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Primitivism in 20th Century Literature and Art

Professor Wendy Faris


This course will investigate the inspiration that the arts of indigenous societies have provided for modern western culture, and the ways in which those arts have played a central role in the development of major modern visual and literary movements. In a sense, we will be studying the process by which, beginning in the nineteenth century, and continuing through the present, it has become necessary to put quotation marks around the word "primitive" as it refers to cultural artifacts. Clearly, this process involves an increasing appreciation of indigenous culture, but it also raises problems on both sides of this cultural exchange. Most recently, this issue of primitivism with its dangers of commodification and the appropriation of voices and styles is situated at the heart of theories and controversies concerning race, gender, and class, and elite versus popular modes in the study of culture. We will keep those issues in mind, and read parts of several important recent studies dealing with them, but our primary concern will be to analyze particular examples of primitivist literature and painting. We will focus on this modem painting and literature, but we will also extend our discussions to include material from other fields, such as intellectual history, anthropology and psychology.

In addition to participating in class discussions, seminar members will write one or two papers totaling approximately 20 pages and make one short class presentation.

Note: Students who have taken this course number with different content can take this course as an independent study.

Texts and Additional Reading:

Chateaubriand, Atala and Rene; Lawrence, The Plumed Serpent; Faulkner, "The Bear"; Neruda, The Heights of Macchu Picchu; Carpentier, The Lost Steps; Ben Jelloun, The Sacred Night; Poems by Longfellow, Whitman, Baudelaire, Breton, and Apollinaire; Essays by Rousseau, Thoreau, Freud, Mead, Woolf, Bataille, and Levi-Strauss; Paintings by Gauguin, Picasso, Matisse, Klee, Rivera, and Kahlo; Excerpts from Torgovnik, Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives; Taussig, Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing; Price, Primitive Art in Civilized Places; Goldwater, Primitivism in Modern Art; Clifford, The Predicament of Culture.