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.


“Fringe” 2008
–life-size photograph presented as a lightbox transparency
by Rebecca Belmore

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.


“Speaking to Their Mother” (Ayum-ee-aawach Oomama-mowan) 1991
–sculpure (used as intended) Banff, Alberta
by Rebecca Belmore

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.”


“New Wilderness (detail)” 1995
–installation by Rebecca Belmore

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.


“Untitled #1 #2 #3”
–2004 triptych series photography
by Rebecca Belmore

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.

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)



  1. Originality happens all the time.
    Not everything is a recycle. Vincent van Gogh was original. Pollock was original, whether one considers it art or not. All I can say is, those who deny originality also deny the unique soul of each individual. That’s their limit, not mine. In this time of intense denial of freedom, I won’t agree & hand them my creative power of self, yes- self, expression. The Western creative arts feel paralyzed by lack of energy, resulting from this Levi-Straus crap that denies the validity of personal expression, and thus personal being. It’s the tonic Kool-aid that kills artists every day.

    “Tha Savage Mind” title says it all. Savage? Who’s the savage here? Levi-Straus is the savage. He accepts nothing but his own brute standards, while poisoning the water for all. What a loser!

    As far as his quote that objects are all that matter, objects are nothing but the expression of the spiritual & emotional feelings that created the object.

      • The power of self-lessness is difficult for some to grasp.
        “The artist is not a person endowed with free will who seeks his own ends, but one who allows art to realize its purpose within him.” (Carl Jung)

      • Did Vincent van Gogh copy someone?
        This is NOT about me. Besides, ego isn’t the problem….it’s useful in sustaining reasons for self expression.

        But maybe you make art or read this website out of much loftier goals, like to be an “authority.”

        H is abbreviation of my last name….actually, almost complete modesty.
        My illustrious ceramicist cousin has the same name.

    • I do believe in the expression of art transcending time and place and this article makes me reflect on Joseph Campbell and a little Carl J. Jung. The myth of the hero which we surely could use today and the shared community of images are what we have to observe humankind.

      The objects looked upon themselves as objects seems too material. What I think is important is the history in the making of the art and also the artist at the time and place going all the way back to the cave paintings.

      To say that no artist or art is unique and to believe so is a bad thing, is perhaps naive at best. Without innovations, we would not be driving cars or have indoor plumbing. I prefer to think that we artists do honor past and present artists and cultures as we ‘dip into the communal pot’ and are also keen looking for new breakthroughs and inventions. This is how we march on. If ego is involved that is understandable and acceptable. We are human, not Gods.

  2. I love this piece. It is funny when things show up when you need to hear them. I have recently been confronted by the burdens of my own ego as an Artist, I am in the process of the challenge of letting go what I had thought “belonged” to me. of re evaluating my understanding of my rational for making. It is not easy, in fact it is quite painful to actively tare down the illusions of the ego. There had been a certain comfort in thinking I knew who I was, what my purpose for being here was…”I”!..”BIG CHEST BEATING ARTIST”! “YOU”…”AUDIENCE”! I have had a sense though that art was something that you allowed, something that flowed, as Artist you simply facilitated it and I had thought that position was kind of special. But I know, it is in us all to allow art flow through us, creative thinking and doing is a faculty of all our minds. For some it is very highly developed and mostly through practice. It is that soup that was mentioned there, that delicious soup available that takes away the hunger of any and all who wish to consume it.
    I will be seeking out “the savage mind”. I have a feeling it may help me. Many thanks. Catherine

  3. In European Art there was no individual authorship until about the 15th century. The Guild artist worked as a member of a group and was seen in the same way as a mason, a craftsman and originality was NOT a virtue. Technical skill was the virtue receiving reward. Rembrandt had to pay his guild a heavy fee to get free of guild control and this was at the waning of their power.

