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"Primitivism" in 20th Century Art.

In one of its less felicitous efforts to instruct its readership in matters of high culture, Life once ran a photographic eassay on Abstract expressionism. It consisted of juxtapositions of paintings with objects in the world that resembled them, sometimes quite precisely: heavy black scaffolding silhouetted against a blank sky went with a painting by Franz Kline; tangles of waterweeds were put next to a Jackson Pollock; perhaps--my memory here grows vague--faded and peeling posters on a worn fence, a found collage, were placed beside a Willem de Kooning. All this was meant to reassure readers that these new and perplexing artists had not really abandoned the mimetic imperatives of Western art but had merely changed the subjects to be imitated, copying fragments of reality heretofore neglected. The implied rule of appreciation was to treat the paintings somewhat like the photographs of most-wanted criminals in the post office: carry the image around until you find something to match it, then collet your reward. It would be difficult to think of a more serious perversion of the art movement this eassy set out to clarify. If the artists in question had not altogether forsaken what was referred to as The Image, they never used images in the manner of exact resemblance that the Life juxtapositions required.

I am reminded of that dim didactic effort by the publicity for "Primitivism" in 20th Century Art at the Museum of Modern Art, which sets beside one another examples of primitive and modern art: an elongated Nyamwezi effigy is yoked with Alberto Giacometti's "Tall Figure" of 1949; a Zuni war god is put alongside Paul Klee's "Mask of Fear" of 1932; a Mbuya mask from Zaire keeps company--both have concave noses!--with one of the heads from the right side of "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," and so on. All this is placed under the teasing title "Which is primitive?" The difficulty of answering that question on the basis of visual data alone--there are, admittedly, the resemblances, making the title teasing in a different way from, say, placing a wigwam beside the Chateau de Versailles--is doubtless meant to make the observer rethink his or her concept of primitivism. If those dark exotic cultures could produce objects indistinguishable from artworks produced by some of the most celebrated artists of our culture, well, either they are not so primitive or we are not so advanced as we might have thought. Nothing, I believe, could more seriously impede the understanding either of primitive or of modern art than these inane pairings and the question they appear to raise.

If there is a single lesson to be learned from recent philosophical analyses of art, it is that it is possible to imagine objects that are visually indistinguishable though one is a work of art and the other not; or where both might be works of art with such different meanings, styles, structures, references and thematizations that their perfect resemblance is incidental to any point save the demonstration of its irrelevance. That lesson could be nowhere more usefully kept in mind than in approaching so stupendously misconceived an exhibition as the present one, which obligingly deconstructs itself by making that very point midway through. Next to an Ibibio mask from Nigeria is installed Edvard Munch's celebrated lithograph "The Shriek." The print provides the visual equivalent of an auditory phenomenon in that we not only see that the woman on the bridge is screaming, we in effect see the scream, since the artist has transduced the landscape into a pattern of soundwaves. The mask, like Munch's screamer, has an open mouth, and it is covered with a linear pattern which, if read like the one in the Munch, would yield the stunning interpretation that the mask bears a scream on its forehead. I heard a number of visitors express doubts about this pairing, but had they read the guide booklet, they would have seen it was made precisely to raise that doubt. "This association would be fortuitous on the formal level," the booklet reads, "and badly misguided with regard to meaning."

But where in this entire display are the pairing not, in this fashion, fortuitous and misguided? Picasso, who collected and admired primitive objects, certainly gave the heads of his crouching demoiselles the power of African masks, but the connotations of primitiveness available to him were scarcely available to the mask makers themselves, for whom masks meant whatever they did mean in the magical transaction of tribal existence, but certainly not whatever heart of darkness Picasso may have meant to paint in a harlot's corner. He was not painting pictures of masks in the way in which Max Weber painted a Congo figure in one of the still lifes shown, one of the few cases where there is a convincing but almost pointless connection between a primitive and a modern work: the former is the subject of the latter, as if it were a plate of apples or a vase. Nor was he simply borrowing exotic forms, as Victor Brauner did in an awful 1934 canvas which takes over a frightening image of the God A'a from the Austral Islands. Mostly, as with the Picasso, we are told of "affinities," "prototypes," "influences," "reflections," "compelling resemblances," "uncanny similarities" and similar tenuous relationships conveyed with the thin and dreary lexicon of the art-appreciation course. One watches the visitors playing the imposed game of resemblances, pointing with excitement to the meaningless similarities the framers of the exhibition have assembled for their edification. It is an unhappy experience to observe these hopeful pilgrims coerced by as acute an example of museological manipulation as I can think of. The only outcome can be a confusion as deep as that which underlies the entire array.

