The Cult Of The Primitives


At first, it was felt that what was needed was a better label: “primitives,” “folk art,” “pioneer art,” “honest American art,” and all the other phrases yet thought of carried confused connotations, but the matter would undoubtedly solidify under the right phrase. However, no agreement could be reached, and the argument moved on to the deeper question of what is a true primitive and what is not. It should be easy, since the two groups are thought of as being in violent opposition, to draw a line between natural outpourings of American genius and the baser stuff that resulted from un-American sophistication—yet agreement has again proved impossible, and many a devotee is forced to admit to himself, if only behind locked doors, that the whole matter is deucedly confusing.

However, the truth is as simple as it is destructive. The conception of American primitives is a Twentieth Century conception predicated on Twentieth Century taste. It has no validity in terms of the artists who created the pictures, of their taste, or of the periods in which they worked.

From the first years of settlement to the eruption of modernism, American art, like its counterpart in Europe, subscribed to a single, overall esthetic. The technique of the artist, it was universally agreed, should enable him to fool the eye into accepting the actual physical presence of a painted image. (American primitives who found their way to Italy made no exciting discoveries of Italian primitives, of Cimabue or Giotto; they admired Raphael.) That a picture should be abstract, should express primarily an artist’s subjective mood, this no one believed, nor did anyone argue for distortion to achieve emotional effect. If distortion existed, it resulted from a striving for realism. Animals, because of their lack of human subjectivity, were, according to popular anecdote, natural art critics. Even as the Greek sculptor Myron carved a bull that fooled several cows, so American portraitists were complimented by rumors that pet dogs tried to climb into the laps they painted.

Like their colleagues everywhere, American neophytes began with the method of expression which comes naturally to Western Man: we find it on sidewalks where children, gifted or ungifted, have scribbled. Form is limited to outline, color is added as an afterthought, shape and hue are conceived of as much for emphasis as realism. Thus, an object which the artist feels strongly about will be enlarged and painted red, whatever its natural color.

Unlike the moderns, who try to develop this manner into a mature medium of expression, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century artists tried to break with it; and they all, whether they ended up as primitives or not, judged their skill in terms of how far they had succeeded. There is no historical basis for the belief that the primitives felt themselves in opposition to men who painted more naturalistically. They felt themselves inferior.


To translate childish images into marks on two-dimensional canvas that gave a convincing impression of three-dimensional reality required ability, application and industry. If any of these were missing, early American artists moved only a short distance, making themselves eligible to be worshiped today as “folk artists.”

Most damaging, of course, was lack of ability. Thus, the most serious criticism of the primitives cult is that too often this lack is accepted as a virtue and daubs are raised to the level of collectors’ or even museum pieces.

Lack of application was less serious. In the case of amateurs, usually young ladies who undertook painting as a polite accomplishment, it made for triviality yet did not extinguish charm. As they copied engravings from drawing books or painted fruit on silk through stencils, their object was not to make an important work of art—bluestockings were not in demand as wives. However, a little originality was not frowned on, and, if the girl had fire and grace, some of it came through to the picture. But not much: neither the will nor the skill was there.

Lack of application also applied to those artisans, creators of signs and naïve likenesses, who never made the effort to go far towards an illusionistic style, and who produced the body of American primitives. The blocks that kept them from advancing further in the direction which they all regarded as upward were various, the most common undoubtedly being weakness of ambition, a willingness to walk for a lifetime the not too arduous and adequately rewarding path of craft. Others were swayed by stranger forces: thus the greatest of them all, Edward Hicks, the creator of the “Peaceable Kingdoms,” which are the acknowledged masterpieces of American primitive art, was a religious fanatic opposed on doctrinal grounds to every aspect of education and sophistication. He made signs and fireboards because it was the only way he could make a living. No more than lesser naïve artists did Hicks argue for the beauty of his output. Beauty was evil: he was ashamed to be, in the eyes of the Lord, more than “a poor old worthless insignificant painter.”