The Primitivism in 20th Century Art exhibition at MoMA in 1984 that became a break through moment in how art from Sub-Sahara Africa was perceived by the New York art world powers. It was attacked by Thomas McEvilley in Art Forum magazine over a series of combative letters written by MoMA’s William Rubin in response to McEvilley’s charge that MoMA was perpetuating a mythology of superiority of Western Art that drew upon Dark African Art. McEvilley’s “Heads Its Form, Tails Its Not Content” attacked the underlying ideological position imbedded in Clement Greenberg’s formalist theories.

Over time this post will delve into the arguments made and positions defended in essay form. For not this is a placeholder for the research on this 1984 MoMA exhibition and its remarkable responses.


Vincent Johnson

Los Angeles



  • 3/3/2013 at 10:41 AM

Saltz on Critic Thomas McEvilley, 1939–2013

In some ways, art historian, critic, teacher, translator, and studier of Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, and classical philosophy Thomas McEvilley started multiculturalism as we know it in the art world. In 1984, MoMA organized “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern.  In a series of brilliantly reasoned scathing letters to the editor of Artforum, McEvilley blasted MoMA, all museums of modern art, and the entire art-historical infrastructure as it then existed. His claim, which was then correct, was that European and American art history was using third world art and artists as footnotes to Western art history without recognizing the primacy of these formal cultures. Asian and African works were rarely not seen in lower hierarchical position to western art — which played the role of masterpiece and genius to tribal art’s perpetual role as influence or antecedent. McEvilley’s role as spokesperson was elevated to general in the war on cultural imperialism when, to everyone’s surprise, the show’s curators answered back in Artforum. For a few issues the art world watched and read a war of words take place.

The establishment was being intellectually challenged by an upstart rebel leader. In those letters in Artforum, it was like the walls were crumbling. In a way, the crucial thing was really just watching this battle play itself out in public and to feel like “our side” was winning. It was like McEvilley was Bob Marley. I have a memory of yelping in glee at McEvilley writing about the curators as “bears coming out of the woods.” Within a few years, there ensued numerous investigations of indigenous cultures and of contemporary African, Indian, Southeast Asian, Latin American, and Native American art and other excluded traditions. Along with the various liberation movements, multiculturalism was one of the biggest blasts of fresh thinking of the last half of the twentieth century.

That wasn’t all. McEvilley was also a major player in post-modernist art history and a great voice in the old “painting is dead” debate. He loved painting but also saw why it could be said to be dead. If you want to read about monochrome painting, he’s your man (“Seeking the Primal Through Paint”). One of my favorite of his essays is “On the Manner of Addressing Clouds,” in his book Art & Discontent: Theory at the Millennium. Here, McEvilley radiantly deconstructs layers and layers of deep content in the all-white paintings of Robert Ryman. I never met McEvilley. Until 2006. Sheepish about having no degrees and wanting to learn more, I wrote to ask him if I could sit in on his lectures at the School of Visual Arts, where I also taught. He agreed. I went for two years. About twelve students sat enrapt around a large boardroom table and he’d hold forth. In my three notebooks full of class notes, which I have since kept at the ready on the shelf in front of my desk, I now see that he covered how God’s commandment not to make any “graven images” relates to modern art; monotheism and iconoclasm; the burning of the Library at Alexandria; Plato echoing God in saying that representation misleads; lots about Kant that I never understood; Hegel which I somehow did; Marx; perspective on Greek pots; the cruelty of conquistadors; and Paleolithic art. I never spoke once in any of those classes. All I did was take notes madly, always feeling like a freshman getting the education of a lifetime from a very sage old soul.

The New York Times
October 28, 1984


”’ Primitivism ‘ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern” is an immensely important show. The relationship between modern and tribal art is so loaded that trying to sort it out means asking the most charged questions about 20th-century art and life. Whatever its weaknesses – which include a perspective on contemporary art that can not account for the glut of totemic imagery in recent painting and a renewed interest in direct carving – this is a show that leads into the heart of modernism and beyond, toward impulses and aspirations that may be shared by art in general.

The exhibition, at the Museum of Modern Art through Jan. 15, was organized by William Rubin, the museum’s director of painting and sculpture, with the collaboration of art historian Kirk Varnedoe. Like other great exhibitions masterminded by Mr. Rubin, the installation can be characterized as inspired didacticism. ”Primitivism,” he states in the catalogue, is an ”aspect of the history of modern art, not of tribal art.” Determined to ”understand the Primitive sculptures in terms of the Western context in which modern artists ‘discovered’ them,” the exhibition juxtaposes tribal and modern objects that are both similar and inalterably different. The juxtapositions, some of them explosive, may indicate an ”influence,” meaning that the connection can be documented with reasonable certainty, or an ”affinity,” which means that the similarity between the tribal and modern objects, however startling, is fortuitous.

The exhibition argues against the widely held view that Primitive art changed the course of modern art. ”The changes in modern art at issue were already under way when vanguard artists first became aware of tribal art,” Mr. Rubin says. In fact, disgust with the trappings of society and longing for an art that is more direct and essential than inherited artistic and cultural values has been part of Western art, in one form or another, at least since the Industrial Revolution. The Neo-Classicism of Jacques-Louis David, Romanticism, Realism, Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, all shared the ”primitivist” determination to strip the fat off reality and arrive at a more basic and pure artistic expression. The ”discovery” of tribal art gave this drive a raw, physical potential that was appropriate to the violence and upheaval of this century. By now, the resistance to conventions and preference for the raw over the cooked that led Gauguin to Tahiti and directed Picasso, the Fauves and the German Expressionists to tribal art have been so thoroughly ritualized into the posture of revolt that is automatically assumed by just about every Western adolescent, that it may be necessary to remind ourselves just how jarring early 20th-century ”primitivism” was.

One reason why the exhibition and its huge catalogue, which includes remarkable essays by Mr. Rubin and Mr. Varnedoe, are seemingly inexhaustible is that they raise as many questions indirectly as they do directly. Because the ”affinities” in the exhibition can be at least as provocative as the ”influences,” for example, the show also draws attention to its own art historical orientation. If we do not have the means to explain the profound but coincidental ”affinity” between Max Ernst’s ”Bird-Head” and the mask from the Upper Volta, then to what degree can a science of art history enter the deepest levels of human influence and communication? The exhibition evokes the mystery of what Mr. Rubin calls ”artistic transmission” and, in the process, becomes itself an indication why the artistic search for intuitive, non-systematic modes of responses goes on.

The show would not have such impact if many tribal objects were not spectacular. The Goddess Kawe from the Caroline Islands presides over the entrance to the exhibition like a combination of protective spirit and bouncer. The God A’a, from the Austral Islands, with all the creepy-crawly progeny figures doubling as facial features and clinging to the god’s body like leeches, seems to turn the heart of the installation into the pocket of a swamp. After experiencing sculptures like these, as well as the spiky dog fetishes from Vili, the skulls of the Epke Society emblem from the Cameroon and the Mumuye from Nigeria, the tribal version of Darth Vader, it is possible to leave the show repeating after Picasso: ”Primitive sculpture has never been surpassed.”

There are reasons, however, why we should be wary of this kind of hyperbole. The Primitive objects in this show are, in many instances, the cream of the crop. With few exceptions, the Western objects are not. Furthermore, when objects are presented in such a way that they are seen in the context of other objects, as the modern works are here, only the very best will not appear second- rate and derivative.

There is also a more important reason. We, in American culture especially remain intensely ambivalent about the self-consciousness and doubt that are among our greatest strengths. The immediate, expressive, frontal presences of tribal art underline the groping and questioning in the modern works, at times making them seem fragile – just as someone who rejects systems can seem weak alongside someone who has one. Would Primitive Art, and indeed Oriental art as well, look as good without our ambivalence about ourselves?

To say that ”primitive sculpture has never been surpassed” is ultimately absurd. Recognizing that tribal art, which Mr. Rubin clarifies as ”iconic,” not ”narrative,” has genius, and that it combines the rational and the magical in the most provocative way, is one thing. To say that any object or group of tribal objects in the show can be on the same level as works that are both iconic and narrative, such as the pediment at Olympia, or Michelangelo’s Medici Chapel, not to mention certain monuments of Asian sculpture, is to overcompensate for previous neglect and guilt and to lose sight of the richness of our own complexity.

With these reservations in mind, it is important to understand why Primitive Art can have such power. The Goddess Kawe is a force. The figure has a tremendous sense of sculptural volume; it seems as if it is in the process of expanding, even rising off the ground. The sculptural life depends upon a tension between the upward pull of the torso, shoulders and head and the downward thrust created by the correspondences between the triangular chin, breasts and genital area. This stretching enables the figure to occupy space, to be sculpture in the fullest sense.

Primitive Art meant so much to artists like Picasso and Giacometti in part because of this kind of spatial impact. The Kawe figure is far more relevant to Giacometti’s standing woman, which is pulled taut between the huge swollen foot and the tiny arrow-shaped head, than the more literal elongation of the Tanzanian wood figure that stands beside it. For these two artists, among the few Western painters and sculptors who hold their own in the show, tribal art provided a key to a dramatic sculptural volume that had been characteristic of someone they both admired – Michelangelo. In the painting styles Picasso reacted against in the first decade of the century, and in the sculptural alternatives Giacometti rejected in the 1920’s, this kind of intense sculptural energy was all but absent. For artists like Picasso and Giacometti, the journey through Primitive Art led them back to something essential in their own artistic tradition.

Another reason for the impact of Primitive Art is the way in which violence and obsession are accommodated within a rational framework. In the sculpture of the God A’a, for example, which had such an effect on Victor Brauner and Picasso, the head, torso and squatting legs are composed of full, rounded geometric forms. Almost every part of the body, however, is covered with tiny figures, upside down, right side up and on their sides. What makes the work so disturbing is not only that these figures are the God’s eyes, ears and mouth, but that inside an austere, geometrical structure, a miniature army or tribe seems to be running amok. Within the authoritative frontal structure of many tribal figures, there is a sense of something beyond reason and control.

