The artifacts of our cultures


Dear Artist,

We all work in some sort of genre. We paint abstracts, landscapes, florals, or still lifes, for example. Generally speaking, we try to be innovative and give our work a unique spin or style. Perhaps pathetically, many of us venture into the world looking for things to inflict our style on.


Lévi-Strauss during his research visit to Brazil, 1936

We artists need to realize we’re taking part in something much more automatic, something much more anthropological. We’re repeating the artifacts of our cultures.

Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (nothing to do with denim) recently passed away at the age of 100. Through his study of native peoples, particularly the Amerindians of Brazil and North America, he drew some enlightening conclusions. He determined to his satisfaction that native art and its accompanying myths have no unique authors. According to him, native art just occurs and is transmitted over generations and from tribe to tribe. The individualist artist of today’s world, with his claim to uniqueness and penchant for self-obsession, had no place for Lévi-Strauss.

The idea of individuality actually disgusted Lévi-Strauss. “The ‘I’ is hateful,” he wrote. As if attending a great pot of soup, we artists just dip into it but have no real claim to it. We need only be thankful the soup is available.

Maurice Bloch, interpreting Lévi-Strauss’s ideas, wrote, “The Amerindian artist tried to reproduce what others had done and, if he was innovating, he was unaware of the fact. Throughout Lévi-Strauss’s work there is a clear preference for a creativity that is distributed throughout a population and that does not wear its emotions on its sleeve.”

Now something about us. If we enter our studios with the idea that we are simply going to dip once more into the pot, our little egos may just float off into Neverland. Work might become the simple honouring of past myths and current genres. While that thought may be upsetting for some, this approach kind of makes you feel good. It may even promote a new freedom of expression, and unburden the artist from a stifling egocentricity. Taking part in a great and noble tradition, we might take the pressure off.


He sought to uncover the hidden, unconscious or primitive patterns of thought believed to determine the outer reality of human culture and relationships.

Lévi-Strauss’s work is full of challenging contradictions. He found earlier populations to be ideally isolated from one another and able to develop their art without sullying influences. Today’s global village worried him. He felt all myths were now neutralized, and the pot had become the victim of both unbridled commerce and the tyranny of ego.

Best regards,


PS: “Objects are what matter. Only they carry the evidence that throughout the centuries something really happened among human beings.” (Claude Lévi-Strauss 1908-2009)

Esoterica: Lévi-Strauss also named a type of artist he called the “bricoleur.” At first a crafty and devious trickster, bricoleur has come to mean one who works with his hands. The bricoleur is adept at many tasks and at putting pre-existing things together in new ways to the benefit of communities. The bricoleur features in Lévi-Strauss’s best known book, “The Savage Mind.” He describes primitive people as being highly evolved and complex. It was his dream that we might someday return to such a desirable state.


The assembling of artifacts
by Ina Beierle, Glencoe, IL, USA

For many years I have been creating assemblage pieces that felt to me like artifacts, made with found objects picked up along the sidewalks as I go along. To me, they become archeological in nature as the discarded pieces I apply develop into layers… elements that were handled and discarded. As with the ebb and flow of our culture, the discards start to reflect the layers of time. I started as a painter, and continue to paint, but for whatever reason — and it might be a control issue — nothing brings me into the “Neverland,” as you so aptly put it, as the assembling of collage, assemblage, etc.


Uncovering the core of myths
by Mark Larsen, USA


“Fog woman”
original painting
by Mark Larsen

As an artist who uses myth and symbol to show how they can still be relevant to modern issues, I find myth to be far from being neutralized. I feel that myth simply needs to be reinterpreted to fit our times. “Fog Woman” is a Tlingit (First Nations) myth of a beautiful woman mysteriously appearing out of the fog, delivering salmon and sustenance to Raven, who became the caretaker of the resource. I have simply put this myth in a modern context, because stewardship of our environment is obviously still a very relevant issue. The issue is not whether myths are now neutralized, but rather are we artists willing to open our eyes and uncover the core of the myths to discover their true meaning. Myths, like art, are timeless.


Loving the soup
by Theresa Bayer, Austin, TX, USA


original painting
by Theresa Bayer

Whether we’re in an individualistic society, or in a tribal society, we’re all part of a very long line of artists stretching all the way back to Paleolithic times. I find that inspiring. It’s also thrilling to think how very many kinds of art there are, from the traditional genres, to the artists wanting to invent their own “ism.” What all artists, whether tribal or individualist, have in common is the ability to dip into that little Neverland of creative soup every time we pick up a brush. I love Neverland soup. Whether traditional or innovative, it’s always delicious.


