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Issue 5.2, May 1990


Essay Excerpt

Alfred Kroeber is considered a culturologist because in his major works (1917, 1957, 1969) he argued for a purely cultural level of change. He was so convinced of the primacy of culture that, when Edward Sapir (1917) challenged him to generalize the notion of the superorganic to other areas, he turned to the fine arts, where it was widely assumed that individuals, not culture patterns, had the greatest shaping effect. While Kroeber acknowledged the importance of superior individuals or geniuses as the agents of culture, he saw themas actors who would simply realize the inherent problems and puzzles of existing cultural traditions. In Configurations of Culture Growth, he argued that the fine arts were domains largely free from societal influence and pragmatic contingencies where culture patterns unfolded according to their own internal dynamic.

Structural-functionalists have not followed up on Kroeber's theory of change because it minimizes the idea of reciprocal relationships in society and because it conjures up the almost metaphysical notion of the superorganic. Nonetheless, his ideas have influenced some major style theorists. Notable among these is Leonard B. Meyer (1967) who shares with culturologists a strong interestin the idea of style patterns and their internal workings. Meyer retains the pattern idea because it helps to explain the persistence of long-term trends in intellectual thought and artistic styles through time. He also concurs with Kroeber's point that, on numerous occasions, extra-stylistic forces, even political revolutions, do not impinge upon the development of a major pattern (Meyer 1967:109). Once its premises have been established, a style will change in its own way.

Meyer's most important departure from Kroeber's internal dynamic theory is his rejection of the idea that there is a single mode of artistic change that holds for all times. Rather, he speculates that change can take many guises and that directed change is probably specific to particular cultural periods, such as during the early modern period in Europe (Meyer1967:99-101, 115). Apparently, this hypothesis, which is centralin his book, occurred to him as he pondered why no dominant style had emerged in 20th-century music (Meyer 1967:v-vi). In his revision of the internal dynamic theory, he achieves what Gatewood (1987) terms a reasonable solution to the debate between exogenous and endogenous theories of culture and artistic change. 

I have found Meyer's ideas about artistic change very helpful in my study of American experimental music. He does not view the modem period in music and other arts as anomalous; rather, he confirms that the present is as it seems-stylistically plural and technically diverse-and, in this way, it is quite unlike previous periods. Meyer hypothesizes that the arts are in along period of variegated change, a condition he calls stasis, and that stasis will persist for some time to come. The explanation he gives for this turn of events is linked to major changes in the intellectual history of our time. He posits that the ideas of progress and directed change, so strong in the 19th century, have become eroded as social values. Instead, we are now less confident of the future and more relativistic in our thought. Our art forms reflect our relativism in a stylistic sense: numerous styles abound, and all are thought to be equally good.

While I agree with Meyer's diagnosis of stylisticst as is, I differ with him with respect to why internal dynamic theory does not work as an explanatory framework for artistic change in the 20th century. Where as he opts for an abstract explanation that links the current state of stasis with major changes in intellectual thought, I prefer an interpretation that is more closely tied to specific artistic ideologies. Thus, in this article, I give an alternative interpretation to the question of why internal dynamic theory does not work well in modern times. The reason is that, in the 20th century, the dynamics of artistic change are qualitatively different than in previous periods. This change has come about because of the florescence of avant-gardism as a major ideology in the arts. A brief historical description of the avant-garde is provided and some central values as found in many of the radical movements are isolated. The major part of the discussion concerns how the avant-garde has gone about creating a new social dynamic in the arts. Much of the argument draws on the case of 20th-century American art music, but there are many references to modern painting as well. (Cameron, 217-218)

Cameron, Catherine M. "Avant-gardism as a Mode of Culture Change." Cultural Anthropology no. 5, issue 2. (1990): 217-230