Europeans seeking to understand tribal arts face obvious problems of comprehending the histories, values, and ideas of vastly remote cultures. In this respect the issues faced in understanding tribal art (or folk art, primitive art, traditional art, third or fourth-world art — none of these designations is ideal) are not much different from those encountered in trying to comprehend the distant art of “our own” culture, for instance, the art of medieval Europe. But in the case of tribal or so-called primitive art, there are special complications. First, objects of tribal art are sometimes so strange to us that we cannot tell immediately whether they are intended to be works of art (or some local analogue of what we would call art) at all.1An African head-rest I once came across had an odd, extravagant extrusion which made the whole piece reminiscent of Arp. It seemed to my baffled, ignorant eyes to be much more than a mere head-rest, but I couldn’t tell what more it was supposed to be. Maybe that extension on the side of the object had some purely utilitarian function, acting as a handle, or perhaps it was a natural part of the original block of wood, left there merely because it looked nice to the eye of the carver. Though the head-rest seemed beautiful, I still don’t know if I was admiring as an essentially expressive object some simple item of practical use, or something that combined expression and utility
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DOI 10.2307/431966
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