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The value of any given work of art depends on a number of factors. In every society, people acknowledge of artworks differently depending on what they accord more valuable than another. The value of one piece of art does not necessarily have to be constant. Such characteristic can fluctuate depending on the societal preferences among other factors. By considering financial aspect only, works of art are exchanged for amazingly huge sums of money. Sometimes, art supersedes mere financial value to attain a higher aesthetic or spiritual significance (Wood & Loftus 2008). In other instances, art can be used to denote the values of the entire society. This essay will discuss the value accorded to the works of art of Benin, as well as give its relationship with contemporary Western art.
African art and, especially, the one from Benin is believed to have had an intense impact on contemporary art (Wood & Loftus 2008). Many artists such as Pablo Picasso and Constantin Brancusi, acknowledged the great impact that African art played in shaping modern art (Wood & Loftus 2008). One of the most influential African works of art in the modern art is the Benin bronzes. Benin bronzes are also the most complex works of art to be created in Africa. It is worth noting that these works of art did not just gain value overnight (Wood & Loftus 2008). It is conventionally known the westerners usually regard themselves as civilized people while referring to other communities that are not aligned to the western thought as uncivilized.
Therefore, when the Europeans initially invaded Africa and colonized it, they used to regard Africans as primitive people (Ezra 1992). As a matter of fact, even the cultural practices and tools used for daily economic, as well as social activities, were viewed as primitive. Similarly, they could not imagine how something from African origin could create a significant role in the modern art. Nevertheless, with regard to the mentioned above, most of the artists of the time were greatly influenced by the works of art they saw from Africa and Benin in particular (Wood & Loftus 2008).
The artworks from Benin were giving a representation of the lifestyles of the African people. A close examination of the Benin bronzes shows the pieces of art had carvings that did not display fine-tuned finalities. As a result, they were categorized as archaic at a German museum. The concept of primitivism was majorly responding to a non-western categorization of its artworks and ideologies. Besides, it has been a controversial issue on which name is appropriate for the Benin bronzes at the British museum (Coombes 1994). There are people who think that bronzes are nothing else but works of art. On the other hand, some folks believe that these materials are archaic in nature and they should therefore be termed as primitive.
Introduction of modern art during the middle of nineteenth century was majorly responding to situations in the urban life (Wood & Loftus 2008). This was the period when new inventions in the field of infrastructure were made. Thus, it was common to find artists depicting scenes and themes of modern life in their artworks (Wood & Loftus 2008). However, this did not go for long before because towards the end of nineteenth century and at the start of twentieth century, the conventional representations of contemporary life in the pieces of art faded out.
Avant-garde Artists emerged, and they were more interested at other stylistic ways of representing their works (USA International Business Publications 2005). They were opposed to the traditional western conformist values, which regarded anything from non-western origin to be primitive and barbaric. This is when the relationship between the Benin bronzes and the contemporary art grew tremendously to fill in the space. Avant-garde artists who were in opposition to the conservative westerners helped to change and redefine artworks from other cultural origins, especially those originating from Africa.
This move translated to a lot of transformation in the way the works of art of the pre-colonial African state were categorised. What was initially termed as primitive was now a positive value branded with genuineness, instead of a negative one that was related with barbaric practices. Historical evidence points out clearly that through imperialism, the European powers such as Britain, France, Spain, and Germany among others had an overwhelming force on African communities (Okosun 2013). They carried artefacts from their colonies for display in the museums in their countries of origin. Alongside these artefacts was a strong and precise message of the lifestyles of African people. These materials were totally different in their composition and design from those made by western societies. When artists that were opposed to the western conformity came across the materials, they made a strong connection with the African societies which had made them (Wood & Loftus 2008). This is what contributed to eventual change in the way artworks of African origin were viewed in the national and international scene.
The bronze carvings from Benin were indeed an illustration of progression in the African works of art. Still, the more conservative artists brought yet another perspective in the relationship between Benin bronzes and the concept of primitivism. Even after they were taken to the museum collections, these materials were categorized as archaic in nature. The conservatives claimed that artworks had been collected from the barbarous societies and, therefore, it was a clear justification for them to colonize these societies in a bid to bring about civilization (Oloidi & Ikpakronyi 2009).
It is worth noting that changing the concept of African artwork as a primitive one did not happen easily. It was very interesting to find how the value of Benin artworks increased tremendously. They were initially regarded as just other types of curios but as they continued to be appreciated by the opinion makers of the time, its value and hence price increased exponentially across all art auction quarters in the world (Okosun 2013). It was, in fact, easy for the avant-garde artists to accept and appreciate pieces of art from Benin like genuine and valuable rather than primitive. Nevertheless, it proved really hard to erase the already deeply rooted belief among many societies in the world due to the western influence. It was obviously expected that avant-garde artists and other allied intellects faced strong opposition from the wave of imperialism, which had eclipsed the African continent. Primitivism was an effect that condemned originality and genuineness in the African art and instead labelled it with a sense of un-development.
Nonetheless, the citizens of Benin had developed a strong attachment to their works of art. These artworks had an unfathomable historical and social value, which surpassed the artistic and economic value they held in foreign countries (Okosun 2013).
Towards the end of twentieth century, the idea of primitivism had been obscured in most of the areas of social, as well as cultural development. Notable progress has been made as far as appreciation of one’s culture is concerned. One major thing that the Benin’s artworks contributed was redefining of the intricate cultural representations. There existed a misunderstanding of Africa by the westerners such that they associated them with every archaic practice (Wood & Loftus 2008).
However, the Benin bronzes did not conform to this trend but presented African artworks as evidence of a shared human history (Burland 1954). This is because there were other communities in the world which used to make the similar bronze carvings like the ones made by the Benin people. Therefore, the Benin bronzes acted like a unifying force to create the world culture, comprising of identical but different cultures, which developed in different locations and times (Wood & Loftus 2008). This move can be viewed as a breakthrough for the Benin works of art, which brings about a different assumption from the outstanding western art that tends to dominate and side-line the all other cultures in the process.