Dorothy Dunn and Primitive Art

The artist's of tribes of the Great Plains left their paper trail for centuries on rocks, cave walls, and buffalo robes and other animal skins. After contact with the white man the Native American artists began to use paper from the ledger books that traders used for record keeping, thus the term "ledger art".

The drawings were characteristic of the style that had persisted for centuries and culminated with the end of the proto-modern era of the Native American art movement.

It was at the end of this era and the beginning of the Modernistic era of the movement that Dorothy Dunn was teaching at the Santa Fe school. During her tenure she encouraged her students to continue the traditions of their predecessors in the "flat", or "primitive" art style. Here one can cite Dunn's unique concept of "primitive", and even more so her concept of "primitive art".

Anthropologists use the term "primitive" as a general category to describe cultures which had not achieved a certain standard (define modernity). For Dunn, a primitive was not a certain type of culture, but described individuals and objects indigenous to any, every, culture. The primitive subject was that gifted individual, or "seer" whom was able to discern the primitive objects relevant to their culture. These objects were also "primitives", and represented the signs, icons, or symbols of a culture. Thus, for Dunn, "primitive art" was the one to one relationship between the seer and the perceived set of primitive objects of their culture. Primitive was not a certain type of culture, but a certain set of variables occurring in every culture, and primitive art was an event that portrayed the values, or what was of importance in that culture. Thus, Dunn encouraged her students to carry on the tradition into the Modernist era.

Dorothy Dunn's concept of primitive art yields a definition that adequately depicts the problems and ambiguities in the usage of the term "primitive." She agrees with Boas' observation that in the broadest sense, every age has its primitives, its own interpreters and seers, and the assignment of the term primitive to these individuals is relative to the point of view based upon the knowledge of the observer. At the same time, she also cites Ralph Linton who denounces the commonly accepted connotation of the term "primitive" as assigning all primitives to the "childhood of art," but she seems to differ essentially from Linton's assertion that the "primitive" in "primitive art" is a relative term. Relational perhaps, but relative only in the sense that each culture defines its primitives according to its own set of values. The relational aspect is that primitive art occurs in every culture as an event between the seers, and that set of symbols, signs or designs which are iconic to that particular culture as its own set of primitives. The relationship is complex and is manifest in every society. This relationship defines the absolute in "primitive art." She summarizes this position in the statement that "Primitive is a relational term, conditioned by time and place, yet maintaining constant universal elements pertaining to frontiers."

Dunn notes that "Indian painting is the first art in history to have sprung, full-fledged, from the primitive into the contemporary world at a time when it was peculiarly compatible with both. Although it has won recognition as modern art, a consideration of some facts and assumptions in regard to primitive art may evaluate certain qualities of modern Indian painting which place it in a position of being old and new, primitive and contemporary." The reference to an absolute in primitive art is evident here, even though for the sake of communication she has to stumble over the common usage of the term "primitive" which she is trying to minimize.

In this regard Dunn states that the term "primitive art" calls for qualification. The qualification that Dunn employs is one that synthesizes the contrast between a diachronic and synchronic perspective of the term. In her usage of such terms as "time and place" and "frontiers" in contrasting the relative and universal aspects of primitive art she is indeed searching for a definition that would satisfy Fabian's demand for "allochronic determinations." If one were to isolate all instances of "time and place" diachronically (in linear, historical or temporal sequence) and apply them laterally, across cultural lines and the boundaries of possible worlds synchronically, and then abstract an intensive, characteristic notion of primitive as a universal concept, then one could have a definition that could be used comparatively at any given time and place, i.e. satisfying Fabian's demand for coevalence in discourse, and overcome any ethnocentricity a contemporary culture may have in its assessments and analysis of an object culture under study which lies at its frontier and depicts a different time and place.

The need for such qualification is summarized by Dunn in stating that "Anthropologists question certain implications of the expression" (primitive art) where a "consideration of tolerance" in the matter of "other civilizations" and "our own" may be comparatively based upon technical and material advancements, but overlook the fact that the lack of such advancements "might allow major emphasis upon esthetic and spiritual value." Here Dunn is to a degree once again segregating the primitive in a unique aspect, as she does in stating that "In primitive society symbolism is a special system through which ideas as images can be conveyed understandably to an individual or group," but her underlying supposition is that in every culture in every age society has its primitives; seers or interpreters who are the gifted individuals that discern and depict this special system of symbols. It is an event, a one to one relationship between the subject as a primitive interpreting the primitive as objectivity, and the event is a primal act.

In this Dunn has designated the interpreter within a culture as one who objectively identifies those elements that are the marks of that culture, and that the act is universal. While every society has its system of symbols, and certain images may be shared by diverse cultures, the same image may have different meanings cross-culturally or even have multi-references within a culture (The Zuni is a prime example). Every culture will iconize the sun and the moon, contrast the night with the day. The triangle has a range of meanings distinct in cultures as close as the Hopi and the Arapaho, or as diverse as its interpretation by the Western economist (The Greek letter Delta, signifying change). Yet, the act of the interpreter translating their culture's symbols into a communicable form is the absolute, universal, primitive act.

In this sense of the term "primitive" one is no longer referring to a category, or a term of allochronic discourse denoting temporal distance. It is not a qualifier for an object or culture, but is the object, subject, or act itself. Its sense is the act of the interpretation of symbols establishing a basis for and expediting the conveyance of intersubjective knowledge. Whether it is the interpreter within a culture translating a sign and conveying meaning to another interpreter within the culture, or an interpreter considering the system of symbols as an object language, the notion is that one is not dealing with a thing qualifiable as a primitive, but is identifying the primitive itself, and is what the logicians like to refer to as cross-identifications, or identifications of individuals across the boundaries of possible worlds, resulting in well-defined individuations or the objectivity of individuating functions.

