Archive: Oceanic Art & Anthropology

circa 2008? – posting for safe-keeping – from an unfinished edit on an old laptop, left the ‘to-do’ notes in the bibliography in the interest of authenticity

Question 4: Why is oceanic art excluded from the great museums of world art? Why is it catalogued, exhibited and forgotten as ethnology, archaeology and anthropology.


Oceania consists of the islands of South East Asia, Melanesia, Australia, Micronesia and Polynesia, areas of diverse cultures due to intermingling waves of migration, each with distinctive styles of “primitive art” [1]. Controversy still surrounds sculptures from Oceania as to whether they were produced primarily for utilitarian purposes or religions worship, or whether they were produced with the intention of creating fine art. Due to the age of many pieces it is difficult to designate a piece as either utilitarian or fine art. This essay will discuss the artworks produced in Oceania and why they are often considered by some to be anthropological artefacts rather than works of art.

As imperialism grew throughout Europe, so too did the interest in collecting exotic artefacts from around the world. These objects were displayed by the wealthy in ‘curiosity cabinets’ or special display rooms[2]. These items were considered to be tools or “fetishes” from exotic places and not works of fine art; this view may well have been influenced by the dominant racial ideologies at the time. The idea of the differences between high and low, civilised and primitive, culture and savagery (all temporal or time-based)[3] was popular throughout the modernist period, influenced not only by the medieval Great Chain of Being, where organisms are ordered in terms of superiority (minerals, plants, animals, and humans)[4]; but also by Social Darwinism, which took Darwin’s theory of evolution, that creatures evolved from simple to complex, and adapted it to a social theory accounting for the differences between the civilised and the savages, or even the upper and lower classes or children and adults[5]. The beliefs about “primitive” cultures were perhaps also influenced by the immense popularity of World Fairs or Expositions, which literally brought idealistic small villages of primitive colonial regions to the streets of major cities around the world[6]. Even when pieces in the curiosity cabinets of the wealthy were considered “fine art” they were still referred to as primitive or exotic, in keeping with a “traditional point of view but also a defensive self-image of Western Man seeing himself as civilised and sophisticated”[7]. Towards the end of the 19th century some began to see Western man’s civilised and rational mode of thought as doing more harm to humanity than good, and believed that the mind of the ‘noble savage’ was closer to nature, more instinctive and held “a sensibility obliterated by an education”, celebrating this in their works[8] (i.e. Early Morning, Max Pechstein, 1911). As ideologies continued to change, artefacts from ‘exotic’ areas that had once been housed in curio cabinets and then moved into museums of ethnology, were now moved into art exhibitions[9]. However, despite growing changes in society’s ideologies, the art of the primitive is still surrounded in controversy as two groups of different mindsets struggle to classify the “great variety of works of art coming from so many cultures with different traditions, concepts and temperaments”[10].

In The Aesthetics of Primitive Art, Blocker asks: “Should we look at primitive artefacts as works of fine art or as religious paraphernalia”[11] and identifies two separate ways to try to classify primitive art: from the perspective of the “Western artist with no concern for the perspective of the indigenous people…” or from the “modified objectivist standpoint of the anthropologist examining the indigenous peoples themselves”, a perspective which usually denies or marginalizes aesthetic or artistic considerations in primitive art[12]. Blocker rejects the subjective point of view but rejects the nonaesthetic nature of the objectivists’ ideas. One problem which faces those who wish to classify primitive art is that “we have no history of tribal art. We have very few sources which would reveal the origin and development of a certain style”[13]. Another is the cultural differences between those who intend to classify and those who produce the works which are being classified. “Whenever objects are designated art by alien decree… they tend to be considered art only half-heartedly and somewhat hypocritically”[14]. Reading into other cultures the values and attitudes of our own is not always an effective way of designating objects as art or utensils, not only because often very old pieces have no documentation or evidence to suggest their meaning or purpose, but also because of the difficulties that language presents us with. “If I say that the carver is an artist creating an art work I imply, among other things, that within his society some creativity is involved in such projects, that the object will be appreciated for itself, for its beauty, that it will have some aesthetic value apart from its immediate use, and so on – because this is what the expression “work of art” means in my language”[15]. Before we turn to the “empirical task” of determining the intent of the indigenous people, we need to clarify our own concept of art[16].

