PRINT February 1985

Letters: On “Doctor Lawyer Indian Chief: ʻ“Primitivism” in 20th Century Art’ at the Museum of Modern Art in 1984”

To the Editor:
After years of work on an exhibition, a curator derives a certain satisfaction from a review that attempts to engage the basic issues of his show in a fair-minded way and on a high level of discourse. This is true even when the review is largely negative, as in the case of Thomas McEvilley’s article on The Museum of Modern Art’s “Primitivism” [“Doctor Lawyer Indian Chief,” November 1984]. Most analyses of exhibitions and their books fall away and are soon forgotten. McEvilley’s could be one that becomes part of the history of the event it addresses. I hope, therefore, that he will take this extended commentary on his text at least somewhat as a compliment—an attempt to further thrash out and clarify some ideas and attitudes that mean much to both of us—and not as an exercise in logomachy. The questions McEvilley raises go far beyond the exhibition to the nature and motives of The Museum of Modern Art itself, and I appreciate the opportunity Artforum has given me to air some of these matters.

No project on the order of “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art” can work out entirely satisfactorily and wholly free of inconsistencies. Had we to do the book and show over again, there are some things I would surely do differently (I do not necessarily speak here for my colleague, Kirk Varnedoe, whose comments follow). My auto-critique revolves largely around the definitions of “affinities,” some of which, I think, could and should have been more sharply etched. I am, however, largely satisfied with the presentation of the main body of the show, the sections called ”Concepts“ and ”History,” both of which McEvilley attacked from a variety of angles. A few of his criticisms of these sections are well taken. I find, however, that notwithstanding his evidently good intentions, his review is interwoven with sufficient misconceptions, internal inconsistencies, and simple errors of fact that—given its seriousness—it should not go unchallenged.

At the outset, McEvilley has some very kind things to say about our show, among them that it was “thrilling“ and ”a tour de force of connoisseurship.” As he proceeds, however, he describes the exhibition as operating in a kind of psychological, social, and historical void resulting from my supposed commitment to what he calls “formalist Modernism.” He concludes his text with the putdown that “it takes more than connoisseurship to make an exhibition great.”

There is some kind of contradiction here. I’m not sure what McEvilley means by “connoisseurship,” which—etymologically at least—implies far more than he presumably would wish to grant me. If I were wearing "formalist’’ blinders, could I really have chosen a great group of tribal works? Is their greatness not a function of their profound affectiveness on spiritual, poetic, and psychological—as well as on formal—levels? And do they not express, implicitly at least, societal values? Surely McEvilley does not believe that these qualities can be wholly separated from the objects’ phenomenological (or plastic) configurations. Were not these affective factors necessarily, therefore, dimensions of my choices? While such components of the sculptures’ expressiveness can be isolated for the purposes of discussion—indeed, the linear character of criticism virtually requires this—they cannot be separated from one another in the actual experience of the art.

McEvilley’s repeated reproach that our show had no anthropological underpinning (of which more below) comes perilously close to suggesting that the tribal works, presented just in themselves, propose but a set of forms that communicate no “meaning” or “content.” Picasso’s remark, “all I need to know about Africa is in those [tribal] objects,” was characteristic for him in its hyperbole; it was also flip. But it nevertheless embodied a crucial point, namely that Picasso felt (quite rightly, I believe) he could apprehend aspects of the spirit, values, and nature of African civilizations through their art. Indeed, while some of the observations he put into words were anthropologically wrong (e.g., his notion of ’’freedom” in relation to tribal art—as I pointed out in our book), the sense of Africa he intuited through its sculpture rings truer today than does most anthropological writing of his day.

By reducing the virtues of our show to “connoisseurship,” McEvilley also diminishes—if he does not entirely dismiss—what I hope art historians will consider a significant contribution to our discipline, one that revises many basic received ideas about primitivism. For McEvilley, our art history is largely an “overwhelming mass of information,” and he concludes that ”on the whole, [Robert] Goldwater’s book [Primitivism in Modern Painting] still reads better.” McEvilley suggests that the “general ideas” of our exhibition have been around since 1938 (the date of Goldwater’s book) and points to instances in which other institutions (Centre Pompidou, Grand Palais) have purportedly provided at least limited prototypes for our project.

No one, I think, admires my late friend and colleague Robert Goldwater more than I. The preface to “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art is devoted to expressing this admiration. The fact is, however, that the premises of our exhibition are very much at odds with many of his conclusions. If by “reads better,” McEvilley is referring to Goldwater’s lapidary literary style, I would be the first to cede the point. But in terms of substance, our conclusions are at odds with Goldwater’s as regards a host of basic questions—about which only one or the other of us can be right. Hence, if we have not simply fallen on our faces as historians, we have done more than merely, as McEvilley would have it, “refine and extend” Goldwater’s research.

Most of the reproductions in Goldwater’s book were of Modern works. Even in the revised and enlarged edition of 1967, only eight tribal works were illustrated, four of them paired visually with Modern objects. None of the eight had belonged to Modern artists and, so far as we know, only one of them was even in Europe in the days of the pioneer Modernists. Our multiplication of juxtapositions illustrating proposed (and often provable) relationships between Modern works and tribal objects in the artists’ collections (or visible in museums they are known to have frequented) overturns one of Goldwater’s basic principles, an insistence on the “extreme scarcity of the direct influence of primitive art forms” on 20th-century art. Moreover, Goldwater made no allowance for what we have called “invisible” influences (as documented by the pairings of Picasso’s Guitar and his Grebo mask, [Henry] Moore’s “Upright Internal and External Forms’’ and the British Museum’s Malanggan, and [Marius] de Zayas’ Alfred Stieglitz and the Pukapuka Soul-catcher). Nor did he connect the invention of collage, assemblage, and mixed media to the experience (Picasso’s especially) of tribal art—or, indeed, treat most of the other topics taken up in the ”Concepts“ section of our exhibition. Finally, the artist’s own words have undermined Goldwater’s key assumption that Picasso’s interest in tribal art was primarily formal. We are obliged to assign to Picasso’s rediscovery of the ”magical" roots and powers of art a more critical place in his development than we do any plastic or technical ideas he derived from tribal objects.

Contesting the Museum’s assertion that our exhibition is the “first ever to juxtapose modern and tribal objects in the light of informed art history,” McEvilley cites two purported precedents: the Menil Collections exhibition last spring at the Grand Palais, which “juxtaposed primitive and Modern works (a Max Ernst with an African piece, Cézanne with Cycladic) and sometimes, as in the [MoMA] exhibition, showed a Modern artist’s work in conjunction with primitive objects in his collection”; and the Centre Pompidou, which “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,” McEvilley says of the hundred objects, they "were intended to illustrate relationships with them and included, as does the [MoMA] show, primitive objects owned by Picasso, Braque, and other early Modernists.”

McEvilley’s recollections here certainly don’t jibe with mine or, as it turns out, with the facts. A rapid check reveals that 1) the two vitrines at the Centre Pompidou together never contained more than twenty or so objects; 2) none of them ever belonged to Picasso or Braque; 3) the objects in the Beaubourg vitrines could hardly have been intended to “illustrate relations” with Modern art since they were chosen by Jean-Hubert Martin “without respect,” as he says, “to historical or formal questions” from a group proposed by Francine Ndiaye of the Musée de I’Homme, who has only a glancing acquaintance with Modern art, and whose mandate was to select such objects as would constitute an overview of African art; 4) the choice of African sculptures included many of types—and from tribal areas—totally unknown in France in the days of the “early Modernists.” As for the fascinating Menil show—which, in any case, took place after the writing of our book—my recollections (as confirmed by Dominique de Menil herself are that 1) the tribal material was shown almost entirely in its own separate areas; 2) contrary to McEvilley, no Modern works were “shown in conjunction with primitive objects from [the artists’] own collection[s]”; indeed, no tribal works from the collections of important Modernist artists were included anywhere in the Menil collections show; 3) the juxtaposition of the Cézanne with a Cycladic sculpture and the Ernst with an African work were determined by Mrs. de Menil’s ”pleasure in seeing them together,“ and were not the demonstration of any historical connection. Thus, the two supposedly precedent primitivist events proposed by McEvilley were not instances of ”informed art history"; they were not, strictly speaking, instances of art history at all.

