Full Name: Boas, Franz
Date Born: 1858
Date Died: 1942
Place Born: Minden, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany
Place Died: New York, NY, USA
Home Country/ies: Germany
Subject Area(s): anthropology, indigenous art, indigenous people, and Native American
Columbia University anthropologist who wrote an early text on indigenous art forms. Boas was the son of Meier Boas and Sophie Meyer (Boas). He attended Bonn, Heidelberg, and Kiel universities studying physics, mathematics, and geography, the latter under the distinguished Theobald Fischer. Boas obtained his doctorate in physics at the University of Kiel in 1881. A non-religious Jew, he was fascinated by the theories of geographical determinism in Europe at the time. In 1883 he traveled to Baffin Island in the Northwest Territories (later Canada) making the observation that culture more than geographic situations determined indigenous art forms. Boas lived in New York (1885) before returning to Germany where he was appointed a privatdozent in geography at the University of Berlin. In 1887 he married Marie Krackowizer and became an assistant editor of Science Magazine in New York. The following year he began field studies on the area which would occupy him for much of his life, the Northwest Indian tribes. Between 1888-1892 he taught at Clark University. In 1891 he became an American citizen. The next year he was named curator of ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York in 1895. However, he was fired because of a personality dispute. In 1899 he was appointed a full professor of anthropology at Columbia University. Around 1900 Boas first put his mature ideas of folk art forth. Denying that abstracted animal forms of Inuit and African art were a degeneration of realistic representation, he hypothesized hunting peoples emphasized the important parts of an animal rather than represent it in linear perspective. Boas used his first-hand anti-semitic experiences to challenge racial and geographic theories for human accomplishment. Speaking in 1906 at Atlanta University, he decried American discrimination toward blacks as akin to Jewish prejudice. Boas developed an interest in folk traditions, editing the Journal of American Folklore from 1908 to 1925. As an anthropologist, Boas is best known for this 1911 book, The Mind of Primitive Man. Here he argued no racial group is genetically “pure” fending off warnings that immigrant would degrade the United States into a “mongrel nation.” Countering a prevailing notion in the United States that immigrants would pollute the American gene pool, Boas published a 1912 paper, “Changes in the Bodily Form of Descendants of Immigrants,” in American Anthropologist which outlined immigrant populations changed as much with diet and surroundings as other groups. His opposition to U.S. participation in the war against his German homeland put his Columbia job in jeopardy. In the mid-1920s, Boas researched his book on the art of indigenous cultures, Primitive Art, appearing in 1927. In it, Boas underscored that differences between the art of the “primitive artist” and western art were due to the constraints imposed by culture rather than any lack of ability. In 1928, Boas’ Anthropology and Modern Life urged social scientists to be cautious of easy racial theories and be more investigative. As fascist Germany embraced the very racial theories Boas strove against, Nazis burned his books in 1933 at Kiel, where he had received his doctorate. However, he never forgot the racial laws in his adopted homeland. He retired in 1936. In a 1938 article in the Nation, he scorned the patriotism and nationalism in both Germany and the United States as “the herd instinct in man.” Boas suffered a heart attack at a faculty luncheon at Columbia in 1942. Boas’ students became the leading generation of anthropologists of the next generation, including Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Robert Lowie, Edward Sapir, Zora Neale Hurston, Leslie Spier, Jules Henry, and Ashley Montagu. Boas was hostile to sweeping theories of human nature and society. According to “evolutionary” theories, human society evolved in stages and the so-called “primitive” peoples were therefore viewed as having been retarded in these stages. Boas disagreed strongly. He also took on the hypotheses of the Freudians, who traced the structure of modern society to prehistoric Oedipal guilt. In denying economic determinism, he took on most of the country. But his strengths were his weaknesses, many viewed him as incapable to arrive at conclusions that his immense data sets should have allowed. The art of the north-west coast, for example, was the attempt of the hunter/artist to represent as many characteristics of an animal as possible without regard to distortion of the image. An animal split down the middle and flattened depicting both side of a two-dimensional medium was more important than illustionistic representation. In this sense, his view of art is akin to that of Aloïs Riegl for Roman art.
Facial Paintings of the Indians of northern British Columbia. New York: American Museum of Natural History, 1898; Primitive Art. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1927.
Moore, Jerry D. Visions of Culture: an Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists. 2nd ed. Walnut Creek, CA: Alta Mira Press, 2004; Cole, Douglas. Franz Boas: the Early Years, 1859-1906. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999; Jonaitis, Aldona, ed. A Wealth of Thought: Franz Boas on Native American Art. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995; Sypher, Wylie, ed. “Franz Boas: Primitive Art.” Art History: an Anthology of Modern Criticism. New York: Vintage Books, 1963, pp. 3-25.
- Franz Boas Papers, American Philosophical Society. https://search.amphilsoc.org/collections/view?docId=ead/Mss.B.B61-ead.xml#top, Mss.B.B61.
Contributors: Emily Crockett, LaNitra Michele Walker, and Lee Sorensen