Art itself is a difficult term to define in our own language let alone to translate into the language of a culture with no concept of fine art, but Blocker gives us different ways to recognise and identify fine art. First, that it must be aesthetically appreciated, which refers to our own aesthetic response to the objects – “artefacts of preindustrial, non-Western societies with no concept of “fine art” can become works of art when they are culturally designated so by Europeans (who do have such concepts)”[17]. However, these designations of “art” must be checked to make sure that the object was not “created through natural causes, produced by animals or produced by people but solely for religions or other utilitarian purposes. In that case we might nonetheless enjoy them — not as a way of understanding the people who originally made and used them – but in our own, very different way”[18]. Blocker’s second way to identify art is that it must be made by a skilled professional or semi-professional, which is often the case in “exotic” cultures. Thirdly the work must be “judged, ranked and prized by indigenous critical and aesthetic criteria… Some thought to be better, more valuable, more justifiably expensive than others and there ought to be some reasons why this is so which are not entirely/primarily utilitarian”[19]. This reasoning depends entirely on the aesthetic attitude of the “primitive” culture. The fourth point is that it must be set apart from everyday life, perhaps with religious function, but not entirely utilitarian and ordinary. Fifth, it must have symbolic representations, and sixth it must be produced with the intention to create these symbolic representations. Blocker’s final points refer to the tension between keeping with tradition and breaking away from it aesthetically, he describes artists as “innovators” and “eccentric”[20].

Even with these relatively straightforward guidelines, the differences in culture and language make designating a piece as art or religious paraphernalia difficult. Figure of a man, upper part from New Hebrides, Melanesia is thought to be “an ancestor figure with protective functions towards the living”[21] but is still referred to as a work of art. This classification is perhaps made keeping the religious ancestor worship of the area in mind, with the understanding that the indigenous people did not worship the sculpture itself but believed that the sculpture represented or sometimes held the spirit of the ancestor inside of it. The sculpture was a symbol or vehicle for religious worship, almost in a similar way to the Christian murals or stained glass windows in churches and cathedrals – which provided the masses (who at the time of production of the murals were assumed to be largely illiterate) a way to be exposed to and worship their God. Even with this explanation, Blocker points out that comparisons like this are difficult to make without a true immersion in another culture, “to share the beliefs, attitudes and points of view of the alien culture. To… not only know what they believe but actually believe it”[22], this refers back to the difficulties presented by differences in language and culture. Standing figure in the form of a human being from the Hawaiian Islands located in Northern Polynesia is described by Fagg in great detail in terms of its artistic merits, describing its suggestions of vigorous movements and referring to Hawaii’s artistic originality “which seems never to have ossified into conformism”[23]. Another interesting choice of words by Fagg is in his description of Bowl supported by three acrobatic figures, again from the Hawaiian Islands. He describes the remarkable and identifiable “chubbiness of much Hawaiian art”, and then identifies the piece as a salt dish (pa inamona)[24]. Is it possible that the way the piece conforms to Blocker’s definition of art discounts its very much utilitarian function? Despite it having an everyday purpose, does the delicate sculpture and original form set it apart from a simple bowl with no sculpture or carving? And where is the line drawn between simple decoration and fine art? Fagg has already established that the art of this particular area is very much original and innovative, and so this bowl, despite its potential utilitarian usage is now considered a work of art, as it conforms to the definition of art that we can confirm (remembering that we have no sources to confirm certain points on Blocker’s list).