  4. The ‘I’ is hateful? I AM THAT I AM. The I is all there is. Stifling egocentricity? When one knows how to enter and work “in the zone” ego drops away. A great and noble tradition? Tradition is the death-knell for an individualist. And an individualist does not have to be egocentric. That is an assumption. The tyranny of ego? That is a transcendable reality. Objects are what matter. Which is why I create objects that will live on beyond my lifetime- and into some unknown future. Installation artists will disagree. A crafty and devious trickster? Nothing like a high compliment- is there? One who works with his hands. From the very beginning. Putting pre-existing things together in new ways- describes exactly what I do most of the time. However- to the benefit of communities remains to be seen. When your community rejects you- up front and out of hand- you quit caring if said community ever even gets it. Future communities? Maybe. But if you care- you’re stuck in ego. So not giving a sh*t leaves you free from a need to have your community care. Primitive people as being highly evolved and complex? This statement is an oxymoron. Try being the individual that has been excommunicated from the group. Then wonder why said individual tells the group where it can shove it.

  5. Although a bit extreme, Claude Levi Strauss was basically right. I did 2 projects in university with many of these thoughts in mind, having come to some of those conclusions myself. I did a series of petroglyph paintings in oil , honouring the fact, that not long ago, petrogyphs were not given much cultural or artistic value. Not because they weren’t art, not because they were primitive, but I concluded because they were not portable and therefore, had no resale value. That has since changed, (the cultural value), and what I learned, reproducing petroglyphs, was that the mark making was intuitive, and often truer to form that the simple images of the pecking made it look. The Birdmen of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) is a great example, as are the dioramas of fishers and fish boats of Hawaii. One image from Gabriola Island, of what kind of looks like a teddy bear female, is actually a depiction of shamanic listening. The more petroglyphs I reproduced, the greater my respect for these ancient artists became. I also did another series, in clay of Myths and Future Myths, using creatures from crypotozoology, of extinct animals, and those yet to become extinct. Around the edges of my sculptures, I used design patterns from Mayan, Olmec, and other Latin and South American cultures, often representing or featuring the creatures in my sculpture. Again, the truism of form felt familiar to my hand. In my research, the one thing I could not deny over and over again, on every continent, and even on far flung islands in between, the same dragon/sea serpents exist, born of same kind of imaginations/life experiences. The natives of the Pacific West Coast did masks and carved images of ape faces! Whether in physical history, or in the soup pot of creativity, they knew what an ape face looked like and reproduced that image, gave it names, and assigned it character. I would not have always said someone like Claude Levi Strauss was right, but having delved into that world of history, that he was delving into, my personal experience came to the same conclusions.

  6. Psychologist Eric Fromm, in his book The Sane Society, said society is formed by the most people having the most common neurosis. If 51% are alcoholics then alcoholism becomes the norm and abstinence is abnormal. I think Levi’s theory applies to those who copy work or produce a variation thereof. However the artist who have something to say, who express a personal angst, hardly fall anywhere in Levi’s book. H Margret and Bruce I could not agree with you. I like the quote Bruce made about tradition.

  7. I have worked with indigenous arts in outback Australia for much of my life. The Indigenous people I was working with were among the few full blood aboriginal people left in Australia. Their creativity was exceptional. They always painted their dreamtime stories, never about themselves and most art works were done by more than one person – often 4-5 people would get involved even at the same time all with one thought in common. I found it quite hard to get them to sign their work often just writing it myself on the back as it wasn’t important to them. It was so hard working with the gallerys and collectors as they all wanted to know about the artist as if there was just one person. many curators critisised me for allowing them to use all the colours – I should have just given them the ocre colours. Now they are renowned for their colour and have won many prestigious prizes. One was for a work done by 17 women collectively. I was so pleased with this as mostly art coordinators put the main artist on the work to satisfy the gallery people but I always have put everyone’s name and to have this recognised in such a national event winning $40,000 for their efforts was a real win. However, there are some terrible sadnesses in the lives of these people and their culture is changing but hopefully they will find a way through that is not just a copy of the western way of life.