This leads into what may be the most essential reason for the Western fascination with tribal art. In his impressive discussion of the ”Demoiselles d’Avignon,” which Picasso later described as his ”first exorcism picture,” Mr. Rubin cites the artist’s statement to Andre Malraux that tribal masks were ”intercessors. . . against everything – against unknown, threatening spirits.” ”If we give a form to these spirits,” Picasso said, ”we become free.” The moment Picasso had the revelation that Primitive art was apotropaic (”designed to avert or turn aside evil”), he had a liberating insight into himself.

The question of the apotropaic intention of Primitive art is as knotty as it is with Western art. Certainly a good deal of tribal art was not intended for this purpose. If it is true, however, that almost every human word and gesture has some apotropaic function – is, in some way, an attempt to relieve anxiety, to court, coax, cordon off, confront or pummel the powers of darkness – then, whether or not an object is intended to be apotropaic may not be the main issue. What may matter more is the effectiveness with which an object responds to one of the most compelling of human needs.

Certainly the frontality and distortions of Primitive art have been experienced by Western artists and members of the art public as ways of naming the unnameable and therefore, at least for a moment, keeping it at bay. Western artists throughout this century have been in search of pictorial and sculptural mortar solid enough so that the artistic mirrors they hold up to the Medusa will not shatter. It is a rare exhibition indeed that leads into these kinds of human and artistic questions.

Photos of sculptures

William Rubin

Modernist Primitivism: An Introduction

How do we identify
? What are the idiosyncrasies of primitive
With the meaning of the word primitive changing so frequently in history/art
history and within this article, what wou
ld art critics and scholars of today
define tribal/primitive art?
Rubin explains why Primitivism is an art historical term, and some of the
problems it presents. Given what he says on page 136,
This ethnocentrism is
a function nevertheless of one of moder
s greatest virtues: its unique
approbation of arts of other cultures
Its consequent appropriation of these
arts has invested modernism with a particular vitality that is a product of
cultural cross
, could a new term perhaps
 be more descriptive of the historical and artistic
processes Rubin describes?
Rubin says that used in a restricted art historical way, the word
has a sense no less positive than that of any other aesthetic designat
including Gothic and Baroque).
 Do you agree?
Do you think Rubin’s defense and explanation of the term “primitivism” (not
the tribal arts in themselves, but to the Western interest and reaction to
them) appropriate? Antiquated? Misleading?
 around the word
 remains an issue through all of the
selected readings. Time and again, arguments are presented for and against
use of the term (along with
). As alternative
substitutions for these terms are not univer
sally accepted, and with the
greatest respect intended, would
 or ethnocentric
 art be
considered a viable descriptive option?
What is the significance of Rubin’s approach to primitivism, specifically his
analysis of the western context in w
hich artists were initially exposed to
tribal art?
Seeing that the terms
 are so deeply ingrained
into modern society and language, is there any possibility to alter this
through increased education on such tribal societies? O
r does the canon of
anthropologic research disallow this term from being retired?
 Further, can
myth of the primitive
 be reversed?
Was Rubin imitating Picasso
s comment,
Everything I need to know about
Africa is in those objects,
” when Rubin remarke
d in a
 New Yorker
The notion that you can look at a work of art as pure form strikes me as
idiocy. If the work comes at you, it comes with everything it’s got, all at
According to Rubin,
Ours is the
society that has prized a whole
pectrum of arts of distant and alien cultures.
 (136) Name other societies
that disprove his statement
When Rubin purports that African masks give Westerns an
almost shocking
sense of psychological otherness
 (139) what otherness is he referring to?
s he assume that non
Westerns do not see this otherness?
When Rubin states that
 the otherness of the tribal images can broaden
our humanity because we have learned to recognize that otherness in
, is he not displaying the evolutionary prej
udice he wants to
When Rubin writes that,
Picasso was interested in the exorcistic character
of African art
, does he mean that Picasso showed
. an awareness of the sacredness of art
. a realization that art can liberate the unconscious, t
within ourselves
. a fascination and a desire to appropriate non
Western aesthetic
Rubin says, like all great art, the finest tribal sculptures show images of man
that transcend the particular lives and times of their makers.
 Can th
e same
be said of Picasso
Although tribal art influenced
Picasso and his colleagues in significant
, why would it not influence the direction of modern art even though
these artists became inspiring figures of modern art?
Why would G
oldwater assert that the similarities found in
 art and
modern art objects were merely a coincidence and not some higher level of
artistic connectedness? In some way or another, it seems nearly impossible
to see a foreign object and not be influ
enced by it, especially in the early
Rubin mentions that Gauguin had a long list of
 is this because he
more loosely defined what primitive meant to him as compared to other
artists of the time?
Do you think Rubin is reaching in some
of his analogies regarding the
similarities between
 artists and modern artists?
Danto states that
what must be show is not adventious visual congruities
but what these objects meant to artists and how, not especially caring to
understand them
, they made them their own.
 (pg. 149)
Is he implying that
contemporary artists are ignorant for their lack of understanding primitive
art or is it acceptable to take the visual art for it
s face value?
Would you categorize Rubin
s ideas on the relationsh
ip between Western
artists and
 art structuralist?
The early twentieth
century emancipation from the restrictions of a
perceptually based art encouraged a variety of aesthetic attributes that
parallel those of tribal art.
 (p. 137) We
ve seen i
n previous articles read for
class (Boas and Lagamma) that
 art can indeed be perceptually based.
In addition, much of the
century emancipation
 of art resulted in
representational art (ex. Pollock) that skirts the issue of perceptio
n by
creating alternative visual universes. How much, then, did the
tribal art contribute to this emancipation vs. an overall lessening of
traditional artistic philosophical boundaries (an
anything goes
Rubin mentions the transfo
rmation that occurred when anthropologists and
art historians began to view tribal artifacts as art.  What criterion currently
distinguishes the two?
Rubin states that while graduate
 level programs in Primitive art are
comparatively rare, it is only sin
ce World War II where the
discipline of art
history turned its attention to this material.
 (Pg. 129) Why would he suggest
that Primitive art began being discussed at this particular time in our
How do the tribal elements, which are not suppose
d to be viewed
aesthetically, change the aesthetic value of the western modern art?
Rubin gives a further insight to defining art in the last sentence,
art is a
concrete index to the spiritual accomplishments of civilizations
 What does
he mean by thi
s, and if one came to an understanding of it, would this be a
useful addition to the qualities of art that this section came up with at the
beginning of the course?
If according to Rubin: primitivism share a very strong
 with modern
art to the
point where resemblances between the two could be found even in
works of arts that might not even have common origin or shared motives,
and in the same note, Danto states that, this affinities are merely coincidental
and both forms of arts developed indepe
ndently as two different forms of art.
Could we then classify the so called Tribal and Primitive forms of arts as
Abstract Expressionism
in an attempt
 to free this from of art from the
Eurocentric point of reference?
Arthur C. Danto
e Affinities
 in 20
 Century Art
Danto states,
I don
t really think we know the first think about primitive art,
not even whether it is right to treat it as art.
 What elements of
 does he question?
Danto states,
here is little doubt that primitivism plays the role in
century art that Orientalism did in the nineteenth century or that
classical forms did in the Renaissance.
 Is this an accurate comparison given
that primitivism and Orientalism were perspec
tives of European artists and
audiences regarding contemporary people and living cultures throughout the
globe, whereas Renaissance artists formed a perspective on antiquity?
Why is Danto wrong to criticize the
formalist principles
 for looking only at
the comparable physical features of objects?
Do you agree with Danto
s statement regarding the MOMA show, that
formalist principles, all works are brothers and contemporaries, but at the
cost of sacrificing whatever makes them interesting or vital
or important?
Danto states that
the cultures they [the art] came from almost certainly
lacked a Western concept of art
, making them
more primitive
, why is he
considering them primitive because they lack Western concept?
How do our
connotations of p
 (148) color our perceptions and
interpretations of primitive art?
Why does Danto marry
raison d
 and aesthetics?
Danto says
primitive art
was not meant for audiences, viewers, dealers and
collectors, but for participants and celebrants
 Does that mean that people
outside of the originating culture can ever begin to understand the value and
meaning of a piece? Are aesthetics enough?
Do you think Danto has a point when he says
I don
t think we really know
the first thing about primiti
ve art, not even whether it is right to treat it as
? Do you think we have done a better job at interpreting non
art or do you think Danto
s argument would still apply?
the Rockefeller Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art looks like
detached segment of Bloomingdale
, what is the best way to display tribal
art in a contextualized setting without running the risk of being essentialist
Why are objects from Africa and Oceania displayed together in most
If primitive art
objects are not supposed to be seen in a glass cube in a
Museum, does it mean that, in other words, once primitive art is taken away
from its origin, it cannot be separated from modernism?
 is a sub
 product of the real
It is obvious that the author has negative feelings toward the exhibition, but
t his lack of faith in the primitive art amongst the
his disdain toward
primitive art
Do you agree with Danto’s scathing critique of the entire
 premise of the
“Primitivism” MOMA exhibition?
How could the MOMA have better displayed the meaning the “tribal” forms
had to modernist artists?
Was the infamous
 MOMA exhibit the result of overenthusiastic
 of a lesser
 genre (
 art) to a larger
audience? Was the exhibit a product of its own time period (1984
Do you believe that Danto
s criticism of Rubin
s MOMA exhibition,
 in 20
 Century Art
 was fully warranted to the extent of
ng a three
way failure of presentation
 first of primitive art, then of
modern art and lastly the relationships of the two combined?
Judging by Danto
s article, do you think Rubin
s views on
 art were
communicated clearly in the exhibition? I
s Danto adverse to Rubin
s views
themselves or how they were interpreted in the exhibition?
Do we agree with Danto’s argument that the pairing of primitive and modern
art in exhibits such as
 in 20
 Century Art forces
misunderstandings of pr
imitive art, modern art, and the relationship
between them?
Many 20
 century modern artists made use of the tribal art elements and
elaborated these elements in modern contents. Their intention of doing so
cannot be seen as coincidence. What triggers mod
ern artists to revalue these
tribal elements in the early 20
If Picasso drew inspiration from his collection of masks to augment
Demoiselles d
, was he fully aware that these masks held meaning in
magical connections of tribal
 (p. 148)? If he intended to
reduce his models
 representations down to an essence, was that essence as
transcendent as it was
 and, in light of the painting
s original
reception, did he succeed?
Although Danto speaks of the artists a
changing the subjects to be imitated,
copying fragments of reality
 (pg. 147), couldn
t one argue that it is the
s right to extract meaning and inspiration from a piece and apply it to
their own work?
Danto seemed to be undermining the field of
anthropology, when he wrote,
t think we really know the first thing about primitive art
 But later he
credits efforts of ethnographers and he seems to hold a strong opinion of
 primitive art should be viewed in our culture
 in a glass
of an ethnographic museum. Do you know if his essay sparked further
debates across the interdisciplinary fields much like Rubin
 in 20
 Century Art
 exhibition did?
Very often icons of European art such as: Picasso, Gauguin (b
eing perhaps
some the most famous), draw (resemblance or influence) from
works of arts that surrounded them. However, this influence although
(admired and revered) by many artist has seldom been acknowledged as
influence per se. Could it be tha
t the reason for this resilience to recognize
indirect or direct influences is the fact that acknowledging any type of
inspiration could treat their artistic originality and their fame as creators?
Elvis Princely, Billy Joel, Eric Clapton among other Ameri
can musicians and
artists, have openly recognized being influenced by
negro music and art
such as blues and Jazz in their work. However, this admission has not
affected their status as creators and innovators. Could it be then, that given
the era of hist
ory where Picasso and Gauguin lived was closer to the era of
Imperial Europe and Social Darwinism as the doctrine labeling anything
colored as beastly, thus preventing them from acknowledging the high level
of abstract symbolism in their work?
James Cl
Histories of the Tribal and the Modern
Clifford accuses MoMA
 of presenting an unbalanced
exhibition, i.e. showing modern Western art but not showing modern tribal
art, must exhibitions be balanced?
What troubles Clifford about Mo
MA using the word
 in the
exhibition title?
Why will it be difficult to put on an exhibition presenting
the impure,
inauthentic productions of present tribal life
Why were the Royal arts of Africa (Ife, Benin sculptures, etc. ) not includ
ed in
 in 20th Century Art exhibition
? What does this imply
concerning our understanding of African art
If an art museum uses what might be considered primitive/tribal art with its
exhibition, should the cultural information be incl
uded in the label as
practiced in the Center for African Art? Page 160.
Clifford gives an example of the IBM gallery exhibit on Northwest Art,
showing living artists’ work at the end of the show. Does this solve the
problem of exhibiting tribal art in mus
eum space?
The intention of the exhibition is quite obvious, what changes to the exhibit
might have made it better to project the true vision of comparing and
 art and modern art?
Clifford raises an important question, such as, who has
 the authority to speak
for any culture
s identity? Should tribal art be mixed with modern art or any
other art for that matter?
In the case of Rubin, it seems as though he has
become the artist himself, in such a way that he used his creative authority to
choose what he wanted the public to see in both tribal and modern art.
Clifford critics the power dynamics that exist between the people studied and
those studying them, those who can
select, values, and collect the pure
products of others
 (164) and th
ose who can not. What are the implications
of this inherent inequality of power?
Clifford concludes,
The relations of power whereby one portion of humanity
can select, value, and collect the pure products of others need to be criticized
and transformed
what elements and principles might go into constructing a
conceptual framework where this transformation is possible?
Are modernism and tribalism separable? While defining the two, are we also
avoiding assimilation of the two?
Clifford poses the questi
why could one not learn as much about Picasso
or Ernst
s creative processes by analyzing the
separating their art
perspective on the part of th
e curators, or did the exhibit expose an ongoing
struggle to communicate relevancy?
Clifford argues that certain items of material culture, such as Zuni ritual
objects, belong somewhere other than museums, exhibits, or private
collections. Is there a mov
ement to return ritual objects to their rightful
Chinua Achebe writes about how the Igbo choose to honor the process, not
the outcome, as a means of encouraging each generation
s own creative
impulse.  What are the implications of this belief syst
em for the way
museums interpret Igbo objects/art?
According to Clifford, the MOMA
s primitive art exhibits (although not well
classified leaving other types of Native American art out of the classification)
depicts a high level of quality and a very rich
 aesthetic and anthropological
beauty and importance. One might ask if the primitive artists of the MOMA
exhibits were European could this art be considered
? There are of
cases like Fridah Callo, Diego Rivera, among others of similar importance
across the Americas and the non
western world (who painted and sculpted
traditional themes from colonized cultures) but are still leveled in a lower
place than European artist who did similar things, or like Norman Rockwell,
Andy Warhol who are placed a
t a very high level in the Western European
view, but their themes are strictly North American. Could it be the fact that
they from United States (a very powerful nation) that allowed them to obtain
that place?