Why this determined effort on McEvilley’s part to demonstrate that the premises and content of our show were “not new”? The answer may be found in one of the most remarkable rhetorical twists I have ever encountered. By convincing his reader that our efforts are “not new,” McEvilley feels licensed to ask “why MoMA gives us primitivism now.” The answer to this turns out to be his real point, namely that the “temple of formalist Modernism“ is using the primitive to ”revalidate’’ the Modernist movement in the face of “several years of sustained attack,” which supposedly led us to need a “new defense.” ”The ultimate reason behind the exhibition; McEvilley insists, “is to revalidate Modernist esthetic canons”—whatever they are. ”How brilliant,“ he opines, “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.”

How brilliant, indeed. Brushed aside here is the real history of our show, and the fact that it was an attempt to render explicit some art historical concerns that were implicit in MoMA exhibitions going back almost 50 years (“African Negro Art,” 1936; “Indian Art of the United States,” 1941; “Arts of the South Seas,” 1946). No apparent consideration was given to my conversations with Picasso of 15 years ago which led me to conclude that the received art history of primitivism was profoundly distorted and that the whole topic would have to be restudied, or to the almost five years of the exhibition’s actual integration (nor to the fact that if we hadn’t rebuilt the Museum, the show would have taken place some years ago). By sweeping aside both the real motivations for, and the chronology of, this show (most of which is spelled out in our book), McEvilley could transform the nature of the event, and with it the actually fortuitous fact that it takes place ”now" rather than some years ago, into an act of contemporary art politics.

For a man who, elsewhere in his text, shows a tremendous concern for the logic of argumentation, McEvilley’s motivating of me is astonishing. Putting himself inside my mind, he confidently discovers and asserts agendas of which I had never thought. Anyone who knows me will consider laughable the idea that I would think Modernist art needs “revalidation.” As I stroll through the galleries of the collection, the last thing in the world I imagine is that Cézanne, Picasso, Pollock et alia need to be authenticated by “primitives” or anyone else. It is not Rubin but McEvilley who thinks they need "revalidation”—and he conveniently projects onto me the strategies of his own art-political ways of thinking.

Perhaps the most persistent criticism in McEvilley’s long article was directed to our omission of anthropological matter in relation to the tribal objects. He decries the fact that “no anthropologist was included in the team,” with the result that the “wholeness” of the tribal objects is sacrificed to “the cult of pure form”; thus the show constitutes an act of “ethnocentric subjectivity inflated to co-opt [tribal] cultures and their objects . . . [showing that] Western egotism [is] 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,” (Needless to say, had I really been concerned with Western “feelings of superiority,” I would hardly have mounted a show, the very terms of which guaranteed that the tribal works would on average be superior to the Modern ones.1)

The Museum, of course, had no intention of confronting tribal cultures, or even tribal objects as such (i.e., in their own terms), no less the whole Third World. To have done so would have hopelessly confused what the Museum was in fact doing-namely, studying the reception of tribal objects by Western artists, the ethnocentricity of which history we ourselves described as manifest and accepted as given. But McEvilley won’t let us have a show about that reception, which is, of course, precisely what “primitivism”—as opposed to “the primitive’’—signifies. He wants the tribal objects presented in a wholly integral way (never spelled out) in which not even anthropological museums show them.

It isn’t that McEvilley cannot understand our aims. Indeed, he quotes us saying: “As our focus is on the modernists’ experience of tribal art . . . we have not included anthropological hypotheses regarding the religious or social purposes that originally surrounded these objects.” And also that “the ethnologists’ primary concern—the specific function and significance of each of these objects —is irrelevant to [our] topic, except insofar as these facts might have been known to the modern artists in question: He might also have added our observations that primitivism “refers not to the tribal arts in themselves, but to the Western interest in and reaction to them” and that it was "an aspect of the history of Western art, not of tribal art.”

“This position; McEvilley admits, “is consistent in itself.” But he insists we are not entitled to it because we have ”not consistently acted" on it. (What would have been more inconsistent with our position than the inclusion of precisely the anthropological information McEvilley calls for, about which the artists knew nothing?) Now, I don’t doubt that given the breadth of our project, we have been guilty of some inconsistencies, although I do not agree that most of the examples McEvilley adduces—which have to do with the modes of functioning of tribal artists—are, in fact, inconsistencies (as we shall see below). But McEvilley seems not to understand the fact that whatever the inconsistencies in execution (and those he signals are in the book rather than the exhibition), they do not by any twist of logic nullify the admitted consistency of our original perspective. Even if we hadn’t made those observations about tribal artists to which McEvilley objects, would he not still have wanted anthropological input? Wouldn’t he still have objected that the tribal objects were decontextualized, that “the blood is wiped off them”?

Of course, the tribal objects in our show are decontextualized (as they are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or, even more relevantly, in anthropological museums as well). In fact they are more than that; they are recontextualized, within the framework of Western art and culture. And that is what our particular story is all about. McEvilley simply refuses to accept the fact that our story is not about “the Other,” but about ourselves. As I observed in my introductory chapter, "prior to the 1920’s . . . at which time some Surrealists became amateurs of ethnology, artists did not generally know—nor evidently much care—about such [anthropological] matters: But as I also observed, the artists’ lack of interest in or knowledge of the objects’ religious purposes and functions did not mean that they were uninterested in “meanings.” It was rather that “the meanings which concerned them were the ones that could be apprehended through the objects themselves.” This is the real rub for, as we shall see, McEvilley refuses to accept that such meanings exist; indeed, that the tribal sculptures are, in fact, art.

Suppose we were to have taken McEvilley’s advice and given an anthropological dimension to our show. What anthropology, whose anthropology should it have been? Should we have proposed the views of anthropologists of the Trocadéro itself in Picasso’s time, such as Maurice Delafosse, who interpreted African tribal art as an Egyptian derivation? Not only is the work of such anthropologists irrelevant to our subject because unknown to the Modern artists, but it is wrong.2 Even in our own day, there are an immense number of fundamental disagreements among anthropologists themselves, some of whom still credit the view, as does McEvilley, that there is no such thing as tribal art—only religious artifacts.

McEvilley appropriates the mantle and the voice of anthropology with far more certainty than is possessed by any professional anthropologist I have met. He constantly presumes to know and speak for the “intentionality’’ of long-dead tribal artists when, in fact, anthropology knows virtually nothing about them. He confidently puts himself into their minds in the same way he did into mine—and possibly with as little accuracy. Having granted the consistency of our perspective (at least in theory), he nevertheless states that by ”their absolute repression of primitive context, meaning, content, and intention (the dates of the [tribal] works, their functions, their religious or mythological connections, their environments) ," MoMA has “treated the primitives as less than human, less than cultural—as shadows of a culture, their selfhood, their Otherness, wrung out of them.” Does McEvilley himself know how little is known about most of these tribal objects? Even had they been relevant, we would have had to face the fact that the specific functions and the religious or mythological significance of many if not most of the tribal objects in our show are unknown (and will probably never be known). And many of the meanings attributed to some of them by previous generations of anthropologists are being dismissed left and right.

Consider the question of dates, which McEvilley seems to think we have suppressed: “The complete omission of dates from the primitive works is perhaps one of the most troubling decisions; he writes, though he admits that ”many of these objects cannot be dated precisely.” In fact, not a single one of them in our show can be dated precisely, and precious few can be dated approximately. Even the small minority that were field-collected by anthropologists have only a terminus ad quem; one can only speculate as to how long they existed before collection. Most of the tribal objects in the show have little history, or dubious ones. Even the decision as to whether most of them are 19th- or 20th-century objects is speculative, and usually made by historians of primitive art on a subjective rather than scientific basis. Far from being suppressed, the question of dates is not only discussed in the book, but is summarized on a panel that is repeated three times in various places in the exhibition. I excerpt from our panel: "Since accurate dates are not known for most tribal art, no dates appear on the labels for tribal objects in this exhibition. These objects are often short-lived, in part because of their largely perishable materials, in part because they were not preserved after being desacralized. Hence, most of the fine tribal art preserved in the West dates from no earlier than the later 19th and early 20th centuries, and represents the later phases of long-standing traditions.”

Where dates of tribal objects are relevant to the history of primitivism, they are the dates at which artists could have seen them in museums (what Picasso, for example, could have seen in the Trocadéro in 1907) and at which they purchased the pieces in their collections. We have spent hundreds of hours researching these dates and, where discoverable and relevant, have given them.

As one who has probably spent far more time haunting anthropological museums than has McEvilley, I can assure him that in virtually no cases do their labels give more information on “context, meaning, content, and intention” than we do. Will McEvilley please tell me how he learns anything about the “religious or mythological connections’’ of the objects in the vitrines of Tervuren, the Musée de l’Homme, or the Völkerkunde museum in Berlin (whose ”fine arts“ oriented installation surpasses that of the Metropolitan)? Do these objects have more ”blood on them“ than those at MoMA? To be sure, some anthropological museums provide short general text panels at the beginning of sections, but provide little or nothing on individual objects. Even these introductory panels are only possible because the material in their vitrines is geographically homogenous. Suppose—as demanded by McEvilley—we had wanted to provide ”environments’’ for objects that came from over a hundred different cultures and societies, how could we have done it?

