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The Art of Small Scale Societies vs. Complex Societies

Detailed painting on the wall of a staircase

In a previous post, I discussed some differences between art in Western cultures and art in non-Western cultures. There are also differences between the art of small-scale societies and the art of complex societies. 

One way art is different between these two kinds of societies has to do with size.  Small societies are often foragers (meaning they hunt and gather for food), or pastoralists (meaning they herd animals for food.) As a result, these people are nomadic or semi-nomadic, and so they move around the environment a lot. So, they don’t create large works of art, like big sculptures or big paintings.  Art in these societies tends to be on rocks or cliffs, or in forms that are portable (such as body art, performing arts, or decorations on things they use like weapons, clothing, and food containers).  

Art of small scale societies vs complex societies. Image of a henna tattoo on a foot surrounded by roses.

Another difference between the art of small scale societies and complex societies is the social status associated with art. Most of the people who own art in complex societies are from the upper class. Also, most of the people who attend art events, such as symphonies or art museum functions, are from the upper classes as well. In contrast, in small scale societies, everyone has about equal access to art. 

In addition, in complex societies, the people who set the standards for art, like art critics, are members of the upper classes. In small scale societies, the whole population can critique art, regardless of their social status. 

Art of small scale societies vs. complex societies. Image of a woman in an art museum looking at paintings of flowers.

Where art is seen differs between different kinds of societies as well. In complex societies, the arts are seen as a luxury and something to be looked at for enjoyment. Art is viewed, understood, discussed, and even bought and sold in separate places, like museums and art galleries. In contrast, in small scale societies, everyone sees art all the time, because art is everywhere and just a part of life. 

Want to learn more? 

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

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