State of the Art

If we want the global artworld to be inclusive, is it reasonable to expect it to promote difference?, from the December 2013 issue

By Niru Ratnam

2014 is the 25th anniversary of the exhibition Magiciens de la Terre, an ambitious attempt to articulate a vision of contemporary art that was truly global in scope. Curated by Jean-Hubert Martin, the exhibition was, in part, a reaction to a much-talked-about exhibition organised by William Rubin, ‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, which had taken place five years previously at New York’s MoMA.Rubin’s exhibition focused on the visual similarities between tribal art and the modernist works of the likes of Picasso and Matisse, and was accompanied by the explicit acknowledgement by Rubin that he was not interested in the tribal works in themselves, but only in the way they acted as inspiration for the Western avant-garde. Rubin’s approach was heavily criticised, most prominently by Thomas McEvilley in Artforum, who argued that the exhibition glossed over the appropriation of tribal art by Western modern artists by sheltering under the wishful idea of ‘affinity’.


McEvilley concluded, ‘“Primitivism” lays bare the way our cultural institutions relate to foreign cultures, revealing it as an ethnocentric subjectivity inflected to co-opt such cultures.’ Magiciens de la Terre wanted to avoid this quasi-imperialist attitude by utilising an approach that would place non-Western artworks, a number of which occupied a midground between cultural artefact and work of art, on the same footing as Western artworks. This led to juxtapositions such as a Richard Long mud painting sited next to a floor-based traditional Indigenous Australian ceremonial ground painting.

Martin’s approach also ran into a barrage of criticism, from Benjamin Buchloh, for example, who accused Martin of an ethnocentric approach to selecting the non-Western objects in the show. Buchloh argued that Martin selected non-Western objects because they looked as if they would fit in with Western contemporary art – so the Aboriginal floor piece was there becausethere were visual continuations with the neighbouring Richard Long. Disarmingly, but perhaps naively, Martin agreed with Buchloh’s criticism, admitting in an interview with the German art historian that he avoided non-Western works that ‘do not communicate sufficiently well in a visual-sensuous manner to a Western spectator’.

The two exhibitions mark the beginning of a period in which the artworld started to deal with globalisation. In retrospect, the controversy that both exhibitions generated was down to the simple matter of how the exhibits looked, and more specifically the extent to which the non-Western exhibits in each exhibition looked too similar to the Western artworks. Rubin’s method offered a seamless path from African masks to Picasso, conveniently ignoring social and political history around colonial exploitation. Martin’s method seemed to revel in the happy coincidence of visual similarities. To critics such as Buchloh and a number informed by postcolonial theory, cultural difference was suppressed where it should have been flagged up.


Fast-forward 25 years, through a period when globalisation has taken hold both economically and culturally, and one might have expected the debate about art and globalisation to have moved on. However, this is not the case. The anxiety about things looking too similar pervades contemporary art’s thinking about the global. So, American curator (and 2007 Venice Biennale director) Robert Storr’s verdict on the state of today’s globalised artworld, given in the October issue of The Art Newspaper, is blunt: ‘The ecosystem of the “global” artworld is like that of the planet itself – overheated and dire.

Rather than expecting a cleansing cataclysm, we can look forward to a relentless melting of aesthetic distinctions, dissolving of institutional barriers and fusion of cultures, resulting in a sludgy, sulphurous magma laced with gold.’ Storr is not alone in the view that increased globalisation in the artworld has resulted in the levelling out of culturally specific forms. In the last issue of this magazine, ArtReview’s J.J. Charlesworth argued that globalisation has resulted in the production of a form of contemporary art that is visually homogeneous, created that way in order to be consumed easily around the world in biennials and fairs.

He characterises this as ‘an artworld Esperanto’ that is ‘legible, understandable and, ultimately, commercially exchangeable’. For Storr and Charlesworth, cultural specificity would have a significant element of the illegible, unconsumable and incongruous: a viewer in Rio should not be able to understand significant elements of an artwork made in Jakarta. For both critics, art should speak principally to the locality in which it was made.

By the 1960s modern art was synonymous with the New York School. Subsequent rejections of Modernism by the neo-avant-garde to begin with, and then a number of competing and sometimes overlapping movements such as Minimalism and Conceptualism, were to greater or lesser extents articulated in opposition to a high Modernism which had reached its apex in New York.

Paris became the undisputed centre of modern art at the start of the twentieth century, and while there were competing senses of what modern art might be during the 1930s (particularly in 1920s Berlin and Moscow), abstract art emerged as the dominant form of modern art as the Second World War took hold. As Paris fell to the Nazis, modern art emigrated to New York through the movement of artists and through the frameworks constructed by figures such as the curator Alfred Barr at MoMA and the city’s dominant critic, Clement Greenberg.