Does the presentation of tribal sculptures by themselves—the way great museums present all other cultures’ sculpture from the Egyptian to the present—really imply treating their makers as “less than human, less than cultural’’? Perhaps only if, like McEvilley, you consider the objects ”not art, but religion or magic”—as if most of the world’s sculpture is not both art and religion at the same time. Though this crucial fact gets lost in his fulminations against “formalist Modernism,” McEvilley never accepts tribal sculptures as art, nor their carvers as ”artists”—or even “sculptors’’; the latter remain relegated to the caste of ”craftspeople.” For McEvilley, the mere assertion that these “craftspeople” were artists, not to say great artists, smacks of “co-option.” I wonder how many of his readers who saw our show and stood before the monumental Nukuoro Island carving of the goddess Kave that introduces it, share McEvilley’s conviction that what they were looking at was ”not art."

Generations ago, anthropologists considered tribal sculptures only artifacts, and even Franz Boas held that their sculptors’ function never exceeded the role of copying and the problems of craftsmanship. This assumption was partly based on the absence of a word for art in most tribal languages. But the same is true for the ancient Egyptians; yet that culture’s painting and sculpture is not denied the status of art. Of course, the tribal sculptor, living in a religiocentric society made (the majority of) his objects in the spirit and to the purposes of religious practice and expression—which was also true of Egyptian and Christian Medieval artists, among others. He also considered himself a craftsman—as did his Egyptian and Christian counterparts (the medieval painters were enrolled in the saddlers’ guild for the simple reason that painting saddles was one of their primary duties). But no less than his Egyptian or Christian counterparts, the tribal sculptor was a/so an artist, and we have presented him as such—“misleadingly,” according to McEvilley. In any event, the 19th-century prejudice that tribal peoples produced no art has today been given up by most anthropologists.

Underlining certain similarities in the work of tribal and Modern artists does not mean, as McEvilley claims, that we have presented the tribal artist as a Modern one; we present him as an artist tout court. According to McEvilley, “Rubin’s argument constantly attributes intentions to the tribal craftsmen, intentions associated with Modernist types of esthetic feeling and problem-solving attitudes.” This is simply not so. I did, of course, attribute to tribal sculptors the need to make esthetic decisions, but that is because they functioned—among other things—as artists. The kind of questions I saw them confronting in terms of their ideographic language (which, McEvilley notwithstanding, did not invent itself)—a problem such as “how to make a nose”—could only be described as “Modernist . . . problem-solving” by someone with McEvilley’s skewed perspective. All art involves some sort of problem-solving, whether it happens self-consciously or not. And in attributing to tribal sculptors an esthetic instinct, which the anthropologist Robert Lowie (and, since him, many other anthropologists) have considered a common denominator of all mankind, I have simply chosen to believe those anthropologists whose views seem to me to accord with my experience of the sculptural objects themselves. McEvilley has chosen others, and we will have to agree to disagree. In terms of primitivism, however, it doesn’t matter one whit which anthropologists you follow inasmuch as the Modern artists understood and acted upon the tribal objects as art.

I believe that it is McEvilley, not MoMA, who treats the tribal peoples as “less than human, less than cultural” by denying their cultures the fact of their art and their great artists. (He attributes the diversity and range of tribal art, which is considerable even within certain individual tribal units, to something he calls "communal inventiveness”—a process I leave the reader to try imagining.) He has a lot to say about MoMA’s presumed inability to appreciate the otherness of the Other (which was more than evident to me in tribal objects long before I began reading anthropologists on primitive art). It is, indeed, exceedingly difficult to dissociate ourselves from Western values and ways of thinking sufficiently to truly appreciate the otherness of Third World peoples, as contemporary anthropologists are trying especially hard to do. But this was not what our show was about. Nor, in regard to this otherness, does McEvilley have any monopoly on virtue, since many leading anthropologists disagree sharply with his ideas.

It should also be remembered that there is another, negative “otherness” that is at issue for us in the West. This is the view that the Other is lazy, unintelligent, fit only for travail de nègre and, above all, uncultured. Most early anthropology is shot through with such prejudices, and the respect and admiration we find for tribal peoples on the part of Picasso and Matisse in the first decade of the century were not—with rare exceptions—to characterize anthropology until after World War II. If the peoples of the world are to get along with each other, they will not only have to appreciate their respective “otherness,” they will have to recognize their common humanity. Some of us still do not think Schiller’s hope that “alle Menschen werden Brüder” is tainted by co-option. By denying the manifest genius of tribal artists, McEvilley excludes whole peoples from this cultural commonality.

William Rubin
The Museum of Modern Art
New York


1. Many critics and visitors to the exhibition noted that the quality of the tribal works was, taken as a whole, higher than that of the Modern works. This was accepted in advance as an inevitable result of the premises of the exhibition. Except for those tribal works that were in artists’ collections, or those museum objects which had had a direct historical relation to the work of individual Modern artists (and the two together constituted a minority), the tribal works I chose were all—by my lights—the best of their types I could find during many years of study in public and private collections all over the world. Unlike the Modern art, these profited from unfamiliarity. The Modern works were by definition limited to artists involved with primitivism; hence, not only were many great Modern artists not represented, but others who were in the exhibition (Brancusi. for example) were, for historical reasons. represented by objects that were not necessarily their very best. (Some artists were not as well represented as they should have been because loans were unobtainable; Matisse’s great and highly relevant Blue Nude and Madame Matisse, could not, for example, be borrowed.)

Not surprisingly, only the greatest of Modern artists. such as Picasso and Brancusi. could hold their own against the best tribal artists. Nobody, I think, considers that Picasso or Brancusi suffered in the comparison. That some other artists did was inevitable. Needless to say, I did not look upon the exhibition as a contest of quality, a mano a mano between tribal and Modern artists, and I could have easily stacked the cards in either direction. I knew that our public was far more familiar with great Modern art than with great tribal art, and was at pains to emphasize the latter. The only review of the show that came to grips with this particular issue, analyzed it, and understood it properly, was “Rubin’s Primitives” by Allen Wardwell, which appeared in the November Art World.

2. I do not mean here to imply that everything Delafosse and his early-20th-century colleagues wrote about African art was wrong—although to read the critiques of them by contemporary anthropologists one could conclude that very little of what they said was right. There was, however, one anthropologist writing early in the century whose work, as Lydia Gasman has insisted, is interesting to consider in connection with Picasso’s ideas about tribal art, and that is Marcel Mauss. Though Gasman is wrong in thinking that Picasso might have read Mauss’ 1903–1904 essay on magic (Picasso did not read anthropological texts, and his French in 1907 would not have been up to it in any case). Mauss’ ideas parallel those of Picasso, participate in the same zeitgeist. It is interesting to consider this in the light of McEvilley’s view of Goldwater’s book, a great part of which is devoted to a review of anthropological ideas; ironically, the one group of anthropologists Goldwater does not deal with is precisely, as Gasman observes, the French school of Mauss and his followers.


To the Editor:
In his criticisms of my contributions to the “Primitivism” exhibition, Thomas McEvilley is occasionally sloppy (he thinks I wrote two chapters in the book; I wrote three). He is also selectively forgetful, as when he chidingly suggests that an outdated "earth-mother’’ notion motivated my selection of contemporary women artists. This ignores the part of my essay that explicitly denounces this very cliché, at length (pp. 680–81); yet McEvilley must know the passage, for he elsewhere quotes from it as evidence of my censorship of primitivism’s deeper truths! Also, he generally overestimates my contributions, by supposing my handling of the contemporary sections in both show and book can be taken as centrally representative of the exhibition’s conception ; whereas in fact these contemporary sections were later add-ons, organized (as should be expected, given their content) on significantly differing premises. But let all this pass—I’m glad to be associated with the show, and to confront the substantive issues McEvilley raises in his serious and impassioned review.

McEvilley accuses me of writing on primitivism in a “value-saturated, interpretive” way. He is absolutely right: my essays, and particularly the contemporary essay with which he takes special issue, do have this character, and were intended to make those values and interpretations very evident. His opposing views also have this character—what he would term an “ideological” aspect—but I am afraid he is less forthright in declaring, or perhaps less clear in understanding, their implications. Often, in fact, it seems to me that he is more deeply guilty of the very mistakes he attributes to William Rubin and to me.

