TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT May 1985

LETTERS

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

To the Editor:
Under normal circumstances I would not trouble __Artforum’s readers with a continuation of the exchange between myself and Thomas McEvilley on the “’Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art“ exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art [“Doctor Lawyer Indian Chief,” November 1984; “Letters,” February 1985]. However, there are important issues which have been obscured in this fray, and these need clarifying. Thus I ask the reader to rise above the intemperate tone of McEvilley’s “final word” and to—dare I say?—please bear with me.

In places, McEvilley and I argue past each other, creating differences where I hope we might in time agree. But there is no mistaking the huge gap in opinion that separates us. McEvilley’s disgust with the history of Western colonialism—a history I deplore as much as he does—unfortunately leads him to the kind of indiscriminate extremism where Schiller becomes a sloganeer comparable to Hitler’s pet filmmaker, and where we are asked to admire most those contemporary artists who somehow have the gift of “literally forgetting [Western civilization’s] values.” McEvilley is surely not alone in his anti-Western position—but he is surely right if he senses that these are not the positions of the organizers of the exhibition. It is no wonder that he finds so much to criticize in the show and, as I took the trouble to suggest at the beginning of this exchange, anyone interested in these issues can only be impressed by the sincerity and intensity of his response.

But there is obviously one tradition of Western thought that McEvilley admires—at least, so one would gather from his eagerness to cite experimental evidence and his appeal to scientific method in art history—and that is the Western practice of scholarly and scientific inquiry, which rests ultimately on the tradition of critical dialogue. I more than share McEvilley’s enthusiasm for this tradition, and, as any student of my writings will know, I have in the past found such exchanges—many of them stemming from disagreements at least as great as that between McEvilley and myself—to be immensely profitable and stimulating.

I had hoped that the exchange between McEvilley and myself would continue that tradition. But in order for such exchanges to be productive it is necessary that the intellectual basis of critical discussion not be undermined. In the history of rational inquiry, it has generally been thought unproductive to attack what you take to be your opponent’s motives rather than his arguments—and particularly unproductive to attribute to him sinister or conspiratorial motives. Nor does it advance the discussion to appeal to discredited or, worse, unnamed authorities. And it is fatally destructive to the nature of discourse—however much it may appeal in the heat of intellectual contest, and even on what may seem to be a minor point—to fabricate evidence rather than admit error.

Anyone who has taken the trouble to read my writings or attend my lectures will be as unable as I am to recognize McEvilley’s portrait of me as a kind of high priest who insures the mysterious “canons” of what McEvilley calls “formalist Modernism,” and who dwells in “the temple of formalist Modernism” on 53rd Street, where the “cult of pure form” is unashamedly practiced according to the “dogma of universal esthetic feeling.” I suppose that I should be flattered to be mistaken for this Druid, since he is obviously quite a guy. (He will do anything—including mounting exhibitions that co-opt entirely unrelated art—in order to “revalidate Modernist esthetic canons.”) But then (I surmise) he has some unattractive traits, too: according to McEvilley, he is always ready to abandon a colleague when it seems convenient. Thus, McEvilley writes that Rubin “begins his reply, understandably, by distancing himself from [Kirk] Varnedoe’s ‘Contemporary Explorations’ section of the show.” My remark about not speaking for my colleague did no more, of course, than recognize that, as Varnedoe was appending his own letter, I considered him more than able to speak for himself. Lest there be any doubt whatever in McEvilley’s mind, I very much like Varnedoe’s selections for “Contemporary Explorations,” as I did his entirely persuasive letter outlining the principles behind them. Above and beyond inevitable differences in judgment—indeed, in part because of them—Varnedoe’s particular contributions to all parts of the show were critical to its success.

Alas, all those who will now haunt the galleries of the Museum hoping for a glimpse of the Dark Lord of Modernism will be sadly disappointed. My own ambitions are much more modest than those McEvilley imagines for me. In all my work I have never thought to “validate” Modernism; I am only trying to understand it. Nor can I fathom what McEvilley means when he says, citing our show of the late work of Cézanne, that Modernism is “self-validating.” Is it that it doesn’t have to be approved by the party or the church? Or McEvilley? And how does Cézanne’s art go on “validating and invalidating other things’? What does it ”invalidate“? What has been suppressed from MoMA’s 2Oth-century collection because ”invalidated“ by Cézanne? And is Modernism ”above the web of . . . cultural change,“ as McEvilley claims? What better example of the way it is not than primitivism itself? The very year of Cézanne’s memorial exhibition, artists presumably ”validated“ by him, Picasso and Braque, began to study tribal art, which Cézanne would surely never have considered ”valid."1

It is my supposed fixation with something called “pure form” (a meaningless phrase I have never used nor would think of using2) that, according to McEvilley, has left me entirely uninterested in the historical context of any art. I, on the other hand, would never have become an art historian were I not committed to the belief that the fullest understanding of art objects requires that we know as much as we possibly can about the cultures from which they came. It is precisely because I am concerned with historical context that I virtually omitted anthropological information from the exhibition—richly stimulating though I find it—where it could only have misled the viewer about the actual intellectual context and content of Modernist primitivism, which, after all, was the subject of our show. It is simply a fact that (with but rare exceptions, beginning only around 1930) the cultural and historical context of 20th-century primitivism did not include anthropological information; it was totally irrelevant to the pioneer Modernists’ reaction to tribal objects.

