African Art, Its Background and Traditions
by René S. Wassing
Abrams, 300, 254 illustrations, 24 color plates pp., $25.00
by Michel Leiris, by Jacqueline Delange, translated by Michael Ross
Braziller, 462 pp., $30.00
Since the beginning of this century the arts of Black Africa and of other “primitive” cultures have attracted the attention of two different but equally specialized audiences: anthropologists studying the evolution of material culture or its rituals, magic, and belief; and artists and collectors, whose taste and interest had been formed by modern art, and who, unlike the anthropologists, were primarily attracted by artistic qualities. What the artists and collectors saw in African sculpture was a power of formal design, and of emotion concentrated in that design. The specific conditions of a work’s creation, whether a figure was ancestral or a mask the portrayal of a certain spirit, mattered little to them. They were concerned primarily with the discovery of non-imitative forms expressive in their own right. Engaged in denying Western naturalism, they found in the rhythmically stylized forms of African art, which by generalizing the human figure through geometric simplification seemed never to copy nature but to create imaginative parallels to it, those qualities of symbolic form they were themselves seeking. Thus the art communicated to them directly and there was no question of checking its correctness; while for the anthropologists African art was simply the illustration of fundamental social and religious ideas.
More recently, however, African art has gained a wider audience. In the United States at least, it is no longer confined to museums of anthropology, where it serves primarily documentary purposes, or to specialized private collections. Along with the other “primitive” arts it is now increasingly coming to inhabit museums of art, where it acquires prima facie status as art, calling for an aesthetic response. Just what this means for arts whose purposes and intentions are so different from our own, however appealing their forms, is far from clear. Anthropologists, rather than art historians, still do most of the writing on African art, and although they have now come to accept these developments in western taste (which until recently many of them deplored as ethnocentric distortions) they are still not quite comfortable with them. Often, as in Mr. Wassing’s text, their unease is expressed by an insistence on the functional character of the art, its use in ceremony, ritual, magic, and the decoration of utilitarian objects, as if this aspect of art were otherwise totally unfamiliar. They point out that masks and figures are the embodiment of spirits, gods, or ancestors, and serve very practical ends of appeasing, invoking, or controlling these spirits. Because his work must have direct meaning to his tribal society the carver must create within an accepted tradition of form and detail.
This is of course true and important; it is not, however, unique to Africa, being equally (if differently) the case for the arts of many other periods and places (e.g., those of the middle ages), where no warnings about the mistaken transference of subjective modern attitudes—commonly, if mistakenly, called “art for art’s sake”—are deemed necessary. Similarly, a general survey of medieval art would not …