Storr’s and Charlesworth’s view rests implicitly on art scenes springing up organically in different localities around the world and, as a consequence, each developing with their own specific traits. However, this ignores the way that modern art spread around the world. Put simply, modern art was articulated by European artists after the First World War as a response to the conditions of modernity and in reaction to the perceived straitjacket of academic art. It was a culturally specific set of forms that was rooted in the legacy of the Great War in Europe, industrialisation and modern life.

Storr’s and Charlesworth’s arguments are not significantly different to the critical hostility that met ‘Primitivism’… and Magiciens…: that everything looks too similar. There are not enough markers of cultural specificity and the untranslatable. This then is the complaint that has been present right through the emergence of a globalised artworld: work from elsewhere ought to look more different. To this, a counter-question might be posed: when it comes to contemporary art, why expect difference, locality, the untranslatable and the culturally specific at all?

Critical reevaluations of this account have produced more multivalent accounts of the story of modern art, and of course post­colonial academics have attempted to rewrite it entirely. But while the accounts of those academics, such as that contained within Stuart Hall and Sarat Maharaj’s Modernity and Difference (2001), might be theoretically neat, they fall apart entirely when it comes to discussing (on the rare occasion they try) actual artworks. Where non-Western forms of modern art have appeared, it is clear that artists were looking closely at the dominant form of modern art as articulated in Paris and then New York.

So when the Progressive Artists’ Group announced itself in India in the 1940s, they did so via that most European of forms, the manifesto. Modern form was adapted to local circumstance in Latin America (think of Wifredo Lam reworking Cubism). These regional Modernisms were, and continue to be, framed in relation to a dominant orthodox Modernism, a canonical Modernism, if you like.

So Indian modernists are still seen as vaguely provincial because of their inability to become fully abstract, while Latin American modernists are seen as more accomplished thanks to the emergence of Geometric Abstraction – a set of views that relies on the Greenbergian idea that abstraction is the highest form of modern art. In short, a dominant paradigm was absorbed, aspired to and reacted against by artists from around the world, many of whom upped sticks and moved to New York, Paris or London.

The narrative for what came after modern art is not much different. Movements such as the neo-avant-garde, Minimalism, Conceptualism and Neo-Expressionism were articulated by artists who were reacting against high Modernism, but by doing so were still part of Modernism’s endgame. There was still a coherent narrative to react against. As Francesco Bonami put it in an article on the ‘problem’ of criticism published in Frieze in 2011, ‘Once upon a time – say 20 years ago – everything was crystal clear in the art world.’

Bonami (seemingly arbitrarily) pinpoints the appearance of Jeff Koons’s series Made in Heaven (1989) as the moment at which the grip of the modern is loosened ‘[marking] the end of by-laws and the beginning of critical chaos’. But Bonami’s choice of date might be telling in another way: 1989 was the year of the Berlin Wall coming down, and in the artworld it was the year of Magiciens de la Terre. Modernism might have been over, but it was not necessarily postmodern relativism that replaced it, but globalised neoliberalism. Indeed Bonami describes the emergent language of art that replaced modernism as ‘so-called global aesthetics, which is, ironically, a Western construction’.


For Bonami, like Storr, this move towards global aesthetics has negative connotations. Bonami paints a picture of critical chaos caused by the breakdown of what he terms the ‘unwritten by-laws conceived at the beginning of the twentieth century’. In turn, Storr suggests ‘aesthetic distinctions’ are collapsing. While it would be a gross exaggeration to suggest that either Bonami or Storr is a fully-paid up Greenbergian modernist, both their positions imply that there was a consensus for understanding twentieth­-century art, most commonly articulated through a series of movements, or ‘-isms’, from Cubism onwards, a more nuanced version of Alfred Barr’s now infamous diagram.

Nonetheless, critical or canonical consensus here is cast as a shared set of beliefs about which works fit into the narrative of modern and the avant-garde artwork of the 1960s and 70s. As Bonami puts it: ‘Everybody knew the difference between, for example, an Alberto Giacometti and a Fernando Botero… the Manichaean difference between good and bad art.’

Non-Western practices tended to be positioned as external to this narrative of Modernism, acting as precursors (in Rubin’s vision) or nonart practices (in Martin’s articulation of the idea of ‘magician’ rather than artist). The key shift happens with the rise of what Bonami terms ‘contemporary global aesthetics’, an all-encompassing idea of contemporary art that includes non-Western practices on a much larger scale than Modernism allowed. Contemporary art might be a category that operates on a geographically wider scale than Modernism, but according to Storr and Charlesworth, it tends to result in more homogeneous work.

The reaction to this unexpected homogeneity is a desire for work from outside the West to go back to productively occupying a space outside the category of contemporary art, and ideally for it to become untranslatable again. As Charlesworth asks: ‘What would it mean to assert a local that is opaque to the global, that was resistant to its forms of translation?’

The accepted answer from a globalised, postcolonial perspective is to dismiss this desire as not only nostalgic but also impossible. Once any practice has been identified by the contemporary art world, that act of identification in itself begins the process of translation of that identified object into the uneasy catchall category of ‘contemporary art’. From this viewpoint it is more logical to accept the all-pervasiveness of ‘contemporary art’ as a category and celebrate its global inclusivity with the added rejoinder that there is nothing wrong with having a dominant language of what contemporary art is and can be.

After all, non-Western artists who aspired to be seen as modern artists had no desire to knock down the central tenets of Modernism. Instead, artists like F.N. Souza, Aubrey Williams or Wifredo Lam wished to be seen as having fully entered and become participants of canonical modern art. By logical extension, artists today from around the world who wish to be seen as making ‘contemporary art’ should be allowed to do the same, to become participants of a shared language that is far more welcoming than Modernism.

Of course this openness is very important for artists from outside the traditional centres of art production. However, the robust, if politically correct rejoinder to the likes of Storr, Bonami and Charlesworth does not quite fully add up. Contemporary art is increasingly propagated around the world by the market, rather than by curators or writers. It is auction houses, art fairs, collectors and art magazines on the hunt for new advertising opportunities that open up ‘emerging’ art territories, and these uncritical mechanisms are not necessarily the best for discovering radical practice that looks very different from contemporary art being made in London, Berlin and New York.

There are two possible solutions: firstly to disengage the yoking together of looking for the different with looking at the non-Western. In other words, perhaps the start for the search of the radically different should begin with looking within the traditional centres of art production. This avoids the accusation that it is always the non-West that gets hit with the demand to be different. Secondly, look beyond mechanisms associated with the market (auction houses, collectors, fairs, magazines and even biennials) when looking for radically different practices outside the West. Contemporary art might look the same wherever it is made, and there might be no way round that (indeed, depending on your perspective, this might be a cause for celebration).

The radically untranslatable could be out there, both within and outside the West, but it’s going to take some experimental models of curation and critical thinking, and the ability to take the inevitable potshots that follow, to unearth it. Twenty-five years on, a successor to Magiciens de la Terre, with all its barmy optimism, is sorely needed to balance out an articulation of global contemporary art that is in danger of being flattened by market forces.

This article was first published in the December 2013 issue.


William Rubin, 78, Curator Who Transformed MoMA, Dies

Published: January 24, 2006

William Rubin, an art historian and curator who, as director of the Museum of Modern Art’s prestigious department of painting and sculpture, played a crucial role in defining the museum’s character, collections and exhibitions in the 1970’s and 80’s, died on Sunday at his weekend home in Pound Ridge, N.Y., the museum said. He was 78 and lived in Manhattan.

Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

William Rubin at a 1996 Picasso exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art.

He had been in declining health for several years, said his wife, Phyllis Hattis.

An imposing man with a barrel chest, roughly chiseled features and a booming voice, Mr. Rubin was tenacious as both a scholar and a personality, and at the height of his power more or less spoke for the Modern. Above all, he played a central role in championing the historical narrative of modernism that MoMA came to be identified with and is now seeking to move beyond.

He brought to his mission an art historian’s training and experience as a private collector of Surrealist and Abstract Expressionist art, which he installed and reinstalled in a loft he lived in decades ago on lower Broadway.

John Elderfield, the current chief curator of the department of painting and sculpture, said that Mr. Rubin built on the legacy of Alfred H. Barr Jr., the museum’s first director, who famously diagrammed the evolution of modern art starting with Neo-Impressionism.

But Mr. Rubin “was the one who really brought to it the historical positivistic sense of order, and the notion of the great unrolling of the modern movement,” Mr. Elderfield said.

His legacy is a complex one. Mr. Rubin might have contributed almost as much as Barr to building the Modern’s unparalleled collection of early modernist works. He was known for his indefatigable energy in wooing collectors and negotiating with dealers once he had zeroed in on art that he felt the Modern should own. His acquisitions for the museum include emblematic works like Picasso’s “Charnel House” (1944-45), Miró’s Surrealist “Birth of the World” (1925) and two 1950’s cutouts by Matisse, “Memory of Oceania” and “The Swimming Pool.”

He gave the museum “Australia,” a seminal 1951 sculpture by David Smith from his own collection. But he was probably proudest of landing Picasso’s “Guitar,” a groundbreaking metal-construction sculpture from 1912-13 that the artist handed over to him on a sunny winter day in the south of France. (Mr. Rubin had offered to trade a small Cézanne painting in MoMA’s collection for it, but Picasso donated the sculpture instead.)

He also greatly expanded the museum’s holdings in Abstract Expressionism, an area that Barr was sometimes thought to have neglected, with major works like Pollock’s “One: Number 31, 1950” and Barnett Newman’s 1950-51 “Vir Heroicus Sublimis,” and opened it up to Color Field painting and the work of contemporary artists like Anthony Caro and Frank Stella.

Mr. Rubin continued the museum’s practice of pruning weak or redundant works from its collection – by dead artists only – to help finance new acquisitions. In a move that raised some eyebrows in the art world, he instituted the practice of taking sealed bids from dealers when selling a work, which worked to the museum’s advantage.