Engaging our higher brain functions
by Jon Rader Jarvis, Vashon Island, WA, USA


“Row of Firs”
acrylic painting
Jon Rader Jarvis

Our western culture has a great history of image making based on the unique “ego” of individual artists who respond to and reflect the work of earlier creators. To invest ourselves in regret for our “ego-centrism” implies a kind of self-hate. Detractors who denounce our original and unique contributions are legion. We suffer from psychologists who relate originality and creativity to sociopathic behavior because it varies from the mainstream. They relate the artist’s desire for an original thought and way of life to aberrant behavior; they relate that impulse to a fixation on our bodily elimination production. To the extent that some individuals actually include these products in their work, this might be true. However, for the vast majority of artists, we simply strive to invest our interests with our acquired aesthetic sensibilities and engage our higher brain functions to live a life more fully conscious and alive and to contribute to a wider consciousness for all.


Individuality is all
by George R Robertson, Mississauga, ON, Canada

I find the Levi-Strauss argument (or, at least, your description of it) reductionist in the extreme; a classic academic analysis of art. We go to see Hamlet (paint a landscape) even though we know exactly how that play will end (what the world looks like). What intrigues and holds us is how this actor/artist will arrive at the final scene (finished picture). Even though the destination is known, it is the journey that the artist takes us on which enriches us. IMHO, ‘individuality,’ much as it may have disgusted Levi-Strauss, is all. In fact, any and all art worthy of the name is the direct expression of the artist’s individuality. Of course we are all, wherever we are, inescapably products of our culture. That is hardly a world-altering conclusion. It is how we view and interpret our culture in unique and revealing ways which counts, and which makes the best of us worthy of the honorific — artist.

There are 5 comments for Individuality is all by George R Robertson

From: Jane Herrick — Nov 23, 2009

I totally agree!

From: Jackie Knott — Nov 24, 2009

Dead on.

From: Sarah — Nov 24, 2009

In so far as the Amerindians of Brazil did not have an alphabet or a written language, was’t Levi-Strauss’s conclusion that Native art and myths have no unique authors premature if not suspect? He ignored that without a written language, artists couldn’t sign their work, and the myths by necessity could only be communicated verbally.

From: Anders Knutsson — Nov 24, 2009

By claiming Individuality we have also claimed ownership of the earth’s resources and superiority over other species and nature (incl. nature people). Levi-Strauss expressed, at age 100, deep sadness over the kind of world he would leave his grandchildren….

From: Leah — Nov 26, 2009

This is so true. Levi-Straus is just another in the long line of hypocrites who happily lived their life with all the goodies of the civilization. May those who criticize firstly sacrifice the benefits that they and their children enjoy. May they volunteer their comfortable neighborhoods to be torn down and reclaimed by the nature. I feel deep sadness that some humans inflict this hypocrisy on other humans.


Working with what we think we know
by Margaret Mair, Toronto, ON, Canada


“Reaching for the Sky”
original painting
by Margaret Mair

“In truth, the best long-term explanations about our ancient counterparts can be found in the paintings, sculpture, crafts, tools of utility, language and architecture left behind. These are the building blocks of civilization we call culture. These are what we call ‘the arts.’ ” (Edward J. Fraughton)

We are so accustomed to the idea of art being an individual process that we often forget that it is as much a product of a place or time as it is the product of a person. We tend to forget that it is not just the individual artist but the arts as a whole that has an impact on our lives. They affect all kinds of things, from the clothes we wear to the homes we live in to what we expect of the public spaces we share. It is true that it is often an individual who creates a unique piece of art that we enjoy. But that individual works with what he or she finds in the world they live in: the tools they have or can create at the time, what they find and see in the world around them, what they think they know.


A product of a collective experience
by Ian Semple, Vancouver, BC, Canada


“Ice On Kullagh Lake Near Merritt, British Columbia”
oil painting
by Ian Semple

We are only the sum of the experiences of our existence, an existence that is collective and repetitive. In the so-called primitive world, a world I have lived in as an exploration geologist, ego… the “I”… is but a fleeting path to destruction and anarchy. Self is only valued within the collective experience and survives only at the behest of that collective. All so-called original art is the product of a collective experience, its degree of originality reflecting only the extent of the subliminal id and the artist’s vision of that experience. While the artist may think that vision to be unique and original, even if having lived in complete isolation since birth, the product would still bear a genetic imprint reflective of the history of the human genome. We view things as absolute only by using boundaries we deem to be finitely defined and enduring, a fact that in itself is contradictory since “finite” and “enduring” are philosophically meaningless, being only terms of reference within our known history of experience. Since both the finiteness of the past and future of our universe remain unknown and undetermined, things not heretofore experienced or defined, such as “original art,” only exist in a relative absolute sense. The concept of originality is therefore only one of a newly discovered identity within a collective reference of experience. Myths are universal since they reflect a common universal experience. The details of particular myths are static noise within a local frequency. The first cave paintings were not original in conception; they were just the first depictions of a universal experience detailed within a local framework. The true uniqueness of art is not in producing something that appears new, but in reality is not, but rather creating a work of art that is unique to the artist’s interpretation of a particular universal theme. That such a work is contributory to that which defines us may open a path to future boundless originality.


