“Naive” or “primitive art,” according to arts writer Linda Murray, means “untrained artists in a sophisticated society.” According to Murray, it’s “an unspoiled vision consistent with ‘amateur,’ or ‘Sunday’ painter, admired for its connotations of genuineness and purity of artistic impulse, and freedom from the trammels of professionalism, tradition, technique, and formal training.” The implication is that the genuine article is someone who doesn’t know how to paint properly, but does it anyway. As Ian Chilvers says, “In naive work, colours are characteristically bright and non-naturalistic, perspective is non-scientific, and the vision is childlike or literal-minded.”
There are a few questions worth considering: What of those who, in the desire to find a purer vision, adopt naivete as a style? Is naivete a choice? For schooled and academic painters is it possible to unlearn processes? Is this desirable? If naivete is inexperience, is it possible that some art can be contrived to represent the admission of inexperience?
The Czech writer Milan Kundera has given this one some thought: “Inexperience is a quality of the human condition,” he says. “We are born one time only; we can never start a new life equipped with the experience we’ve gained from a previous one. We leave childhood without knowing what youth is; we marry without knowing what it is to be married; and even when we enter old age, we don’t know what it is we’re heading for: The old are innocent children of their old age. In that sense, man’s world is the planet of inexperience.”
Gradually, for most of us, our naivete becomes unravelled. Society, education and the desire to be challenged, conspire to knock it out of us. The march of civilization seems to be one from primitive to evolved. But artists hold keys to rediscovering the roots of the naive psyche. And artists are the ones who have the power, should they wish to exercise it, to show others the way back.
PS: “You study, you learn, but you guard the original naivete. It has to be within you, as desire for drink is within the drunkard or love is within the lover.” (Henri Matisse)
Esoterica: Many capable artists realize that going naive is a viable method of outwitting the cookie cutter. As well as the possibility of unlocking personal and universal truths, the golden badge of individualism is polished. Going naive is not naive.
This letter was originally published as “The naive choice” on July 18, 2004.
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“I want to reach that state of condensation of sensations which constitutes a picture.” (Henri Matisse)