Edmund Carpenter taught at many universities and lectured extensively throughout his career. He was a famously magnetic storyteller and his numerous students recall his lectures fondly, as mind-opening, and his easy manner with language and ideas earned him a reputation for intellectual generosity.
Carpenter freely permitted his students to tape record his lectures, and we have several of his former students to thank for preserving some of these courses in audio form. In particular, Mark Siegeltuch, who attended Carpenter’s courses at the New School for Social Research in New York, has provided numerous recordings to us, some of which are linked at the end of this article.
By way of introduction, Siegeltuch wrote the following account on Carpenter’s lectures:
“These audio files were originally tape recordings made by the writer and editor Rick Rofihe in the Spring of 1986 at the New School for Social Research in New York City. During the 1970s and 1980s, Ted Carpenter taught a graduate course on primitive art in the anthropology department on 14th Street and 5th Avenue. He also taught at a number of other universities during this period including New York University, Adelphi University, and at the Media Studies department of the New School.
“I first met Ted in 1974 when I took this same course. I was neither a graduate student nor particularly interested in anthropology, but I was interested in the work of Marshall McLuhan and I knew that Ted had worked with him at Toronto.
“Ted’s method of teaching was primarily story telling. He was very adept at summarizing other people’s writing and would enthusiastically recommend books and articles, but mostly he told stories that had a point, usually a principle or an insight that you could take away and think about; a kind of wedge that could be used to open the topic. The beauty of stories, wrote another anthropologist, Gregory Bateson, is that all the relations get into the picture at once, so they pull on each other in the right way. Stories don’t need to be factual as long as the relations within the story are consistent. As Nietzsche put it when speaking about numbers, “No more fiction for us: we calculate; but that we may calculate, we had to make fiction first.”
“In rhetorical terms, Ted was a Senecan rather than a Ciceronian. His method was discontinuous, aphoristic, terse, and insightful, not the continuous prose, no matter how beautiful, favored by the academic world. He liked to say that 19th century writers often hid bad ideas with beautiful writing. He also believed that most books contained but one idea, elaborated to convince the reader. For the same reason, he would often answer direct questions with a story, sometimes confusing his listeners. He preferred dialog to lecture but couldn’t always find it in the classroom setting since his method and approach were unorthodox and left the students unsure what was expected of them.
“When it came to primitive art, Ted insisted that there was no such thing. It was merely a linguistic convenience used to classify art forms that often had little in common with each other. Nor were these arts “primitive,” at least in the common acceptation of this term (simple or rudimentary), but highly complex creations that reflected a very different orientation toward the world than ours. Further — and this is where he shared common ground with McLuhan — primitive art forms were not dissimilar from our mass media in that they were evidence of symbolic worlds that could be entered; states of mind that shaped experience in specific ways.
“Ted believed that communications media, of whatever kind, were reality shapers that changed human sensory input in one direction or another. That is, they created mental environments that affected people as much as their physical environment. This idea has found some acceptance today, but at the time it seemed like a hole in the fabric of the universe; as strange as the tales of Sir Walter Raleigh would have seemed to the Elizabethans.
“Tribal art poses a particular problem for the western world because it makes no sense. Not that it is nonsense, but non-sense. Because we use our senses differently than the people who created these objects, we cannot make sense of them. Perception is shaped both by environment and training and since our sense life helps to structure our mental life, people think differently, and their art forms reflect this. There is always order, but not the same order for everyone. As the poet Randall Jarrell put it, “Art, being bartender, is never drunk.” This was one reason Ted was so adamantly opposed to ideas that suggested that culture and language had a basis in genetics (Jung, Chomsky, Pinker, etc.). He felt that people were not the same, not for biological reasons (racism) but by dint of culture, and since we live within culture, we need to examine our own values to understand other people. A lot of aggression lies hidden behind the idea that everyone is the same.
“Differing sensory profiles are only one problem encountered when trying to understand the art of traditional cultures. A second problem is the prevalence of souvenirs and fakes.
“Souvenirs are objects made by native peoples for us. Most are junk, intended for tourists. They are not supported by the power of belief and do not reflect the perceptions or values of the people who make them. They are simply a means of generating income and as such, are made for us. Souvenir art is quite old; older than most people suspect. It starts as early as the first contact between Europeans and non-western peoples. Our museums and art galleries are loaded with it, to the point that the real pieces become suspect. It acts as a form of cultural disinformation.
“Fakes are imitations of existing art forms. Fakers intend to deceive, either from malice or for profit. We have plenty of examples from western art. Ted was particularly interested in the subject since the world of primitive art is more prone to fakes, in part because expertise is lacking in many areas, but also because prices began to rise after the 1960s.
“When I was growing up, most native arts were viewed as crafts and not fine art. Fine art was Picasso or Rembrandt. Some of Ted’s best stories concerned early collectors and their efforts to find the few remaining real pieces that had escaped the notice of museums and other collectors. Ted was a collector himself from an early age. He was particularly knowledgeable about Eskimo and North West Coast art.
“Ted believed that the basis of anthropology was simple: you go off and look at the way other people live and then come home and compare it to what you know. We must study ourselves to know other people. At the same time, when he was asked if he ever understood the Eskimos with whom he lived, he said “no.” To truly understand another culture you needed to be born into it or give up your own identity, something most of us are unable or unwilling to do. A few of the early anthropologists, unhappy with life in 19th century America, did manage this, but few reported back.
“Ted was not happy with anthropology and felt that after a promising beginning it had lost its way. He was not interested in providing answers but in developing methods for understanding other cultures, something that had to be approached artistically, using multiple methodologies and models. The early anthropologists tried all manner of media to translate these alien cultures. In time, however, as the field became professionalized, one model alone became acceptable, a literate one, in which all the rich diversity of human experience was reduced to categories and forms acceptable to us. Most of this work is forgettable.
“Ted’s wide experience in the field, his good common sense, his honesty, his artistic training, and his great sense of humor — so evident in these tapes — helped him to deal with all the pretensions, politics, and cracked-brained ideas that poured from the universities. Ted was the object of a good deal of unwarranted criticism throughout his career and it was only at the end of his life that he began to be recognized for his work in media and communication. His insights and work on tribal art have yet to be reckoned with. Perhaps these tapes will help.”
– Mark Siegeltuch New York City December, 2011
I extend special thanks to Carl Rowatti at Trutone Mastering Labs, Nanuet, N.Y., for his efforts in digitizing and restoring what were once noisy audiotapes.”
Lecture 1 (January 27, 1986) audio recording here:
- Introduction to the course material.
- What do we mean by the term “primitive art”?
- There is an underlying sensory organization within all cultures.
- The interests of primitive peoples are not the same as ours.
- Results of contact with Western Europe on primitive art.
- Most of what we call primitive art was made for us and does not reflect the values of the people who made it.
- Tourist art (souvenirs) starts with the first contact. A source of income.
- Role of prints in creating new subject matter in American Indian art.
- Role of language in perception and values.
- Multiple symbolic systems within each culture.