Lévi-Strauss found off the mark
by Ernst Lurker, East Hampton, NY, USA


“Unification heart for Berlin”
by Ernst Lurker

Lévi-Strauss seems to be correct when he talks about native art of all the various tribes, but he couldn’t be further from the truth when he tries to apply his conclusions to our Western culture. Yes, native art may not have “unique authors,” everything is submerged in common traditions. From our perspective, that amounts to conformism, while innovation or creativity remains an alien concept.

But that is exactly what our culture is all about. The essence of our art history is the amazing string of inventions. All the major artists of the past are primarily known by their innovations they contributed to our culture. A few of the highlights are perspective, light and shadow, atmospheric impressions, expressionistic color, surrealistic dream world, etc. To equate such advances with “egocentricity” or “the tyranny of the ego” is seriously off the mark.


Out of the Collective
by Ken Paul, Eugene, OR, USA

I really enjoyed this letter (mainly because I generally agree with its tenor, having spent a long career practicing and teaching art of the self-referential variety). It’s something I’ve been endeavoring in retirement to break myself away from (made easier by the fact that my work has never been all that marketable, haha). I’ve also been steered by life in the direction of mysticism, in which the individual self is seen as illusory. I have never gotten around to reading Levi-Strauss, but know of his work by way of frequent citings. One of my former colleagues at the University (a ceramist… those guys/gals tend to be more on the alchemical side of creativity, so to speak… you know, earth, fire, air and water…) often posed the question: What is originality? In giving his rather inclusive take on this, he wound up by noting that originality has more to do with origins than with uniqueness. Which sorta rings true with much of what you wrote here. Although it still stops shy of saying what those origins actually ARE. I think you are hitting close to it here. Like, “WHO” writes the first version of a myth or a folk tale? Nobody knows. It just comes somehow out of the Collective.


The artist’s responsibility
by Bobbo Goldberg, Orlando, FL, USA


original sketch
by Bobbo Goldberg

How interesting: Art and the attendant myths “just happen,” across cultures and continents. Jung’s Universal Unconscious springs to mind as the source material for this great pot of soup. Wouldn’t Joseph Campbell have a lot to say about this? I think he’d point out, as he so often did, the commonalities among the myths of the world’s culture: the virginal birth, the sacrifice of atonement, the image of the flood, the mother figure whose name begins with the “M” sound, the flawed deities. Yes, clearly there is the universal Soup, and we all dip our cups into it. What is this individuality we treasure?

And yet:

Campbell also points to the Grail quest, and to the decision of the Round Table to adopt it as their next great mission. He says, “They thought it would be a disgrace to go as a group, and so they went alone, entering the forest where it was darkest, and there was no path.” The quest for the Holy Grail (that which can never be truly attained, because the value lies in the quest itself) is, after all, an individual one. Yes, we are all part of a greater wave of movement (or pot of pottage), but we bring our own particular contribution, what Zenna Henderson (Ingathering — The Stories of the People) called “each person’s unique syllable in the God’s name.”

Although our world is nourished (even despite ourselves) from a universal pot of Soup, isn’t it our responsibility as artists to bring our own individuality, inevitably, to the process? Does it make the “I” less ugly, to contemplate it as a willing “co-conspirator with the Divine Plan?” (By “Divine” here, I mean transcendent or foundational.) I suppose it is fine to have an ego, a tightly wound string upon which we can play our own melody from the universe’s available notes. As long as we don’t take it too seriously.

There are 2 comments for The artist’s responsibility by Bobbo Goldberg

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Nov 24, 2009

Hi Robert Goldberg- Truly- I wish this were easier- but it’s not. You’ve made a statement here about discovering the ‘holy grail’ and then added-

(that which can never be truly attained, because the value lies in the quest itself)

and while I understand and appreciate the need for the quest and how important the quest itself is- ATTAINMENT is in fact possible. And we humans go through our entire lives, wasting much effort, without ever doing the necessary inner work that makes attainment of the Grail State possible.

The way this world is set up is to keep our focus OUT on the world- and not IN on our own personal inner experience.

In the myth you are using as example (the quest for the Grail by the Round Table Knights) and the myth it comes from (the supposedly actual literal ‘CUP or PLATTER used by Jesus at the Last Supper, and by Joseph of Arimathea to collect drops of Jesus’ blood at the Crucifixion’ [Webster’s New World Dictionary]) what we see here is that this perceived ‘CUP’ is a literal thing of the material world that everyone is supposedly looking for.

