PRINT November 1984

Doctor Lawyer Indian Chief

SOMETHING, CLEARLY, IS AFOOT. Richard Oldenburg, director of the institution here, describes one of its publications and the exhibition it accompanies, both titled “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern,” as “among the most ambitious ever prepared by The Museum of Modern Art.” “Over the years,” he continues, “this Museum has produced several exhibitions and catalogues which have proved historically important and influential, changing the ways we view the works presented, answering some prior questions and posing new ones.”1 Indeed, this is an important event. It focuses on materials that bring with them the most deeply consequential issues of our time. And it illustrates, without consciously intending to, the parochial limitations of our world view and the almost autistic reflexivity of Western civilization’s modes of relating to the culturally Other.

The exhibition, displaying 150 or so Modern artworks with over 200 tribal objects, is thrilling in a number of ways. It is a tour de force of connoisseurship. Some say it is the best primitive show they have seen, some the best Eskimo show, the best Zairean show, the best Gauguin show, even in a sense the best Picasso show. The brilliant installation makes the vast display seem almost intimate and cozy, like a series of early Modernist galleries; it feels curiously and deceptively unlike the blockbuster it is. Still, the museum’s claim that the exhibition is “the first ever to juxtapose modern and tribal objects in the light of informed art history”2 is strangely strident. Only the ambiguous word “informed” keeps it from being ahistorical. It is true that the original research associated with this exhibition has come up with enormous amounts of detailed information, yet since at least 1938, when Robert Goldwater published his seminal book Primitivism in Modern Painting, the interested public has been “informed” on the general ideas involved.3 For a generation at least, many sophisticated collectors of Modern art have bought primitive works too, and have displayed them together. For five or so years after its opening in 1977, the Centre Pompidou in Paris exhibited, in the vicinity of its Modern collections, about 100 tribal objects from the Musée de l’Homme. Though not actually intermingled with Modern works, these were intended to illustrate relationships with them, and included, as does the present show, primitive objects owned by Picasso, Braque, and other early Modernists. More recently, the exhibition of the Menil Collections in Paris’ Grand Palais, in April, 1984, juxtaposed primitive and Modern works (a Max Ernst with an African piece, Cézanne with Cycladic), and sometimes, as in the present exhibition, showed a Modern artist’s work in conjunction with primitive objects in his collection. The premise of this show, then, is not new or startling in the least. That is why we must ask why MoMA gives us primitivism now—and with such intense promotion and overwhelming mass of information. For the answer one must introduce the director of the exhibition, and, incidentally, of the museum’s Department of Painting and Sculpture, William Rubin.

One suspects that for Rubin the Museum of Modern Art has something of the appeal of church and country. It is a temple to be promoted and defended with a passionate devotion—the temple of formalist Modernism. Rubin’s great shows of Cézanne, in 1977, and Picasso, in 1980, were loving and brilliant paeans to a Modernism that was like a transcendent Platonic ideal, self-validating, and in turn validating and invalidating other things. But like a lover who becomes overbearing or possessive, Rubin’s love has a darker side. Consider what he did to Giorgio de Chirico: a major retrospective of the artist’s work, in 1982, included virtually no works made after 1917—though the artist lived and worked for another half century. Only through 1917, in his earliest years as an artist, did de Chirico practice what Rubin regards as worth looking at. This was a case of the curator’s will absolutely overriding the will of the artist and the found nature of the oeuvre. (It sure made the late work chic.) A less obvious but similar exercise occurs in Rubin’s massive book Dada and Surrealist Art4—a book not so much about Dada and Surrealism as against them. The Dadaists of course, and following them the Surrealists, rejected any idea of objective esthetic value and of formally self-validating art. They understood themselves as parts of another tradition which emphasized content, intellect, and social criticism. Yet Rubin treats the Dada and Surrealist works primarily as esthetic objects, and uses them to demonstrate the opposite of what their makers intended. While trying to make antiart, he argues, they made art. Writing in 1968, at a time when the residual influence of the two movements was threatening formalist hegemony, Rubin attempted to demonstrate the universality of esthetic values by showing that you can’t get away from them even if you try. Dada and Surrealism were, in effect, tamed.

