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Seminar BA2: Art and the Other: ‘Primitivism’ in Perspective


Admission requirements

The following courses need to be passed:

  • Freshman's Class / Academic Skills I

  • Academic Skills II


It is widely accepted that multiculturalism lies at the heart of contemporary art. The notions of hybridity, metissage and recycling raise the central issue of otherness in art, and thus the question of the identity of art. This course will explore the origin, presence and continuity of ideas of otherness through Primitivism in contemporary art.

Primitive is a western term/concept that since the middle of the 19th century was first used to describe Italian and Flemish art from the 14th and 15th centuries, admired by modern artists for its simplicity, sincerity, and expressive strength, and expanded later to include a variety of non-Western art, spanning South America and Southeast Asia. At the start of the 20th century, as a small group of young European painters and sculptors broke away from the schools of impressionism and naturalism and put their eyes on masks and statues from Africa and the Pacific, the primitive became connected with the tribal art from these regions. These artists were profoundly affected and genuinely excited by such work seeing in it a physical directness and emotional intensity that they found thrilling and distinctive. This encounter was a basis of what art historians later called Primitivism.

Primitivism thus bridges art and the philosophical doctrine that believes that ‘primitive’ humans and their unsophisticated behaviours are more noble and innocent than modern, ‘civilized’ people. In the context of art, Primitivism describes Modern art that makes references to tribal items or otherwise includes or reflects their influence. The appropriation or reinterpretation of ‘exotic’ objects by Fauvist and Cubist artists might have been an indication that African and Oceanian ‘primitive’ arts had won recognition, and that European awareness of and openness to others had increased. The scholars (such as Goldwater and Rubin et al.) whose works aimed at drawing parallels between ‘primitive’ art and Picasso, Derain, Picabia or Matisse had intentions to put ‘exotic’ sculptures on an equal footing with early twentieth-century European works. Many years later in the wake of postcolonial theory and critique, the new meaning of Primitivism have emerged, uncovering the cultural arrogance implicit in Westerners’ appropriation of non-Western art. Primitivism holds a pivotal and infamous place in the study of non-Western art and cultures and its aftermath spurred a new generation of exhibits that fostered more inclusive thinking.

On the other hand, since the middle of the 20th century, the very object of ‘primitive art’ found itself at the centre of interest of the quickly developing anthropology of art and anthropology of aesthetics.

Drawing from the profoundly influential classic Primitivism in Modern Art (1938) by Robert Goldwater, and Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern (1985) by William Rubin (ed.), based on an important but contested exhibition of the same title (Museum of Modern Art in New York, 1984–1985) and other readings, we will critically examine the discourse around Primitivism, tradition and modernity. To broaden the perspective, we will also explore some anthropological studies on ‘primitive art’, departing from the timeless Primitive Art, by Franz Boas (1927), through more recent works in the anthropology of art and aesthetics, like Jeremy Coote and Anthony Shelton (eds.) (1992), with substantiating case studies drawn from different parts of the world. We will also explore concepts, like ethnic art, tourist art and art/artefact, art/icon dichotomies. Finally, we will explore the Primitivism Revisited: After the End of an Idea, an exhibition curated by graduate students of Susan Vogel from Columbia University at the Sean Kelly Gallery in New York City (2006–2007) and will reflect on whether Primitivism is still a convincing framework to evaluate and compare art from different cultures, reexamining it from the perspective of the 21st century. Likewise, we will review a substantial number of contemporary artworks where the Primitivism perspective is present.

A range of questions will be asked. Amongst them: Is a world without ‘primitives’ possible? Is ‘primitive art’ primitive? Is ‘primitive art’ art? Whose standards should we use to judge it? Why were 20th-century artists so interested in the ‘primitive’ arts? In what sense is its convergence with the break with previous Western artistic tradition relevant? Is Primitivism a cultural appropriation? To what extent was the Primitivist movement positive for anthropologists to begin an in-depth study of ‘primitive’ art and aesthetics? How is the new generation of exhibits fostering more inclusive approaches considering post-colonial thinking, changes in cultural attitudes and globalization?

Course objectives

  • Students gain knowledge of current debates surrounding the concepts of ‘primitive art’ and ‘Primitivism’ in art

  • Students acquire familiarity with art practices which address notions associated with ‘Primitivism’

  • Students learn to raise relevant questions when confronting contemporary artworks which engage with ideas of ‘Primitivism’

  • Students gain insight into new perspectives on otherness in contemporary art considering post-colonial thinking

  • Students learn to distinguish between the perspectives of artists and anthropologists in their approach to 'primitive art'

  • Students gain confidence in discussing and writing about art practices in which ideas of ‘primitive’ art or ‘Primitivism’ are present

  • Students develop skills to respond critically to readings and work individually on research


The timetables are available through My Timetable.

Mode of instruction


Assessment method


  • Group presentation

  • Essay


  • Group presentation (30%)

  • Essay (70%)
    The weighted average must be a passing grade. The mark for the final essay must be at least a passing grade (5.5 or higher).


A resit/ rewrite can be done for the constituent examination (essay 70%) if it is not passed.

Inspection and feedback

Students will receive ample feedback on their presentation and paper. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the exam results, an exam review will have to be organized.

Reading list

To be announced


Enrolment through MyStudyMap is mandatory.
General information about course and exam enrolment is available on the website

Registration À la carte education, Contract teaching and Exchange

Information for those interested in taking this course in context of À la carte education (without taking examinations), eg. about costs, registration and conditions.

Information for those interested in taking this course in context of Contract teaching (with taking examinations), eg. about costs, registration and conditions.
For the registration of exchange students contact Humanities International Office.


  • For substantive questions, contact the lecturer listed in the right information bar.

  • For questions about enrolment, admission, etc, contact the Student administration Arsenaal


Not applicable.