Quite frankly- it isn’t. It is not only possible to be a ‘co-conspirator with the Divine’ but in fact it is a seeking that everyone should be doing while almost nobody is. But often artists have to do this seeking- and I had to- so I am speaking from Direct Experience. Believe me or not- I don’t care.

The Human Body is the Grail. The Human Body is the cup that can receive and hold the Divine Spirit. NO RELIGION NECESSARY. And once this understanding is gained the consciousness becomes your ‘co-conspirator’.

What the consciousness incarnate in the body has to do is look within. ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is within you.’ So in order to attain the ‘Grail State’ the consciousness has to balance their own inner masculine and feminine energies- which everyone is made of- and attain a sortof androgynous understanding of Wholeness allowing for an inner marriage of opposite energies to take place WITHIN ANY GIVEN SINGLE HUMAN ENTITY. When a ‘seeker’ does this work- the human body- which is in its totality just an energy channel/receptacle can then OPEN TO RECEIVE Divine Energy.

The pathway is quite simple. First One opens to the energy flowing up out of the Earth. What the Earth (feminine magnetic negative emotional goddess polarity) Energy does is it OPENS SPACE. The Space being opened is within you. Then what can happen is the energy flowing down out of the heavens (masculine electric positive mental god polarity) can enter into this OPEN SPACE and fill it with more Light/Love- an energy that flows through the Human Body and out into the world. The Human Body becomes the ‘Grail’.

So while this process is a bit of work- it is entirely possible for us to get there. Except for the billion and one things out there that are telling us all it is NOT possible. The Material Plane does not want you to KNOW that you are God.

From: Rose — Nov 24, 2009

Thank you…..


We are all influenced
by Jerome Grimmer, Oakhurst, CA, USA


original painting
by Jerome Grimmer

Claude Levi-Strauss sounds like another radical modern day party pooper, from what I can glean from your insights.  Thus the “noble savage” again illustrates a more intellectually honest, pure and simple lifestyle, rising above pretense and ego. What a load!

Could it be that anthropologists are like art critics? For an art critic to get his foot in the publishing door, he has to find a way to tweak the public’s nose by finding the right subject and, through gushing praise, shocking the stupefied readership. If the critic does not continually feed this pseudo-intellectual beast, if he fails to provide controversy, it yawns and turns away.

Levi-Strauss is repeating the same old mantra of countless cynics before him: “There is nothing original in the world.” Amerindian art was “pure,” however, not because of a superior way of life, but because his world of influence was microscopic compared to ours today. By definition, “communication” makes for a community. Today’s modern communication is making the whole universe our community. So what?

In art, it’s not what you start with, it’s what you do with it. Each artist has his own unique muse leading him. A painting is a glimpse of life through the artist’s eyes. We are ALL influenced by each other’s efforts, and that’s the way it should be.

There are 2 comments for We are all influenced by Jerome Grimmer

From: Sarah — Nov 24, 2009

Your painting is wonderful. And I agree with your comments.

From: Ron. — Nov 25, 2009

Couldn’t agree with you more.Glad someone finally said it.Great pic.




Man Resting

acrylic painting
by Jimmy Kelly, Ireland


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.

That includes G Nash of NC, USA, who wrote, “The soup is still chunky, not so homogenized.”

And also Vivian Anderson of Australia, who wrote, “Always, thanks for these letters… they help me more than you could possibly know… having been through almost every issue you’ve ever touched on, and found answers from your good self.”

And also Angela Treat Lyon of Hawaii, USA, who wrote, “The real ‘pot’ is inside of us. I used to call it dreamtime when I was a kid, before I knew of the Aboriginal DreamTime, a place of no-time, of feel-good, of wisdom and clarity and colors beyond the spectrum, of forms and messages of fullness and import and whim and direction always available upon a moment’s deep breath in and out and access through the heart.”


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for The artifacts of our cultures



From: Faith — Nov 19, 2009

This is nit-picking Friday!

I stumbled over the first paragraph because I could not get beyond trying to interpret what was meant by the word “pathetically”. I quote 3 of the 14 dictionaries at that interpret this word:


• adjective 1 arousing pity. 2 informal miserably inadequate. 3 archaic relating to the emotions.

Compact Oxford English dictionary


1 : having a capacity to move one to either compassionate or contemptuous pity

2 : marked by sorrow or melancholy : sad

3 : pitifully inferior or inadequate

4 : absurd, laughable

(Merriam-Webster 11th edition)


PATHET’ICALLY, adv. In such a manner as to excite the tender passions.

(Webster from 1828)

So which meaning should we go for? The emotion-laden if somewhat outdated SYM-pathetic one, or the almost exact opposite? Which only goes to show how dangerous words can be, and how nice it is to be able to judge a visual work by its appearance.