The rare instances when Modernist artists possessed some ethnological information were noted in our book. However, the problem with even these anthropological “facts” is that they usually turned out to be fictions—i.e., theories discredited by later anthropologists. Let me give a classic example. Michel Leiris was one of many ethnologists I consulted several times in preparing our show. A member of the Dakar-Djibouti mission of 1931–33, he is an expert on the collection of the Musée de I’Homme, a great writer, and was long a close friend of Picasso. He told me that, by the ’30s, Picasso would certainly have heard that the big-nose Baga (Guinea) Nimba figures and masks were a sort of “goddess of fertility”—the way many collectors and dealers in African art still refer to them.3 This merited being brought into the discussion because Picasso owned two such figures and a giant mask (which stood in the entrance of his château), and the big-nose busts of Marie-Thérèse Walter he sculpted at that time (and her image in Girl before a Mirror) associate her with a kind of fertility goddess.

Today, however, the anthropologist Leon Siroto, a specialist in West African art, will tell you that the Baga figures have nothing demonstrable to do with a “goddess of fertility” and that, even for the mask, such an interpretation is inadequate (“fertility” is only one of its possible aspects) and misleading (because the very word “goddess” is Eurocentric and wrongly applied in the case at hand to African cult symbols). So had we presented these tribal objects from the perspective of today’s anthropology, we would have had to explain that on this rare occasion when a Modern artist actually knew something about “primitive context, meaning, [or) content,” what he knew was essentially a fiction. I can imagine the visitors reeling out of the galleries after attempting to digest such dual-track information. That the operative fictions of Modernist primitivism were in fact Eurocentric was, of course, something we had accepted, indeed, insisted upon from the start. The whole history of Modernist primitivism, at least until very recently, took place within the context of Eurocentric assumptions, and it cannot be recounted or understood outside those terms—certainly not within the ex post facto framework of today’s advanced anthropology.

Similar strictures apply to the problem of providing dates for tribal works. Our omission of individual dates for the tribal objects, which we had described as mostly from the later 19th and early 20th centuries, was seen by McEvilley as “another hidden tactic for avoiding the confrontation with the actual uses of these objects in their tribal settings”—as if the latter ethnological concerns were relevant, or had ever been our purpose. Moreover, not a single tribal object in our show can be dated “precisely,” and precious few can even be dated approximately. Where tribal objects are given dates by scholars, such dates are almost always of the exceedingly elastic order of those attributed to a handful of objects in the Menil family collection catalogue (where many of the African objects are totally undated and only 6 of the 44 Oceanic objects are given even approximate dates). As in this catalogue, the most focused dates scholars normally proffer for these objects are of the order of “19th century,” “19th–20th centuries,” and “20th century.” As “20th century” could apply equally to objects made yesterday and those that predate the Modernists’ discovery of tribal art, it is obvious that this or other vague dates are useless for the study of primitivism. Far more important—indeed, crucial—for the study of primitivism was the question of the dates at which objects could have been seen in the West,a subject to which we devoted an immense and unprecedented scholarly effort. (McEvilley’s claim that in “anthropological museums . . . at least approximate dates are usually given for the works” is simply untrue. In the African section of the Musée de I’Homme in Paris—as I took the trouble to reconfirm on a recent visit—not one of the labels for any of the hundreds of objects contains even an approximate date. The same thing is true for the tribal objects in the African and Oceanic galleries of the American Museum of Natural History—among other ethnological museums.)

Of course, in the largest sense there are “anthropological” issues at stake throughout the show, in that it deals with human artifacts and was always intended to raise larger questions about the nature of human creativity. Here there is room for rich and profitable debate between McEvilley and myself,as there is, indeed, room for such debate between art historians and anthropologists, as well as, of course, among anthropologists themselves. (It was precisely in order to welcome and further such debate that we invited a group of distinguished anthropologists and historians of primitive art to join us in a day of intellectual exchange about the exhibition, in early November.) It is, of course, a basic assumption of the exhibition that when we talk about the tribal objects as art or sculpture we are saying something perfectly sensible and meaningful. McEvilley refuses to accept this position, and embraces instead a radical form of cultural relativism. In support of this position, he dogmatically cites various kinds of evidence from art history, anthropology, and anthropological linguistics.