He holds that the artists I selected, and the issues I raised, did not confront primitivism’s “raw realness, or its real rawness.” He admires instead contemporary artists “whose intentionalities [a word he favors as a substitute for the simpler “intentions”] involve falling away from Western civilization and literally forgetting its values.” Their work is not just better primitivism, but fully primitive, he says, because it shares “the intentionality proper to [tribal] objects.” Yet these attitudes McEvilley admires are quintessentially modern and Western, involving goals that obviously could never have been held by tribal artists—who by definition never had civilized Western values to forget. McEvilley’s semantic abuse of the already beleaguered term "primitive’ is the least of his confusions here. He blames Rubin and me for supposedly attributing modern Western intentions to tribal artists, and opines that “The need to co-opt difference into ones own dream of order . . . is a tragic failing. Only fear of the Other forces one to deny its Otherness.” Yet when he attributes tribal intentions to Modern artists, Otherness vanishes in a more global identity of purpose than we would ever suggest, or believe possible, between creators in vastly different cultures. McEvilley thus seems unwittingly to reinforce the very prejudice of Western superiority he claims to reject. In his account, contemporary artists can know all about Primitive motives, and subsume them within their more complex projects; but the Primitive may not be credited with harboring any analogue of modern ways of thinking.

What, one should ask, constitutes this global notion of tribal purposes about which McEvilley seems so clairvoyant—this idea of an essential “intentionality” that for him embraces Senufo and Sepik, Polynesian and Punu alike? The definition is never fully spelled out, but the traces can be found in a constellation of effects he evokes. Primitive creation involves for him “violence’’ in religious practice, ”awe and dread,“ objects drenched in blood, seen in ”closed dark spaces, by flickering torchlight; and a “terrifying power” of the "darkness of the unconscious: In short his is a deeply Romantic vision—latently more than a little racist—whose rather limited terms seem more appropriate to the generation of Joseph Conrad, or to a particularly unreconstructed Freudian, than to a 1980s understanding of the variety and complexity of social and mental life in tribal societies.

Imagining the power of tribal art exclusively in these terms, McEvilley seems to see only one legitimate avenue for its contact with Modern art: the domain of psychodrama and the expression of the dark unconscious. He accuses me by contrast of a “dread of the primitive, of the dangerous beauty that attracted Matisse and Picasso and that continues to attract some contemporary artists today: As instances of this ongoing tradition, he cites Hermann Nitsch, Paul McCarthy, Kim Jones, and Gina Pane. It would seem that the pairing of Matisse and Picasso might already suggest that there is a wide range of Modern primitivist responses that matches the wide range of tribal art. And no matter how deep one’s respect for Nitsch, et al, it is peculiar praise to hold them up as the true legatees of Matisse. If ”dread" is what keeps me from constructing this kind of genealogy for primitivism, may I continue to live in fear.

McEvilley claims that I timidly avoid facing up to the kind of primitivism he prefers, and even “deny [its] presence. This is false, and misinforms his readers. My ”Contemporary Explorations" chapter explicitly and pointedly considers views such as those he holds, and primitivisizing art of the kind he admires. I don’t deny these notions of the Primitive exist, or that numerous contemporary artists believe in them sincerely. I do argue, however (in ways better examined in the essay itself), that there are other valid ways of thinking about the Primitive that inspire other serious artists, and I explain why in the end I find these latter more rewarding and stimulating. I try to explain, moreover, that the strain of Romantic, expressionist primitivism McEVilley favors, with it’s fantasies of total escape and forgetting, has disturbing undercurrents that are ultimately authoritartan in their implications.

My essay examines different ways interchanges between Modern and tribal art have worked, and stresses that the two spheres have points of contact in the mind as well as in the gut—Minimalism and Cubism are points of departure. or zones of affinity, as valid as angst-torn expressionism. Tribal art in my view can inspire not only violence and dark dread (a response which, as Rubin explains at length in the book, is often based on misconceptions of tribal life and misunderstandings of tribal forms), but also wit, fantasy, and sophisticated complexity—many tribal objects project, in fact, a classic sense of dignity and serene repose. Modern culture in turn provides not simply encumbering values which need forgetting, but also powerful new ways of insight into the variety of tribal creation. This view is indeed "value-saturated and interpretive’’; it’s intended to be so, and declares itself as such. McEvilley, on the other hand, who believes that Modern artists can willfully acquire the “intentionality” of their tribal counterparts, may similarly dream that there is some other way—presumably his own—in which a reading of primitivism and of the Primitive can involve no such shaping premises.

One panacea he recommends is scrupulous attention to intention and context. Berating Rubin and me for excluding anthropological data from the exhibition labels for tribal objects, he seems to be arguing that proper awareness of original intentions will save us from the imperialist sin of misreading primitive art in our own terms. As I believe he demonstrates, how ever, construals of intention are every bit as problematic and value-laden as other forms of “appropriation” from tribal sources. But I do not mean by this to damn appropriation per se—only to ask McEvilley to rethink some false divisions he’s setting up. He suggests that my extolling ”the capacity of tribal art to transcend the intentions and conditions that first shaped it” should be restated as “the capacity of tribal art to be appropriated out of its own intentionality into mine. I would be happy enough with the paraphrase, if I thought McEvilley understood what he was saying. For someone so committed to an idea of the power of the unconscious, and its communication across the barriers of time and culture, a nostalgic devotion to the notion of an inviolate, ultimately controlling intention seems curious and inconsistent. In fact, even without appeal to unconscious factors, it is plain to see that no act or object, by Shakespeare or a Yoruba carver, would have any broad or long cultural impact if its meaning or potential consequence were totally constrained by its founding motivations (which are finally unknowable in any event). As modern literary theory has driven home repeatedly, there is no validity in a model of knowledge based on the ideal of a privileged reading of an original determining intention. All art, culture, and communication functions by "appropriations’’ from one context to another. McEvilley and the artists he admires appropriate the Primitive to their purposes just as certainly as I do. Between our two appropriations, the question is not which is pure—neither is or can be—but which is barren and which fertile, which is liberal and open-ended and which, in McEvilley’s own terms, is a “rejection of the wholeness of life.”

Unhappy with the exhibition’s is decontextualization of tribal objects, McEvilley offers what he seems to think is an ultimately damning image in riposte: a parallel but reverse decontextualization, where the Western object (in this case a food container) is adopted by New Guinea tribesmen as a clothing ornament. McEvilley concludes that our museum showing tribal objects is as ludicrous as the natives wearing Kellogg’s boxes. On the contrary, though, the ability to see art value where others see only garbage (as for example in cubist collage, or [Robert] Rauschenberg) is to my mind a kind of receptivity, and creative intelligence, that is well worth respecting and thinking about. Specifically, the tribal use of Western discards is a potentially fascinating phenomenon, of which McEvilley has chosen a relatively uninteresting instance. He ignores the more telling examples of this kind of bricolage that we included in the exhibition: a striking Guere mask made from bullet casings, or an exceptional fetish fashioned around a bottle of Suze liqueur. By acts of appropriation, disregarding the functions the Western objects originally fulfilled, the tribesmen saw new possibilities for the discards and gave them new life and meaning. I agree with McEvilley that it’s fair to draw a parallel between this activity and the modern Western attention to the formerly neglected power of tribal objects. But his reading of the situation ascribes naïve stupidity to the natives and deluded venality to the Westerner, while mine would stress the common potential for invention, for expansion of cultural limitations, and for communication, that makes both actions compellingly and positively human.

Kirk Varnedoe
Institute of Fine Arts
New York University
New York

Thomas McEvilley replies:

I’m the one who barked these grouchy bears out of the woods, so I guess I have to listen to their howling and gnashing of teeth. In a sense it’s a chance in a lifetime. We rarely see these bears out in the open—especially the big one. The angry bears, rising from what they must have thought was a well-deserved sleep, are after me. But they are shoddy arguers. Helpless in the face of issues which their replies indicate they barely understand—and then only in a 19th-century kind of way—they have adopted the courtroom strategy of discrediting the witness rather than responding to his testimony. They have attempted to undermine the readers’ confidence in me by claiming inaccuracies in my text.