By the late ’70s the dogma of universal esthetic feeling was again threatened. Under the influence of the Frankfurt thinkers, and of post-Modern relativism, the absolutist view of formalist Modernism was losing ground. Whereas its esthetics had been seen as higher criteria by which other styles were to be judged, now, in quite respectable quarters, they began to appear as just another style. For a while, like Pre-Raphaelitism or the Ash-can School, they had served certain needs and exercised hegemony; those needs passing, their hegemony was passing also. But the collection of the Museum of Modern Art is predominantly based on the idea that formalist Modernism will never pass, will never lose its self-validating power. Not a relative, conditioned thing, subject to transient causes and effects, it is to be above the web of natural and cultural change; this is its supposed essence. After several years of sustained attack, such a credo needs a defender and a new defense. How brilliant to attempt to revalidate classical Modernist esthetics by stepping outside their usual realm of discourse and bringing to bear upon them a vast, foreign sector of the world. By demonstrating that the “innocent” creativity of primitives naturally expresses a Modernist esthetic feeling, one may seem to have demonstrated once again that Modernism itself is both innocent and universal.

“‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art” is accompanied by a two-volume, 700-page catalogue, edited by Rubin, containing over 1,000 illustrations and 19 essays by 15 eminent scholars.5 It is here that the immense ideological web is woven. On the whole, Goldwater’s book still reads better, but many of the essays here are beautiful scholarship, worked out in exquisite detail. Jack Flam’s essay on the Fauves and Rubin’s own 100-page chapter on Picasso exemplify this strength. The investigation and reconstruction of events in the years from 1905 to 1908 recur in several of the essays; these years constitute a classic chronological problem for our culture, like the dating of the Linear B tablets. At the least, the catalogue refines and extends Goldwater’s research (which clearly it is intended to supplant), while tilling the soil for a generation of doctoral theses on who saw what when. Its research has the value that all properly conducted scientific research has, and will be with us for a long time. In addition to this factual level, however, the catalogue has an ideological, value-saturated, and interpretive aspect. The long introductory essay by Rubin establishes a framework within which the other texts are all seen, perhaps unfortunately. (Some do take, at moments, an independent line.) Other ideologically activated areas are Rubin’s preface, and the preface and closing chapter (“Contemporary Explorations”) by Kirk Varnedoe, listed as “codirector” of the exhibition after “director” Rubin.

A quick way into the problems of the exhibition is in fact through Varnedoe’s “Contemporary Explorations” section. The question of what is really contemporary is the least of the possible points of contention here, but the inclusion of great artists long dead, like Robert Smithson and Eva Hesse, does suggest inadequate sensitivity to the fact that art-making is going on right now. One cannot help noting that none of the types of work that have emerged into the light during the last eight years or so is represented. Even the marvelous pieces included from the ’80s, such as Richard Long’s River Avon Mud Circle, are characteristic of late ’60s and ’70s work.

A more significant question is the unusual attention to women artists—Hesse, Jackie Winsor, Michelle Stuart, and above all Nancy Graves. Though welcome and justified, this focus accords oddly with the very low proportion of women in the show that preceded “‘Primitivism’” at the new MoMA, “An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture.” That show had a different curator, yet in general it seems that curators need a special reason to include a lot of women in a show—here, perhaps the association of women with primitivism, unconsciousness, and the earth, a gender cliché which may have seemed liberating ten years ago but may seem constricting ten years hence.

In the context of Modern art, “primitivism” is a specific technical term: the word, placed in quotation marks in the show’s title, designates Modern work that alludes to tribal objects or in some way incorporates or expresses their influence. Primitivism, in other words, is a quality of some Modern artworks, not a quality of primitive works themselves. “Primitive,” in turn, designates the actual tribal objects, and can also be used of any work sharing the intentionality proper to those objects, which is not that of art but of shamanic vocation and its attendant psychology. Some contemporary primitivist work may also be called primitive; yet the works selected by Varnedoe are conspicuously nonprimitive primitivism. The works of Smithson and Hesse, for example, may involve allusion to primitive information, but they express a consciousness highly attuned to each move of Western civilization. Rubin and Varnedoe make it clear that they are concerned not with the primitive but with the primitivist—which is to say they ask only half the question.

