Evolution in Art: Introduction

Date: 1895

Part V Art, Ornament, and Decoration



. . . . When difficult problems have to be investigated the most satisfactory method of procedure is to reduce them to their simplest elements, and to deal with the latter before studying their more complex aspects. The physiology of the highest animals is being elucidated largely by investigations upon the physiology of lower forms, and that of the latter in their turn by a knowledge of the activities of the lowest organisms. It is among these that the phenomena of life are displayed in their least complex manifestations; and they, so to speak, give the key to a right apprehension of the others.

So, too, in studying the arts of design. The artistic expression of a highly civilised community is a very complex matter, and its complete unravelment would be an exceedingly difficult and perhaps impossible task. In order to gain some insight into the principles which underlie the evolution of decorative art, it is necessary to confine one’s attention to less specialised conditions; the less the complication, the greater the facility for a comprehensive survey. In order, therefore, to understand civilised art we must study barbaric art, and to elucidate this savage art must be investigated. Of course it must be understood that no hard and fast line can be drawn between any two of these stages of culture; I employ them merely as convenient general terms. These are the reasons why I shall confine myself very largely to the decorative art of savage peoples.

There are two methods of studying the art of savages; the one is to take a comparative view of the art of diverse backward peoples; the other is to limit the attention to a particular district or people. The former is extremely suggestive; but one is very liable at times to be led astray by resemblances, as I shall have frequent occasion to point out in the following pages. The latter is in some respects much more certain in its conclusions, and is the only way by which certain problems can be solved. In the first part of this book I shall adopt the latter plan in order to indicate its particular value, and to afford data for subsequent discussion. In the remaining parts of the book I shall draw my illustrations from the most convenient sources, irrespective of race or locality.

In my first section the decorative art of a particular region has been studied much in the same way as a zoologist would study a group of its fauna, say the birds or butterflies. Naturally, the methods of the purely systematic zoologist neither can nor should be entirely followed, for the aim in life of the analytical zoologist is to record the fauna of a district and to classify the specimens in an orderly manner. To the more synthetically-minded zoologist the problems of the geographical distribution of animals have a peculiar fascination, and he takes pleasure in mapping out the geographical variations of a particular species and in endeavouring to account for the diversity of form and colour which obtains, as well as to ascertain the place of its evolution and the migrations which have subsequently taken place. The philosophical student also studies the development of animals and so learns something of the way in which they have come to be what they are, and at the same time light is shed upon genealogies and relationships.

The beautifying of any object is due to impulses which are common to all men, and have existed as far back as the period when men inhabited caves and hunted the reindeer and mammoth in Western Europe. The craving for decorative art having been common to mankind for many thousand years, it would be a very difficult task to determine its actual origin. All we can do is to study the art of the most backward peoples, in the hope of gaining sufficient light to cast a glimmer down the gloomy perspective of the past.

There are certain needs of man which appear to have constrained him to artistic effort; these may be conveniently grouped under the four terms of Art, Information, Wealth, and Religion.

Art.—Æsthetics is the study or practice of art for art’s sake, for the sensuous pleasure of form, line, and colour.

Information.—It is not easy to find a term which will express all that should be dealt with in this section. In order to convey information from one man to another, when oral or gesture language is impossible, recourse must be had to pictorial signs of one form or another. It is the history of some of these that will be dealt with under this term.

Wealth.—It is difficult to distinguish among savages between the love of wealth or power. In more organised societies, power, irrespective of wealth, may dominate men’s minds; and it is probable that, whereas money is at first sought after in order to feel the power which wealth can command, later it often degenerates into the miser’s greed for gain.

The desire for personal property, and later for enhancing its value, has led to the production of personal ornaments apart from the purely æsthetic tendency in the same direction. There are also emblems of wealth, and besides these, others of power or authority. The practice of barter has led to the fixation of a unit of value, and this in time became represented by symbols—i, e., money.

Religion.—The need of man to put himself into sympathetic relation with unseen powers has always expressed itself in visual form, and it has gathered unto it the foregoing secular triad.

Representation and symbolism convey information or suggest ideas.

Æsthetics brings her trained eye and skilled hand.

Fear, custom, or devotion have caused individual or secular wealth to be directed into other channels, and have thereby entirely altered its character. The spiritual and temporal power and authority of religion has also had immense and direct influence on art.

In a very large number of cases what I have termed the four needs of man act and react upon one another, so that it is often difficult or impossible to distinguish between them, nor do I profess to do so in every case. It is sufficient for our present purpose to acknowledge their existence and to see how they may affect the form, decoration, or representation of objects.

Having stated the objects for which these representations are made, we must pass to a few other general considerations.

It is probable that suggestion in some cases first turned the human mind towards representation. A chance form or contour suggested a resemblance to something else. From what we know of the working of the mind of savages, a mere resemblance is sufficient to indicate an actual affinity. These chance resemblances have occupied a very important place in what has been termed sympathetic magic, and natural objects which suggest other objects are frequently slightly carved, engraved, or painted in order to increase the fancied resemblance. A large number of examples of this can be culled from the writings of missionaries and others, or seen in large ethnographical collections. Mr. H. Balfour has also given one or two interesting illustrations of this process. For example, a stone which suggests a human face is noted by a native and the features are slightly emphasised, and ultimately the object may become a fetich or a charm. The mandrake (Mandragora) is very important in sympathetic magic, and its human attributes have been suggested by the two roots which diverge from a common underground portion, and which recall the body and legs of a man; a slight amount of carving will considerably assist nature and a vegetable man results.

