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The art of orality: how the absence of writing shapes the character of tribal, ‘primitive’ art

Research output: Contribution to Journal/MagazineJournal articlepeer-review

<mark>Journal publication date</mark>2/09/2023
<mark>Journal</mark>World Art
Issue number3
Number of pages22
Pages (from-to)303-324
Publication StatusPublished
Early online date6/04/23
<mark>Original language</mark>English


This contribution aims to identify a clear link between whether a culture is oral or literate and their distinct styles of visual art. It looks with particular interest to the interconnectivity between the theories of two thinkers from disparate fields: the American philosopher and theorist of linguistics Walter J. Ong and the German art historian Wilhelm Worringer. It considers what we can learn from the intersectionality of their principal theories: the conception of orality and literacy as delineated by Ong and the conception of abstraction and empathy as elucidated by Worringer. It will be shown how the characteristics of oral peoples as explicated by Ong (that is, people entirely detached from literacy, with no written language, sometimes derogatorily called ‘primitive’, or sometimes tribal peoples) are driven by the same ‘urge to abstraction’ which is identified by Worringer in Abstraction and Empathy. In turn, the reason for certain characteristics of oral art is specifically related to their being detached from literacy; as Ong famously proposed, ‘writing restructures consciousness.’ It will be shown how this is verified by the fact that the movement away from universal styles of oral, abstractive art (such as a constraint to two-dimensionality, use of repeated patterns and symbolic counterparts of figures and objects) towards immersive, empathic art (the mimetic, representational, realistic rendering of space and figures) is historically concurrent with a shift from universal orality to widespread literacy. The implication of this theoretical synchronicity is rather radical, allowing for new theoretical alignments between these fields. It also sheds light on the reason behind concurrent characteristics in the visual art produced by disparate societies across time and cultures: their art is reflective of their status as an ‘oral’ culture.