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Primitivism (AtoZ Challenge 2016 – Jazz Age Jazz)

Primitivism (AtoZ Challenge 2016 - Jazz Age Jazz) In the 1920s, the western world felt it was on the verge of destruction, and only a more primaeval, more instinctive culture could save it.
In the 1920s, the western world felt it was on the verge of destruction, and only a more primaeval, more instinctive culture could save it #jazz #jazzmusic Click To Tweet
P - Primitivism (AtoZ Challenge 2016 - Jazz Age Jazz)

In the 1920s, Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis became very popular even outside of his professional field. This was true especially in the US and may have been one of the factors that cause a revival of Primitivism.
Primitivism argued that emotional repression had become endemic in the Western world. ‘Primitive’ cultures with ‘uncivilised values’ could cure this illness and rejuvenate the tired Western society by freeing its more natural desires – particularly sexuality.
Primitivism pre-dated the 1920s. American writers had created many primitive worlds and characters, even in the previous decades. In these stories, Native Americans and African Americans often played the idealised role of the noble savage or the fearsome barbarian. It was a depiction that had nothing realistic to it. In the light of Primitivism, different cultures were idealised (for good and bad) so to match a particular idea and stereotype, not to actually describe them as they were. They became a vehicle of an ideology, not the portrayal of real people.

Carl Van Vechten was graduated from the University of Chicago in 1903 and worked as assistant music critic for The New York Times (1906–08), then as that paper’s Paris correspondent
Carl Van Vechten

For this reason, Primitivism never sparkled any real interest in the cultures it depicted.

It was mostly a fantasy that often referred back to other ideas important to the artist.
Writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Carl Van Vechten, for example, were noted for their forays into Primitivism. Although keenly interested in the jazz culture, they mostly displayed a more general interest in modernism and supernaturalism than true interest in jazz culture. To them, jazz was a symbol, a metaphor of life as they experienced it. It never became the experience as it was for many Harlem Renaissance innovators. Authors like Langston Hughes and Claude McKay not only depicted jazz as a significant experience in itself, but they went as far as using jazz as a language for their stories.

Entrepreneurs played the idea of Primitivism to such an extent that the plantation life – or rather the stereotyped ideal of plantation life – haunted black entertainment for a long time. Vaudeville, minstrelsy and other stage performances had prepared the white audience to expect a certain kind of stereotype. While this certainly damaged African American culture, it may even have trapped both blacks and whites into roles that were not ‘authentic’ but staged.

Jazz became part of this game.

Claude McKay was a Jamaican poet best known for his novels and poems, including "If We Must Die," which contributed to the Harlem Renaissance.
Claude McKay

The clubs where jazz was played bore names (The Cotton Club, the Plantation Club, the Alabama Club) that used words geographically separated from North and East and culturally unfamiliar to many patrons. The interior décor also played the idea of a different place, unknown and exotic. Everything was constructed so to suggest a displacement, almost a relocation in a different world, a recognisable fantasy. But the structure of clubs didn’t encourage participation. It was rather a voyeurism. Patrons assumed they were part of black music and performance, that they had entered that exotic world to enjoy whatever unusual experience it had to offer. They were, in fact, just viewers watching in from a safe, separate position. Patrons could witness and sometimes act in ways that were typically ‘off-limits’ in everyday life, and this created the illusion that the ‘civilised’ barrier had gone down and one would connect with the other. But that’s precisely what it was: a well-orchestrated illusion.

To the larger public, African arts were an ideal of a simpler, more intense, more primaeval experience of life. African American performance was a natural extension of this ideal – and closer to home, definitely more accessible. The logic of Primitivism made blackness itself a spectacle which made the adventure of ‘slumming’ very popular. Professional of all entertainment industries sought to harness the new blackness – the New Negro – as a lucrative new business.