There are in fact contemporary artists whose intentionalities involve falling away from Western civilization and literally forgetting its values. These are the primitive primitivists; they are edited out of the show and the book altogether. The farthest the museum is willing to go is Joseph Beuys. Varnedoe explicitly expresses a dread of the primitive, referring darkly to a certain body of recent primitivist work as “sinister,” and noting that “the ideal of regression closer to nature is dangerously loaded,” that such works bring up “uncomfortable questions about the ultimate content of all ideals that propose escape from the Western tradition into a Primitive state.”6 The primitive, in other words, is to be censored out for the sake of Western civilization. The museum has evidently taken up a subject that it lacks the stomach to present in its raw realness or its real rawness. Where is the balance that would have been achieved by some attention to work like Eric Orr’s quasishamanic objects involving human blood, hair, bone, and tooth, or Michael Tracy’s fetishes of blood, hair, semen, and other taboo materials? The same exorcising spirit dominates the schedule of live performances associated with the exhibition: Meredith Monk, Joan Jonas, and Steve Reich, for all their excellences, have little to do with the primitivist, and less with the primitive. Where are the performances of Hermann Nitsch, Paul McCarthy, Kim Jones, and Gina Pane? Varnedoe’s dread of the primitive, of the dangerous beauty that attracted Matisse and Picasso and that continues to attract some contemporary artists today, results in an attempt to exorcise them, and to deny the presence, or anyway the appropriateness, of such feelings in Western humans.

Our closeness to the so-called contemporary work renders the incompleteness of the selection obvious. Is it possible that the classical Modern works are chosen with a similarly sterilizing eye? Was primitive primitivist work made in the first third of this century, and might it have entered this exhibition if the Western dread of the primitive had not already excluded it from the art-history books? Georges Bataille, who was on the scene when primitive styles were being incorporated into European art as Modern, described this trend already in 1928, as Rosalind Krauss points out in the catalogue’s chapter on Giacometti. He saw the estheticizing of primitive religious objects as a way for “the civilized Westerner . . . to maintain himself in a state of ignorance about the presence of violence within ancient religious practice.”7 Such a resistance, still dominant in this exhibition almost 60 years later, has led not only to a timid selection of contemporary works but to the exorcising of the primitive works themselves, which, isolated from one another in the vitrines and under the great lights, seem tame and harmless. The blood is wiped off them. The darkness of the unconscious has fled. Their power, which is threatening and untamed when it is present, is far away. This in turn affects the more radical Modern and contemporary works. If the primitive works are not seen in their full primitiveness, then any primitive feeling in Modernist allusions to them is bleached out also. The reason for this difficulty with the truly contemporary and the truly primitive is that this exhibition is not concerned with either: the show is about classical Modernism.

The fact that the primitive “looks like” the Modern is interpreted as validating the Modern by showing that its values are universal, while at the same time projecting it—and with it MoMA—into the future as a permanent canon. A counterview is possible: that primitivism on the contrary invalidates Modernism by showing it to be derivative and subject to external causation. At one level this show undertakes precisely to coopt that question by answering it before it has really been asked, and by burying it under a mass of information. The first task Rubin and his colleagues attempt, then, is a chronological one. They devote obsessive attention to the rhetorical question, Did primitive influence precede the birth of Modernism, or did it ingress afterward, as a confirmatory witness? It is hard to avoid the impression that this research was undertaken with the conclusion already in mind. The question is already begged in the title of the exhibition, which states not a hypothesis but a conclusion: “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern.”

The central chronological argument, stated repeatedly in the book, is that although the Trocadéro Museum (later the Musée de l’Homme) opened in Paris in 1878, primitive influences did not appear in Parisian art till some time in the period 1905 to 1908. This thirty-year lag is held to show that the process of diffusion was not random or mechanical, but was based on a quasideliberate exercise of will or spirit on the part of early Modern artists—in Rubin’s words, an “elective affinity.”8 It was not enough, in other words, for the primitive images to be available; the European receptacle had to be ready to receive them. As far as chronology goes the argument is sound, but there is more involved than that. What is in question is the idea of what constitutes readiness. Rubin suggests that the European artists were on the verge of producing forms similar to primitive ones on their own account—so positively ready to do so, in fact, that the influx of primitive objects was redundant. For obvious reasons Rubin does not spell this claim out in so many words, yet he implies it continually. For example, he writes that “the changes in modern art at issue were already under way when vanguard artists first became aware of tribal art,”9 The changes at issue were of course the appearance of primitivelike forms. The claim is strangely improbable. If one thinks of Greco-Roman art, Renaissance art, and European art through the 19th century, there is nowhere any indication that this tradition could spawn such forms; at least, it never came close in its thousands of years. A countermodel to Rubin’s might see readiness as comprising no more than a weariness with Western canons of representation and esthetics, combined with the gradual advance, since the 18th century, of awareness of Oceanic and African culture. The phenomena of art nouveau (with its Egyptianizing tendencies) and japonisme filled the thirty-year gap and demonstrate the eagerness for non-Western input that was finally fulfilled with the primitive works. Readiness, in other words, may have been more passive than active.

