Friday, November 20, 2009

Claude Lévi-Strauss

Claude Lévi-Strauss  1908 - 2009

I received a copy of Robert Glenn's newsletter today (Robert's website is The Painter's Keys ).  Robert reminded us of the recent death of Claude Lévi-Strauss, the influential French anthropologist.  This scholar traveled widely in South and North America and developed a method of study called structuralism which rejected history and humanism.  He refused to see Western civilization as privileged and unique, and his emphasis was on form over content.  He believed that the savage mind is equal to the civilized mind.

Over the years, I have often used a quote of Lévi-Strauss to title my shows:  "....Animals are good for thinking".  His reflections on totemism have inspired me to attempt to join our natural world and our own true nature within modern society.  The most rewarding reaction offered by viewers of my own work is that it can stir up some history deep inside us that has been forgotten but not yet completely lost.

Here is some more on Lévi-Strauss from Robert Glenn's newsletter (used with permission);

....Through his study of native peoples, particularly the Amerindians of Brazil and North America, he drew some enlightening conclusions. He determined to his satisfaction that native art and its accompanying myths have no unique authors. According to him, native art just occurs and is transmitted over generations and from tribe to tribe. The individualist artist of today's world, with his claim to uniqueness and penchant for self-obsession, had no place for Lévi-Strauss.

The idea of individuality actually disgusted Lévi-Strauss. "The 'I' is hateful," he wrote. As if attending a great pot of soup, we artists just dip into it but have no real claim to it. We need only be thankful the soup is available.

Lévi-Strauss's work is full of challenging contradictions. He found earlier populations to be ideally isolated from one another and able to develop their art without sullying influences. Today's global village worried him. He felt all myths were now neutralized, and the pot had become the victim of both unbridled commerce and the tyranny of ego.

Lévi-Strauss also named a type of artist he called the "bricoleur." At first a crafty and devious trickster, bricoleur has come to mean one who works with his hands. The bricoleur is adept at many tasks and at putting pre-existing things together in new ways to the benefit of communities. The bricoleur features in Lévi-Strauss's best known book, The Savage Mind. He describes primitive people as being highly evolved and complex. It was his dream that we might someday return to such a desirable state.

For further reading see the Wikipedia entry.

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