Now, I do not pretend to be anything of an expert on either anthropological or linguistic issues. Nor do I imagine that such immensely rich and complicated issues can be sorted out in this kind of exchange (though I would think it not impossible that some real progress might still be made). I can only envy McEvilley’s authority in art history, anthropology, linguistics, phenomenology, and literary theory, and sympathize with his need to mock the comedic ignorance of those less accomplished than he. Alas, as but a poor art historian, I can only hope that after a professional lifetime in this field I know something about it, at least. And yet when I come to consider McEvilley’s art-historical citations, I am often really startled. For example, in order to cut through a supposed “myth of the continuity of Western art history” (another sacred dogma of mine which somehow I had previously been unaware I held), McEvilley asks us to consider that "the charioteer of Delphi, ca. 470 B.C., for example, was seen totally [sic] differently in classical Greece from the way we see him now. He was not alone in that noble, self-sufficient serenity of transcendental angelic whiteness that we see. Perhaps I should take it less amiss to find my own ideas being transformed beyond recognition by McEvilley, when I discover that he can also somehow transform this familiar monument of introductory art history from a bronze into a marble.

I am afraid that almost all of McEvilley’s art-historical assertions come from the same quarry as the marble charioteer. I had pointed out that the Egyptians produced art, although they had no word for it. McEvilley counters this by saying that “what we regard as Egyptian artworks the Egyptians themselves understood as functional objects within the very practical activity of funerary magic. . . . virtually every object in the great Egyptian Museum at Cairo was made to be buried underground and hidden from human eyes and human knowledge forever. . . . the reasons why their [painting, sculpture and decorated objects] were so gorgeously designed and crafted, then, remains a mystery. . . .” Only to McEvilley. McEvilley seems to be crossing his fingers and hoping that none of his readers has been to the Egyptian Museum, where, contrary to his assertion, there are a great many objects not intended “to be buried underground.“4 Some of the objects in royal tombs were, in fact, the very ones previously used in palaces. Moreover, anyone who visits Karnak or a variety of other sites can still see a great deal of Egyptian painting and sculpture that was intended to be seen in the light of day. Indeed, the tomb paintings, sculptures, and objects were not (as Leo Steinberg said to me of this passage in McEvilley’s reply) put underground to be hidden from human eyes forever. ”They were designed,“ he observed,” to be enjoyed, both functionally and esthetically by human eyes in an assured afterlife precisely forever. McEvilley is simply projecting his own skepticism about the afterlife upon the ancient Egyptians.“ Or—may I add?—“appropriating their intentionality into his.”

In defense of his astonishing concept of “communal inventiveness’’ as a description of the process of change in tribal art, McEvilley cites “the American automobile industry, where stylistic change arises through a communal development, . . . or, again, the design changes of utilitarian objects like household goods and cigarette lighters. . . .” Yet, as any beginning student in the history of industrial design knows, the development of design objects—including automobiles and cigarette lighters—has been very much the consequence of individual inspirations by gifted designers. At the same time, all Western art might be considered “communal” insofar as its development depends on the sharing of ideas within artists’ communities.

McEvilley’s record in art-historical citation, therefore, makes me a little uneasy about the unassailable truth of the anthropological and linguistic evidence he calls on so confidently. And, indeed, a little digging in the library suggests that these assertions are not, shall we say, unproblematic. In his attempt to demonstrate that objects in the show were used for human sacrifice and ritual bloodshed, McEvilley claims to quote a secondary text on the Nukuoro Island Kave figure to the effect that “she was a goddess to whom human sacrifices were offered.” In fact, the authors had said only that she is “reputed to have had human sacrifices offered to her.”5 Going back to the primary scholarly source on the Kave,6 we discover that this story of human sacrifice derives entirely from 19th-century travelers’ tales, a genre known for its Grand Guignol exaggerations. As Susan Vogel, director of The Center for African Art, New York, observes, “hardly any of the African objects in the show ever had blood on them, and, in those few exceptions, it was always chicken blood, not human blood.”7 McEvilley tries to qualify his statement by saying that the objects in the show ’’were used in conjunction with“ sacrifices, but this is equally true of classical Greek art, which also functioned ”in conjunction with sacrifices and ritual bloodshed,“ as when animals were sacrificed on the altar-derived triple steps of the Parthenon. This is not to suggest, of course, that Greek and African rites were the same; but does demonstrate that McEvilley’s attempt to show that tribal objects cannot be considered ”art" in the Western sense because they were sometimes used in conjunction with sacrificial activities is simply unfounded.

Then we come to McEvilley’s claim that the “point of cultural relativism“ can be upheld by the work of the linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorl, whose theories of linguistic relativism have ”been experimentally confirmed in a number of ways.“ I was puzzled to read that this was so, since the thesis, as I understood it—that people don’t have something if they don’t have a word for it—seemed to be falsified many times in my own modest experience as a multilingual. The French, for instance. have no word for design (in recent years they have taken to using the English word, pronounced in the English manner)—and yet who would claim that there was no design in France? I have since been pleased to learn that my own common sense argument was in fact a key point in a famous debunking article about the Whorfian hypothesis by the eminent linguist Joshua Fishman.8 (That is, Fishman pointed out that the claim that we have to have a single word for a thing in order to have the concept is absurd; some languages may need many words to make the same point that in others can be made with one, but that does not mean that the language determines the conceptual structures.) Moreover, McEvilley’s assertion that the tribal peoples ”lacked . . . even circumlocutions that could express what we mean by art“ is simply false. The Africans can and do use numerous ”circumlocutions,“ for they possess many words—such as ”balance,“ ”evenness,“ ”to make beautiful"—that they use to describe the character of their art, and there is a notable literature on this subject.9

On the whole question of whether or not primitive objects can be called art, the simplest position seems to be this: no culture’s art is similar to another’s in every sense; all art is something Other. But since it is made by human beings its Otherness is a matter of degree. If we are to call an object art, it must involve some esthetic ordering of its materials to nonpractical, expressive purposes—whatever magic or religious ends it may also have. This either is the case with tribal sculpture or it is not; and if it is—as seems to me painfully obvious10—then it is perfectly appropriate to call it art, though we may choose to call it many other things as well.