  8. Moccasins:
    I was surrounded by beautiful works of art. Stately bronze busts and grand statues graced my families homes, as well as wonderful oil paintings, art glass and porcelain. My favorite as a child however, was hanging on the wall at my Grandparents house in a 6 foot tall glass case filled with objects with small writing on labels in the entrance corner of a large garage . It consisted of authentic ancient American Indian clothing. A full feather and beaded headdress, pants, shirt, moccasins and tomahawk, with very long silver grey hair attached at the handle end. I was told it was a gift to my Grandfather many years before. I was amazed by how beautiful and intricate it was, as it was entirely beaded with the tiniest, brilliant-colorful beads in balanced perfect designs, and somehow sewn very intricately to the skin of an animal, with a leather fringe that went down the sides of both legs of the pants. All the separate parts matched perfectly including the shoes, it was a complete Indian out-fit! I would stand in front of it staring, wondering how long it took to make, and who wore such a wonderful garment. The incredible amount of time, craftsmanship, artistry, myth, history and love of life that went into making such a garment was in every inch of the garment. Perhaps it was for the chief of a tribe. Those talented people, including my relatives are all gone now.
    There are moments losing myself in paint, using all my effort to do my best at supreme dedication to contemporary realism, when perhaps I am simply adding more tiny little beads carefully “sewn” on to a garment. However, I know I will never get to wear it because it will never be finished in this lifetime. I am only working on such a small infinitesimal part of the whole garment. All the other artists dedicated to realism are working on other parts of the same garment. Throughout history it has been shown that “I am” not what is important. What is important is the work. Ego spurs us onward and walks us, head held high, but I have noticed, “Lord Ego” so often gets in the way of the work. “Focus” I sometimes need to tell myself. Stop looking and comparing yourself on what others are doing and just do YOUR work.
    Thoughts for a Tuesday night. Thanks for reading.

  9. Could it just be a miracle that all are original and yet the same! Kinda like snowlakes? Awww the incredible intricacies of the design we are all part of. And to think before Darwin we all thought we had the same Mother and Father. Could it be that a created order with subcreators reflects an ego that has no beginning or end?

  10. We do not now call people of other cultures savages unless they do terrible things to other human beings. That kind of action is not confined to primitive peoples. We westerners do a pretty good job of it sometimes too. Bombingivillages; is that not savage? I feel that each artist is some sort of filter of her or his time and place. I love to look at all kinds and ages of art and find sustenance there and inspiration. I like even art that I do not like; it gives me permission to do anything. We are all getting scrambled together like eggs in a skillet these days. People are moving all over the world in a great mixed migration. That is bound to make us look at one another’s art with wonder. Donna Veeder

  11. Work on it until YOU like it. Perhaps that’s best understood by saying that “If you’ve given your all – you’ve been True to Art.” If someone says “That’s Great and You are Great” or “That’s bad and You are Bad” these opinions can not be considered Valid because “Who can Account for Taste?”

    No one. So, in the end, either you have given your all and are satisfied with the result or you have not and therefore are not. End of your personal story. The rest about how it relates to whatever is the opinion of Critics and that label says it all.

  12. Art. like literature, is both self-expression and communication, at best a dialogue. As a representational painter, I hope simply to help people appreciate the beauty around them. To essentially invent a new language and hope that people “get it” seems a bit futile, on the order of speaking in tongues. An original viewpoint expressed through traditional means is likely to be understood. I’m not saying that abstraction and non-objective art can’t be wonderfully evocative , just that we have choices.

  13. Art presents our planet and what it locks like , does not exclude abstracts or any other method of art.
    I think that if the human race destroys some or most of our planet , there will be photograph and painting to show what it was like.
    We live on a planet that is the Jewel of the universe.
    I love our planet and I hope you do to .

  14. Interesting in light of neo-Nazi leader Richard Spencer’s recent comments about White Power and the manifest destiny and legacy of white people in the western world. It’s all based on ego strength and “the will” to dominate. I don’t necessarily associate such reactionary thinking with making art because I think creativity is a complex human endeavor that has its idiosyncratic as well as its communal aspects. Nothing thrills me more than the oral cultures of Africa and African America, but that doesn’t mean I think all art should be tribal and anonymous in nature. As a Jew, I embrace both approaches and appreciate the confluence of the two. Sure, Nietzsche scorned tribes as the destroyers of free will, but where would be without the common threads, and, most importantly, today,in light of the recent “election,” the common good?!