And he organized many influential exhibitions, starting with “Dada, Surrealism and Their Heritage,” in 1968, and including shows of late Cézanne, two surveys of Mr. Stella’s work and a parade of Picasso shows.

Among these were an enormous 1980 Picasso retrospective that filled the entire museum; “Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism” of 1989, with its vivid sense of two competitive innovators working side by side; and, eight years after Mr. Rubin’s retirement in 1988, an exhibition of Picasso’s portraits that was criticized by some art historians for being organized by the artist’s successive relationships with women.

Some critics faulted Mr. Rubin’s exhibitions and research for only rarely venturing beyond the parameters established by Barr, suggesting that this had a chilling effect on his department’s involvement with new art and often made the museum seem obsessed with its own history. His painting and sculpture installations were generally formalist and chronological, with an emphasis on masterpieces, great artists and the French.

Yet Mr. Rubin’s painstakingly worked-out presentations, especially those prepared after the Modern’s 1984 expansion, told its version of modernism with a clarity and level of detail that many curators still consider unmatched.

He emerged in an age when the heads of the museum’s departments ruled their individual fiefs like titans, but his fief was the biggest, and so, perhaps, was his ego. According to a 1985 New Yorker profile by Calvin Tomkins, he once complained to John Hightower, then the museum’s director: “I’m sick of the prima donnas in this place. I’m a prima donna, but I deserve to be one.” He sounded much like the orchestra conductor he had once hoped to be.

William Stanley Rubin was born in Brooklyn on Aug. 11, 1927, the eldest of three sons of Mack and Beatrice Rubin. His father, the son of immigrants, was a textile merchant who began with a pushcart and ended up owning several factories, and eventually moved his family to Riverdale in the Bronx. Mr. Rubin and his brothers attended the Fieldston School, each of them serving as captain of the football team in his senior year.

While at Fieldston, Mr. Rubin became close with one of his teachers, Victor D’Amico, who was the director of education at the Museum of Modern Art. He began spending much of his free time at the museum working on special projects with Mr. D’Amico.

He entered Columbia University and, after interrupting his studies to serve in the American occupation forces in Europe, earned a bachelor’s degree in Italian language and literature. He studied musicology at the University of Paris for a year with the thought of becoming a conductor. At its end, he set aside that ambition and returned to Columbia for graduate work in history. A course in medieval art taught by Meyer Schapiro, a popular teacher whose other big area of expertise was the New York School, inspired him to shift to art history.

During the 1950’s and 60’s, Mr. Rubin taught art history at Sarah Lawrence and City University of New York, worked as an editor for Art International and became a busy collector of postwar art. He bought works by many of the Abstract Expressionist painters and by younger artists like Jasper Johns and Mr. Stella, but he later said that once he began working on MoMA’s collection he lost interest in collecting for himself. At the time of his death, he was completing a book on the works he acquired for the museum.

Mr. Rubin, whose first three marriages ended in divorce, is survived by his wife and their daughter Beata; and his brothers, Richard of Purchase, N.Y., and Lawrence of Milan.

Mr. Rubin became friendly with Alfred Barr in the late 1950’s and 60’s, frequently inviting the curator to lecture his classes at Sarah Lawrence, and taking his students on field trips to the Modern. In 1957, Barr invited Mr. Rubin to organize a small exhibition of the work of André Masson at the Modern; in the mid-1960’s, he asked him to oversee the Modern’s big Dada and Surrealism survey in 1968.

Mr. Rubin joined the museum’s painting and sculpture staff as curator in 1967 and immediately made an impact by persuading the art dealer Sidney Janis and his wife, Harriet, to donate their collection, with its five Mondrians, to the Modern. He was named chief curator of painting and sculpture in 1969, and director of the department in 1973.

In the 1980’s, the aura of infallibility that had surrounded Mr. Rubin began to dissipate. He came to feel that the museum’s inattention to new art was a “failing,” as he told The New York Times in 1985, and began a search for a younger curator more in touch with the times.

Still, some of the most vociferous criticism was drawn by a 1984 exhibition – “Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern,” organized with J. Kirk Varnedoe, the art historian whom he selected as his successor. (Mr. Varnedoe died in 2003.) Some art critics complained that this show, pairing works by modern masters with examples of the African and Oceanic art that had influenced them, took a purely formalist approach that stripped the non-Western works of their original contexts, meanings and purposes. A sharply critical review in Artforum set off an exchange between Mr. Rubin and its author, Thomas McEvilley, that stretched into two issues.

As Mr. Rubin explained later to Mr. Tomkins: “The notion that you can look at a work of art as pure form strikes me as idiocy. If the work comes at you, it comes with everything it’s got, all at once.”


In a Magical Manhattan Exhibit, MOMA Curator William Rubin Brings Primitivism Right Up to Date

Pablo Picasso was a restless young artist of 25 when he first saw examples of African and Pacific Island sculptures in a Paris museum. The “shock” and “revelation” radically altered his approach to art and in 1907 gave rise to the fusion of his precubist work with tribal art. “What really interested him about all primitive art was the notion of art-making as a magical process,” explains William Rubin, director of painting and sculpture at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. “Picasso felt that art had to get back to being the kind of thing that did not mirror the world but changed the world, changing the man who made the art as well as the people who looked at it.”Rubin’s thesis is no mere speculation. His second home is located near Plan-de-la-Tour in the south of France, a 50-minute drive from the town of Mougins, where Picasso lived. “I got to know him quite well,” Rubin says of Picasso (who died in 1973). “He didn’t like to talk about his art so you would have to slip in questions slyly.”How well Rubin succeeds in finding answers is reflected in a stunning MOMA exhibit titled “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern. To make his point, Rubin’s show dramatically juxtaposes 147 works by such modern masters as Picasso, Matisse, Gauguin and Brancusi against 218 examples of African, Eskimo, Oceanic and American Indian art (see following pages). Assembled on a budget exceeding $1 million, the exhibit will be at MOMA until Jan. 15, moving then to the Detroit Institute of Arts (Feb. 27-May 19) and the Dallas Museum of Art (June 23-Sept. 1).Accompanying the show is a two-volume, 700-page MOMA publication of the same title (cloth, $80; paperback, $30 until Jan. 30, $40 thereafter), edited by Rubin, 57, a onetime clarinetist who describes himself as a “disappointed orchestral conductor turned art historian.” After earning a Ph.D. from Columbia, he taught at Sarah Lawrence College for 16 years (“Jill Clayburgh was a student of mine”) before joining MOMA in 1967. Among his major exhibits was the acclaimed Picasso retrospective four years ago.

For the current Primitivism exhibition Rubin assembled pieces lent by museums and private collectors from around the world. “This is probably the first time a large number of tribal objects has been collected by someone whose interest is purely aesthetic rather than anthropological,” Rubin says.

A dozen of the tribal works are from Picasso’s own collection, much of which was of marginal quality in Rubin’s view. “Picasso was not a big spender even when he became incredibly wealthy,” Rubin says. “He rather liked the idea of getting something on the cheap. Of course, an object could be important to Picasso and not be a particularly good example of its type. As he said to me, ‘You don’t have to have a masterpiece to get the idea.’ ”



Art Criticism That Made A Difference

There is one striking counter-example to the recent skeptical claims about the reach of art writing. Soon after 1979, when Ingrid Sischy became editor of Artforum, she asked Thomas McEvilley to write for her. That was surprising, for he, trained as a classicist, didn’t have a background in art history. Shortly thereafter, in September of 1984, the MoMA presented an ambitious survey exhibition titled “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art, which included 150 modern art works and some 200 tribal artifacts. The then New York Times critic, Michael Brenson, admired the show. McEvilley, however, took issue with the exhibition publishing his now infamous review, “Doctor Lawyer Indian Chief.” At that moment, as Holland Cotter noted recently in his Times obituary for McEvilley (who passed away in early March), everything changed. Once the implications of this account were understood, it was impossible to think of “primitivism” in the same way. Although the MoMA curators protested in long letters to Artforum, the more they said, the less convincing their case was.

The argument of “Doctor Lawyer Indian Chief” was simple and convincing. The curation of “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art displayed tribal art, without labels or explanatory wall text, alongside modernist pieces in order to show its influence upon modernism as a movement. In doing so, the museum refused to take this “primitive” art seriously, refusing to consider how these artifacts were understood by their creators. The exhibition merely affirmed the superiority of Western culture. Indeed, even in calling tribal artifacts “art,’ so McEvilley observed, already begged crucial questions, for much of this “primitive” art originally dealt with religion or magic and not the sphere of art history. The exhibition, he wrote:

shows Western egotism still as unbridled as in the centuries of colonialism and souvenirism. The Museum pretends to confront the Third World while really co-opting it and using it to consolidate Western notions of quality and feelings of superiority.

Within the academic world the most influential art critics of the 1980s were associated with October: Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Yve-Alain Bois, Hal Foster, and Rosalind Krauss. But nothing they wrote had the larger resonance of McEvilley’s treatise. When, for example, Krauss defended Richard Serra’s “Titled Arc” (1981–89), she didn’t take seriously the concerns of people outside of the art world. As a publication, October developed a style of theorizing which even academics find difficult to understand. McEvilley’s argument didn’t invoke any abstruse philosophical claims. And it wasn’t just a critique of one exhibition—what he offered was a convincing indictment of our most important museum devoted to modernism.

