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), through his study of native peoples, particularly the Amerindians of Brazil and North America, 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.
This letter was originally published on November 20, 2009.
Anishinaabe artist Rebecca Belmore has won the $50,000 Gershon Iskowitz Prize at the AGO with a solo show scheduled for 2018.
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“Just as the individual is not alone in the group, nor any one in society alone among the others, so man is not alone in the universe.” (Claude Levi-Strauss)
I seek to paint the essence and beauty of the natural world, land and sea impressions, textured nuances of tree bark or beautifully imperfect jars of clay.