Cultural Benefits of Insults

When French naturalist Louis de Buffon described the inhabitants of the New World as : “feeble, hairless, mentally challenged and characterised by small organs of generation” his words triggered a surprising response in the colonials, especially Thomas Jefferson.

The count’s thinking was that the New World was harsher than the old, so everything there must be stunted and less numerous, whereas anyone who has seen pictures of the huge wildernesses full of wildlife knows this was far from the truth. Thomas Jefferson was insulted enough to begin systematically collecting information to prove de Buffon wrong, and to instruct Lewis and Clark to collect natural and native artefacts  when they embarked on their journey of exploration. Jefferson claimed that the native inhabitants were the equal of Europeans, and the entrance to his home Monticello became a museum to display native art and artefacts and  European art. He even included a native painted buffalo hide with the European religious art, apparently showing it to be an equivalent, or – more likely – an early stage of the same process. The examples of natural history were  arranged according to the system of Lineas, from the most primitive to the advanced.

The artefacts were also characterised from what was perceived as the most primitive to the most advanced, ie from native Americans to the Europeans. This progress was also shown by the pattern of settlement, from west to east, with hunter gathering giving way to farming, then to the coastal cities, ie the models of civilization. This demonstrated how native Americans were less advanced than Europeans, but were capable of advancing and becoming incorporated within the new colonies, to help forge a new nation. Unfortunately this involved losing their native culture and land, but at the time, this was seen as  enlightened thinking.

The  colonists were fully aware of the wealth of  art and artefacts in the Old World, which they could not hope to compete with, but objects from the New World were in high demand for the cabinets of curiosities, or kunst kammers – displays of trinkets  and educational tools of enlightened gents, so the locals became collectors and increasingly organised at display of such items. And by making such collections, they were investigating their new homeland. Over time, such artefacts came to be seen less as exotica, but rather an integral part of their homeland, so helped them feel more confident in their new nation, and helped build a sense of nationhood. Studies of natural history made them better prepared to exploit the land to allow further European settlement. By commissioning the Lewis and Clarke expdition as both a source of information on natural resources and of human artefacts, they were staking a substantial claim on their new land, incorporating it into their own world view and histories.

In an age of dwindling funds for what are largely perceived as non essential activities, perhaps campaigners for local and national culture should either incite or even commision insults to trigger a passion to collect,  curate and preserve them.

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