Clearly the organizers of this exhibition want to present Modernism not as an appropriative act but as a creative one. They reasonably fear that their powerful show may have demonstrated the opposite—which is why the viewer’s responses are so closely controlled, both by the book and, in the show itself, by the wall plaques. The ultimate reason behind the exhibition is to revalidate Modernist esthetic canons by suggesting that their freedom, innocence, universality, and objective value are proven by their “affinity” to the primitive. This theme has become a standard in dealing with primitivism; Goldwater also featured the terms “affinities,” rather than a more neutral one like “similarities.”

A wall plaque within the exhibition informs us that there are three kinds of relations between modern and primitive objects: first, “direct influence”; second, “coincidental resemblances”; third, “basic shared characteristics.” This last category, referred to throughout the book as “affinities,” is particularly presumptuous. In general, proofs of affinity are based on the argument that the kind of primitive work that seems to be echoed in the Modern work is not recorded to have been in Europe at the time. Ernst’s Bird Head, for example, bears a striking resemblance to a type of Tusyan mask from the upper Volta. But the resemblance, writes Rubin, “striking as it is, is fortuitous, and must therefore be accounted a simple affinity. Bird Head was sculpted in 1934, and no Tusyan masks appear to have arrived in Europe (nor were any reproduced) prior to World War II.”10 The fact that the resemblance is “fortuitous” would seem to put it in the category of coincidental resemblances. It is not evidence but desire that puts it in the “affinities” class, which is governed as a whole by selection through similarly wishful thinking. In fact, the Ernst piece cannot with certainty be excluded from the “direct influences” category either. The argument that no Tusyan masks were seen in Europe in 1934 has serious weaknesses. First of all, it is an attempt to prove a negative; it is what is called, among logical fallacies, an argumentum ex silentio, or argument from silence. All it establishes is that Rubin’s researchers have not heard of any Tusyan masks in Europe at that time. The reverse argument, that the Ernst piece shows there were probably some around, is about as strong.

A similar argument attempts to establish “affinity” between Picasso and Kwakiutl craftspeople on the basis of a Kwakiutl split mask and the vertically divided face in Girl Before a Mirror, 1932. For, says Rubin, “Picasso could almost certainly never have seen a ‘sliced’ mask like the one we reproduce, but it nonetheless points up the affinity of his poetic thought to the mythic universals that the tribal objects illustrate.”11 The argument is weak on many grounds. First, Picasso had long been familiar with primitive art by 1932, and that general familiarity, more than any “universals,” may account for his coming up with a primitivelike thing on his own. The same is true for Ernst and the Bird Head. Modern artists don’t necessarily have to have seen an object exactly similar to one of their own for influence to exist. Anyway, the similarity between Girl Before a Mirror and the “sliced” Kwakiutl mask is not really that strong. The mask shows a half head; the girl has a whole head with a line down the middle and different colors on each side. Rubin attempts to correct this weakness in the argument by noting that “Northwest Coast and Eskimo masks often divide integrally frontal faces more conventionally into dark and light halves.”12 But most of the world’s mythological iconographies have the image of the face with the dark and light halves. Picasso had surely encountered this common motif in a variety of forms—as the alchemical Androgyne, for example. There is, in other words, no particular reason to connect his Girl Before a Mirror with Kwakiutl masks, except for the sake of the exhibition.

In addition to Rubin’s reliance on the notoriously weak argument from silence, his “affinities” approach breaches the Principle of Economy, on which all science is based: that explanatory principles are to be kept to the smallest possible number (entia non multiplicanda sunt praeter necessitatem). The Principle of Economy does not of course mean keeping information to a minimum, but keeping to a minimum the number of interpretive ideas that one brings to bear on information. The point is that unnecessary principles will usually reflect the wishful thinking of the speaker, and amount to deceptive persuasive mechanisms. In the present case, ideas like “elective affinity,” “mythic universals,” and “affinity of poetic thought” are all entia praeter necessitatem, unnecessary explanatory principles. They enter the discourse from the wishful thinking of the speaker. An account lacking the ghost in the machine would be preferred. The question of influence or affinity involves much broader questions, such as the nature of diffusion processes and the relationship of Modernist esthetics to the Greco-Roman and Renaissance tradition. In cultural history in general, diffusion processes are random and impersonal semiotic transactions. Images flow sideways, backwards, upside down. Cultural elements are appropriated from one context to another not only through spiritual affinities and creative selections, but through any kind of connection at all, no matter how left-handed or trivial.

