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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Lévi-Strauss, Caduveo Body Painting and the Readymade: Thinking Borderlines


The aim of this article is to explore some convergences between aesthetics and the anthropology of art, two disciplines often thought of as incompatible or mutually exclusive. Its impetus is the conviction that we have much to gain by a more systematic and concerted attempt at constituting an ethno-aesthetics, i.e. a decentred aesthetics enriched by the dynamic of cross-cultural comparison. I will take as my starting point Lévi-Strauss's classic studies of Caduveo body painting and try to show how, beyond the clichés often repeated about structuralism, they provide valuable insights for an understanding of various forms of avant-garde art, from Duchamp's readymades, to Anthony Caro's abstract sculptures and assemblages by the Nouveau Réaliste artist Arman. Although these forms of art would no doubt constitute, for Lévi-Strauss, instances of what he calls, pejoratively, an ‘academism of the signifier', I will argue here that Lévi-Strauss's own theorisation of the relations between nature, culture and art enables us to see them, in at least one of their dimensions, as prime examples of the fulfilling of the mytho-poetic function. What I will place, here, at the core of mytho-poetic function, following a view that is implicit in Lévi-Strauss's works but not articulated as such, is a boundary marking processes, one that is central to the way in which we create an order of the world around us.

This article is adapted from Chapter 6 of Boris Wiseman's book Lévi-Strauss, Anthropology and Aesthetics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2007).

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