According to Dr. Gary Yia Lee art can be classified as primitive or aesthetic. In the case of Hmong and many other groups from South East Asia the art was classified as primitive, meaning that art was used to create functional objects used in everyday life. Whether the purpose was spiritual or as simple as preparing food the object was designed with a purpose in mind.
See Xeng Lee, a contemporary Hmong artist, said in a lecture on Hmong artists at Macalester College that traditional Hmong artists ranged from silversmiths and blacksmiths, to textile artists, singers and oral storytellers. As the culture grows and the functions of everyday become less concrete Lee still feels that art can serve the soul everyday, “We have just exchanged paint and brush for needle and thread.”
At CHAT (the Center for Hmong Art and Talent) art services the community through the “Art Saves Us” program for youth after school. Each semester the students are invited to pick from different subjects and over the course of the semester develop a project to be show cased at the semi-annual art show. Last semester topics included music production, writing, and break dancing. The students who participated in the program came from all over St. Paul and the Twin Cities. This program offered them a much needed release and outlet for their creative energy, thus meeting the needs of the budding artists and the community as a whole through art.
Phuoc Thi Minh Tran was a child in Vietnam when the Communists took over. While she tried to stay with her family as long as she could the environment was oppressive. In search of education and a better life she became one of the many refugees fleeing by boat. She has used her story for inspiration to become a storyteller. Through language and performance she shares her experiences. “I brought my mind with me,” Tran recalls that getting an education was a first priority. She has chosen the career of librarian so “I can help others learn.” And she still loves the sea.
Whether the function of art is to meet the physical needs of everyday life, or the emotional needs the melding of these two arenas of life provides for many creative opportunities for art to service the community. While most artists and activists site lack of funding as the major problem for the advancement of the arts, perhaps and understanding of the necessity of art to the community is really the problem. Perhaps if you classify primitive art as something that provides for the daily needs of people all art is really primitive.