There’s another word in there that also calls for particular scrutiny, and that’s INDIVIDUALITY.

I quote the same 3 dictionaries, this time out of 23 that had ideas on that word.


1 distinctive quality or character.

2 separate existence.



1 a : total character peculiar to and distinguishing an individual from others b : personality

2 archaic : the quality or state of being indivisible

3 : separate or distinct existence

(Webster 11th ed.)

INDIVIDUAL’ITY, n. Separate or distinct existence; a state of oneness. (Webster 1828)

I took an instant dislike to this particular Levi-Strauss. “Today’s global village” mystifies most of us, I should think. We’ve gone from almost total ignorance of what was going on outside our small range of accessiblity to embracing just about everything there is to embrace. We watch reports of unspeakable poverty and violence while buttering our own bread. In other words, we just carry on with whatever “life” as dealt out to us. And that includes our individuality. It is not pathetic in the negative sense to try to contribute something of our own creation to the mightier one. I think it is fair to say that we can adopt an attitude of take-it-or-leave-it on this. That’s exactly what nature does when she invokes storms, tsunamis, earthquakes and other natural phenomena.

I think I would want Mr Levi-Strauss to study “Peanuts” the “Simpsons” rather than pursuing his own mildly eccentric form of self-fulfillment. At least we (painters) have something tangible to show for our (pathetic) efforts.

And by the way, it’s also tongue-in-cheek Friday:-)

From: Eric Armstrong — Nov 20, 2009

I’m sure back when people had about 12 words in their vocabularies passing on myth, legend, history, folklore, or whatever via the slowly evolved visual arts was more effective if there was continuity. But to suggest that the “individual” expressiveness of art is unique to “today’s world” ignores a couple thousand years of art history. Levi-Strauss seems to be just another in an endless supply of those who think things were somehow better in the old days. Much of his basic take on this “bricoleur” concept vis-a-vis legends and visual arts in primitive cultures was based on a fundamental misperception of oft-used icons, particularly ravens and coyotes. Ironically, while he might have decried individuality he also spent the better part of his career seeking to carve out his own individual take on cultural anthropology. To me, he’s about as relevant as another discredited anthropologist, Napoleon Chagnon, who was also a fan of contorting research findings to both suit a cultural interpretation and make a name for himself in the process.

From: Brenda Poole — Nov 20, 2009

I don’t think we humans have to return to the savage mind I believe we would do better to move from it! Levi, poor guy dug too deep in the dirt and was way too much of an individualist himself to call anyone else one. Why did you include him Robert, running out of good things to talk about?

From: Darla — Nov 20, 2009

I think Levi missed something here; with the growth of the internet and specialized groups popping up all over, anyone can find others who go along with his mind-set. There are not merely tribal collective consciousnesses based on locality; now there are any number of online groups who evolve and clarify their ideologies. Individual creativity enhances rather than fragments these “soup pots” as people see, work, appreciate and are inspired by the efforts of others inside and outside their group. (nothing like mixed metaphors!) There is certainly a place for tradition, but humans can’t be limited to simply repeating the past without variation.

I’d like to see a discussion on the use of traditional and other subject matter as symbols in painting. Any time you have representational art, it is a symbol of the physical subject and possibly something further–another way for the artist to communicate with the viewer.

From: Donald Diddams — Nov 20, 2009

Let’s keep an open mind here. Perhaps the extreme belief in individuality, creative ego and uniqueness is an icon of our times, and the resistance to the ideas in this letter are an indicator of how strong and pervasive those beliefs have become. By resisting the concept of an artist “dipping into the cultural pool” we are ironically doing just that!

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Nov 20, 2009

Poor Claude- “The ‘I’ is hateful”? ???

‘I’ get up every morning and go to work in my studio. Nobody makes me do it. Nobody else pushes and prods me and holds my feet to the fire. ‘I’ do.

‘I’ couldn’t pay my rent this month. ‘I’ am the one struggling with this. ‘I’ am the one who has struggled for years with my own money issues. ‘I’ am the one who has had periods where there wasn’t enough to eat. Again and again. And during those periods it was ‘I’ who continued to work- support or no support from the damn tribe.

It was also ‘I’ who struggled with years of depression and it was ‘I’ who did the emotional and spiritual healing work to get beyond said debilitating depression.

‘I’ pursue my creative expression every moment of my existence and it’s true- ‘I’ could just sit on my ass and not give a sh*t about any of it. Except that ‘I’ can’t- because it is much too powerful and present to ignore. It is ‘I’ who have suffered and struggled for my art- nobody else. And it is ‘I’ who one day- HOPEFULLY BEFORE I’M DEAD- might actually like to reap a few rewards from my lifetime of creative work- like having enough money to always pay my rent on time without having to grovel.

