THE structure of this book is unusual. It is an attempt to publish a record of what was said about the artist in tribal societies at a symposium in 1957 at the Royal Anthropological Institute. One after another we see the eminent contributors come out to bat, on a wicket of their own choosing. One after another they face up to the slow spinners, or the body-line, bowled at them by their eminent peers. In this way we are shown the issues on which agreement or disagreement exists, the weaknesses and strengths of each case; the empirical is winnowed from the metaphysical and the experts are seen to be human: they command our respect – but we are no longer overawed. Indeed, we are encouraged to take up the arguments ourselves.

For teachers, the main interest of the book lies in the light it attempts to shed on the fundamental impulse to create visual art: on whether there is some vital nourishment to be had from art activity and, if so, whether a look at the tribal artist can help us define such nourishment so that we can make it more available to Western children.

If the book has one major lesson to teach, however, it is that the art of tribal societies is not one single entity. Motive and method vary not only from culture to culture but even within one village there may be different sorts of “artist” whose ambits, the ritual and the secular, hardly overlap.

Where children are concerned we know from the research of Rhoda Kellogg that the graphic expression of the human infant develops in the same way all over the world and that it is at this level best viewed as a biological activity rather than a social or psychological one. We know that tribal infants develop like our own in this respect, if similar materials are available, but this book provides some evidence that later in childhood the parallel may continue: there is a potential, unsystematic naturalism in a fair proportion of tribal children – which does not have to be taught but which may never show itself because of, say, lack of reasonable graphic materials. On the other hand, being without graphic media, some tribes indulge in wood carving, when perhaps Lowenfeld’s “haptic” types come to the fore instead of “visual” types.

It is as the child enters maturity that social forces impinge on him [tribal artists are predominantly male], as they do anywhere else. But because he is in a “tradition directed” culture, as Riesman has called it, one might suggest that we of the West, still in the fading glow of Romantic individualism, can learn little of educational value from what then ensues. For instance, there are cultures where everyone, in his leisure, practises art of the secular kind and others, more hierachical, where the sacred and ritualistic have specialist art makers. Art, that is to say, can be socially viable as decoration and as a mark of social position or an accessory to magic and ritual. Totemic ceremony we are told creates a rich outlet for art, music and drama and it may even be that these arts should not be artificially separated but studied as one complex phenomenon.

Two themes are returned to throughout the book: one treats of the attempt to distinguish what is innate, from what is learned, and the other to decide whether the iconography or the form of a work should be the Westerner’s point of entry to it.

On the latter issue I must confess to being partisan. We have had too much talk about form to the point where the Cheshire cat is valued now only for its grin. William Fagg of the British Museum reminds us that some masks are made for the sole purpose of frightening children, while others may look frightening to a Westerner but in their context are clearly not. Should the first sort of masks be shown in Western museums with lighting arranged, as at their original site, to bring out the frightening and perhaps hide the formal qualities completely? Yes, I think they should.

So far, work in this field is very limited. Mr. Fagg somewhere else reminds us that no discipline exists for dealing with all the problems being discussed, and a former President of the Royal Anthropological Institute asserts that “... we are profoundly ignorant of the effects which art produces on a tribal society.” This is the sort of frankness which makes an important book doubly valuable.