Primitivism (AtoZ Challenge 2016 – Jazz Age Jazz)

Primitivism (Jazz Age Jazz Series) The 1920s was a time where the western culture was fascinated with everything 'pimitive' and 'wild' Jazz, so tightly woven with the Africna American culture, fell into that category

Jazz Age Jazz - Primitivism

JAZZ AGE JAZZ - Primitivism #AtoZChallenge The illusion of a simpler life Click To Tweet

P - Primitivism (AtoZ Challenge 2016) 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 be one of the factors that cause a revival of Primitivism.
Primitivism argued that emotional repression had become endemic in the Western world and invested ‘primitive’ cultures with ‘uncivilized values’ that 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. 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 idealized (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

Carl Van Vechten

For this reason, Primitivism never sparkled any true interest in the culture being 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 the 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 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

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 recognizable fantasy. But structure of clubs didn’t encourage participation, it was rather 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 behaviour 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 exactly what it was: a well orchestrated illusion.

To the larger public, African arts were an ideal of a simpler, more intense, more primeval 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

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I was born, raised and I still live near Verona (Italy), though I worked for a time in Dublin. I started writing fantasy stories as a kid. Today I’m a bookseller who reads fantasy, history, mythology, anthropology and lots of speculative fiction. Somehow, all of this has found its way into my own dieselpunk stories.

16 Comments on "Primitivism (AtoZ Challenge 2016 – Jazz Age Jazz)"

  1. 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
    Tarkabarka recently posted…O is for Old heroesMy Profile

    • 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.

  2. 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.
    Barbara In Caneyhead recently posted…Tender Years: Old Shed ClubhouseMy Profile

  3. 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
    Sophie Duncan recently posted…Murder Most Foul! – P is for Provision – Cozy Mystery #AtoZChallenge 2016My Profile

    • 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.

  4. 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)
    Tasha recently posted…P – Pam Ashbury & Pocong – Fictional Phantoms #AtoZChallenge 2016My Profile

    • 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.

  5. 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!
    Megan Morgan recently posted…P – Purple ProseMy Profile

    • 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.

  6. 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.

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  7. 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.
    Carrie-Anne recently posted…The Passage and Peter and Paul CathedralMy Profile

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