Let’s consider this charge of inaccuracies. Varnedoe leads off with a daring revelation of a typographical error—how feeble, to attempt to discredit me on the grounds that a sprite of the typesetting or proofreading realms, after the finished, correct text had left my hands, didn’t pick up the fact that three had been changed to two—a common sort of scribal error—deep in a footnote. The thing to notice is not that there is a typo—because that happens—but that this scholar and curator, with a month to comb the text, could find nothing more important to criticize in the introduction of his reply than a typographical error in a footnote. Rubin shows a more ambitious version of the discrediting strategy: he wants to bury my readers’ faith and my criticisms deep in an atmosphere of manufactured doubt. He begins his reply, understandably, by distancing himself from Varnedoe’s “Contemporary Explorations” section of the show; he specifies the parts of the show that he is pleased with (the “Concepts” and “History” sections) and makes no mention of Varnedoe’s unfortunate venture into the contemporary. He goes on to expressions of his familiar Picassoism, then defends the two-volume book that accompanies the exhibition from my statement that it merely refines and extends the research of Robert Goldwater. “But in terms of substance, our conclusions; he says, ”are at odds with Goldwater’s as regards a host of basic questions." Those familiar with Goldwater’s book will recognize that this is a gross overstatement. The lines and themes of research are Goldwater’s, the terminology is Goldwater’s; what is at issue where they differ, as in Rubin’s insistence that Goldwater did not recognize as many examples of direct influence as does Rubin’s team, is just the gathering of more information.

The strategy underlying Rubin’s approach, I suspect, is both to weaken the readers’ confidence in me and to attempt to bog me down in answering petty disagreements, in the hopes thai I will never fight through to the issues themselves—since those are the challenges Rubin wishes to avoid. I must drag the reader through a certain amount of this petty bickering about details, both in order to clear the readers mind of manufactured doubt about the integrity of my article, and to illustrate Rubin’s method of debate. Here’s the sentence that is meant to lean the readers back in their chairs, distancing them from me once and for all: “His review,” Rubin writes, “is interwoven with sufficient misconceptions, internal inconsistencies, and simple errors of fact that—given its seriousness—it should not go unchallenged.” The charge of these supposed factual errors centers around a paragraph in which I demonstrated with a few obvious examples—and I could have used others—that the practice of regarding and exhibiting primitive and Modern works together was not really new to this show, as one might be led to believe by the claims and promotion around the show, despite its qualifier, “in the light of informed art history.” Rubin professes to find my statements about recent earlier exhibitions to be nests of inaccuracies. First is my statement that the Centre Pompidou, for several years beginning in the late ’70s, “exhibited, in the vicinity of its Modern collections, about 100 tribal objects from the Musée de l’Homme,” some of them owned by early Modernist artists including Braque and Picasso, with the intention of illustrating relationships with the Modern works in the Beaubourg collection. In reply Rubin attacks first my number, one hundred. Citing the authority of Jean-Hubert Martin, who was at the time a Beaubourg curator and in charge of the loans from the Musée de I’Homme, he declares: “1) the two vitrines at the Centre Pompidou together never contained more than twenty or so objects.” But in conversation with me subsequent to his conversation with Rubin, Martin stated that each vitrine—not both together—held twenty or twenty-five objects, bringing the total to forty or fifty at any one time. And there is more than meets the eye hidden in Rubin’s unobtrusive little word “never.” Why doesn’t he just say (however mistakenly) that the vitrines did not hold more than 20 objects? Because he is repressing the fact or doesn’t know that the objects in these vitrines were changed, since more objects had been borrowed from the Musée de l’Homme than the vitrines would hold. ”Never” means not at any one time, and has nothing whatever to do with the total over a period of time. No listing of the total number of objects has been located, but Beaubourg curator Jean-Yves Mock, whose memory provided my original estimate of one hundred, still says that figure is not unreasonable.

Next, Rubin denies that any of the objects in the Beaubourg vitrines had ever been owned by Braque or Picasso. In fact, at the writing of my article one of the authorities on this subject had ventured the opposite opinion, yet finally it seems this point must remain moot, in light of the fact, acknowledged by Rubin, that no exact listing of the object has been found. Still the fact that some of the objects there belonged to early Modernist artists is acknowledged by all. Rubin goes on to say that these objects “could hardly have been intended to ‘illustrate relations’ with Modern art since they were chosen by Jean-Hubert Martin ‘without respect,’ as he says, to historical or formal questions. . . . ’” In clarifying this point to me, Martin said otherwise: the primary purpose of the installation was to open viewers eyes to non-Western ways of seeing, he remarked, but added, “of course it was also to remind people, without specific historical scholarship, that the painters in Paris at that time [early 1n the century] were aware of primitive art. Indeed, unless one were trying to point out a relation of some type, why else would one exhibit primitive works in a museum specifically dedicated to l’art moderne?

Rubin’s second set of claims of inaccuracies focuses on my remark that the exhibition of the Menil collections. “La rime et la raison,” at Paris’ Grand Palais in the spring of 1984 “juxtaposed primitive and Modern works (a Max Ernst with an African piece, Cézanne with Cycladic) and sometimes, as in the [MoMA] exhibition, showed a Modern artist’s work in conjunction with primitive objects in his collection.” I am going to quote Rubin on this point, minor as it is, in order to demonstrate the more clearly his method. Again he numbers his points as if stack ing up an inexorable case against me. He writes, “1) the tribal material was shown almost entirely in its own separate areas.” Again, note the unobtrusive little word, in this case “almost.” The fact Rubin can neither growl away nor live with is that the tribal objects were not shown entirely in their own separate area. That was my point, and he concedes it while pretending to deny it. Yes, the Ernst was shown with an African piece; yes, the Cézanne was shown with a Cycladic piece; and so on, through examples I have not mentioned. Rubin goes on: “2) contrary to McEvilley, no Modern works were ‘shown in conjunction with primitive objects from [the artists’] own collection[s].’” Yet there is a plain statement in the catalogue, by Walter Hopps, curator of the exhibition, discussing the mixing of primitive and Modern objects, in which he notes, “_Ainsi, dans Ia section des surréalistes, on trouve, a coté de leurs oeuvres, des objets leur ayant appartenus" (thus, in the section on the Surrealists, beside their own works one finds objects that belonged to them).These include, for example, Eskimo masks, of which “plusieurs furent acquises . . . par des surréalistes français établis à New York” (several were bought . . . by French Surrealists living in New York).

His next point is no stronger: “3) the juxtaposition of the Cézanne with a Cycladic sculpture and the Ernst with an African mask were determined by Mrs. de Menil’s ‘pleasure in seeing them together,’ and were not the demonstration of any historical connection.” Here again the unobtrusive little element, in this case the italicizing of ”not,“ directs the reader away from the point. The point is that Rubin has acceded completely to my statement, while again pretending to reject it. He has had to agree that the Cézanne was shown with the Cycladic piece, the Ernst with an African, and so on. To distract attention from that fact he attempts to shift the readers’ attention to the last part of the sentence through the emphasis. Of course, the works were “not the demonstration of any historical connection.” I never for a moment said they were. I am being corrected on statements I never made. Here again is the key catalogue passage from that show, on which my statements were in part based. “lci l’art primitif est représenté à égalité avec l’art occidental; l’art occidental le plus ancien est juxtapose avec l’art le plus moderne. Les affinites ne sont pas chronologiques, elles sont conceptuelles, iconographiques et formelles, destinées à suggérer les correspondances profondes entre les valeurs esthetiques et spirituelles de peuples et de temps fort divers. Ainsi, dans Ia section des surréalistes, on trouve, à coté de leurs oeuvres, des objets leur ayant appartenus. Dans Ia même esprit, quelques oeuvres modernes sont exposées au milieu d’objets archaïques ou traditionnels” (here, primitive art is represented equally with Western art; the oldest Western art is juxtaposed with the most modern. The affinities are not chronological but conceptual, iconographic, and formal; they are intended to suggest the deep correspondences between the esthetic and spiritual values of very different peoples and times. Thus, in the section on the Surrealists, beside their own works one finds objects that belonged to them. In the same spirit, several Modern works are shown among ancient or traditional objects). Hopps goes on to mention the Ernst with the African piece, and so on. Rubin attempts to reduce the importance of the Menil show, along with the Beaubourg installation, saying they are ”not instances of ‘informed art history’“; he even goes so intemperately far as to say, ”they were not, strictly speaking, instances of art history at all.“ And why not, in the case of the Menil show? His reason is that the juxtapositions under discussion ”were determined by Mrs. de Menil’s ‘pleasure in seeing them together’.” Now, to say that the pleasure of the eye of a sensitive and long-trained collector is not automatically an exercise of informed art history is already somewhat questionable. The collection itself is an act of "informed art history; and the Menil show was the quintessential demonstration of collectorly connoisseurship’s long habit of mingling the Modern and the primitive. When Rubin declares that because objects were juxtaposed merely for the pleasure of seeing them together the show is disqualified as informed art history, doesn’t he realize that he is damning his own show too? Why, for example, was Picasso’s Girl before a Mirror shown with the Kwakiutl mask—even on the cover of the catalogue and a poster for the show, as if this juxtaposition were the essence of it all? As I demonstrated in the article, there was absolutely no reason whatever to show these particular two pieces together except Rubin’s “pleasure in seeing them together.” Indeed, the greater part of his show was made up of that pleasure and his indulgence in it.

