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Anthropological Concepts: Introduction to Art & Culture

Ancient cave art

This blog post will focus on art and culture. People from cultures all around the world use art to express themselves. The earliest evidence of art ever found is from about 100,000 years ago in South Africa. Archaeologists found a painter’s workshop, with bone tools for mixing paint, yellow and red ochre for paint color, and shells used for holding the paint. So, art has been a part of human life for a very long time!  

Art is one of those things that is hard to define, yet people often say they know it when they see it. But not every culture has the same ideas about what art is. And, there are no universal standards for art. This means that what is considered art in one culture may not be considered art in another culture. For example, those of us in the Western world might see wooden sculptures as art. But in southern Nigeria, wooden sculptures are not art–they are houses for spirits.  

Also, what is considered good art and what is considered bad art depends on the culture. A piece of art that one culture thinks is beautiful, may not be considered beautiful in other cultures. In some places, like American society, art critics, museum staff, and art professors decide what is good or bad art. For example, if an item is in an art museum, it must be good art. In other cultures, there aren’t any art museums, and the general public is in charge of deciding what’s good or bad art. 

Art and Culture. Image of 2 women wearing colorful embroidered shirts.

In Western culture, we consider art to be something separate from everyday life. We have separate places to go and enjoy art, such as museums, theaters, and concert halls. In non-Western cultures, art is just a part of everyday life. Art is so embedded in daily life, that many cultures don’t even have a word for it. Art is so much a part of their lives, that they don’t think of it as something separate. Art is incorporated into everyday objects, like utensils, pottery, baskets, and floor mats, and is not something to go see in a museum. 

In addition, in Western culture we tend to see art as something that an individual makes– it reflects the individual artist’s talent and expressions and belongs to that individual. However, in other cultures, art is not an individual endeavor–it is more a social project. For example, in Nigeria, the Tiv people work on art socially, not individually. When an artist puts aside the item they were working on, another person picks it up and works on it themselves.  

Want more information on the Arts around the world? 

Just join my Udemy course, “Exploring The Arts Through Cultural Anthropology.”

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