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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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Working with what we think we know
by Margaret Mair, Toronto, ON, Canada
“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
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
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
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?
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.
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We are all influenced
by Jerome Grimmer, Oakhurst, CA, USA
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.
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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.”
Enjoy the past comments below for The artifacts of our cultures…