This appears on its face to be actually quite useless. First, there is a set of objects within a culture the meaning of which is peculiar to that culture, and that particularity renders it non-informative for cross-identification with a set of particulars in another culture. The primitive act, conversely, is defined in such broad terms that it appears as nothing more than an abstraction that could not possibly produce any meaningful information. On a positive note, this sense of primitive has eliminated the temporal distancing with is denoted when used as a term of allochronic discourse, seemingly satisfying Fabian's demand for allochronic determinations (coevalance). Execution is problematic however, as the paradox of anthropological discourse displays itself when the term "primitive" is used, as Dunn often does, in the sense of temporal distancing in order to minimize or eliminate that very connotation.

By example, take another term of allochronic discourse that conveys temporal distancing. That term is "savage", or "savagery." Frank Hamilton Cushing used the term numerous times during his tenure as a participant observer at the Zuni Pueblo from 1879-1884 when reporting to his colleagues and superiors, and in various publications. In our own time he has been criticized for this as "wrong-headed" and "wrong-hearted." I hesitate to call these remarks wrong-headed or wrong-hearted, but in the very least they are incorrect, and any ethnologist/anthropologist worth their weight in salt should realize this. To summarize Fabian: Anthropological discourse about the "primitive" or the "savage" is not about people in the real world, at least not directly. First and immediately, it is about the primitive or the savage as an internal referent of a discourse or as a scientifically constituted object of a discipline. One must not confuse the logical content of a scientific language and the real world. That is, while temporal distancing creates its object for the anthropologist the synchronic of discourse projects its referent atemporally. In other words, Cushing was a scientist of the Victorian era using the scientific language of his time in order to communicate effectively with his colleagues, superiors, and general media audience. Communicative competence and valuing sociality guarantees its rationality and objectivity. As long as anthropological discourse does not confuse its own logical content with the real world then rationality is not violated by deviant utterances and the normative content of the discipline is maintained, thereby attaining rationality and objectivity through conformity.

The terms "primitive" and "savage" do pose differences, however, and is likely the reason, though not a justification for, the criticisms posed against Cushing for the use of the term. As Fabian points out in regard to the term "savage", "no amount of nominalist technicality can purge the term of its moral, aesthetic, and political connotations." It cannot be reduced to universal data.

"Primitive," on the other hand, is quite conducive to universalization. As Dunn notes, in an Indian society, there are no artists. As a medium for expression anyone may be a "creative participant in some capacity", and as such the groundwork for an inclusive base for interpretation of a communicable set of symbols is laid, providing an ontological basis of rationality. That is, the former abstract concept of primitive art as a primitive act has been provided with content. This should, to a reasonable degree, satisfy the ontologist and anthropologist alike. In the ontological sense rationality is viewed as "perspective- taking" and does not require objectivity. Objectivity requires agreement, or intersubjective validation through public reciprocal intentions, where the objectivity of claims is tied to their communicability. Objectivity becomes a "personal accomplishment" (Willard) and belongs to the anthropological sense of rationality as a social fact where forms of communication are used to express approval of someone's actions (aesthetic appreciation).

Quoting Alice Corbin Henderson, Dunn states that in an Indian society, art is "possessed in common" and "totally lacking in individualistic concept." Thus, objectivity is enjoined with intentionality as personal accomplishment without a reference to the individual. This would satisfy a pedagogic sense of rationality in that in an Indian society "the surest way to make a prayer effective is to symbolize the matter prayed for" (Bandelier). If the prayer (the art of rhetoric) was effective, then it was handed down from generation to generation and its success justified its rationality.

Dunn contrasts Indian art and contemporary art in distinguishing "modern" society where the title of the artist may well be deserved with the capacity to impress representatively, whereas to artists of primitive societies "painting does not seek primarily to portray a subject in a given place and time in a more or less representationalist manner, but rather to stress the fundamental qualities of the object or power. It is concerned with the inner functions and meanings rather than the superficial appearance of nature, and it sets forth the essential aspects of a subject?the primitive artist gives right-of-way to the basic elements in his interpretation." Dunn then cites Linton who observed that the "insistence upon accurate naturalistic representation seems childish to the primitive artist who, although he admires technical skill, feels that it is being expended for trivial ends in an amplification of the obvious."

Two worlds, side by side. The Indian artist may say of the contemporary artist that they are in forgetfulness of their origins, and the contemporary artist may refer to a child like quality of the Indian's painting. Nonetheless, to Dorothy Dunn they are both primitive art, or better said, a primitive act, and both have their reason for being. "Each aspect which characterizes Indian painting as a primitive art has its own reason for being. Likewise, certain of these same features qualify Indian painting as modern. This seeming paradox may well be in the fact that international painting, for reasons of its own, increasingly evolves forms and styles, even concepts, not unlike those long and deeply developed by Indian artists."

And so it was that Dorothy Dunn followed her inclinations towards the "primitive" and encouraged her students at the Santa Fe school to preserve the authenticity of their heritage through long established modes of interpreting the primitives.


Dunn, Dorothy. American Indian Painting of the Southwest and Plain'sArea. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1968.

Fabian, Johannes. Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object. NY: Columbia University Press, 1983.

Hintikka, Jaakko. "The Semantics of Modal Notions and the Indeterminacy of Ontology". Synthese. 21: 408-424, 1970.

Willard, Charles. A Theory of Argumentation. Tuscaloosa and London: University of Alabama Press, 1989.

Chet Staley
Copyright 2005
All Rights Reserved

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