarich Oosten, Anthony Shelton, and Jeremy Coote.

Danto, Arthur. “Artifact and Art.”  In Art/Artifact, edited by Susan Vogel.  New York, 1988.

Dissanayake, Ellen.  Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why.  Seattle, 1996.

Dutton, Denis. “Tribal Art and Artifact.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 51.1 (Winter 1993): 13-21.

Dutton, Denis, “Mythologies of Tribal Art.” African Arts 28.3 (Summer 1995): 32-43.

Goldwater, Robert J.  Primitivism in Modern Painting  New York, 1938.

Shiner, Larry. “‘Primitive Fakes’, ‘Tourist Art’, and the Ideology of Authenticity.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 52.2 (Spring1994): 225-234.

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