I would love to say that “Doctor Lawyer Indian Chief” immediately changed how I wrote art criticism. In fact, however, only much later, after I traveled to China, did I respond. The aesthetic theorizing of my teachers, Arthur Danto and Richard Wollheim, claimed to be universal, although it relied exclusively on examples from American and European art. It took me a long time to realize that their way of thinking was problematic—philosophers only very belatedly have responded to multiculturalism. But by 2006, when McEvilley was Chair of the program devoted to art writing at the School of Visual Arts, I was prepared. When invited to give a lecture on world art history, I plunked down his masterpiece, The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies on the podium. And thanks to his support, I published A World Art History and its Objects (2008). “Doctor Lawyer Indian Chief” has had a long shelf life—it truly changed the intellectual art discourse. Before McEvilley wrote for Artforum, that journal focused on art made and displayed in Western Europe and the United States. After the publication of “Doctor Lawyer Indian Chief” (although he parted from that journal in the 1990s because it would no longer support his agenda), the situation changed dramatically. Now survey exhibitions like the Carnegie Internationals, worldwide Biennials, and shows at New York galleries and museums (including MoMA) often feature art from outside the West, as do many journals and books devoted to contemporary art. And we hesitate to use the word “primitive”—even with scare quotes. That nowadays we devote serious sustained attention to visual art from Africa, China, and India—from everywhere outside of the West—is due in large part to McEvilley’s influence.


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April 15, 2013

Respecting Non-Western Sacred Objects: An A:shiwi Ahayu:da (Zuni war god), the Museum of the American Indian–Heye Foundation, and the Museum of Modern Art

By Cécile R. Ganteaume, Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

For the last few weeks, American Indians, the international art world, U.S. State Department officials, indigenous rights activists, and intellectual and cultural property rights lawyers on both sides of the Atlantic have been discussing the proposed sale of Hopi Katsina “friends” (often mistakenly called masks) at a Paris auction house. The Hopi, who live in northern Arizona, and their supporters tried to delay, if not halt, the sale. Hopi Katsina friends are among the most sacred Hopi ritual objects. Katsinam (the plural of Katsina) are spiritual beings that live in the peaks of the San Francisco Mountains and bring blessings to the Hopi. When worn during Kastina ceremonies, the friend—the spirit of Katsina—is united with the spirit of man. On April 12, 2013, a French judge ruled that “the claim that Hopi cultural patrimony is exclusively their property has no legal basis according to French law” and that the auction house could proceed with the sale..

The Hopi effort is the latest prominently reported instance of an American Indian tribe trying to regain its sacred objects from the international art world and market. American Indians have been seeking the return of their sacred objects since well before the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990), the federal law that helps enable the return to tribes of certain categories of objects including sacred objects, held by U.S. museums.

Almost thirty years ago, on September 27, 1984, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City opened a highly anticipated and soon to be celebrated exhibition. “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern was curated by William Rubin (1927–2006), then MoMA’s esteemed director of the Department of Painting and Sculpture, in collaboration with Kirk Varnadoe (1946–2003), a professor within the New York University Institute of Fine Arts. On display in the exhibition was to be an A:shiwi (Zuni) Ahayu:da (war god) borrowed from the Museum für Völkerkunde in Berlin, (now the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin). The MoMA exhibition, and its multi-authored, two-volume catalogue, explored the influence of tribal art and culture in modern art’s development “from Gauguin at the turn of the century to the Abstract Expressionists around 1950.” When the exhibition opened, the New York Times heralded it as “an immensely important show.”


Zuni war god-Paul Klee color
“People are talking about: The man from MoMA” by Barbara Rose in Vogue (August, 1984. Vol. 174(8), pages 357–361 & 416) with illustrations of the A:shiwi (Zuni) Ahayu:da (war god) in the collections of the Museum für Völkerkunde and the Paul Klee painting, Mask of Fear. Page 357 @ Condé Nast. Used with permission.

In one of their exhibition galleries, the curators planned to juxtapose the painted wood Ahayu:da “sculpture” with a Paul Klee oil painting, Mask of Fear (1932), to discuss what they found to be the striking affinity between the “primitive” and “modern” “works of art.” The Museum für Völkerkunde acquired the Ahayu:da in 1880, and Klee, the Swiss-born artist closely associated with the Bauhaus movement, was known to have visited the museum several times while the Ahayu:da was on display. Like many avant-garde artists of his time, Klee was keenly interested in the formal vocabulary of the visual arts of non-Western peoples; he wrote on the subject more than once. William Rubin was convinced that Klee was familiar with the Museum für Völkerkunde Ahayu:da and that it “consciously or unconsciously” influenced his Mask of Fear. In the catalogue essay, “Modernist Primitivism: An Introduction,” Rubin wrote of the works’ “striking similarities,” comparing the oval-shaped heads; the single arrow projecting from the top of each head; the long, narrow noses and absence of mouths; and the horizontal line crossing each forehead. He suggested that “the curious multiple legs” protruding from Klee’s head were a transformation of the feathers projecting from the Ahayu:da’s chin. Klee’s painting was “a modernist transformation,” Rubin wrote, of the A:shiwi Ahayu:da “sculpture.” And this was how the curators intended to display the A:shiwi Ahayu:da from the Museum für Völkerkunde in “Primitivism” in the 20th Century: as a “primitive sculpture” with “conceptual complexity and aesthetic subtlety” whose exhibition and publication in the West, along with the appearance of other “primitive” works of art, had a great impact on Modernist aesthetic sensibilities. (See William Rubin, “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, vol. 1. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1984, pages 29–32.)

But as it happened, by 1984 the A:shiwi were already actively pursuing the return of their Ahayu:da—all wrongfully removed from shrines on their reservation. Cared for by A:shiwi religious leaders, Ahayu:da are powerful guardian beings who protect the A:shiwi and their land from harm. Their acquisition by European and European–America individuals and institutions broke all A:shiwi religious and cultural protocols. Their dispersion was the result of large-scale historical events that brought non-Western peoples, ideas, and practices to the Americas and led, in a myriad of ways and places, to the wrongful alienation of Native peoples’ religious patrimony.

The A:shiwi began their efforts to recover their Ahayu:da in 1978, twelve years before Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) to provide a process for museums and federal agencies to return to Native Americans and Native Hawaiian organizations certain cultural items—human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, or objects of cultural patrimony. The A:shiwi were in the vanguard of Native peoples seeking the return of sacred objects from museums, galleries, auction houses, and private collections. Buttressed by the newly legislated American Indian Freedom of Religion Act (1978), intended to protect American Indian religious liberties that had long been infringed upon and even prohibited, the A:shiwi campaign helped make it possible for other tribes to recover their own sacred objects. As T. J. Ferguson, an anthropologist who aided the A:shiwi in their efforts, has written, A:shiwi religious leaders were not only resolute in their pursuit, but most importantly were “morally persuasive” in their conversations with museum curators, administrators, and others in the art world elucidating the importance of returning Ahayu:da to A:shiwi shrines. (See T. J. Ferguson, “Repatriation of Ahayu:da: 20 Years Later.” Museum Anthropology, vol. 33, 2012, pages 194–95.)

During the summer of 1984, I was a curatorial assistant at the Museum of the American Indian–Heye Foundation, the forerunner institution to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. As such, I was very much aware of the increasingly vocal opposition of Native peoples, including the A:shiwi, to having their sacred objects displayed as “art” in museum exhibitions—in fact, to having them housed in museum collections at all.

It is important to bear in mind that in Western art history, the term “sacred art” is used to refer to (what might be called in this specific context) ancillary objects used in religious ceremonies and buildings, such as Byzantine chalices and other Christian liturgical vessels; or medieval or renaissance paintings bearing religious iconography, such as Hieronymus Bosch’s extraordinary altarpiece of the Adoration of the Magi; or, much more recently, certain abstract works with fields of luminous color, such as Henri Matisse’s stained glass windows in the Dominican Chapelle du Rosaire in France. In other words, in Western art history the term is used to refer to artistic creations depicting, expressing, or evoking religious subjects and a realm of reality beyond that ordinarily encountered in daily life. It is used to refer to artistic works intended to speak to the hearts, minds, and spirits of those contemplating the divine.

Importantly, it is not used to refer to, for example, a host consecrated by an ordained priest during the Eucharistic service of a Catholic Mass. A consecrated host has never been considered “art” by museums. Yet objects held by American Indians to be spiritually sentient were. And they were displayed in museums throughout the U.S. and Europe for reasons that had nothing to do with (read: without any understanding of) their deeply held spiritual reality, and without any awareness of, and consequently regard for, the religious practices and tenets of contemporary Native peoples.

Zuni war god-Paul Klee BW

Museum of Modern Art members’ newsletter (no. 32, Jul–Aug, 1984) announcing the upcoming exhibition “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern.

I learned that the Museum of Modern Art planned to include an A:shiwi Ahayu:da in“Primitivism” in 20th Century Art through a preview in MoMA’s members’ newsletter. I shared this newsletter with the MAI–HF curators, and in particular with Brenda Shears (then Holland), who in turn shared it with our assistant director, George Eager. (Roland Force, director of the MAI–HF, was out of town.) After staff worked their networks to gather salient information, Eager wrote a letter to Richard Oldenburg, director of the Museum of Modern Art and a long-time colleague, advising him that A:shiwi Ahayu:da were “the most sensitive of Native American religious objects” and should not be put on display. He informed Oldenburg that museums throughout the country were in fact removing Ahayu:da from exhibition for this very reason. Eager went on to explain that any Ahayu:da out of A:shiwi  possession were considered stolen objects, illegally removed from shrines on the A:shiwi reservation. In no small measure because of this letter, MoMA removed the Ahayu:da borrowed from the Museum für Völkerkunde from “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art. (See James Clifford, “Histories of the Tribal and the Modern.” In Primitivism and Twentieth Century Art: A Documentary History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003, pages 351–68.)I have never forgotten the pivotal role that the MAI–HF played in this incident, nor the experience of being a direct witness to a sea change in museum practice. MoMA’s decision represents one of the first times that an eminent institution at the center of one of the cultural capitals of the world removed a sacred American Indian object from display, let alone from such an important (and highly publicized) exhibition. It was, in fact, an historic act that helped focus worldwide attention on the inappropriate display of sacred American Indian objects and on the responsibility of museums to respect Native religious traditions.