The careful way Rubin’s and Varnedoe’s letters are constructed is to give the impression that many factual inaccuracies have been found in my text. Rubin, for example, makes his remark about inaccuracies, then goes on for several paragraphs about matters of critical dispute that have nothing to do with claims of factual error. This blurring of the distinction between factual error and critical dispute is a basic method in both letters. If we pause and count up the inaccuracies they have found, we see that Rubin has found none, and Varnedoe has come up with a typographical error in a footnote. That is all. Enough with the distracting fog of these tactics. Rubin’s achievement was not, surely, in originating the idea of juxtaposing primitive and Modern objects, nor in being the first to act it out, but in doing it more extensively than his predecessors had—in fact too extensively, considering that certain of his juxtapositions are meaningless.

It is in their treatment of the real issues that these men reveal, I think, a poverty of intellect. I am serious when I say that they seem to have brought only 19th-century ways of thinking, 19th-century minds, to bear on the discussion. Very near the beginning of his statement Rubin takes refuge in references to “my conversations with Picasso; a tactic that amounts, throughout his text, to the fallacy called the Appeal to Authority. In an obvious Appeal to Authority Rubin defends himself from my belief that more information should have been given about the primitive works by quoting Picasso’s remark, “all need to know about Africa is in those [tribal] objects.” Rubin comments, ”Picasso felt (quite rightly, I believe) he could apprehend aspects of the spirit, values, and nature of African civilizations through their art: But Picasso’s remark could just as clearly mean, “all I need to know about Africa is how these objects look,” for that is indeed all you get from just looking at them: how they look. Later, Rubin, quoting himself, says that the meanings that concerned Modern primitivists “‘were the ones that could be apprehended through the objects themselves.’ This,” he goes on, “is the real rub for, as we shall see, McEvilley refuses to accept that such meanings exist.” Here Rubin is relying on an implied claim to universal sameness of esthetic feeling, an out-of-date piece of Platonic lore that has no ground in evidence whatever. The surprising thing is that Rubin evidently has no inkling of cultural conditioning and what it does to one’s eyes. The meanings that we read directly from tribal objects are highly unlikely to be the ones the tribal image-makers intended; they will predominantly be the ones that our own cultural conditioning has ingrained in us. To say, as he does, that one can derive the intended emic content merely by looking at the tribal works is to say that we need no study of ethnology at all, no struggle with the emic-etic problem—in short, no attempt to understand the tribal images and image-makers on their own terms; our own terms, he is saying, must be universal, evidently just because they are ours. This is in fact the principle on which his show and book are based. That, after reading my article, he fails to perceive the simple and basic point of cultural relativity indicates how deep is his resistance to it and how unquestioning is his commitment to the claim of the universal supremacy of Western cultural values.

In another defense against my charge that the realities of the tribal works were actually repressed in both the “’Primitivism’” show and, above all, the book, Rubin says that the museum was “studying the reception of tribal objects by Western artists.” “But,” he laments, ”McEvilley won’t let us have a show about that reception, which is, of course, precisely what ‘primitivism’—as opposed to ‘the primitive’—signifies.” This is of course not strictly true. I said that I would be far happier with the show (and book) than I am if they had truly limited themselves to the reception; the problem is that both the show and the book (especially Rubin’s introductory essay) attribute motives to the primitive as well as to the primitivist—in fact, the same motives—making them (what else?) like us. It is primarily in his category of “affinities’’ that he attributes to the tribal image-makers this and that Modern Western esthetic feeling and ambition, ignoring their own expressions of their feelings and ambitions. Rubin shows a strange immunity to criticism here. He refers to his ”auto-critique; which would feature improvements in his “affinities” category; yet his categories were one of the leading subjects of my article and he has nowhere replied to my criticism of them, except vaguely to imply that he is privately improving them.

Throughout Rubin’s letter he resorts to the childish tactic of throwing my accusations back at me (“You are’’—“No, you are’’—this is Varnedoe’s reflex too) rather than answering them. He says, for example, that McEvilley “constantly presumes to know and speak for the ‘intentionality’ of long-dead tribal artists . . . He confidently puts himself into their minds. . . . ” In fact, I have attributed no motives to the tribal image-makers, except to deny, on the soundest of anthropological, linguistia, and psychological grounds, that the motives he attributes to them apply. When Rubin claims that “many leading anthropologists disagree sharply with [McEvilley’s] ideas,” he is suggesting again that I presented some definition of tribal Otherness. Of course I did not; I criticized Rubin’s definition, since his idea of Otherness is simply to make it look like oneself. And for his part Varnedoe writes, “[McEvilley] seems to be arguing that proper awareness of original intentions will save us from the imperialist sin of misreading primitive art in our own terms: Yes, that is to an extent what I mean, and I direct the readers’ attention to the somewhat mocking tone of the phrase ”imperialist sin.“ Like a Westerner of the 19th century, Varnedoe cannot take the question of an imperialistic sin at all seriously, though to many it virtually leaps off the walls of the exhibition. A prominent non-Western artist, for example, hearing the show praised, said, ”No; we don’t want to be their mascots.”

Both Rubin and Varnedoe claim that the absence, in both the show and the book, of information about the attitudes of the people who made, used, and understood these objects is justified by our lack of knowledge of such attitudes. “Construals of intention are every bit as problematic and value-laden as other forms of ‘appropriation’ from tribal sources,” says Varnedoe; and Rubin asks, “Does McEvilley himself know how little is known about most of these tribal objects?” They suggest, in other words, that since we cannot know what these things were made for, we are justified in projecting our own fantasies onto them. Rubin asks, “Will McEvilley please tell me how he learns anything about the ‘religious or mythological connections’ of the objects in the vitrines of Tervuren, the Musée de I’Homme, or the Völkerkunde museum in Berlin . . . ?” Why, I’d be glad to. I would suggest first of all more attention to the relevant ethnologic literature (yes, it is there) and, above all, to the history of religion. Of course there are many problems in the anthropological literature and many blind places in our knowledge of tribal attitudes, but in fact the one area where there is rather abundant knowledge is that of ritual practices, which is the major area relevant to the works in the exhibition. To illustrate the sometimes difficult types of content that primitive images might have, I might even be so bold as to suggest my own monograph on some Indus Valley icons, published in RES, journal of the Peabody Museum of Harvard University and of the Laboratoire d’Ethnologie of the University of Paris. I would be glad to provide further reading lists.

Both Rubin and Varnedoe seem determinedly innocent of serious attention to the question of how primitive cultures develop and change. In prehistoric art, for example, thousands of years may be needed for a small development in image-making The situation is very likely the same in more recent tribal cultures. This I referred to as “communal inventiveness,” which Rubin describes as “a process I [Rubin] leave the reader to try imagining.” Well, one might for example try imagining the American automobile industry, where stylistic change arises through a communal development, or again look at a shelf full of books and contemplate the changes in book design over the last hundred years, or, again, the design changes of utilitarian objects like household goods and cigarette lighters, all of which change in essentially communal ways. The evidence is that tribal images were regarded as utilitarian objects by their makers and users, and that their design changes would better be compared with those of our utilitarian objects than with the originality-obsessed Western practice of art.

When Rubin says that I want “the tribal objects presented in a wholly integral way (never spelled out) in which not even anthropological museums show them; he is being disingenuous. Rubin claims that I ”demanded" “‘environments’” in the installation; no such demand occurs in my article. I want the objects written about without attributing our motives to their makers. I want writing and exhibiting that are as clean as possible of ego projections. That is all. In response to my request for more information about the tribal objects, Rubin and Varnedoe claim that they cannot be dated and, somehow, need not be dated. Yet anyone who opens a scholarly book on primitive objects, or who visits anthropological museums (and by the way, I’ll put my hours in them against Rubin’s any day), will see that at least approximate dates are usually given for the works. The fact that these dates are reconstructed by scholars does not in the least invalidate them, as Rubin claims; all dates are reconstructed by scholars. The fact that these reconstructions will change as the available evidence changes does not mean we should ignore them; it means that at any time we must use the best possible scholarly approximation, with an understanding that it is less than absolute. Without dates how do we know that we are dealing with what Rubin calls “long-dead tribal artists”? One very good reason for including dates in this show—one brought up in my article and conveniently ignored by both Rubin and Varnedoe—is that it is absolutely certain that tribal image-making since the 19th century has been increasingly influenced by Western arts and crafts. The distinction between ethnic and tourist arts is all important.1 As soon as a market began to exist for tribal objects their character changed. If the objects in the show are all genuine, that is, premarket, or pretourist works, then they were used in ritual ways as I described in the article; if they were not so used, then they are the products of tourist industries. In other words, the omission of dates amounts to another hidden tactic for avoiding the confrontation with the actual uses of these objects in their tribal settings. One could almost believe that Rubin would rather show tourist works, since they were never used in ways that Western eyes have trouble facing.