We now come to the question of the truth of McEvilley’s claims about various other exhibitions that were supposed to have made ours old hat. I have very little appetite for this debate, since such questions of priority normally hold no interest for me at all.11 But McEvilley insisted, and presumably continues to insist, that our show was mounted not for its stated purpose but rather in order to “revalidate classical Modernist esthetics.” This theory, in turn, rested syllogistically on a set of ’’facts’’ purportedly proving that our exhibition was “not new” and that, therefore, it must have some other, secret agenda. The necessity of contesting McEvilley’s “facts” therefore, lay less in their intrinsic importance than in their role in his reasoning—though it is worth getting the record straight in any event.

Rather than concede mistakes in the face of my critique, McEvilley returned with “proofs” designed to show the errors were mine. (“If we pause and count up the inaccuracies they have found, we see that Rubin has found none. . . .“). The slippery nature of his reply, however, has shifted the issue to the more significant and telling area of scholarly honesty. Take the question of the content of the Beaubourg vitrines. ”Rubin," he writes,

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 the light of the fact, acknowledged by Rubin, that no exact listing of the objects has been found. Still, the fact that some of the objects there belonged to early Modernist artists is acknowledged by all.

For a man who accuses me of “the fallacy called the Appeal to Authority” because I cite Picasso on Picasso’s own views about primitive objects, the reference to an unnamed “authority” in the above passage is extraordinary. I wonder if this “authority” is not an invention of McEvilley for, so far as I know, I am alone in having made a study of Picasso’s and Braque’s tribal objects and their various locations. Let McEvilley refute me by naming his “authority” and describing the bona fides that entitle him or her to an opinion on this specialized subiect.12 More importantly, however, there is nothing at all “moot” about this question. There cannot have been any of Braque’s or Picasso’s tribal sculptures in the Beaubourg vitrines since there are none in the collection of the Musée de I’Homme, which provided Beaubourg with the objects. Thus the issue of a supposedly lost “listing” is irrelevant. Nor did I ever “acknowledge,” as McEvilley claims, that no such list had been found. I never mentioned any list. Moreover, I always assumed that the Musée de I’Homme had such a list; they do, and I now have a copy of it.13 Finally, “the fact that some of the objects [in the Beaubourg vitrines] belonged to early Modernist artists” is not “acknowledged by all,” as McEvilley claims. It was not ”acknowledged" by me, nor has it been, so far as I know, by anyone except McEvilley. And with good reason, for none of the objects lent by the Musée de I’Homme ever belonged to a Modern artist.14

Now let us turn to the Menil family show, where McEvilley attempts to prove he is right about its role as a precedent for our exhibition by pointing to

a plain statement in the catalogue, by Walter Hopps, curator of the exhibition, discussing the mixing of primitive and modern objects, in which [Hopps] notes, “Ainsi, dans la section des surréalistes, on trouve, a côte 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). [Ellipses McEvilley’s.]

All of this would seem pretty convincing . . . unless you had seen the Menil show (which McEvilley, to judge from what he says, evidently did not), or unless you had at hand the catalogue, La rime et la raison, from which McEvilley has misappropriated his “facts.” In the latter case you would see that Hopps’ sentence about ”objects that belonged to [the Surrealists],“ though slightly ambiguous because poorly translated, is not located, as McEvilley claims, in a discussion about the ”mixing of primitive and Modern objects.” And if you had seen the show, you would have known that the “objects” to which Hopps was, in fact, referring were not tribal sculptures at all but bibelots, exotica, and memorabilia; the few tribal sculptures in those areas were not from artists’ collections, nor did Walter Hopps ever say they were.15 But that’s not all. The last part of McEvilley’s paragraph cites Eskimo masks in the Menil show as examples of tribal objects supposedly owned by Surrealists, an assertion elaborated with a quotation seemingly continued from Hopps’ text. But this passage (“several were bought . . .”) is by another author, occurs 339 pages later in the Menil catalogue, and does not refer to the Eskimo masks in the show.16 Is this the scholarship that ”is a type of science”?

William Rubin
The Museum of Modern Art New York

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NOTES

1. Cézanne was so deeply attached to the tradition of Renaissance and post-Renaissance painting, with its emphasis on visual perception and on sculptural plasticity. that he derisively dismissed Gauguin’s mature style as “Chinese painting.” One can hardly imagine his having accepted the far more conceptual and ideographic stylizations of tribal art.