The museum’s decision to give us virtually no information about the tribal objects on display, to wrench them out of context, calling them to heel in the defense of formalist Modernism, reflects the exclusion of the anthropological point of view. Unfortunately, art historians and anthropologists have not often worked well together; MoMA handles this problem by simply neglecting the anthropological side of things. No attempt is made to recover an emic, or inside, sense of what primitive esthetics really were or are. The problem of the difference between the emic viewpoint—that of the tribal participant—and the etic one—that of the outside observer—is never really faced by these art historians, engrossed as they seem to be in the exercise of their particular expertise, the tracing of stylistic relationships and chronologies. The anthropologist Marvin Harris explains the distinction:

Emic operations have as their hallmark the elevation of the native informant to the status of ultimate judge of the adequacy of the observer’s descriptions and analyses. The test of the adequacy of emic analyses is their ability to generate statements the native accepts as real, meaningful, or appropriate . . . Etic operations have as their hallmark the elevation of observers to the status of ultimate judges of the categories and concepts used in descriptions and analyses. The test of the adequacy of etic accounts is simply their ability to generate scientifically productive theories about the causes of sociocultural differences and similarities. Rather than employ concepts that are necessarily real, meaningful, and appropriate from the native point of view, the observer is free to use alien categories and rules derived from the data language of science.13

The point is that accurate or objective accounts can be given from either an emic or an etic point of view, but the distinction must be kept clear. If etic pretends to be emic, or emic to be etic, the account becomes confused, troubled, and misleading.

MoMA makes a plain and simple declaration that their approach will be etic. Materials in the press kit which paraphrase a passage of Rubin’s introduction argue, “As our focus is on the modernists’ experience of tribal art, and not on ethnological study, we have not included anthropological hypotheses regarding the religious or social purposes that originally surrounded these objects.” Rubin similarly argues in his own voice that “the ethnologists’ primary concern—the specific function and significance of each of these objects—is irrelevant to my topic, except insofar as these facts might have been known to the modern artists in question.”14 The point of view of Picasso and others, then, is to stand as an etic point of view, and is to be the only focus of MoMA’s interest; emic information, such as attributions of motives to the tribal artists, is to be irrelevant.

This position is consistent in itself, but is not consistently acted on. In fact, it is violated constantly. It must be stressed that if the emic/etic question is to be neglected, then the intentions of the tribal craftsmen must be left neutral and undefined. But Rubin’s argument constantly attributes intentions to the tribal craftsmen, intentions associated with Modernist types of esthetic feeling and problem-solving attitudes. The very concept of “affinity” rather than mere “similarity” attributes to the tribal craftsmen feelings like those of the Modernist artists, for what else does the distinction between affinities and accidental similarities mean? The claim that there is an “affinity of poetic spirit” between Picasso and the Kwakiutl who made the “sliced” mask attributes to the Kwakiutl poetic feelings like those of Picasso. The assertion that their use of “parallelisms and symmetries” demonstrates a “propinquity in spirit”15 between Jacques Lipchitz and a Dogon sculptor attributes to the Dogon a sensibility in general like that of Lipchitz. And so on. Rubin says that the “specific function and significance of each of these objects” is irrelevant—for example, what ceremony the object was used in, how it was used in the ceremony, and so on. The use of the word “each” here is tricky. It is true that Rubin ignores the specific function of each object, but it is also true that he attributes a general function to all the objects together, namely, the esthetic function, the function of giving esthetic satisfaction. In other words, the function of the Modernist works is tacitly but constantly attributed to the primitive works. It is easy to see why no anthropologist was included in the team. Rubin has made highly inappropriate claims about the intentions of tribal cultures without letting them have their say, except through the mute presence of their unexplained religious objects, which are misleadingly presented as art objects. This attitude toward primitive objects is so habitual in our culture that one hardly notices the hidden assumptions until they are pointed out. Rubin follows Goldwater in holding that the objects themselves are proof of the formal decisions made, and that the formal decisions made are proof of the esthetic sensibility involved. That this argument seems plausible, even attractive, to us is because we have the same emic view as Rubin and MoMA. But connections based merely on form can lead to skewed perceptions indeed. Consider from the following anthropological example what absurdities one can be led into by assuming that the look of things, without their meaning, is enough to go on:

In New Guinea, in a remote native school taught by a local teacher, I watched a class carefully copy an arithmetic lesson from the blackboard. The teacher had written:

4 + 1 = 7
3 – 5 = 6
2 + 5 = 9

The students copied both his beautifully formed numerals and his errors.16

The idea that tribal craftsmen had esthetic problem-solving ambitions comparable to those of Modernist artists involves an attribution to them of a value like that which we put on individual creative originality. An anthropologist would warn us away from this presumption: “in preliterate cultures . . . culture is presented to its members as clichés, repeated over and over with only slight variation.” “Such art isn’t personal. It doesn’t reflect the private point of view of an innovator. It’s a corporate statement by a group.”17 Yet Rubin declares, again relying only on his sense of the objects, without ethnological support, that “the surviving works themselves attest that individual carvers had far more freedom in varying and developing these types than many commentators have assumed.”18 Surely Rubin knows that the lack of a history of primitive cultures rules out any judgment about how quickly they have changed or how long they took to develop their diversity. The inventiveness Rubin attributes to primitive craftsmen was probably a slow, communal inventiveness, not a matter of individual innovation. In prehistoric traditions, for example, several thousand years may be needed for the degree of innovation and change seen in a single decade of Modernism. Rubin asserts formalist concerns for the tribal craftspeople “even though they had no concept for what such words mean.”19 Consider the particular value judgment underlying the conviction that the only thing primitives were doing that is worth our attention, their proof of “propinquity in spirit” with the white man, was something they weren’t even aware of doing.

From a purely academic point of view Rubin’s project would be acceptable if its declared etic stance had been honestly and consistently acted out. What is at issue here, however, is more than a set of academic flaws in an argument, for in other than academic senses the etic stance is unacceptable anyway. Goldwater had made the formalist argument for tribal objects in the ’30s; it was a reasonable enough case to make at the time. But why should it be replayed fifty years later, only with more information? The sacrifice of the wholeness of things to the cult of pure form is a dangerous habit of our culture. It amounts to a rejection of the wholeness of life. After fifty years of living with the dynamic relationship between primitive and Modern objects, are we not ready yet to begin to understand the real intentions of the native traditions, to let those silenced cultures speak to us at last? An investigation that really did so would show us immensely more about the possibilities of life that Picasso and others vaguely sensed and were attracted to than does this endless discussion of the spiritual propinquity of usages of parallel lines. It would show us more about the “world historical” importance of the relationship between primitive and Modern and their ability to relate to one another without autistic self-absorption.

The complete omission of dates from the primitive works is perhaps one of the most troubling decisions. Are we looking at works from the ’50s? (If so, are they modern art?) How do we know that some of these artists have not seen works by Picasso? One can foresee a doctoral thesis on Picasso postcards seen by Zairean artists before 1930. The museum dates the Western works, but leaves the primitive works childlike and Edenic in their lack of history. It is true that many of these objects cannot be dated precisely, but even knowing the century would help. I have no doubt that those responsible for this exhibition and book feel that it is a radical act to show how equal are the primitives to us, how civilized, how sensitive, how “inventive.” Indeed, both Rubin and Varnedoe passionately declare this. But by their absolute repression of primitive context, meaning, content, and intention (the dates of the works, their functions, their religious or mythological connections, their environments), they have treated the primitives as less than human, less than cultural—as shadows of a culture, their selfhood, their Otherness, wrung out of them. All the curators want us to know about these tribal objects is where they came from, what they look like, who owns them, and how they fit the needs of the exhibition.

In their native contexts these objects were invested with feelings of awe and dread, not of esthetic ennoblement. They were seen usually in motion, at night, in closed dark spaces, by flickering torchlight. Their viewers were under the influence of ritual, communal identification feelings, and often alcohol or drugs; above all, they were activated by the presence within or among the objects themselves of the shaman, acting out the usually terrifying power represented by the mask or icon. What was at stake for the viewer was not esthetic appreciation but loss of self in identification with and support of the shamanic performance. The Modernist works in the show serve completely different functions, and were made to be perceived from a completely different stance. If you or I were a native tribal artisan or spectator walking through the halls of MoMA we would see an entirely different show from the one we see as 20th-century New Yorkers. We would see primarily not form, but content, and not art, but religion or magic.

Consider a reverse example, in which Western cultural objects were systematically assimilated by primitives into quite a new functional role. In New Guinea in the ’30s, Western food containers were highly prized as clothing ornaments—a Kellogg’s cereal box became a hat, a tin can ornamented a belt, and so on. Passed down to us in photographs, the practice looks not only absurd but pathetic. We know that the tribal people have done something so inappropriate as to be absurd, and without even beginning to realize it. Our sense of the smallness and quirkiness of their world view encourages our sense of the larger scope and greater clarity of ours. Yet the way Westerners have related to the primitive objects that have floated through their consciousness would look to the tribal peoples much the way their use of our food containers looks to us: they would perceive at once that we had done something childishly inappropriate and ignorant, and without even realizing it. Many primitive groups, when they have used an object ritually (sometimes only once), desacralize it and discard it as garbage. We then show it in our museums. In other words: our garbage is their art, their garbage is our art. Need I say more about the emic/etic distinction?