The designation of this bowl as a work of art sets up some difficulties but at the same time identifies a reason for the somewhat ambiguous nature of the classification of these objects. Blocker states that it is in fact the viewer who determines whether or not a piece is a work of art, rather than the artist themselves, “We, the aesthetic audience and consumer, determine the aesthetic context which qualifies the objects as works of art, rather than their makers”[25], this explanation clarifies the gradual changes in classification of these “primitive” objects. Towards the end of the twentieth century attitudes towards not only other races and cultures began to change, but also the attitudes towards art itself. As “naïve” painting and the works of the primitivists were accepted as works of fine art, so too were their influences – the works of true “primitives”. When considering the context of this shift in ideology, the change is not entirely momentous, with the public already being bombarded with new forms of art which challenged their preconceived notions of art and its traditions (e.g. Cubism, Duchamp’s ready-mades, etc). As the ideologies of the viewers changed, so did the classification of the works from Oceania and other “primitive” colonial areas. But why then are so many pieces still considered as artefacts of ethnology, archaeology and anthropology despite the radically different values and attitudes of today’s society? To answer this we must refer back to Blocker’s statement about the two primary groups who are concerned with the classification of primitive art – the subjective Western Artist who is concerned primarily with the aesthetic nature of the works rather than the perspective of the indigenous people or the modified objectivist view of the anthropologist who is concerned with the people themselves and denies the aesthetic considerations of the works[26]. Depending on the context of the viewer, the works from Oceania may be classified in an entirely different manner. One might choose one view or the other or combine them as Blocker has done, to accept the objectivists’ view but reject their denial of the aesthetic aspects of primitive works.

The artworks of Oceania may be catalogued or exhibited as ‘ethnology’, ‘archaeology’ or ‘anthropology’ for a range of reasons. Artefacts of significant age may be left behind in curiosity cabinets or museums of ethnology, remnants from an era when society had significantly different views regarding race and “exotic” or “primitive” cultures. The positions of artefacts in certain exhibitions or museums, or their cataloguing and classification may also depend on the personal views of those in charge of their placement, whether they agree with the artists’ disregard for the indigenous peoples’ viewpoint or the anthropologists’ disregard for the indigenous peoples’ aesthetic considerations, or combine the two. The artefact itself may present confusion as to its purpose, perhaps appearing to be solely of utilitarian function, thus influencing its placement in a museum of ethnology rather than a museum of art. The confusion and controversy surrounding these objects and their classification may be heightened by the lack of written or oral evidence to suggest the functions of certain works, whether they are primarily aesthetic or utilitarian. Finally, for Western culture, which encounters difficulties identifying its own concept of art, there are significant difficulties posed by the differences in language and culture of origin – with some cultures not having the same concepts as our own regarding fine arts, religious worship and utilitarianism. For these reasons, oceanic art is sometimes considered to be wrongly classified or ‘forgotten’ under terms such as ‘ethnology’ which some feel inappropriately designate an art form as primarily utilitarian or devoid of symbolic meaning.






*put in alph order

*find city of universal

*find footnote 1 reference
S Errington, The Death of Authentic Primitive Art and Other Tales of Progress, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1998, p9

C Rhodes, Primitivism and modern art, Thames and Hundson, London, 1994, p13

R Corbey, The decolonisation of imagination: culture, knowledge and power, Zed Books, London, 1995, p57

W Muensterberger, The Universality of Tribal Art, ****************************Offset-Litho Jean Genou, Switzerland, 1979

H Blocker, The Aesthetics of Primitive Art, University Press of America, Lanham, 1994, p119

W Fagg, The Tribal Image, trustees of British Museum, London, 1970, plate 67


[2] S Errington, The Death of Authentic Primitive Art and Other Tales of Progress, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1998, p9

[3] Errington, p13

[4] Errington, p10

[5] C Rhodes, Primitivism and modern art, Thames and Hundson, London, 1994, p13

[6] R Corbey, The decolonisation of imagination: culture, knowledge and power, Zed Books, London, 1995, p57

[7] W Muensterberger, The Universality of Tribal Art, ****************************Offset-Litho Jean Genou, Switzerland, 1979

[8] Rhodes, p13

[9] Muensterberger, p10

[10] Muensterberger, p5

[11] H Blocker, The Aesthetics of Primitive Art, University Press of America, Lanham, 1994, p119

[12] Blocker, p119

[13] Muensterberger, p7

[14] Blocker, p143

[15] Blocker, p145

[16] Blocker, p146

[17] Blocker, p150

[18] Blocker, p151

[19] Blocker, p147

[20] Blocker, p147

[21] W Fagg, The Tribal Image, trustees of British Museum, London, 1970, plate 67

[22] Blocker, p122

[23] Fagg, plate 78

[24] Fagg, plate 79

[25] Blocker, p142

[26] Blocker, p119

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