2. I have, of course, used the term “pure painting,” but only and always as a translation of French terms, as in Dada and Surrealist Art, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1968, p. 15: “ . . . its less absolutist explorations led indeed to a revival of ‘poetic painting’ (peinture-poésie as opposed to peinture-peinture, or ‘pure painting,’ as it is spoken of in the modern French tradition)” and p. 150: " . . . thus the collective appellation peinture-poésie, or poetic painting, as opposed to peinture-pure, or peinture-peinture (by which advanced abstraction was sometimes known in France).”

3. This is not meant to imply that Leiris himself subscribes to such a description, only that he said it was common coin in the ’30s among amateurs of what was then universally called art nègre, and that Picasso would have heard of it.

4. Remembering a good deal of large sculpture from my visit to that museum. I checked with the Egyptologists at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who suggested that something less than one-fourth of what is visible of this immense and as yet not fully catalogued collection would be material not taken from tombs. Thus, tomb material could hardly be said to comprise “virtually every object" there.

5. Brian Brake [photographs], James McNeish [conversetions], and David Simmons [commentary]. Art of the Pacific, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1980. See Simmons note for catalogue #78.

6. Janet Davidson, “A Wooden Image from Nukuoro in the Auckland Museum,” Journal of the Polynesian Society, March 1968. There we discover that the suggestion of human sacrifice was hearsay reported by traders, among them the donor, Mr. Cousens, whose statement was published in an Auckland newspaper in 1878. The newspaper says that it “cannot say” if the statement was “well founded,” and observes: ”It [the sculpture] is very rude, but it is for this reason a proof of the barbarous and primitive worship in the islands." (Cf. also note 7.)

7. As the making of sculptures was, for the African artist, a primarily religious function, he often—as Vogel notes—sacrificed a chicken before beginning a piece.

In Africa, human sacrifice, except in the kingdoms of Dahomey and Benin, was always very rare, reserved for major ritual occasions. “Human sacrifice is a difficult subject on which to find unbiased information,” writes Vogel. ”Early visitors to Africa—missionaries or representatives of the colonial powers—had every reason to make their constituents in Europe believe that the Africans whom they encountered were benighted savages, badly in need of conversion or policing. They tended to exaggerate the prevalence of human sacrifice" (“Rapacious Birds and Severed Heads: Early Nigerian Bronze Rings,” Art Institute of Chicago Centennial Lectures, Museum Studies X, 1983, pp. 330–57.)

8. Joshua Fishman, “A Systematization of the Whorfian Hypothesis,” Behavioral Science, v. 5, 1960–61, p. 323; cf. also Elizabeth Rosche, “Linguistic Relativity” in Albert Silverstein, ed., Human Communication: Theoretical Explorations, New York: Halsted Press, 1974.

9. As, for example, Robert Farris Thompson, “Yoruba Artistic Criticism,” The Traditional Artist in African Societies, ed. Warren L. d’Azevedo, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973, and Susan M. Vogel, ”Baule and Yoruba Art Criticism: A Comparison,” The Visual Arts: Plastic and Graphic. ed. Justine M. Cordwell, Hawthorne, NY: Mouton Pubs., 1979.

10. How else explain—among other stylistic variations—the obvious changes within established types made by single sculptors, such as the innovations of the Buli Master or the Master of Ogol? Such differences alter the expressiveness of the object, but cannot be explained by practical cult necessities; nor do they reflect any change in iconography.

11. MoMA had never claimed that “’Primitivism’” was the first show anywhere in which tribal objects from artists’ collections had been juxtaposed with their work, only that it was the first to deal with the subject in depth and “in the light of informed art history.” A small exhibition had taken place in Berhn many years ago, in which some objects belonging to German Expressionist artists were shown with their work. Our show was the first to do this with tribal art belonging to all major European and American primitivists.

12. McEvilley cites two curators, Jean-Yves Mock and Jean Hubert Martin, on other aspects of the Beaubourg vitrines. Neither, I am certain, would claim the slightest expertise on the subject of tribal art in general, nor the tribal art collections of Modern artists in particular.

13. This list, and the accompanying information, for both of which I am indebted to Francine Ndiaye, confirms my statement that a number of the tribal objects at Beaubourg were from regions and were of types—as well as accessioned at dates—that would have made it impossible for them to be seen by Paris Modernists. The list shows both McEvilley and me to have been in error about the number of objects involved. Beaubourg received 65, not 100, objects, of which 13 were returned almost immediately. There is no record of how many of the remaining 52 objects were shown at any one time, although it is clearly more than I had remembered.

14. The only possible exception to what I have been saying about the Beaubourg vitrines, and a very unlikely one, concerns a Fang mask bequeathed to the Centre Pompidou by the widow of André Derain. which may have been shown for a short time after its arrival at Beaubourg in the African vitrine. Jean-Hubert Martin thinks this is possible, but is not sure. The fiche for the object indicates that it was not shown at all. It was an object we searched for during a period of years, never coming upon it at Beaubourg. Through an agent for the late Mme. Derain’s estate, we finally discovered that it had been given to Beaubourg. Even in the unlikely event that this Derain-owned object were to have been shown for a short time, it would fall far short of confirming that “some of the objects there belonged to early Modern artists.”

