The Cult Of The Primitives


Since the great proliferation or schools and colleges typical of modern America has made self-education an obsolete pattern-if mature people want to learn they take “adult” education courses-part of the wonder of the primitives is that they are said to be “self-taught.” This is conceived of as a process delightful to the imagination: the painter sat down, opened the floodgates of his genius, and presto!—he had a masterpiece. The numerous sources of design that flooded America are forgotten; nor is it noticed that most primitive paintings were inspired by the academic art or the commercial prints circulating in their time. (It has been a sad day for many a collector when he has happened on the European engraving from which the “untrammelled example of American genius,” for which he paid a large price, was copied.) The close connection of the primitives with such sources keeps them from being a true folk art, comparable with that found in peasant countries where static social groups pass down, from generation to generation, forms almost independent of the styles practiced in cultural centers.

Since the Twentieth Century painters and critics who admired the primitives were at war with Nineteenth Century conceptions of art, they set the fashion of assuming that the Nineteenth Century “painters to the people” had been equally at war. A picture of American artist life is drawn in which rich, brutish, school-trained artists, who had unpatriotically submitted to the blandishments of the European academicians of the time, rode with society beauties in fine carriages to that sink of iniquity, the National Academy; while in the back streets of the cities and in the pine forests behind country towns there met in outraged indignation little protesting groups of untutored geniuses who knew, whatever the world might say, that they were the only true esthetic creators in America.


The assumption that the primitives resemble modernistic painters and represented a national democratic movement serves as a bridge between modernism and the Philistines. Furthermore, the Philistines are enchanted to discover—for in their hearts such people always yearn to be in fashion artistically—that, even if they shy away from Picasso, they are able genuinely to like many American primitives. They can preen themselves on their advanced taste, and at the same time chuckle over the Victorian lace panties of some cute little girl who was put on canvas with enough contrariness to pass as a masterpiece. Interior decorators have caught on, and a lively market exists for pictures that were a few years ago the discovery of the few.

The result has been a great diminution in the quality of the pictures collected. However ignorant they may have been of American cultural history, the pioneers of the primitives cult were people of taste; but now the label is the thing. If an object is a “primitive” it is “interesting,” in all probability “beautiful.” From this, art and antique dealers on every level have profited. The pictures appear in farm houses where they can be bought for a song, and even the humblest junkmen can recognize them because they are funny-looking. (It is amusing to price pictures in rural shops, and see that value is assessed in reverse relation to artistic effect.) The few really fine primitives bring good prices, and the rest are so numerous that they can be kept forever in stock and turned over quickly, like Currier and Ives prints, for prices a wide segment of the population can afford. If a collector likes to buy wholesale—some do—he can secure primitives almost in carload lots. As more and more people have got into the game, and the quality of the examples has plummeted, the claims by the enthusiasts have risen higher, echoed ever stronger.

However, true apotheosis did not come until word returned from Europe that art critics there agree that the primitives are the best and most typical artists of the United States. This impresses people far beyond the ordinary confines of the cult. Few take into consideration that, even as we like to think of Frenchmen as artistic and amorous, Europeans like to think of Americans as energetic and crude. To accept a knowing American picture as great would be to violate a much-cherished stereotype. Better to back our own nationalistic shouters in their contention that our greatest artists were the naïve creators of crabbed designs!

The triumph of the American primitives fad has brought its own antidote. Curiosity has been aroused, systematic research has been at last undertaken, and a body of fact has accreted that it is increasingly difficult to ignore, that cries out to be assimilated into the theories of the cultists.