I don't think we really know the first thing about primitive art, not even whether it is right to treat it as art, however handsome and strong its objects may be. We do not know whether there is sufficient parity of purpose and content among all cultures identified as "primitive" to justify bracketing them together under an overarching designation. Indeed, this habit of identification may be as vivid a transport of cultural imperialism as the concept of Orientalism is according to Edward Said's famous polemic. In one room of the show there is a case with figures from New Guinea, Zambia, Zaire, Nigeria. But what do they have in common, really, with one another, or with objects from Easter Island or the American Southwest or Papua or New Ireland or the Arctic?

One may speculate that whatever ends they serve will not be esthetic, or will rarely be that, and that they typically exist in a universe of forces, powers, gods and magic with which they may put their users in touch. There is in this respect a possible "affinity" with some Western works, Byzantine icons, for example, in which the saints were believed not so much to be depicted as to be actually and mysteriously present. Such a concept of presentness contrasts sharply with the distancing manner of representation that animates a good bit of Western art, including most of the modern works in the exhibition. Primitive art, if indeed primitive in this sense, was not meant for audiences, viewers, dealers and collectors, but for participants and celebrants. The objects are instruments of ritual existence to which the suitable response might be a dance or a howl, not the peering and pointing that goes on in museums. In saying they are not works of art I do not mean that they cannot be treated esthetically but that treating them so is at odds with their raison d'etre. The cultures they came from almost certainly lacked a Western concept of art, and these things answered to something deeper and--well--more primitive than art as art can tap.

In a sense, their appropriate habitat in our culture is the glass case of the ethnographic museum, where they squat in a kind of quarantine that underscores their aboriginal dangerousness. The only primitive pieces that look at home in MOMA just now are some exhibited in a case brough over from the Musee d'ethnographie de Trocadero to show us where Picasso--"in all likelihood"--made his acquaintance with objects that expressed? influenced? stimulated? reinforced? his own use of primitive motifs. Liberated from their cases, allowed to be perceived as "art objects," they become decorative touches destined for tasteful interiors, as in the failed Rockefeller Wing of the Metropolitan Museum, which looks like a detached segment of Bloomingdale's. Because we only know how to treat these objects as artifacts or bibelots, they are crudely manhandled to suit our own concepts of art: as expressive objects or, more often, as objects which satisfy the ever-ready formalistic premises, enabling curators to do violence to things that have no real business with one another just because they may look enough alike to be perceived as exercises in good design. A section of this exhibition is called "Affinities," grouping objects together with reference to the shallowest criteria of similitude, like seeing faces in clouds. There is no other way to describe wrestling into contiguity a Miro and an Eskimo mask. Under formalist principles, all works are brothers and contemporaries, but at the cost of sacrificing whatever makes them interesting or vital or important.

The idea of such an exhibition is, of course, a splendid one. There is little doubt that primitivism plays the role in twentieth-century art that Orientalism did in the nineteenth century or that classical forms did in the Renaissance. But then what must be shown is not adventitious congruities but what these objects meant to artists and how, not especially caring to understand them, they made them their own. Sometimes the impact was moral and transformative, if the same impulses that drove Gauguin to employ aboriginal forms explain as well his going native in Tahiti. Sometimes the connection is more narrowly artistic. There is the fascinating question of why Picasso and not Braque, both shown here in wonderful old photographs with some of the things they collected, used primitive objects to recognizable artistic purpose. Here one must conjecture, but the way the primitive masks rearrange features of faces, leaving them all the while identifiable as faces, must have been a powerful stimulus to the art of rearrangement and reinvention that is the mark of Picasso. And perhaps the license furnished by the primitives must enter partially into the explanation of Cubism, even when direct citation of primitive orderings is absent, as from the still lifes and interiors of Braque, who may after all have responded to the same stimuli as Picasso. But to show such things requires something more than finding explicit counterparts for the eye to make out, especially because they may only conceal the vast distances that separate primitive from modern object. Giacometti, for example, did make totemic-looking objects. But the thin presence forced here to share space with the marvelous Nyamwezi figure surely derives from different formal impulses, even if Giacometti "probably saw this particular object." His attenuated figures are drawn up out of their heavy feet in an almost godlike gesture making man out of earth, and possess the verticality of cathedrals.

"Primitivism" in 20th Century Art is a failed product of misapplied ingenuity, a ransacking of the ethnographic collections to compose parallels which yield a triple misunderstanding, first of primitive art, then of modern art, then of the relationships between them. A three-way failure in a show meant to be educational raises serious doubts about how qualified MOMA is to use its exceptional resources to carry out its didactic aims.
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Title Annotation:Museum of Modern Art, New York
Author:Danto, Arthur Coleman
Publication:The Nation
Date:Dec 1, 1984
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