CRG mediumCécile R. Ganteaume is the curator most recently of
Circle of Dance, an exhibition on view at NMAI–New York. She is also the curator of the exhibition An Infinity of Nations: Art and History in the Collections of the National Museum of the American Indian also on view at NMAI–New York, and the editor of the accompanying book. She is a recipient of a 2011 Smithsonian Secretary’s Excellence in Research Award. She joined the staff of the museum when it was established as part of the Smithsonian. Photo by R.A.Whiteside, NMAI.


December 1984

The “Primitivism” conundrum

by Hilton Kramer/The New Criterion

On “Primitivism in 20th-Century Art” at MOMA.

Yet, though the question is posed in the title of the exhibition, it remains resolutely unanswered, if not indeed unanswerable, in the exhibition itself. To understand the decision, obviously a carefully considered one, to enclose the world “Primitivism” in those unexpected quotation marks, one must therefore turn to the weighty, two-volume publication that does not so much accompany the exhibition as supply it with its all-encompassing raison d’être.[2] In fact, one must study this two-volume work, with its nineteen essays written by a formidable team of scholars, in order to understand the exhibition itself and not just those pesky quotation marks. (The latter, by the way, pretty much disappear in the body of the book—a subject to which I shall return.) And this alerts us to another odd and interesting thing about this exhibition. It appears to have been conceived as a contribution to thought, and not as just another exhibition tracing the course of a familiar artistic development. What it attempts is nothing less than a full-scale study of the multiform role—aesthetic, cultural, and spiritual—played by the art of primitive peoples in the artistic achievements of the modern era. Thus, whatever the exhibition may offer us in the way of visual delectation—and parts of it certainly offer a great deal in this respect—its principal goal lies elsewhere. For this is an exhibition designed, above all, to illuminate the place occupied by certain ideas in shaping a large area of the cultural terrain in which our artistic aspirations and accomplishments have had their genesis.

This, it seems to me, is a commendable ambition. Modernist art is, by and large, an art of ideas. It remains an art of ideas even (or especially) when it turns against the inherited modalities of Western thought in favor of those that are understood to be of a more primitive origin, and the trouble with a great many exhibitions devoted to modernist art is not that they tell us too much about these ideas but that they tell us too little. As a result, the objects on view tend to be denuded of the intellectual impulses that are very often central to their conception. On the other hand, the kind of ambition which this particular exhibition has set for itself is extremely difficult to implement. The museum exhibition format does not easily lend itself to the exposition or exploration of ideas. The temptation to simplify complex issues is all but irresistible, for there is a limit as to how much thought the visitor to an exhibition can be expected to absorb in his encounters with the objects on display. In the end, ideas must be “packaged” for quick consumption, and this inevitably leads to a superficiality, if not an outright distortion, that is likely to subvert the seriousness of the entire enterprise. Given the conditions of contemporary museology—most especially, the need to attract large box-office revenues in order to amortize and/or justify the large expense involved in producing such exhibitions—the problem would appear to be an insoluble one.

The solution that has been attempted in the case of the “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art” exhibition is not, I think, a success. The contribution to thought which the exhibition was clearly intended to embody is largely confined to those two hefty volumes which the museum has published in lieu of a catalogue. And it is not a question, in this installation, of allowing the objects to speak for themselves. Almost nowhere in this exhibition are they permitted to do so. Much of the show is presented to us in a rigidly didactic format. The atmosphere of instruction is often heavy and unremitting, with a great many objects juxtaposed and illuminated in display cases very much as if they were pairs of slides projected on a screen in a classroom. Even the lights in the galleries have been dimmed to underscore the slide-lecture atmosphere, yet the “lesson” to be derived from the spectacle proves to be elusive. Those two big volumes run to hundreds of pages of text, augmented by hundreds of notes (some of them miniature essays in themselves) and hundreds of glossy illustrations (many of them devoted to objects not included in the exhibition); yet only a kind of caricature of this impressive compendium of history, analysis, and reflection survives in the lengthy explanatory labels which importune the visitor to the exhibition at every turn, telling him exactly what to make of what he is looking at. Despite the fact that we are almost everywhere treated as beginning students for whom the visual attributes of every object and the “affinities” linking one with another must be pointed out and their every “meaning” explicated and summarized, we are allowed to leave this dazzling survey with only the dimmest notion of what its true significance may be.

The truth is, this exhibition is often a mere shadow of the book that has occasioned its organization, and much that is important in the book—and important to the subject—is either scanted or omitted in the exhibition itself. For example, the essay on “German Expressionism,” written by the late Donald E. Gordon and included in Volume II of “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art, is not only a brilliant analysis of the crucial role played by primitive art and primitivist ideology in the development of the Expressionist movement; it is probably the single best small-scale account of Expressionism as a European cultural phenomenon any writer has yet given us. It also has the virtue of illuminating a good deal more than the subject of German Expressionism. Professor Gordon had pondered this subject for many years, and he had a deeper grasp of it than any other American art historian. What he had come to understand was “that primitivism affected Expressionism in two ways: both as life idea and as art idea,” and he set himself the task of illuminating this double allegiance, which stands in such marked contrast to the more purely aesthetic manner in which the discovery of tribal art afFected the artists of the School of Paris.

In Germany [writes Professor Gordon in this essay].. . Expressionists discovered in themselves a kinship with agrarian peoples. It was easy to idealize such peoples around 1910-11, during Germany’s rapid urbanization, or again around 1919-20 after a dehumanizing, mechanized war. In city studios artists re-created the imagined environment of tribal life. And in the countryside the life style of peasants was appreciated for its own sake. Some artists even “went native” during summer vacations, living in the nude with their models and practicing a sexual camaraderie that paraphrased—so they thought—the supposed instinctual freedom of tribal life.

As with life style, so with art style: German artists emulated Primitive example. The prototypes ranged from the flat and silhouettelike painted reliefs of Palau to the powerful, three-dimensional forms of Cameroon sculpture. There is a hardy “look” to much Expressionist art—angular in shape, geometric in detail, stubby in proportion—that is unthinkable without the Primitive precedent. Vitalism was also important: Eyes, mouths, breasts, genitalia were all given expressive prominence. Even in repose the Expressionist face and figure seem packed with energy. These are all German derivations from tribal art.

Yet, despite their profound debt to primitive art and a primitivist ideology, the Expressionists remained firmly attached to one of the most deeply entrenched traditions of Western thought—the romantic tradition that invoked the purity and vitality of nature as an alternative to the moribund forms of inherited culture. It was part of the paradox of their situation that it was, however, by way of culture—specifically, the writings of Nietzsche and Walt Whitman— that they came to their appreciation of the primitivist ideal. “Thus the Expressionist [writes Professor Gordon] was engaged in a very particular kind of enterprise. He was conducting a dialogue between Urnatur and modern art, a dialectic between primordial nature and advanced culture …. What Expressionists added to this romantic tradition, however, was an understanding of consciousness as the link between nature and art. For them the issue was how the mind translated instinct—the mainspring of nature—into art as the high achievement of culture. Expressionists faced the issue as Nietzsche had, by demonstrating a tie between the primitive and the modem mind, between the ‘savage’ storyteller and the modern artist-dreamer.”

This, it seems to me, goes to the heart of the matter that is ostensibly explored in the “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art” exhibition, and there is no way for the subject to be fully grasped without according to the Expressionist movement a major role in the exhibition itself. It was the German Expressionists, after all, who adopted certain views (most especially the view of primitivism “both as life idea and as art idea”) first broached in the life and work of Gauguin, with whom this exhibition begins chronologically, and made them central to their entire artistic and spiritual mission. And it is in the ethos, if not the aesthetic, of the Expressionist movement that we find the most vivid foreshadowing of that concern for primitivism “as life idea” which looms so large in the “Contemporary Explorations” section of this exhibition, the section dealing with art since 1970. Between the ideas of the Expressionists and those of the artists represented in the “Contemporary Explorations” section there are indeed many important resemblances, for in its ideological outlook—though seldom in the art which resulted from it—the Expressionist movement anticipated a great many of the beliefs that dominated the radical counterculture of the late Sixties and thereby came to play a transfiguring role in the neo-primitivist art of the Seventies. There is thus, in spiritual terms, a direct line of descent that can be traced from Gauguin to Expressionism to the neo-primitivist outlook of the Seventies. It differs greatly from the more purely aesthetic line that leads from Gauguin to the Fauves and to Picasso. It constitutes, in fact, one of the major revolté traditions of cultural life in this century, and one naturally expected it to receive appropriate attention in an exhibition called “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art.”

Yet what do we find in the exhibition itself? Not for the first time at the Museum of Modern Art, the whole Expressionist movement is relegated to a more or less marginal position—almost, indeed, a position of inconsequence.[3] In the so-called “History” section of the show, we are offered a miserly selection of objects shunted into a mean, corridorlike space that has the effect of belittling, if not actually obliterating, the entire subject. There is simply no way for the uninformed visitor to the exhibition to acquire, from either the works on view or the labels serving as a guide to them, any real sense of the Expressionists’ contribution to the history being recounted here. And the Expressionists suffer an even worse fate in the introductory section of the exhibition, called “Concepts,” from which they have been totally excluded. In this section of the exhibition, space has somehow been found for the work of Max Weber, an American painter whose oeuvre had only a passing relation to the subject, whereas a major Expressionist like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, whose work is central to it, has been omitted. And in the little throwaway booklet which the Museum provides for those visitors—the majority, of course—who cannot be expected to read those two big volumes, there is likewise no trace of the Expressionists’ contribution. There is instead a silly little warning about a possible “misreading” of an Ibibio mask in relation to an Edvard Munch print. Exactly what Munch’s The Shriek is doing in this exhibition remains something of a mystery, in any case, for it is only in the generation following Munch’s that the Expressionists begin to interest themselves in primitive art.