15. See La rime et la raison, Paris: Editions de la Reunion des Musées nationaux. 1984, p. 16 and passim.

16. The quotation in the second part of McEvilley’s paragraph is from the catalogue notes on the Kuskokwim masks of the 19th-century. None of the catalogue notes is individually signed, but all were by the experts who wrote the introductory texts on the geographical area involved, as McEvilley should well have been aware. On page 355, Edmund Carpenter. writing of the Menil family Eskimo masks, says that they come from a group of 32 pieces purchased at the beginning of the century by George Heye. Of this group, he notes, "many were later acquired by French Surrealists established in New York.” He does not refer in the quoted phrase to the Menil masks, which—as he has reconfirmed to me—never belonged to Surrealist artists.

Thomas McEvilley replies:
Boy, is the big bear mad at me. Swatting at facts that pester him like bee stings, once again William Rubin has dropped the honey into the department of fact-checking to make a really exciting afternoon of it. Once again his charges of factual inaccuracy are empty. It’s all strangely familiar.

Eighteen years ago in the pages of Artforum Rubin published a series of articles on Jackson Pollock. In April, 1967, after the second piece came out, Harold Rosenberg wrote to the editors objecting to what he felt was Rubin’s misrepresentation of his famous article on Action Painting. Rubin, of course, responded to Rosenberg—the correspondence ran two rounds—and began his answer with the phrase, “Looking beyond the disputatious tone of Mr. Rosenberg’s letter. . . . ” Now he begins by asking the reader “to rise above the intemperate tone of McEvilley’s ‘final word’.” (I don’t believe in the concept of a “final word,” by the way.) In the second round of the exchange Rosenberg noted that Rubin “dislikes myth but doesn’t mind basing his argument on gossip.” To this day Rubin relies on private conversations more than on published authority. “Every paragraph in his reply,” wrote Rosenberg then, " . . . contains misstatements of fact. I haven’t the patience (nor will the reader) to deal with more than a few examples.” There is a certain graciousness in Rosenberg’s refusal to tax the readers’ patience by slogging through the mud of Rubin’s factual claims. I am going to make the other choice, however, and walk with the reader into the woods of those claims in order to show their emptiness. (Anyway, I am developing patience at bear-hunting.)

Back then, interestingly, Rosenberg noted, before dealing with “something nasty” from Rubin, that he was not going to go into Rubin’s “weird manners.” This question of “weird manners” is important in the present case because a certain type of so-called gentlemanly manners is in fact nothing but a sanctimonious method for dismissing anyone or anything (such as primitive objects, or me, or any other conscientious objector) that has not been tamed and sterilized to the point of displaying similar weird manners. In the introduction to his current reply to me Rubin calls my tone toward him and the little bear “intemperate.” Yet the reader of our first exchange of letters has seen that Kirk Varnedoe, Rubin’s colleague and apparently also one of these old-school gentlemen, indulging his respect for “manners” and rhetorical twists, labeled me a “racist” for not liking his and Rubin’s treatment of primitive objects. And the other gentleman, Rubin, described me in terms that amount to calling me an enemy of mankind. This it was that elicited my “intemperate” response.

In the present letter Rubin berates me for “the kind of indiscriminate extremism where Schiller becomes a sloganeer comparable to Hitler’s pet filmmaker. . . . ” But I didn’t say that Schiller was like Leni Riefenstahl—I said that Rubin’s application of Schiller’s words to a discussion of the Third World sounded too much like a Riefenstahl film. Schiller was a fundamental part of German high school education in the 19th and early 20th centuries—the educational system that so prominently produced genocide. (Riefenstahl’s progression from celebrating Hitlerism in Triumph of the Will to photographing tribal Africans as decorative objects out of their social and cultural context is not uninteresting in this regard.) For this reason I regarded it as insensitive to look to Schiller for a model and a motto on how to relate to the Third World. Rubin calls my raw nerve on this subject “indiscriminate extremism.” ”McEvilley is surely not alone,“ he says, ”in his anti-Western position—but he is surely right if he senses that these are not the positions of the organizers of the exhibition. It is no wonder he finds so much to criticize. . . . " To dislike his show is anti-Western: what nonsense. We’ve heard that tone before. Rubin thinks that to oppose his will is to oppose Western civilization.

In fact, my whole point is to oppose the ossification and sterilization of Western civilization. This debate is about art. Objects are powerful transitional devices within and between cultures. The way one cultures objects are treated in the context of another culture is a kind of conduct of foreign affairs. Rubin treated the primitive objects as if they had nothing to do with any living societies except ours, as if they were pretty objects and no more, there for us to do with as we like. It’s time to go beyond. Art has; why haven’t the curators of this show?

