Article

Cultural Anthropology By Manganaro, Mark

DOI: 10.4324/9781135000356-REM2080-1
Published: 18/04/2019
Retrieved: 18 October 2019, from
https://www.rem.routledge.com/articles/cultural-anthropology

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Abstract

The development of cultural anthropology, which is the study of human culture and its variations, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries played a major role in Modernism. Anthropological accounts of tribal peoples, often termed ‘primitive’ or ‘savage’, fascinated modernist artists, who found in the anthropologists’ descriptions of tribal behaviours, social organisation, material culture, and ritual practices exciting and exotic alternatives to modern cultural beliefs, practices, and ways of making art. Writers such as D.H. Lawrence found in anthropological accounts of tribal peoples intuitive modes of perception and behaviour that were at odds with civilised, ‘rational’ ways of thinking and acting. T.S. Eliot and others found in the evolutionary anthropology of James Frazer, author of the renowned The Golden Bough, forms of belief and ritual that could inspire the development of new modern art forms. Furthermore, Eliot found in Frazer’s textual method of comparing and juxtaposing ‘primitive’ and ‘civilised’, and ancient and modern peoples the basis for a non-narrative way of organising modern art, the ‘mythical method’ he called it, which in one review he claimed formed the basis of organisation for James Joyce’s Ulysses and which, arguably, also helped to shape his own poetic modernist masterwork The Waste Land (Ulysses and The Waste Land were published in the same year, 1922). Moreover, tribal tools, ornaments, and religious/ritual objects brought to the West by anthropologists and traders became inspirations for, and as well the formal basis of, important early modernist visual art by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and others. In general terms, cultural anthropology participated in and produced a societal urge for the ‘primitive’ in the modern culture of the early 20th century.

The development of cultural anthropology, which is the study of human culture and its variations, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries played a major role in Modernism. Anthropological accounts of tribal peoples, often termed ‘primitive’ or ‘savage’, fascinated modernist artists, who found in the anthropologists’ descriptions of tribal behaviours, social organisation, material culture, and ritual practices exciting and exotic alternatives to modern cultural beliefs, practices, and ways of making art. Writers such as D.H. Lawrence found in anthropological accounts of tribal peoples intuitive modes of perception and behaviour that were at odds with civilised, ‘rational’ ways of thinking and acting. T.S. Eliot and others found in the evolutionary anthropology of James Frazer, author of the renowned The Golden Bough, forms of belief and ritual that could inspire the development of new modern art forms. Furthermore, Eliot found in Frazer’s textual method of comparing and juxtaposing ‘primitive’ and ‘civilised’, and ancient and modern peoples the basis for a non-narrative way of organising modern art, the ‘mythical method’ he called it, which in one review he claimed formed the basis of organisation for James Joyce’s Ulysses and which, arguably, also helped to shape his own poetic modernist masterwork The Waste Land (Ulysses and The Waste Land were published in the same year, 1922). Moreover, tribal tools, ornaments, and religious/ritual objects brought to the West by anthropologists and traders became inspirations for, and as well the formal basis of, important early modernist visual art by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and others. In general terms cultural anthropology participated in and produced a societal urge for the ‘primitive’ in the modern culture of the early 20th century.

Cultural anthropology in the early 20th century was hardly comprised of a single, static set of approaches to the study of human culture. The evolutionary anthropology of Frazer and others that so vitally influenced early modernists assumed that cultures could be arranged and judged on an evolutionary scale, with the most ‘primitive’ tribes on the bottom and ‘civilised’ Westerners at the top. The early 20th-century anthropological theories that supplanted evolutionary anthropology tended to focus on the study of an individual culture in its own right, in an attempt to elucidate and interpret the distinct characteristics of that culture, rather than comparing that culture to others on some hypothetical evolutionary scale. Such non-evolutionary methods, as practised in America by the anthropologist Franz Boas and his disciples, linked evolutionary theory to racism, and gave rise to the idea of cultural relativism, which in general argues that cultures must be regarded according to their own belief sets rather than judged by some benchmark of what is believed to be ‘civilised’. While the anthropology that articulated and argued for cultural relativism did not exert a direct ‘influence’ upon modernist artists, cultural relativism is but one of a number of theories of relativism, or relativity, which in the early 20th century did knock conventional assumptions of the centrality and superiority of Western rational ways of knowing. The profound impact of these did prove to have a generative effect for modernist art.

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18/04/2019

Article DOI

10.4324/9781135000356-REM2080-1

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Citing this article:

Manganaro, Mark. "Cultural Anthropology." The Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism. : Taylor and Francis, 2016. Date Accessed 18 Oct. 2019 https://www.rem.routledge.com/articles/cultural-anthropology. doi:10.4324/9781135000356-REM2080-1

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