Ogren, Kathy J., The Jazz Revolution. Twenties America and the Meaning of Jazz. Oxford University Press, New York, 1989

Chapman, Erin D. Prove It on Me – New Negros, sex and popular culture in the 1920s. Oxford University Press, New York, 2012


  • Tarkabarka
    Posted April 19, 2016 at 02:24

    Wow, I never thought about how this would be related to jazz. As a scholar in culture studies, I feel like Hollywood still uses the primitivist ideas that idealize other cultures, and it gives me the creeps…
    @TarkabarkaHolgy from
    The Multicolored Diary

    • Post Author
      Posted April 19, 2016 at 07:46

      I think that’s true. Television too. Stereotyping is easy to produce and to receive, I think this is why it’s still used today, even in many cultural fields. And soemtimes, we don’t even realise when stereotyping is involved. That’s the real danger.

  • Barbara In Caneyhead
    Posted April 19, 2016 at 04:24

    I think of slick promoters when I read this. The people behind the talent in the game just to make money. Staging jazz to sell to a wider audience. Personally, I think Freud was a little fried in the brain.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 19, 2016 at 07:48

      Well, honestly, a few of the authors writing for the publisher I work with are psychologists and former psychoanalist… and they are all a bit strange. But then I’ve come to this conclusion: normality doesn’t exist 😉

      • Sir Leprechaunrabbit
        Posted April 20, 2016 at 03:28

        Normality? What’s that? 😛

        I’ve enjoyed this segment, Dearie.
        Where do the old 1920s Rolls-Royce “Silver Ghost” Phaetons (car) fit in?

  • Sophie Duncan
    Posted April 19, 2016 at 07:13

    I’d never heard of the term Primitivism before, but it sounds like it comes under the banner of cultural appropriation, taking what you fancy from a culture without really understanding it, which is different from truly appreciating a culture and participating. To know which is which it’s the understanding part that counts and it doesn’t sound like Primitivism even tried to understand the cultures it ‘idealized’.
    Sophie’s Thoughts & Fumbles | Wittegen Press | FB3X

    • Post Author
      Posted April 19, 2016 at 07:51

      That’s definitelly ture.
      Cultural understanding requires a lot of work. Patience, openness of mind, acceptance, willingness to listen and to question our positions. Respect.
      Stereotyping is sure easier.

  • Tasha
    Posted April 19, 2016 at 07:53

    I’d heard the word Primitivism before, but never knew what it meant – thank you for the concise and clear explanation. Sounds like a great deal of exploitation where the controlling force cannot be bothered to even begin to understand what it is exploiting and reality bears no resemblance to what TPTB like to believe.
    Tasha’s Thinkings | Wittegen Press | FB3X (AC)

    • Post Author
      Posted April 19, 2016 at 08:05

      Culture isn’t easy any way you look at it. Sometimes a culture doesn’t bother learning about another. Sometimes a culture fears what they don’t know. Sometimes history makes things harder, because of wars and other difficult times between two cultures in the past, possibly over centuries.
      It is hard work.

  • Megan Morgan
    Posted April 19, 2016 at 13:25

    I’m glad these racist stereotypes have been (mostly) removed from our society. And I never thought about how names like ‘The Cotton Club’ harken to that. Wow!

    • Post Author
      Posted April 19, 2016 at 16:00

      Well, I’m Italian and I’ve learned just lately of a lot of words that are considered offensive in America and I’d never ever imagined it. This is still something else that involves culture.

  • Kathleen Valentine
    Posted April 19, 2016 at 15:54

    I was not familiar with the word “primativism” but I understand the concept. Today what we call “world music” has grown in popularity. I have been in love with the Playing for Change videos since I saw the first one where they combine the music of different cultures. It has the potential for so much beauty but is often so misused.

    Meet My Imaginary Friends

    • Post Author
      Posted April 19, 2016 at 16:01

      Things are always changing. One day, we’ll find the right balance 🙂

  • Carrie-Anne
    Posted April 19, 2016 at 20:00

    It’s kind of insulting to depict another culture as so exotic and primitive, though I suppose that’s at least somewhat better than outright ugly, negative, racist stereotypes. I’m glad we’ve moved past such attitudes.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 20, 2016 at 09:02

      I think stereotypes are harmful in any case when applied to people. At least when you are not aware that it is a stereotype.

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