“It is precisely because I am concerned with historical context,” Rubin writes to me, “that I virtually omitted anthropological information from the exhibition—richly stimulating though I find it—where it could only have misled the viewer about the actual intellectual context and content of Modernist primitivism, which, after all, was the subject of our show. It is simply a fact that (with but rare exceptions, beginning only around 1930) the cultural and historical context of 20th-century primitivism did not include anthropological information; it was totally irrelevant to the pioneer Modernists’ reaction to tribal objects.” Rubin in essence insists that Modernist primitivism is something that applies only to the “pioneer Modernists”; in other words, that the subject of the show was limited to pioneer Modernist primitivism. On purely scholarly grounds the show would have been more coherent if he had in fact limited it to pioneer Modernism, or, rather, to pioneer Modernist primitivism. His argument for the irrelevance of ethnology would then be more defensible, though it would still raise unpleasant questions. But really the exhibition went far beyond this, as his appetite for a blockbuster show engorged more and more of the art of our century into its vitrines. Without even counting Varnedoe’s “Contemporary Explorations” section, about a third of the Modern works in the show were made after 1930, the date at which Rubin says conceptual awareness of ethnology began among Western artists. If Varnedoes section is included the figure rises to about 40 percent. Many of the important works in Rubin’s section of the show are from the period between 1940 and 1979, a time in which we learned an increasing amount about primitive culture. Lucas Samaras is represented with a work from 1962, Arman with a work from 1973, Italo Scanga with a work from 1979. Rubin’s argument for the irrelevance of anthropological information is directly contradicted by the way he went beyond the stated premise of his show—perhaps dimly sensing the hidden countermessage that underlay it, which is that this exhibition is not about 1906 but about an attitude in 1984, the moment in which it opened. If he’d given these more contemporary works the same loving attention he gave to the pioneer Modernists, Rubin would have had to realize how relevant anthropological information is to the question of influence and affinity in the more recent works. But the truth of the matter is that these contemporary artists are subsumed as appendages to the pioneer Modernists, much as the primitive works are subsumed as their footnotes. This does not speak optimistically for the life of contemporary painting and sculpture in the Museum of Modern Art.

When Rubin and I began corresponding he asked me to realize that the show was “not about ‘the Other,’ but about ourselves.” He meant, I suppose, that it was about Picasso, André Derain, and others, who are, if not us, in our past. To really be about us, the show would have to be about the evolution in our relationship to the Other. And it is, but only in a negative way. A century or so ago Western societies generally regarded people of primitive societies as less than human. In cultural terms this meant anyone outside the Greco-Roman diffusion stream; we could not recognize as civilization, or in fact as culture, anything that lacked that imprint. Then, early in this century, we entered a phase in which instead of dreading the non-Greco-Roman as absolutely Other we tamed it by assimilating such parts of it as we could believe to be really like ourselves in deep, underlying ways more fundamental than the Greco-Roman imprint. The easiest assimilation, since it was based on immediately perceivable similarities in design, was to move objects from ethnological to art museums. This was a great and necessary step: from regarding the Other as having no self, we came to regard it as having a relationship to our most advanced creative selves. But at this point the projections-cognitive, interpretive, evaluative—still seemed to go exclusively from us to them.

Unfortunately this is where Rubin’s show stops—yet his exhibition encompasses the 20th century up until the ’70s. And although the Museum has stood still on this question, the world around it has changed. Intellectual investigation has entered a third phase in which it has become increasingly clear that the distinction between learning about oneself and learning about the Other is false: the self cannot be known without reference to an Other, and vice versa. This project of civilization could have unfolded in “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art” in many ways. Robert Farris Thompson, for example, in research recently begun, has taken Picasso and Amedeo Modigliani reproductions to Africa and recorded the impressions of them given by priests and priestesses of traditional religions of Africa. This may be one way to learn what kinds of “affinities,” in a deeper sense, exist between our art and theirs; this may be one way we can extend the project beyond the limits of design similarities; this may be one way we can even begin—dare I say it—to think about influence in reverse.The great thing to realize, the great necessity, is that we are at a moment when distinctions between “us” and “them” are rapidly wasting away. There are no untouched tribal cultures anymore, even ours—or perhaps this show indicated that we are the most untouched of all.

Isn’t it time to remind ourselves that more is at issue here than passageways detouring off passageways and seeming always to be avoiding something? At the beginning of this debate I raised certain questions about the primitive objects included in the show. I asked, were they intended as art by their makers? Were they called art? Were they treated as art by the people for whom they were made? What was it about them that made our early Modernist artists go for them in such a big way? And why did other early Modernists, like Duchamp, receive an opposite message from them? When I asked such questions the bears replied that I was denying to these works and to their makers a status that they were supposedly seeking. This was indeed the point I suggested they were seeking something quite different, which might also be what people like Picasso were seeking in them. As I contemplated the way they had been ripped from their meanings and hung in mix ’n’ match on our walls in New York, resonances came up of an ancient violence far worse than the ritual violence in the history of the objects themselves. Pliny the Younger tells of Carthaginian sailors who entered sub-Saharan Africa by way of a river which after a while went by an island. On the island they saw dark hairy things which moved like people. Going ashore they chased them and captured three wild women. But the women were untamable so they killed them, skinned them, and took the skins back to Carthage, where they were exhibited in the temple, hanging on the wall—like the objects in the show under discussion.

