chapter  6
12 Pages


ByBen Burt

While art historians and connoisseurs of the early twentieth century treated the form of artefacts as the basis of a subjective aesthetics, anthropologists analyzed it to understand small-society art traditions. One assumption of connoisseurs of Western art was that the forms of artefacts could be assessed according to universal human values. An early-twentieth-century British exponent of formalism was Clive Bell, who maintained that “‘significant form’ is the one quality common to all works of visual art.” William Fagg of the British Museum was a notable advocate of formalism whose search for “meaning in African art” was an exercise in connoisseurship, “having regard both to universal values in art and to specific tribal values.” For anthropologist Franz Boas, the human creation of form might be enhanced by its association with significant ideas, but he stressed the primacy of the formal qualities of art over the expressive or communicative.