Let’s consider the tribal object that Rubin uses in an attempt to suggest that my approach is opposed to esthetic feeling and appreciation—the large Nukuoro Island figure that introduces the exhibition. Rubin identifies this figure as “the goddess Kave,” and says no more. By mentioning the mythological title Rubin gets one foot into the ethnology of the piece, but never puts the other in. And why not? Brian Brake, James McNeish, and David Simmons, in their book Art of the Pacific, show the same icon of Kave and note that she was a goddess to whom human sacrifices were offered.2 Rubin has, in other words, invoked the very positive feelings that Greek mythology and related traditions have instilled in us toward the idea of a "goddess,” in connection with a figure that should have very different associations. If he was going to name her at all he should have told us not only who but what she is. The other way would have been simply to present the icon as an object, with no references to goddesses and myth-names at all. Let me put the point clearly: if the Kave icon is authentic, then it was used in its own culture for human sacrifices rather than for esthetic enjoyment; if, on the other hand, it was never bloodied by human sacrifice, then it is probably not authentic but a tourist work.

Rubin focuses very extensively on the fact that I raised questions about calling tribal objects artworks plain and simple. He says that to me the tribal objects are “not art, but religion or magic.” This fragment of a quotation from my article eliminates context and attributes to me a point I made about a hypothetical tribal observer. What I actually wrote was this: “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.” The statement, by the way, is correct beyond a doubt. I have not, in other words, denied these objects any status by questioning the way their wholeness is fragmented and repressed as they are appropriated into Rubin’s art realm. The question ultimately is not whether these things are or are not art (an essentially barren question of linguistic usage), or whether they should or should not be regarded as art; the real issue is how these men regard art and its relationship to the world, to history, to culture, to civilization. This is not exclusively a question about so-called civilized versus so-called primitive cultures. It is a question about the critic’s or curator’s willful ego-projections onto the objects. (How Rubin represented the works of the Dadaists and Surrealists in an earlier book is a similar case.) The problem with calling the tribal objects art merely through their design similarity to Modern art is precisely that this tactic amounts to a rejection of the intentions of the makers and an imposition on them of foreign intentions that would not have made sense to them.

Varnedoe replies to my desire that the tribal image-makers’ intentionality be attended to by claiming that “modern literary theory has driven home repeatedly [the idea that] there is no validity in a model of knowledge based on the ideal of a privileged reading of an original determining intention.” By “modern literary theory” he seems to mean the formulation by W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley, in the ’40s, of the idea of the intentional fallacy. Of course, an artist’s statements cannot be allowed utterly to control the interpretation of his or her work. but neither can they be ignored. In any case the idea of the intentional fallacy is wrongly brought up by Varnedoe here; it does not apply to my argument. I am talking about the fact that cultural objects arise in cultural contexts, and that within that larger context—in which the particular maker’s personal and specific intentions are merely a detail within a larger whole—they are communally understood in certain ways which, for that culture, constitute the reality of the object. Varnedoe’s invocation of the intentional fallacy springs from his misunderstanding of the difference between the word intention, which refers to an individual’s intention and is what the intentional fallacy is about, and intentionality, which is a larger world-constituting type of understanding having always communal resonances. The whole-cloth 19th-centuryism of Varnedoe’s thought is revealed in a display of comedic ignorance. He quotes me as using the term “intentionalities” and notes parenthetically that this is “a word [McEvilley] favors as a substitute for the simpler ‘intentions.’” He evidently doesn’t recognize that ”intentionality“ is a technical term in the philosophy of Edmund Husserl and in the whole phenomenological movement. I used the word ”intentionalities“ rather than the very different word ”intentions“ to indicate that, like linguistic philosophy, phenomenology also would give us insight into the problems at issue here—to indicate that I was discussing the way that one’s cultural horizon, like one’s language, both shapes the mind and constitutes the world it relates to. Twentieth-century ways of thinking like linguistic philosophy and phenomenology have tried precisely to pry us loose from the unremitting colonialistic egotism of our 19th-century ways. Varnedoe remains silent in the face of such arguments, evidently not recognizing the terminologies. Both he and Rubin even use quotation marks around ”intentionality" as if to suggest that it is some monstrous, affected coinage of mine. The anthropological linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf have argued very influentially that if a people’s language does not permit the expression of a certain concept, then there can be no reason at all for saying that that people have that concept. This fact has been experimentally confirmed in a number of ways.3 Now, in light of that, can there be any justification for ignoring the fact that the languages of the tribal cultures whose objects were seen at MoMA utterly lacked words or even circumlocutions that could express what we mean by art? It is a simple fact, both on linguistic and on ethnological grounds, that the makers and users of the tribal objects in the MoMA show did not regard them at all as we regard our art. Why then should our concept prevail over theirs in discussions of their objects? Is it not merely arrogance to bring in our term from outside, on all the tribal objects we like, as if we knew what they were? Is it not in fact a dead end to show no curiosity about attitudes different from our own?

The making of objects whose only or primary function is pure contemplation and esthetic appreciation is, in Western cultural history, peculiar to ancient Greek culture and its descendants and off shoots, including us. Something similar, but by no means identical, arose in Tang-dynasty China. Most of the worlds cultures did not know of this activity until they came into contact with the European stream of influence. What we call art, in other words, as opposed to functional types of image-making and craftsmanship, is not an etic or objective and universal phenomenon.

Rubin, noting that tribal peoples lack a word for art, remarks, “But the same is true for the ancient Egyptians, yet that culture’s painting and sculpture is not denied the status of art.” The fact is that most of what we regard as Egyptian art works the Egyptians themselves understood as functional objects within the very practical activity of funerary magic. To us, the activity of making something art prominently involves the act of displaying it or reporting on to others. But virtually every object in the great Egyptian Museum at Cairo was made to be buried underground and hidden from human eyes and from human knowledge forever; nor is there anywhere in the abundant Egyptian literature any hint that ghosts or gods or anyone else were intended to take esthetic pleasure in these objects in the way we do. The reasons why they were so gorgeously designed and crafted, then, remain a mystery which it should be our concern to penetrate rather than to avoid with an easy term. We could honestly say that these things are funerary objects, and then go on to say that we like to look at our artworks next to their funerary objects. But instead we co-opt the whole cultural reality of these objects into our language game, so that we can use a word we feel at home with, regardless of the fact that it has a very limited and partial application to them. Rubin and Varnedoe are implicitly declaring that everything native to these non-Western cultures is unimportant next to our mania for calling their spoons and things art. The tribal person, in other words, has no dignity in terms of his or her awn aspirations and concepts. Our conviction that we understand these things properly by calling them art, even that we elevate them by giving them that name, necessarily implies that the people who made them and the people for whom they were made did not understand them properly—a bizarrely skewed claim. lt is to avoid such atrocities of thinking that I suggest we begin to loosen up our habit of believing that we honor those objects by conferring on them our revered concept “art.”

“McEvilley,” says Rubin, “simply refuses to accept the fact that our story is not about ‘the Other,’ but about ourselves.” In fact my point is the opposite. What is at issue os not simply a matter of attempting to understand other cultures; it is a matter of attempting to understand ourselves. By forcing other cultures into our own familiar modes of naming and feeling we rob them of the power to reveal ourselves by our otherness from them, we rob them of the power to show us our limitations and to suggest passable ways to grow beyond those limits.

