Documents was a Parisian art magazine published between 1929 and 1930 that placed a large emphasis on ethnographic material, in contrast to other art periodicals of the era. The journal’s originality chiefly derived from the juxtaposition of art and popular culture, prominently featured in its pages, along with an innovative use of photography and a non-conformist approach to beauty. The revolutionary yet contradictory idea that guided Documents was the need to affirm the value of “primitive” cultures even when their material production did not fit classic aesthetic standards. Its collaborators, many of whom were ethnographers, struggled between dismantling art’s aesthetic ideals and conventions and valorizing the “primitives” artifacts without reducing them to mere functionality and use. My paper will dissect the contradictions Documents’ artists and ethnographers faced when evaluating ethnographic cultural production. I argue that although their efforts were guided by a desire to rebuke Western art and its dominant evaluative categories, they did not realize the implications of their anti-aestheticism for ethnographic understanding. A content analysis of images and articles published in Documents will demonstrate how the journal’s anti-aesthetic direction complicated the analysis of the “primitives” material production and had far reaching implications for both the notion of art and anthropological knowledge.
Professor, Department of Sociology, University of California, Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, California, USA