The need to coopt difference into one’s own dream of order, in which one reigns supreme, is a tragic failing. Only fear of the Other forces one to deny its Otherness. What we are talking about is a tribal superstition of Western civilization: the Hegel-based conviction that one’s own culture is riding the crucial time-line of history’s self-realization. Rubin declares that tribal masterpieces “transcend the particular lives and times of their makers”;20 Varnedoe similarly refers to “the capacity of tribal art to transcend the intentions and conditions that first shaped it.”21 The phrase might be restated: “the capacity of tribal art to be appropriated out of its own intentionality into mine.”

As the crowning element of this misappropriation of other values comes the subject of representation. Rubin distinguishes between European canons of representation, which are held to represent by actual objective resemblance, and the various primitive canons of representation, which are held to represent not by resemblance but by ideographic convention. Our representation, in other words, corresponds to external reality, theirs is only in their minds. But the belief that an objective representational system can be defined (and that that system happens to be ours) is naive and inherently contradictory. It is worth noting that tribal peoples tend to feel that it is they who depict and we who symbolize. Representation involves a beholder and thus has a subjective element. If someone says that A doesn’t look like B to him or her, no counterargument can prove that it does. All conventions of representation are acculturated and relative; what a certain culture regards as representation is, for that culture, representation.

Rubin’s love of Modernism is based on the fact that it at last took Western art beyond mere illustration. When he says that the tribal artisans are not illustrating but conceptualizing, he evidently feels he is praising them for their modernity. In doing so, however, he altogether undercuts their reality system. By denying that tribal canons of representation actually represent anything, he is in effect denying that their view of the world is real. By doing them the favor of making them into Modern artists, Rubin cuts reality from under their feet.

The myth of the continuity of Western art history is constructed out of acts of appropriation like those Rubin duplicates. The rediscovery of Greco-Roman works in the Renaissance is an important instance of this, for the way we relate to such art is also in a sense like wearing a cereal-box hat. The charioteer of Delphi, ca. 470 B.C., for example, was seen totally differently in classical Greece from the way we now see him. He was not alone in that noble, self-sufficient serenity of transcendental angelic whiteness that we see. He was part of what to us would appear a grotesquely large sculptural group—the chariot, the four horses before it, the god Apollo in the chariot box, and whatever other attendants were around. All was painted realistically and must have looked more like a still from a movie than like what we call sculpture. Both Greco-Roman and primitive works, though fragmented and misunderstood, have been appropriated into our art history in order to validate the myth of its continuity and make it seem inevitable.

It is a belief in the linear continuity of the Western tradition that necessitates the claim that Western artists would have come up with primitivelike forms on their own, as a natural development. The purpose of such theorizing is to preclude major breaks in Western art history; its tradition is to remain intact, not pierced and violated by influence from outside the West. The desire to believe in the wholeness, integrity, and independence of the Western tradition has at its root the Hegelian art-historical myth (constructed by the critical historians like Karl Schnaase, Alois Riegl, and Heinrich Wölfflin) that Western art history expresses the self-realizing tendency of Universal Spirit. (This is Rubin’s vocabulary. He once declared, for example, that Pollock’s paintings were “‘world historical’ in the Hegelian sense.”22) When brought down to earth—that is, to recorded history—this view involves not only the conclusion that the shape and direction of Modern art were not really affected by the discovery of primitive objects, but another conclusion equally unlikely, that the shape and direction of European art were not really influenced by the discovery of Greco-Roman works in the Renaissance.

In fact, Western art history shows three great breaks: one when the population of Europe was changed by the so-called barbarian invasions in the late Roman Empire, which led to the transition from Greco-Roman to Christian art; the second with the Renaissance, the transition from Christian art to European art; the third at the beginning of the 20th century, with the transition from European to Modern art. Each of these breaks in tradition was associated with a deep infusion of foreign influence—respectively Germanic, Byzantine, and African/Oceanic. To minimize these influences is to hold the Western tradition to be a kind of absolute, isolated in its purity. From that point of view, the adoption of primitive elements by early Modernists is seen as a natural, indeed inevitable, inner development of the Western tradition. But the context of the time suggests otherwise. In the 19th century the Western tradition in the arts (including literature) seemed to many to be inwardly exhausted. In 1873 Arthur Rimbaud proclaimed his barbarous Gallic ancestors who buttered their hair,23 and called for a disorientation of the patterns of sensibility. The feeling was not uncommon; many artists awaited a way of seeing that would amount simultaneously to an escape from habit and a discovery of fresh, vitalizing content. For there is no question that the turn-of-the-century fascination with archaic and primitive cultures was laden with content: Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Picasso, and Matisse were attracted, for example, by the open acknowledgment of the natural status of sex and death in these cultures. By repressing the aspect of content, the Other is tamed into mere pretty stuff to dress us up.