  15. Above- Helen Gordon writes about many aboriginal women working on a single painting- and how hard it was to get them to even acknowledge their individual names/egos/personalities in their art-making. Why? Because they don’t have an individual perception of reality. Traditionally- groups of people working with what I’m working with (textiles) were regularly involved in a thing called “quilting bees”… where groups of women gathered to hang and gossip and finish something time-consuming- together. I don’t think- nor function that way. Today- there are many people who will make a surface- and then farm out the finish work to someone with a long-arm machine. I don’t think that way either- as the way I finish things and what I use to finish things cannot be done on a machine. So of course- my time-investment is enormous- and any perceived wage- less than minimum. But my point? This group mindset holds no attraction for me whatsoever. And I know that the fully spiritually individuated human being- the archetypal hermit- the archetypal artist- has made a leap into a next level of consciousness. But THE GROUP does not want you to make that consciousness leap- so it will forever judge you as bad if you decide to go for it- as the group then loses its control over you. Of course- only you can set yourself free from groupmind.
    Many times on here I’ve read comments suggesting that an artist sort-of just lost themselves in a painting- hours passed by unnoticed- and then said artist attributed said painting to god or the holy spirit or whatever. My work- at this point in my life- is a total meditation. I couldn’t stop if I wanted to. And that meditative state spills over into all other realms of my life-experience. I can enter into that state at any given moment just by focusing on the work. But god is not making the work I’m making- I AM. The “I” that I am is doing the work. I get up every day and go to work. I cut everything out. I do the designing and the construction. I do the finish work. And I’m doing it without any help- and with very little support- because I believe in myself- in my vision- in my understanding- in my creativity- in my production skills. So unless I’m GOD- I’m doing the work- the labor- not god.
    Ego? The only way to succeed doing what I’m doing is to create a body of work and get that body recognized. So I have to put on my ego- and walk out the door into a hostile world- and sell myself- sell my work- and market my ego. When only the master got recognition whilst all the apprentices did all the work- it took a lifetime just to get to mastery. Today- it only took me as long as it took me- and as much time and effort as I was willing to put into it. I didn’t have to fight with that kind of mentality and social structure to master my art-making skills. But I also didn’t have the support of the trade- either.
    Groupmind does not want individuals. It wants sheep. Maybe you can be selfless as part of that kind of group. Sorry. I have no interest in it. Godmind recognizes an individuated self/soul. Someone who has done the work to evolve out of groupmind. An individual who set him/herself free. The first thing a FREEMAN comes to understand is that we’re all connected. All ONE. The ones who never individuate see no purpose in it. But one exists- and artists who see value in their individual creative experience should understand just how valuable it is- both to themselves- and to the whole.

    • Tell me more about the “FREEMAN” coming to the understanding that we are all one…please. I’m not trying to be coy here. I see some of Colin Wilson’s “Outsider” in your comments Bruce. I’m interested in these things because I wrote a lyric essay called Tribes in which I explored some of these fascinating paradoxes between the individual and the group. I continue to wander…