‘I’ am mostly a hermit- creating ‘unique to me’ work. ‘I’ don’t do the group thing much- because ‘I’ don’t want my work watered down by too much social involvement. ‘I’ don’t teach for the same reason. And ‘I’ am self-taught- mostly from books and through experimentation. If ‘I’ can do it- so can anybody else.

‘I’ know everything is energy and we are all connected- but ‘I’ also know that human individuation is of supreme importance. The (hateful) ‘I’ is everything in the arts. And it isn’t EGO.

From: Suzette Fram — Nov 20, 2009

I think individuality is what keeps us going. I think we all want to be recognized, acknowledged, and valued, for what and who WE are, not just as part of a group or society. Do we not all strive to be different, special, in our own way? It seems to me a very basic human need.

While I don’t agree with “the ‘I’ is hateful”, I do like the analogy of the pot of soup. We are all influenced by one another, present and past, and acknowledging and being grateful for that is a good thing.

From: Dwight Williams, Idaho — Nov 20, 2009

Reading all of the above, I must say Robert, you really opened a can there. Anything that gets the troops thinking this hard must have some value. It’s not whether I agree or not. I’m just saying if you can move ’em like this HANG IN THERE.

From: Del McMacon — Nov 20, 2009

I haven’t read enough Levi-Strauss to have an opinion on his opinions. What I can see is that contemporary artists are very driven to produce things completely original. It’s become highly conceptual, this contemporary stuff, and apparently the making, the physical manipulation of materials, is often secondary, ocassionally contracted out. One of the media that exemplifies this trend is installation. I’ll admit that I have very little feel for most of the installations I’ve seen. When there is some sort of over-arching explication of it, I might see the connection, but am still most often left cold. “Yeah, so?” I have a suspicion that this drive for uniqueness has lead many contemporary artists down a blind alley. I’m reminded that very few people listen to 12-tone music these days, whose compounders of tone rows were once the darlings of the musical world. Unfortunately I’m also reminded that many of the people I knew growing up felt that abstract expressionism was utter garbage, and I certainly don’t believe that. Some of that garbage actually moves me.

From: Karla Pearce — Nov 20, 2009

It’s interesting how many artists cling onto the idea that they are doing something original. Personally I think artists mirror the culture that they are a part of. The whole art experience is the “wow” factor. The very same as religion and science.

From: Haim Mizrahi — Nov 20, 2009

I do not know what purpose Mr Strauss serves other than having another research pile over so many irrelevant attempts to describe emotions and motions that belong strictly to the engaged. If anyone at all wants to take a shot at trying to. gather reason behind the intimate creative engagement of the individual, then one must stand in the center of the room saturated with hunger first. And still not indulge at all in the frenzy of eating. The pot of soup needs us more than we need it.

From: Mary Carnahan — Nov 20, 2009

My late husband was Lakota. He was a talented artist, mechanic, combat vet (Vietnam), and healer. Living with me in Virginia, in the midst of our anglo culture, he pointed out how crude and stilted white representations of native images such as Kokopelli were, compared with native versions — the cave paintings of Lascaux were obviously painted by talented artists, not just some generic person.

And as a sculptor, lampworker, leatherworker, and basket weaver, with many jewelry-making friends, he made a clear distinction between different native artists as well. I like your point about dipping into the pot of cultural creativity, and will bear it in mind as I engage in art. But my husband would have disagreed strongly with Levi-Strauss’ contention that “native art and its accompanying myths have no unique authors.” The content, maybe not, but the expression? Definitely.

From: Robert Bissell — Nov 20, 2009

I was very encouraged to read your post on Levi-Strauss. Over the years, I have often used a quote of his to title my shows: “Animals are good for thinking”. His reflections on totemism have inspired me to attempt to join our natural world and our own true nature within modern society. The most rewarding reaction offered by viewers of my own work is that it can stir up some history deep inside us that has been forgotten but not yet completely lost.

From: Bev Rodin — Nov 20, 2009

I agree completely and I have always viewed my artwork as a drop in the ever increasing pond, and the pond is feeding the lake.

Great topic as always.

From: Carole W King — Nov 20, 2009

This probably works for most artists but then, how do you explain a Picasso or “A Confederacy of Dunces,” a Bob Dylan? These are individuals who break out of the norm and drag us kicking and screaming in new directions. It’s almost as if when the pot is boiling, one bubble breaks free. Even they can’t explain themselves.

From: John Fitzsimmons — Nov 20, 2009

When I read Levi-Strauss back 35 years ago [cripes I am getting old]the concept of artist as “bricoleur” or “bricleur” as artist intrigued me. It goes back in some ways that an artist is a certain type of person, but it also reveals that there are many of those persons that do not or are not identified as artists. Some are know as junk yard mechanics, some as engineers, some as innovative business persons. Start with an artist, get rid of the flat hat and add a suit and what do you got?