Of course, you can find lots of little things wrong with any big project if you just feel argumentative. But I am motivated by the feeling that something important is at issue here, something deeply, even tragically wrong. In depressing starkness, “‘Primitivism’” lays bare the way our cultural institutions relate to foreign cultures, revealing it as an ethnocentric subjectivity inflated to coopt such cultures and their objects into itself. I am not complaining, as the Zuni Indians have, about having tribal objects in our museums. Nor am I complaining about the performing of valuable and impressive art-historical research on the travels of those objects through ateliers (though I am worried that it buries the real issues in an ocean of information). My real concern is that this exhibition shows Western egotism still as unbridled as in the centuries of colonialism and souvenirism. The Museum pretends to confront the Third World while really coopting it and using it to consolidate Western notions of quality and feelings of superiority.

Hamish Maxwell, chairman of Philip Morris, one of the sponsors of the exhibition, writes in the catalogue that his company operates in 170 “countries and territories,” suggesting a purview comparable to that of the show. He continues, “We at Philip Morris have benefited from the contemporary art we have acquired and the exhibitions we have sponsored over the past quarter-century . . . They have stirred creative approaches throughout our company.” 24 In the advertisement in the Sunday New York Times preceding the “‘Primitivism’” opening, the Philip Morris logo is accompanied by the words, “It takes art to make a company great.”

Well, it takes more than connoisseurship to make an exhibition great.

Thomas McEvilley is a contributing editor of Artforum and a professor at the Institute for the Arts, Rice University, Houston.



1. Richard E. Oldenburg, “Foreword.” In William Rubin. ed., “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, New York: the Museum of Modern Art, 1984, p. viii.

2. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, press release no 17, August 1984, for the exhibition “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern,” p. 1.

3. Revised and republished as Robert Goldwater, Primitivism in Modern Art, New York: Vintage Books, 1967. In 1933, 1935, 1941, and 1946, the Modern itself had exhibitions of archaic and primitive objects separately from its Modern collections René D’Harnoncourt, director of the Museum for 19 years, was an authority on the subject.

4. William Rubin, Dada and Surrealist Art, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1968.

5. Two by Rubin, two by Kirk Varnedoe, two by Alan G Wilkinson, and one each by Ezio Bassani, Christian F. Feest, Jack Flam, Sidney Geist, Donald E Gordon, Rosalind Krauss, Jean Laude, Gail Levin, Evan Maurer, Jean-Louis Paudrat, PhiIippe Peltier, and Laura Rosenstock.

6. Kirk Varnedoe, “Contemporary Explorations,” in Rubin, “Primitivism”, pp. 662, 681, 679.

7. Rosalind Krauss, “Giacometti,” in Rubin, “Primitivism”, p. 510.

8. William Rubin, “Modernist Primitivism: An Introduction,” In Rubin, “Primitivism”, p. 11.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid., p. 25.

11. Rubin, “Picasso,” in Rubin, “Primitivism”, pp. 328–330.

12 Ibid., p. 328.

13. Marvin Harris. Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture, New York: Vintage Books, 1980, p. 32.

14. Rubin, “Modernist Primitivism,” In Rubin, “Primitivism”, p. 1.

15. Ibid., p. 51.

16. Edmund Carpenter. Oh, What a Blow That Phantom Gave Me!, New York Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973, p. 54.

17. Ibid., pp. 53, 56.

18. Rubin, “Modernist Primitivism,” in Rubin, “Primitivism”, p. 5.

19. Ibid., p.19.

20. Ibid., p. 73.

21. Kirk Varnedoe, preface, in Rubin, “Primitivism”, p. x.

22. Cited in Peter Fuller, Beyond the Crisis in Art, London Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative Ltd., 1980, p. 98.

23. Arthur Rimbaud. Une saison en enfer (A season in hell), 1873, trans. Louise Varèse, New York: New Directions, 1961, p. 7.

24. Hamish Maxwell, In Rubin, “Primitivism”, p. vi.