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Art and life in ancient Egypt
Art and life in ancient Egypt

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2.2 Towards acceptance

It was above all the artists and critics of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century avant-garde (figures such as Gauguin, Kirchner, Brancusi, Matisse, and Picasso) who began to view the works of certain non-Western societies – principally Africa and Oceania – as ‘art’, on largely formal grounds. Thus was born the category ‘Primitive art’. In the vision of the avant-garde, ‘Primitive art’ was regarded as a receptacle of ‘authenticity’, of expressive power, deriving from a life lived close to nature, untrammelled by the distorting pressures and conventions of Western ‘civilisation’. The category tended to include, moreover, not just contemporary exotic cultures but the products of non-Classical, archaic societies.

By the second half of the twentieth century, the category of ‘Primitive art’ had widely come to be regarded as untenable – client to a variety of misconceptions of non-Western ways of life that were themselves symptomatic of an imperialist outlook, and in their extreme manifestations more or less racist. But the emergence of a post-colonial situation and an increasingly integrated global economy, albeit largely under continuing western hegemony, did not, of course, mean that objects such as, say, African masks, that had come to be regarded as examples (indeed, perhaps even as ‘masterpieces’) of ‘Primitive art’, could now return to the comparatively lowly status of the anthropological artefact. Quite the reverse. The widely accepted demand now was that such things be regarded as ‘works of art’ outright: that their formal and material differences from the accepted products of the Western canon be regarded as just that – differences within a global canon of ‘art’ rather than difference from the canon of art.