Anyways, I felt that the isolation of creativity into the exclusive realm of the artists is not only false but irrelevant. People who are good problem solvers are creative by definition, they are putting together existing elements into more or less new ways, but more importantly ways that solve or resolve the issues at hand. Sometimes, persons are one, on fertile ground, two, able to juggle the elements, three , able to know when to stop.

The desire to be a bricoleur is part of an artist, a kid, an engineer. I can say that Ismael Kingdom Brunel [a bricoluer if there ever was one]was more creative than most. Also, a great mason or violinist, or opera singer who strives to perfect the expression of an existing set piece, may or may not be as original as some self absorbed flinger. Anne Ryan I think clouded this issue greatly.

I have to get some work done.

From: Jim Rowe — Nov 20, 2009

As I stated before, when you were wondering what art was, Art is communication, back in the early days of the North American Natives, their art would have been the main form of written communication, that is why it all looked the same, it had to conform. Today art is still communication, but on a different level, so conforming is no longer necessary, we have to freedom to be ourselves. –

From: H. Hehn — Nov 20, 2009

Your letter started me thinking about how meaningless most individual accomplishments (whether art or science) truly are in the grand scheme of time and tide – where they are merged into all the other individual accomplishments and rebirthed to make something even grander, more fantastic and hopefully better.

From: Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki — Nov 20, 2009

I liked this statement: “We artists need to realize we’re taking part in something much more automatic, something much more anthropological. We’re repeating the artifacts of our cultures. “

And the rest…well, the rest is the silliest thing I have read in a looong time. As I was reading, one nonsense was coming after another. I wish this person made jeans instead. How on earth could he know anything about the ego of the authors of native art? This reminded me of another nonsense I have read about American native people not being able to physically see the Columbus’s ships because they have never seen anything like that before – thus the “brilliant minds” or our researchers concluded that they were not able to see them – what an unbelievable rubbish! And I passionately disagree with this modern popularity of ego bashing. Ego is a natural and useful thing which helps us live our lives and contribute to the society. There is nothing wrong, pathetic or selfish about it. Geez Robert! Denying one’s perfectly natural ego — what’s next, a lobotomy?

The only people who should worry about a world without myths are people who benefit from myths – that has people manipulation written all over it. Those folks have problem with the “tyranny of ego” of artists who create for people, but not with the tyranny of ego of real tyrants of the old partitioned world. No more myths, no more shamans and other robed characters. I am just fine with that.

You better write something very nice next week or I am sending you a pair of jeans for Christmas!

From: damian — Nov 20, 2009

Hello Robert

I have found the identity in objects is fundamental to the understanding of our historical selves. A vibrant craft art sector offers a nation depth and solidarity, with its self and its histories. To take those industries off shore; is folly that we allow it to happen and treacherous of those engaged in it. Globalization of the craft art sector offers nothing more than a veneer to cover that treachery. Inevitably the world will become one but what is the rush why burn the libraries of human experience. I don’t want to exchange my historical identity, my flavour in the ‘pot of soup’, the only thing that makes me indigenous for white goods and cheap wall paper.

Regards Damian

From: V Nippert — Nov 21, 2009

Levi-Strauss was correct that we delve in myths and that modern society has neutralized the myths. However, we need our myths and our generation has invented many urban myths to fill the vacuum that science has created thru analysis of natural phenomenon and finding the cause and effects of what we used to view in awe. The artist still tries to capture the myths and poetry of the unknown. In doing so, the artist frequently presages the scientific analysis , much to the awe of the scientist.

From: Claudia Roulier — Nov 21, 2009

Robert, I was an Anthropology major before I was an artist. Levi-Strauss and most anthropologists of the time (some now) loved the noble savage idea and bemoaned the contamination of “modern man”. Truth is it can be no other way now that we have a global world, the good, the bad and the ugly. It is evolution on a higher scale. I am doing some of my paintings taking the iconistic look of the Italian Renaissance and updating it to the present, but because I’m borrowing from the past doesn’t mean I would want to live it.

From: Kaitha Het Heru — Nov 21, 2009

I continue the ancient Afrakan tradition of handweaving cloth with cultural symbols. I also work with a fine jeweler whose passion is promoting Afrakan culture through his works. The subjects of your letters are an ongoing conversation as we look for different avenues of marketing our work.

Dream Weaver

From: Frances Stilwell — Nov 21, 2009

I keep trying to find what’s deep inside of me, to give the project authenticity! Mostly, I think I’m celebrating the gift of creativity.

And hoping to share whatever perspective comes out.