One can only conclude that the prejudice against Expressionism is now so deep-seated at the Museum that the actualities of art history are no longer allowed to make themselves feit. This being the case, I suppose we should be grateful for the merciful exception that was made in the case of Professor Gordon’s essay. What this means, however, is that the art historians and other specialists who read through Volume II of “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art will know the truth and the larger public seeing the exhibition will not—a curious state of affairs, to say the least. The whole issue remains a disturbing and perplexing one, and the exhibition has been seriously damaged by the way it has been handled.

One could scarcely make a complaint of this sort about the treatment accorded to Picasso in this exhibition. The attention lavished on Picasso is so comprehensive, in fact, that much of this show consists of a protracted hommage to the master, making it in some respects yet another pendant to the mammoth retrospective which MOMA devoted to the artist in 1980. There is ample reason for this, of course. In his essay on Picasso for Volume I of “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art—an essay, incidentally, that runs to over one hundred pages and constitutes a major monograph in itself— William Rubin writes that “In no other artist’s career has primitivism played so pivotal and historically consequential a role as in Picasso’s.” In accordance with this view, Picasso emerges as the dominant figure in the exhibition, and the principal revelations of the exhibition are, in fact, revelations about Picasso and the use he made of primitive art at crucial moments in his own artistic development.

The case that Mr. Rubin is concerned to make on this score is greatly strengthened by the abundance of material he has been able to marshal for this exhibition. A great many tribal objects from Picasso’s own collection have been brought to the museum, and others that the artist would have seen on the occasion of his historic visit to the Trocadero in Paris in 1907—the year that he completed the final version of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon—have also been brought over. Many drawings from this period have also been gathered for the exhibition, including a good many not previously exhibited. We are thus in a position to see exactly what it was in these tribal objects that made so fateful an impression on Picasso’s sensibility at a critical juncture in his development. The conjunction of these tribal objects and the drawings related to them, all seen now in the presence of Les Demoiselles, leave one in little doubt about the depth of Picasso’s response to what was then a new and profoundly shocking artistic experience.

It is Mr. Rubin’s belief that this encounter with tribal art had the effect of altering not only the forms and even the color Picasso then employed in the completion of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon but something much more fundamental in his artistic outlook—his sense of what the very function of art might be for him. Picasso later spoke of Les Demoiselles as his “first exorcism picture.” To André Malraux, he referred to the tribal art he saw at the Trocadero as “magical objects .. . intercessors . .. against everything—against unknown, threatening spirits … . They were weapons—to keep people from being ruled by spirits, to help free themselves.” For Mr. Rubin, then, the really crucial change that occurred as a result of Picasso’s initial encounter with these tribal objects is to be found in the artist’s effort to appropriate for his own purposes something akin to the “magical” powers he felt he had glimpsed in the art of these primitive cultures.

To support this view, Mr. Rubin is more or less obliged to speculate about exactly what it was that Picasso was so determined, at that crucial juncture in his life, to be free of. The answer that he proffers to this question—that Picasso was deeply involved in a private ritual designed to free himself of his fear of women and his fear of death—is not altogether unpersuasive. We have long known that Picasso’s art was profoundly autobiographic from the outset, and there is no reason why Les Demoiselles should be exempted from occupying an important place in the long “diary” of private emotions that his oeuvre is now often taken to be. Yet I wonder if I am alone in believing that this facile Freudianizing of Picasso’s art—earlier on, Mr. Rubin speaks of Picasso’s “precocious oedipal triumph” over his father in the Nineties—has the effect of trivializing the work in question? It certainly has the effect of overlooking, or at least diminishing, what it was that Picasso had in common with so many other modern artists when he looked to primitive art for inspiration. Surely we are not being asked to believe that the entire primitivist phenomenon in twentieth-century art derives from a fear of women ? There are, to be sure, certain feminist art historians who have been attempting to promulgate precisely this view, but I doubt if Mr. Rubin counts himself among them. In any event, if it was Picasso’s aim in painting the completed version of Les Demoiselles to overcome his fear of women and his fear of death, he must finally be judged to have failed in that endeavor. Sexual rage remained one of the enduring leitmotifs of his art during a very long career, and death too continued to occupy a significant place among his themes. The “magical” properties Picasso so much admired in the art of primitive peoples were not, after all, something that an avant-garde artist working in Paris in the twentieth century could hope to appropriate. Their magic was not to be his. The real question is: what did his consist of?

We shall be a good deal closer to an answer to this question, I believe, if we abandon the attempt to provide Les Demoiselles d’Avignon with a Freudian interpretation and shift the discussion back to where it belongs—to the life of forms in art and to the role played by radical changes in form in giving expression to an altered consciousness of civilization itself. Can anyone still doubt that the whole primitivist phenomenon in twentieth-century art was, at least in one of its important aspects, an outright attack on the conventions and assumptions of Western cultural life as they had come to be seen in the established values of advanced industrial societies? In this respect, certainly, Picasso—at least in the period of Les Demoiselles—was indeed attempting to effect a revolution in cultural consciousness.

That the culture he set out to attack and transform proved to be more resilient in its response to this assault than anyone at the time had reason to expect; that it showed itself capable of absorbing such assaults and profiting from the lessons to be learned from them—this, I should have thought, would now, in the next to last decade of the twentieth century, have become an acknowledged datum of critical intelligence. In his opening essay for “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art, called “Modernist Primitivism: An Introduction,” Mr. Rubin observes that “The Cubist artist’s notion that there was something important to be learned from the sculpture of tribal peoples—an art whose appearance and assumptions were diametrically opposed to prevailing aesthetic canons—could only be taken by bourgeois culture as an attack upon its values.” Yet it remains unclear whether or not Mr. Rubin believes this was an attack on bourgeois culture. I believe it was. I also believe it was an attack that profoundly altered the values of bourgeois culture, making it more receptive to alien modes of consciousness than it would otherwise have been. In the legendary conflicts between the avant-garde and bourgeois culture, we have tended to assume that it was the avant-garde alone which provided the dynamic element and that bourgeois culture remained fixed and adamantly resistant to change. But this was not the case, and it is bad history to think so.

What I find sadly and conspicuously lacking in the hundreds of pages of text offered up to us in “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art—which, for very good reasons, is bound to remain the classic scholarly work on this subject for many years to come—is any serious account of the way bourgeois culture responded to this primitivist assault on its values. That is a story yet to be told. It was to be expected that it would be omitted from the exhibition, but it is a special disappointment that it has also been omitted from a publication so evidently designed to provide a comprehensive account of its subject. By and large, the contributors to “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art tend to steer clear of the social and political implications of their material. The outstanding exception, however, is Kirk Varnedoe’s essay on the “Contemporary Explorations” section of the exhibition. There at last, in the con eluding pages of Volume II, we are finally brought face to face with what Professor Varnedoe characterizes as the “dark side” of the primitivist phenomenon:

But there is a dark side to this issue as well [he writes], and it has to do with more than just bad art or even overtly pessimistic art. It has to do with primitivism per se, and it involves politics. All the questions [about] . . . collectivity versus individual experience, of controlling order versus instinctual liberty, translate eventually into larger political implications. Inasmuch as it has been by definition a critique of modern Western society, all primitivism has always had such implications, and they reverberate through good and sensitive art as certainly as through the broad range of neo-tribal agitprop that the last two decades have witnessed. The latter work, in which political concerns have been aggressively self-conscious and specific, most quickly forces to the fore uncomfortable questions about the ultimate content of all ideals that propose escape from the Western tradition into a Primitive state.

This entire “Primitivism” project—both the exhibition and the book—would have been a very different event, and a far more interesting one, too, I think, if it had addressed itself to this issue from the outset and not left it to the end. But one is grateful, all the same, for Professor Varnedoe’s eloquent analysis of it.

As it happens, there is to be found in one aspect of this event a telltale sign of what the current response of bourgeois culture is to the primitivism phenomenon—I refer, of course, to those curious quotation marks which enclose the word “Primitivism” in the title of the exhibition and to which I alluded at the start of this essay. These quotation marks, it turns out, have nothing to contribute to our understanding of the subject under study. Contrary to the expectation they arouse when we first encounter them, they neither cast doubt on the concept of primitivism nor attempt to give it an ironic interpretation. As I mentioned earlier, they pretty much disappear from the body of the book once their use has been explained. Their purpose, to be blunt about it, is political. They have been introduced into the title of this exhibition in the hope of forestalling criticism from those in the Third World and elsewhere who look upon the term “primitive” as a pejorative characterization of their cultural heritage. Mr. Rubin devotes a great many words to explaining why the term is necessary, and why it—and the term “tribal”—should not be regarded as in any way invidious. He does not want it to be thought that he is one of those terrible people who regard Western civilization as somehow “superior” to the cultures of primitive peoples. Yet when all of his ingeniosities on behalf of this dubious proposition have been concluded, he allows the word primitivism to slip right back into its standard usage. He is right to do so. But in this public display of nervousness and defensiveness, now made permanent in the title of this exhibition and its book, he has told us something important—and not something good —about the relation in which our culture now stands to the primitivist ideal.

  1. “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern,” directed by William Rubin in collaboration with Kirk Varnedoe, opened at the Museum of Modern Art on September 27 and remains on view through January 15. It will then travel to the Detroit Institute of Arts (February 27-May 19) and the Dallas Museum of Art (June 23-September 1). The exhibition includes approximately one hundred and fifty modern European and American works and more than two hundred tribal objects from Africa, Oceania, and North America. Go back to the text.
  2. “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art edited by William Rubin. The Museum of Modern Art (distributed by New York Graphic Society Books). Two volumes, 689 pages. Hardcover, $80; softcover, $30 until January 30 and $40 thereafter. Go back to the text.
  3. For a discussion of the way Expressionism has been slighted in the new installation of the Museum’s permanent collection of painting and sculpture, see my essay, “MOMA Reopened” (The New Criterion, Special Issue: Summer 1984, page 29). Go back to the text.

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