Suggestion does not operate only at the inception of a representation or design, but it acts continuously, and may at various times cause strange modifications to occur.

Expectancy, as Dr. Colley March has pointed out, has been a very important factor in the history of art. This is intimately connected with the association of ideas. If a particular form or marking was natural to a manufactured object, the same form and analogous marking would be given to a similar object made in a different manner, and which was not conditioned by the limitations of the former. For beautiful and convincing illustrations of the operation of this mental attitude of expectancy the reader is referred to the section on skeuomorphic pottery (p. 997).

We may regard suggestion and expectancy as the dynamic and static forces operating on the arts of design; the former initiates and modifies, the latter tends to conserve what already exists.

It is the play between these two operations which gives rise to what may be termed a distinctive "life-history" of artistic representations.

A life-history consists of three periods: birth, growth, death. The middle period is one which is usually marked by modifications which may conveniently be grouped under the term of evolution, as they imply a gradual change or metamorphosis, or even a series of metamorphoses.

For our present purpose we may recognise three stages of artistic development—origin, evolution, and decay.

The vast bulk of artistic expression owes its birth to realism; the representations were meant to be life-like, or to suggest real objects; that they may not have been so was owing to the apathy or incapacity of the artist or to the unsuitability of his materials.

Once born, the design was acted upon by constraining and restraining forces which gave it, so to speak, an individuality of its own. In the great majority of representations the life-history ran its course through various stages until it settled down to uneventful senility; in some cases the representation ceased to be—in fact it died. . . . .

It will be found that the decorative art of primitive folk is directly conditioned by the environment of the artists: and in order to understand the designs of a district, the physical conditions, climate, flora, fauna, and anthropology, all have to be taken into account; thus furnishing another example of the fact that it is impossible to study any one subject comprehensively without touching many other branches of knowledge.

All human handiwork is subject to the same operation of external forces, but the material on which these forces act is also infinitely varied. The diverse races and people of mankind have different ideas and ideals, unequal skill, varied material to work upon, and dissimilar tools to work with. Everywhere the environment is different. So we get that bewildering confusion of ideas which crowd upon us when inspecting a large ethnographical collection or a museum of the decorative arts.

The conclusion that forced itself upon me is that the decorative art of a people does, to a certain extent, reflect their character. A poor, miserable people have poor and miserable art. Even among savages leisure from the cares of life is essential for the culture of art. It is too often supposed that all savages are lazy, and have an abundance of spare time, but this is by no means always the case. Savages do all that is necessary for life; anything extra is for excitement, æsthetics, or religion; and even if there is abundance of time for these latter, it does not follow that there is an equivalent superfluity of energy. The white man, who has trained faculties and overflows with energy, is apt to brand as lazy those who are not so endowed. In the case of British New Guinea it appears pretty evident that art flourishes where food is abundant. One is perhaps justified in making the general statement that the finer the man the better the art, and that the artistic skill of a people is dependent upon the favourable-ness of their environment.

The relation of art to ethnology is an important problem. So far as our information goes, it appears that the same processes operate on the art of decoration whatever the subject, wherever the country, whenever the age—another illustration of the essential solidarity of mankind. But there are, at the same time, numerous and often striking idiosyncrasies which have to be explained. Many will be found to be due to what may be termed the accidents of locality. Natural forms can only be intelligently represented where they occur, and the materials at the disposal of the artist condition his art. . . . .

I have elsewhere thrown out the following suggestion:—"It will often be found that the more pure or the more homogeneous a people are, the more uniformity will be found in their art work, and that florescence of decorative art is a frequent result of race mixture." For although prolific art work may be dependent, to some extent, upon leisure due to an abundance of food, this will not account for artistic aptitude, though in process of time the latter may be a result of the employment of the leisure; still less will it account for the artistic motives or for the technique.

The art of a people must also be judged by what they need not do and yet accomplish. The resources at their command, and the limitations of their materials, are very important factors; but we must not, at the same time, ignore what they would do it they could, nor should we project our own sentiment too much into their work. In this, as in all other branches of ethnographical inquiry, we should endeavour to learn all we can about them from their own point of view before it is too late. At the present stage knowledge will not be advanced much by looking at laggard peoples through the spectacles of old-world civilisation.—A. C. HADDON, , 2–11 (Walter Scott, 1895).

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Chicago: Evolution in Art: Introduction in Source Book for Social Origins: Ethnological Materials, Psychological Standpoint, Classified and Annotated Bibliographies for the Interpretation of Savage Society, ed. Thomas, William I. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1909), 543–549. Original Sources, accessed September 29, 2023, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=LU7ZN5RL8NE1K4U.

MLA: . Evolution in Art: Introduction, in Source Book for Social Origins: Ethnological Materials, Psychological Standpoint, Classified and Annotated Bibliographies for the Interpretation of Savage Society, edited by Thomas, William I., Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1909, pp. 543–549. Original Sources. 29 Sep. 2023. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=LU7ZN5RL8NE1K4U.

Harvard: , Evolution in Art: Introduction. cited in 1909, Source Book for Social Origins: Ethnological Materials, Psychological Standpoint, Classified and Annotated Bibliographies for the Interpretation of Savage Society, ed. , University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp.543–549. Original Sources, retrieved 29 September 2023, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=LU7ZN5RL8NE1K4U.