Corvallis Oregon

From: Rick Rotante — Nov 23, 2009

I think Mr. Levi-Strauss is missing a very important point. Early native and ancient art wasn’t created for enjoyment and the “artists” weren’t “artists” in the sense we know today. Then, these people were recording their time, their myths, superstitions and the life around them in the only way they knew not having a written language. Images from daily life were painted to record, for tell or warn; to leave a message to those who followed of what they saw and experienced. There wasn’t a leisure class to enjoy or buy their work. There was no profit or advancement of an individual and I’m sure they didn’t see themselves as “artists” at all. They were historians, keepers of the record of a people who once lived. Yes is was more pure and lacked ego and personal interest.

Only when societies rose to achieve freedom from the worries of having to create a shelter and gather food and had the time to emass personal wealth that art began to change, first from a religious dogma into a commodity and then something others wanted who could not create for themselves but could afford to buy. From that point on the creators of pictures became “artists” bringing us to what we know of artists today.

From: Edna V. Hildebrandt — Nov 23, 2009

Artists often take on subjects in their art things and their surroundings that are pleasing to them and inspire them. Perhaps memories in their past that move them and impacted on them.These memories is perhaps a reflection of what happened in life and their families .They are unique in that he is interpreting them in his art according to his perspective.The artist own color choices and his own technique will make it his own style.It is connected with what is current in the era he lives in .It is still within anthropological experience.

From: Simon Joe — Nov 23, 2009

I ov the raven clan work to get the shapes right for it is my peoples art and if I change ot it will lose it spirit life. These cedar pole are hard work to do letalone change a lot.

From: Russ Hogger — Nov 23, 2009

Maybe Claude Levi-Straus had a secret desire to be an artist. His emotional claim that individuality disgusted him, sounds like “sour grapes” to me.

From: David Benjamin — Nov 24, 2009

I totally disagree with H. Hehn that — most individual accomplishments (whether art or science) are meaningless in the grand scheme of time and tide ‘and” he/she apparently agrees for he/she goes on to state that “…where they are merged into all the other individual accomplishments and rebirthed to make something even grander, more fantastic and hopefully better.” It is this latter phrase that shows his/her error. All great discoveries in science are built upon many many smaller, but no less significant, discoveries by others. The sum may be greater than the parts but, nevertheless, depend almost entirely upon the parts. Thus, one small contribution or accomplishment may end up being the glue that make the final step possible.

I believe this to be true in art as well for as we mature as artists we must realize how much we have learned from those who came before us and acknowledge their contribution to what we have achieved.

From: scott — Nov 24, 2009

I agree with levi! I look at our successful art (originality sells) and see crap. I have been painting ten years with no lessons (and it shows) and feel bammboozeled by our leading edge artist. From

Andy Warhol to a shark tanks, come on! In the end it should be measured by a body of work and where you went with it. Kiefer said “art is dead” and I say yes it is in terms of originalty and commercially but thats been a lie all along. Art as it is known from the beginning will always be alive.Those boys in the cave may have been communicating but they also had accents and there own perceptions ie….Art

From: Eileen — Nov 24, 2009
From: Jim — Nov 24, 2009

Projectors…funny thing is…many of the so called classical artist who profess to train in the ateliers of the day….often and regularly use projection equipment. It is the Big Dirty Secret….worse than sleeping with the competitions spouse…having been privy to a few beds and studios…wink wink…

From: Franklin Epps — Nov 24, 2009

Making original art, or seeing things differently then describing them through art, or copying a tradition and changing it a scosh, or finding yourself in the midst of a evolutionary punctuated equilibrium, it’s all the same. You wind up with a piece of art that’s somehow somewhat different. Don’t you find it a bit creepy that as an artist you’re being evaluated like a bug in a box? That people who aren’t doing the art are making up these verbal systems to try to explain it all? That someone else out there is deciding what has value and what doesn’t, and the entire high art world turns on its heel, seemingly in lock step, when some convincing scribbler comes up with a notion? And oddly, it rarely makes a dent in the art or the process. Not never, just rarely.

From: joan noble johnston — Nov 27, 2009

I have faith in what Faith just wrote thanks you.

From: gail caduff-nash — Dec 15, 2009

i don’t ever see symbolism in artwork. i imagine there’s a lot of people who don’t. so the painting is of a woman with a scarf – and it’s a well done painting and intriguing but not mysterious or meaningful necessarily – at least not to me.

to completely contradict myself, i have accidentally painted symbolism into things, not realizing until way after it’s done, and surprising myself. now this is a fun side of art – discovering the myths in oneself. i’ve had dreams like that – that made fun of myself with silly metaphors or homonyms. but to create artwork with intentional symbols requires that the audience knows the lingo of symbolism – and looks for it.



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