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A Primitive View of Art

What came first – the craftsman or the artist? It’s a question I seem to be constantly returning to at the moment.

The words seem obvious and intertwined – the artist is practising their craft; the craftsman is using their artistic ability. But what if the craftsman is making a product with no artistic intent? What if the craftsman is concerned only with the religious intent of the object, or the usefulness of it as a utensil of daily life? What if the bemused tribesman is simply making a hat because he’s sick of the damn sun in his eyes, and can’t for the life of him imagine why anyone would want to take away its usefulness just to hang it on a wall? Is he still an artist then?

Art – whether used as a noun, a verb or an adjective – assumes that an audience exists at the other end of the creative process. Craft doesn’t. Craft denotes a more utilitarian motive, albeit in a way that is likely to be aesthetically pleasing.

Which is why I struggle with representations of craft in galleries displayed under the banner of ‘Ethnographic Art’. It might be beautiful, and technically impressive, and undoubtedly the work of a highly skilled artisan, but is it art or a slightly disturbing remnant of Colonialism and the idea of Primitive Art – one that pays little respect to the spiritual or ceremonial intent of the objects?

Tribal Art has been informing and inspiring artistic practice since the 1800s. Picasso was probably its hugest fan, seeing no greater form of sculpture than ‘primitive sculpture’. But if a piece of Tribal Art is displayed as sculpture, and Batik cloth is hung like a painting, and a woven basket makes for a stunning piece of wall art…well…aren’t we (as in the royal ‘we’) collectively eroding the ritual attached to the object? The ritual that I suspect was what made the item so compelling an object in the first place? And, most importantly, is it up to us as outsiders to appropriate a culture in this way?

The answers to these questions elude me, but while contemplating them I’ve realised this:
I have a Māori Tiki hanging on the wall of my inner city apartment. It has significance for me, but only because it once hung in my grandparents’ home. God knows how they ended up with it – you only need to look at the pasty white legs of everyone in my family to know there’s not a drop of Māori blood in us – but it has been around for as long as I can remember. Perhaps my grandfather was gifted it. He did work as a jade carver at one stage, but let’s not reach further into the cultural abyss by analysing how a bloke of Scottish Presbyterian extraction, who seemed permanently ignorant to experiences outside his own, came to be carving hei-tikis and other traditional Māori taonga. My brain might explode if I contemplate that for too long. Whatever the reason for its existence it now belongs to me and, aside from occasionally dusting it, I don’t think about it much. It hangs on the wall alongside several other pieces of art, and occasionally a visitor mentions it.

And there it is – that I just wrote “other art” has jumped out at me. I consider it amongst my collection of artwork. I don’t know if I’m supposed to, but I do. Ethnology as art – I’m as guilty as anyone else. Who’s got the primitive view of art now, McCarthy?

My Dilemma

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