Primitivism was a form of thought and values prominent mostly in 18th century Europe and 19th century America. Behind the ideology was the appreciation of life unattached to modern
Jean Jacques Rousseau
Jean Jacques Rousseau
excesses; the common thought of primitivism was that a 'primitive' or simple way of life is freer, purer, and more valuable than the life humans were then (and now) leading filled with technology, elaborate social constructions and refined and rigid cultural systems. Primitivism was largely a reaction against industrialization and the continued suppression of individual expression and "spontaneity" ("Primitivism").

Primitivism manifested itself in art and literature which appropriated usually non-Western themes and motifs which were considered 'primitive' and thus 'better,' because they are 'closer' to uncivilized wholeness that mankind had lost slowly in Western advances. The belief was that a truly primitive and unrefined society would be a utopia; man, perfect in his ignorance and simplicity, would also somehow be enlightened enough to grant his fellow man rights, respect and dignity. This today is seen as a sometimes racist (given the propensity to hold non-Western attributes as primitive) and problematic oversimplification.

Among the Primitivists were Igor Stravinsky (music), Paul Gauguin (painting), and Giambasttista Vico (philosophy). Perhaps the most famous Primitivist was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose idea of the 'noble savage' was incredibly influential in shaping primitivist thought. In his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, Rousseau traces what he believes to be the development of human society from individuals whose sole priority was of self-preservation and perpetuation of their species, to a time of political corruptness, upper class idleness, and vanity in academics.

Art and Primitivism

The primitivist point of view has, in modern times, founded a disbelief and dislike of art in general. As their thinking goes art simply reflects a deep misunderstanding of life and nature. The anxiousness and worry felt by peoples in modern societies spawned by competition for resources and the exclusivity of social groups causes the need for art as a method of distraction.
"creation in order to subdue the torment of perception." The author of "The Case Against Art" John Zerzan suggests that the lack of equality and need for unity among groups of people is the catalyst for the symbolic exchange of fanciful ideas that are present in art. art strives to "Make life itself an object of contemplation". This is not to suggest of course that we should not contemplate our lives but rather exemplifies how the unnecessary become distractions for those in need of distracting. Art forms a new kind of unity in the absence of real equality felt by people who literally depend on each other directly to survive. This act of creating distractions runs to the end of a tether however as Zarzan points out, all our modern art forms cease to be about anything real and more and more apparently lack any real source of inspiration and become less and less capable of affecting the audience in any significant way. The author of "The Case Against Art" cites instances of art such as a man shooting himself in the arm and being crucified and another man who simply put a video of pornography on the TV and called it art. Ultimately Primitivism sees art as a necessary evil caused by a problem that the movement would seek to avoid and thus avoiding the need for art altogether. "In the transfiguration we must enact, the symbolic will be left behind and art refused in favor of the real. Play, creativity, self-expression and authentic experience will recommence at that moment."


Diamond, Stanely. "In Search of the Primitive." Primitivism. Web. 13 May 2011.

"primitivism" The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Chris Baldick. Oxford University Press, 2008. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. UC - Santa Barbara. 13 May 2011

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. "A Discourse: What is the Origin of Inequality Among Men, and is it Authorised by Natural Law?" Constitution Society. Web. 13 May 2011.

Zarzan, Josh. "The Case Against Art".