      • I read (and still own) Colin Wilson’s “Outsider” decades ago. It was helpful in my understanding of a life path already in motion.
        Hi Rick- you want me to do that here- or in private?
        Everything is complex. Everything is simple. Simplicity can be found in all religious and/or spiritual systems- and that information is all the same- and that information is all you need to evolve. Which is why you don’t need any organized human religion- or as I like to refer to it- a big social group. They may start out as helpful but they end up bureaucracies. And if they promote an us&them mentality where I’m right and you’re wrong- or bad- or sinful- and then they and their god judge you- they are pointless- for you- if what you’re seeking is a maximum life experience. They seek to limit experience. They seek to control your mind. They seek power over you. They seek to own you- all the while getting you to pay them- via their use of fear. And they just love to call it Love.
        The human has a propensity to gather into groups. For companionship. For safety. For sex/procreation. The human sells group consciousness as the norm- often as the only norm acceptable. To the group. To keep the group in line. That plays out as power and compromise. An individual may acquiesce to the group to achieve a desired end (at some point) but said individual does not live there. And what’s so hilarious to me is that the group is just so SHOCKED- I say- SHOCKED when someone they intentionally threw out comes back and bites them in the ass.
        I accepted who I was at 13 (when I figured out what sex was) but I got targeted at 8. I’m a Sensitive- and an Artist- and I was utterly rejected by our religious heterosexist Bully Culture. Male dominated. Patriarchal. War-mongering. Vulgar. 10 years of harassment- intimidation- and constant threats- the group punishing a child for existing. I said to myself at the time- well- everybody’s gonna hate this. But I was completely at ease with it. At 13. Out as soon as I left home and high school. Never in a closet. And I was in northern Utah.
        But it would be at 35- 20 years after I left religion at 15- before I had to figure it out- as I watched hundreds of friend pass over during the initial days of the AIDS CRISIS while I attempted to make enough to live on as a working artist. But I’m relentless- so I put myself on my healing and spiritual path and I did the self-work. I climbed out of a suicidal depression- literally out of hell- and evolved. I became a reader- a healer- a Shaman- an energy channel and a Light/Dark Worker. I recommitted to my singular Art/Creation Path- and I walked on. From time to time I actually do wander- but it’s a lot harder to produce under those circumstances- so I grounded in a friend’s house for a while- and now I’m grounded in my studio- where I live eat breathe and have ecstatic sex with my creation experience. Hermit- more so. Wanderer- less so.
        My “tribe”? The people who I should be helping? They either barely know I exist- or they’re terrified of me. Why? Because I can explain the who/what/where/why&how of what I know and what I’m doing in common-sense terms in about 30 minutes. And in a couple of hours- doing a reading with someone- I can take them straight to the heart of their own dysfunctional belief system. People just hate that. Why? Because they then have to deal with being on the bottom line in an inescapable way. What to do??? OMG! OMG! OMG!
        Still- every once in a while the universe drops somebody into my reality and those folks I try to help. But I never go looking for them or that. Because that would be EGO. There is one other thing. As an energy channel- I can activate your LightBody. Many are doing energy work- but it’s still pretty rare. It is transformational- though.
        Anyway- I’m it. As I said- the Archetypal Hermit. The Archetypal Artist. I chose in my teens to never father any children so I would not be bound by those bonds. Those familial bonds define most human’s ordinary experiences. I don’t NEED them. I became FREE. I chose FREEDOM over family. And that is your question. The monk- the buddha- the wanderer- has escaped groupmind. But when one becomes an illuminated energy system- one then KNOWS beyond any doubt and utterly without any inkling to exist in a faith-based system- that everything is this energy field the one is immersed in- and everything is connected- and in fact- there is no possibility that anything exists outside of this energy system and there is no state of separation anywhere. The ONE continues to incarnate into a body- another body- to experience itself. But here on Earth we’ve devolved into separation and fear of an unknown other- and ego.
        “LOVE isn’t something we do- LOVE is something we ARE.” I’m not the only one saying this. There is only ONE Consciousness- and it inhabits- enlivens- everything- “from rocks to god”. There’s a really good quote from a zen tarot book about the Hermit. I’ll post it.

      • In the OSHO Zen Tarot- the Hermit is referred to as ALONENESS and described in 2 parts:
        Commentary: When there is no ‘significant other’ in our lives we can either be lonely, or enjoy the freedom that solitude brings. When we find no support among others for our deeply felt truths, we can either feel isolated and bitter, or celebrate the fact that our vision is strong enough even to survive the powerful human need for the approval of family, friends or colleagues. If you are facing such a situation now, be aware of how you are choosing to view your ‘aloneness’ and take responsibility for the choice you have made. The humble figure on this card glows with a light that emanates from within. One of Gautam Buddha’s most significant contributions to the spiritual life of humankind was to insist to his disciples, “Be a light unto yourself.” Ultimately, each of us must develop within ourselves the capacity to make our way through the darkness without any companions, maps or guide.
        ALONENESS: When you are alone you are not alone, you are simply lonely — and there is a tremendous difference between loneliness and aloneness. When you are lonely you are thinking of the other, you are missing the other. Loneliness is a negative state. You are feeling that it would have been better if the other was there — your friend, your wife, your mother, your beloved, your husband. It would have been good if the other was there, but the other is not.
        Loneliness is absence of the other. Aloneness is the presence of oneself. Aloneness is very positive. It is a presence, overflowing presence. You are so full of presence that you can fill the whole universe with your presence and there is no need for anybody.

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