Rubin shows no awareness of the complexity of the question, “Is it art?’’ In a very important sense that question is meaningless until completed with some such phrase as ”Is it art to you, or to me, or to that person there?“ This phenomenological aspect relates, again, to the linguistic. The rule of usage as the arbiter of meaning was the fundamental insight of 20th-century linguistic thought, the center of the work of both Ferdinand de Saussure and Ludwig Wittgenstein—the insight that there was no necessary relation between word and thing. As Saussure said, the connection between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary, governed merely by usage. In Wittgensteinian terms, to be art simply means to be called art. The question is not, ”Is it art?,“ but, ”Is it called art?" in this sense, for the figure of the goddess Kave, for example, the answer is double: no, for its makers and the people of the culture in which it was made, it is not art; and yes, for us who call it art, it is art. It is art by our redesignation of it as such; it is art in the same way that unhewn stones brought into a gallery by Robert Smithson were made art by the act of so designating them.

Finally, I think it is clear that Rubin’s emphasis on the question, “Is it art?” involves a serious misreading of my article. I did not say the tribal objects were not art, but that there were several senses in which something might be called art, and that some of these clearly don’t apply to the tribal objects. Neglecting the complexities of the question altogether, Rubin asks, in effect, why did McEvilley question the practice of calling these things art and nothing more, and the only answer he can imagine is this: McEvilley must think it’s not good enough to be art!

He then, most regrettably, takes this drastic misreading to the limit. “Most early anthropology; says Rubin, ”is shot through with such prejudices“ as “the view that the Other is lazy, unintelligent, fit only for travail de nègre and, above all, uncultured.” How easy this blatant reversal of my argument makes it to deal with me. But it gets even worse than that. “I wonder,” Rubin asks gravely, “how many of his readers who saw our show and stood before the monumental Nukuoro Island carving of the goddess Kave that introduces it, share McEvilley’s conviction that what they were looking at was ‘not art.’” He has, in other words, simply struck up the national anthem of the kingdom of esthetic feeling, as if I alone were saying that these objects are not noble, spiritual, and great. In fact, I am saying something quite different—that these objects fall outside the categories of our language, that this is the great freedom they offer us, and that a vast opportunity is lost when we force them into one of the categories of our known language with its familiar and limited horizon or intentionality. But note that along with me Rubin has excluded, without a glance at them or a feeling for them, the Nukuoro Islanders themselves, who, supposedly ”like McEvilley," think that the Kave figure is “not art”—not because it is of insufficient formal beauty to be called art, but because, for all its magnificent formal beauty, like a mountain or an automobile it happens to be something else. Rubin thinks he is doing the Nukuoro Islanders a favor because he is saying that they are like him; but what if they don’t want to be like him? He should face the facts of what the Nukuoro Islanders themselves did before that figure of Kave to which he sings the anthem of esthetic feeling.

In terms of the affirmation or denial of the art identity of tribal works, three periods of history must be distinguished. There was the period prior to the scholarship of Franz Boas, when primitive objects were denied the status of art as if it were an honor that they did not deserve, as if they were just not good enough to be called art. Then came a second phase in which tribal objects such as those in the show were thought be formally and intellectually “good enough” to be called art and the habit arose of so calling them. More recently the possibility has arisen of a third phase, which anthropologists are finding the way into now, when one may begin to look at the tribal objects from the point of view of their own culture and to realize that, whatever they are, they fall in between the categories on our grid. In other words, it is not the objects that are inadequate but our conceptual grasp of them. My skepticism about the act of bestowing the word art in these and certain other contexts is a phase three rather than phase one attitude. I think this is obvious to anyone who reads the article. I must not, of course, be misconstrued as meaning that there should be no museums of primitive art, or courses in primitive art, or studies of the relationships between these objects and ours, and so on. The objects in question are of such great interest that one delights in studying and regarding them, and in so doing the temptation to relate them to things that lock like them from our own culture is easily submitted to. But I suggest that the phase three act must be different from the phase two act of esthetic appreciation that we are all so good at and comfortable with. What we must learn is to see a doubleness, the two aspects at once, simultaneously feeling these objects as art, which is our way of appreciation, and maintaining a sharp and constant awareness of the fact that the people of their own culture did not so feel them. This keen awareness of cultural relativity and of the arbitrariness of one’s own horizon is simply the necessary step in maturation for our culture—and a step necessary for the safety of the whole world.

Finally I must deal with the cheapest of Rubin’s and Varnadoe’s tactics against me, their presentation of me as an ideologue because I speak of subjects besides formal similarities. Rubin says I have transformed the event into “an act of contemporary art politics,” and refers to my “art political ways of thinking.” He is practicing the familiar tactic of dismissing criticism by calling it “political”; what I performed was an act of criticism, not an act of politics. Rubin’s accusations of political motivations are paralleled by Varnadoe’s claim that I am a person interested in violence and the darkness of the unconscious, echoed by Rubin’s repeated quotation of a phrase in which, thinking, for example, of the human sacrifices to Kave, I used the word “blood.” This is really low argumentation. They have attributed to my personal tastes the qualities of primitive religious practices that I denounced them for ignoring and censoring. There is no doubt whatever that primitive religious practices were characterized by what we would call violence, and that many of the objects in the show, if they are genuine, were used in conjunction with sacrifices and ritual bloodshed. I asserted that these men, by editing out the facts, misrepresent the objects. Their replies suggest that because I would not edit out the real qualities of primitive religious rites, I must have a ghoulish attraction to blood and violence. In their view, it seems, an accurate and realistic description of primitive ritual practices would be unhealthy; a totally misleading and censored version like theirs, on the other hand, is supposedly the product of a healthier mind. This Is what I meant by saying that they shouldn’t have dealt with the topic at all: if they feel that the realities of the topic have to be censored out on moralizing grounds, then they manifestly are not the right people to have treated the topic in the first place. Their assumption that to face the topic squarely would somehow show bad character reveals an appalling lack of scholarly integrity. They are forgetting that scholarship (including art history) is a type of science. I felt that the context of blood was necessary to confront because of was factually there. Rubin’s and Varnedoe’s belief that Western civilization and its ethic are served by ignoring the realities of the topic shows an absolute lack of understanding of the difficult responsibility of science to face up to all the facts, not just the pleasant ones.

But these letters, of course, get even worse than that, for example the part where Rubin slops Mom, country, apple pie, and German slogans all over me. It’s his grand peroration, where he goes for nothing less than a destruction of the idea of my humanity. You remember “If the peoples of the world,” he intones somberly, ”are to get along with each other, they will not only have to appreciate their respective ‘otherness’”—note the quotation marks: here again is something he doesn’t really think exists—they will have to recognize their common humanity.” (Wow!) “Some of us,” he says, “still do not think Schiller’s hope that alle Menschen werden Brüder is tainted by co-option. By denying the manifest genius of tribal artists, McEvilley excludes whole peoples from this cultural commonality.” But I have not of course for a moment denied the genius of tribal peoples. I have suggested that it might be saner and more interesting to try to appreciate their genius in as many of its own terms as we can, and that it is to an extent possible to find those terms out. So why don’t we try to do it? As far as excluding people from “this cultural commonality,” I seriously question whether what the peoples of the Third World need is the kind of Western-imposed ”commonality“ implied by a German slogan that is more about forcing people to be ones brothers than about becoming theirs. I, and I think they too, want out of that sick dream. It sounds too much like a Leni Riefenstahl film to me, all the peoples of the world trudging along together hollering out the Ode to Joy. That Rubin would introduce such a completely gratuitous and sophistic argumentum ad hominem, one so ungrounded in argumentation, is disgraceful, and a disgrace that our readers will have seen he shares with his collaborator, whose only tactics are sophistic reversals, ad hominem arguments, and empty denials. In response, for example, to my claim that his ”Contemporary Explorations" section was dominated by the earth mother view of the female, he asserts that he denied that association in his essay; well, deny it he might, but the fact remains that that is what he did in the exhibition. Both men in effect say, “don’t watch what I actually do, just listen to my claims about what I do.”

I gave the “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art” exhibition reasoned criticism, and Rubin and Varnedoe gave me back rhetorical tricks. I gave them historical and philosophical arguments and they met not one of them, not one, dear reader, because they could not. They are bad bears indeed, and I am going to bark them back into the forest now as I barked them out some months ago so we could look at them. I did not think they would look as bad as they do. I expected worthier adversaries.


1. See, for example. Nelson H.H. Graburn, ed., Ethnic and Tourist Arts, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

2. Brian Brake, James McNeish, and David Simmons, Art of the Pacific, New York: Harry N. Abrams. Inc., 1980, p. 132.

3. See, for example, B. Berlin and P. Kay, Basic Color Terms, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1970; A. Capell, Studies in Socio-Linguistics, Hawthorne, N.Y.: Mouton, 1966, and R. Brown and E. Lenneberg, “A Study in Language and Cognition,” in S. Saporta, ed., Psycholinguistics, New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1961.