Form, Function, and Beyond

In 1940 Pablo Picasso was one of the first dignitaries to be invited to tour the recently discovered caves in Lascaux, France. His critique of the artwork of the ice age artists that covered the rocky surfaces of the caverns, "We have discovered nothing".   He knew perfectly well what we should all know, that the lack of illusionist representation in artwork does not equate with the idea that an artist lacks imagination and creativity.  

All artwork in this posting is from collections housed in the de Young Museum in San Francisco.  

Artwork found in museums, literature, and in commercial galleries is frequently grouped by culture.  According to art historian, Deborah Root, in her book, Cannibal Culture (1996): "When ethnology constituted itself as a science in the 19th century, it appropriated as its object of study traditional, generally land-based people living outside of European and North American cities--in other words, people classified as nonwhite, defined as un- or semicivilized, and incidentally subject to European colonial authority..."

Over eighty years ago, anthropologist, Franz Boas, pointed out that the differences between art of "primitive artists" and "western artists" were due to constraints by culture rather than lack of ability, "...each culture can be understood only as an historical growth determined by the social and geographic environment in which each people is placed and by the way in which it develops the cultural material that comes into its possession from the outside or through its own creativeness."

In his seminal work, Primitive Art, Boaz refers to the work of Ernst Grosse, among others, who felt that the work of tribal groups " by origin and by its fundamental nature not intended as decorative but as a practically significant mark or symbol, that is to say as expressive...this practical significance implies some kind of meaning inherent in the form."

Sometimes the end use of an art object determines the form. Often, too, the works relate to religious or other ceremonial rituals.  The stylistic elements of an artwork extend beyond its aesthetic effects.  Susanne Langer, wrote in Problems in Art (1957) "...I think every work of art expresses, more or less purely, more or less subtly, not feelings and emotions which the artist has, but feelings and emotions which the artist knows; his insight into the nature and sentience, his picture of vital experience, physical and emotive and fantastic."

Seated Figures, 2nd century
Earthenware, pigment
34.9 x 19.7 x 14.6 cm (13 3/4 x 7 3/4 x 5 3/4 in.)
Gift of Lewis K. and Elizabeth M. Land

Artists from all societies are able to create work that evolve as they produce them.  How can we help students construct knowledge based on the work artists from the global visual culture?

Sydney R. Walker outlines B. Stephen Carpenter, II guidelines for teaching performance arts in Teaching Meaning in Artmaking, 2001.  His suggested seven steps include using the body and representing ideas in a respectful way. Students will need to  research knowledge about the culture in order to use symbols, movements and words authentically and substantively.   Performance pieces need to be planned with preparatory sketches and scripts that are reviewed with the teacher.  The work should be timed and rehearsed with a defined beginning and end. 

If I were to teach high school art programs today I would introduce students to the costume and performance work of Chicago-based artist Nick Cave.  His response to materials around him and also movement would be exciting to adolescents, and I am supposing that this would be a fabulous way to introduce performance based work.

"As we manipulate, we touch and feel, as we look, we see; as we listen, we hear."  John Dewey, Art as Experience


  1. Je découvre votre blog .
    Que de belles reproductions !
    Je reviendrai souvent visiter votre blog .

  2. Visual culture is fascinating, probably the most to me of all the senses. Thank you for this lesson. I would love to learn about art from you. Well, I can keep coming here, how wonderful.

  3. Hey Patricia... very informative and thought-provoking. And I like your idea concerning teaching kids today, introducing them to 3 dimensional art like that of Nick Cave... those Soundsuits make an impression to last a lifetime, even for those with short attention spans.
    Thank you
    David *

  4. Hi Patricia,
    i just wanted to thank you for your kind words
    have a great week !

  5. I arrived here via lovely Ruth at synch.

    This is such an interesting post! Whenever I travel I keep my eye out for miniature masks. Miniature, only because I lack the wall space to collect full-sized masks. This post helps explain why I'm so drawn to them. These masks are often more expressive than decorative and therefore, in my opinion, more beautiful.

    I thought some of these artifacts looked familiar and then I saw the attribution in the first photo and I realized that I've seen them many times in person. I've always loved the essence of the mask (3rd photo) - it is so expressive.

    The De Young just re-installed some galleries to make room for 84 Eskimo and Inuit masterworks. Perhaps you need to come out to San Francisco to view them in person??? I would love to see them from your perspective.

    You have a wonderful blog.


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