But as lifeless and helpless as these objects lay upon the Modern’s walls, still they mutely questioned all who saw them about what they were doing there and how they fit into our designs, and, in a really quiet way, how we fit into theirs. They were, you might say, early ambassadors from the Third World. They held us in a mutual gaze in their questioning. Why, they asked, did we think we knew them? What was it about ourselves that made us want them? They asked us to think again about all these things.

In terms of the 20th-century discourse on art, the question whether or not a thing is art can appear in several different forms. (1) There is the formalist mode: does it look like the things that we are used to calling art? This mode emphasizes the element of design above all others. One problem with this form of the question is that it can lead only to the identification of more of the same. (2) Then there is the linguistic mode of the question, most prominently in a Wittgensteinian form: is it called art? This form relates to the practical matter of what you would do to find out what art was if you didn’t already think you knew—that is, ask someone whom you thought likely to know to show you or tell you which things are called art. You would find that there was no common “look” to the range of things so called, which means that this mode and the first are already in conflict. (3) The linguistic form of the question verges into an intentional form: is it intended as art, that is, is it regarded as art by its maker and by the people he or she made it for? Minimalism made this mode very common: on entering a gallery one might find an ambiguity about which objects in the room were artworks and which were construction materials. In usage this mode is probably as common as the looks-like-it mode, though they also are in conflict, that is, they designate sets which may overlap but are different. (4) Closely related to this is a functionalist mode: is it contextualized as art, that is, treated like art in the context of its society? For example, is it exhibited, is it overtly appreciated for formal values, and so on? (5) A social-functionalist mode—was it made by an artist?—is also common in the discourse of the last generation or so: Andy Warhol and others answered the question, why is it art, by saying, well, it was made by an artist, and that would make it art. Since the conventions of usage are arbitrary, we can agree among ourselves to call things art on the basis of anyone or more of these criteria. But we should be careful always to know on just what basis we are using the word, and also to know how many of the modes of definition do and do not apply in a certain case.

In his current letter Rubin offers the following definition of art: “if we are to call an object art, it must involve some esthetic ordering of its materials to nonpractical, expressive purposes. . . . ” In this definition the first mode, design similarity, which appears as “esthetic ordering,” is combined with the third mode, artistic intention, which appears as “nonpractical expressive purposes.” Yet primitive objects qualify as “art” only on the first of the five points, similarity of design. This elementary clumsiness about the most basic of art questions is the source of the problems in Rubin’s show. For the primitive objects might look like art, but were not intended as art. Having made his decision, Rubin was forced either to abandon expressive intent as a necessary part of his definition or to falsely insist that primitive art arises from intentions that we would recognize as “nonpractical expressive purposes.” Hence the necessity for the “affinities” category, and the rejection of “communal inventiveness.”

He has been so easily led into this problem by his primary emphasis on design similarity as the criterion of art. Yet in terms of 20th-century art history this is the least useful of all the modes of definition. Duchamp’s Ready-mades would not qualify. Nor would a conceptual art piece employing only language, which clearly does not look like art; yet it is called art, it was intended as art, it is treated as art, and it was made by an artist. Quotational art is a direct mockery of the looks-like-it formula. Furthermore, the criterion of “look” does not allow for innovation. If that criterion had retained its hold on the late-19th- century mind as firmly as it has on Rubin’s and Varnedoe’s, Modern art would never have happened. Modern art arose primarily out of the other four modes of the question.

Roy Sieber, writing on “The Aesthetics of Traditional African Art,” describes what I think happened in the MoMA primitivism show. “Admiration in isolation,” he wrote,

easily leads to misunderstanding, and African art, its functions only vaguely apprehended, has fallen prey to the taste of the twentieth century. While noting the vitality and strength of purpose that pervade it, its admirers misread conservatism for spontaneity and commitment to style for freedom. . . . Such adulation springs from a Western aesthetic rooted in a romantic love for exotic precocity, and, perhaps inevitably, has developed into fashionable cliché taste.

Sieber describes the function of object and image-making in African societies as “intensely practical,” having to do with the magical obtaining of "wealth, prestige, health, children, wives,” and so on.

In my last letter I suggested that it was relevant in terms of the intentionality of the “primitive” works that the languages of their makers lacked a word for “art.” I cited the idea advocated by Benjamin Lee Whorf that the semantic structure of a language, that is, the system of concepts enunciated in its dictionary, is partly formative of cognitive and behavioral patterns. In reply Rubin says he is “pleased to learn that my own common-sense argument was in fact a key point in a famous debunking article about the Whorfian hypothesis by the eminent linguist Joshua Fishman.” Well, I know the article and I have an incredible report for the reader. Fishman is not, in the first place, “debunking” the Whorfian hypothesis; he conceives himself to be among the many people constructively working on it. Secondly, he affirms that the presence or absence of a word in a language’s lexicon is cognitively significant, and thirdly, he cites some of the same research on color perception I cited.

I had gone so far as to say that the languages of Africa and Oceania even lacked circumlocutions which could express what we mean by the word “art.” What I meant essentially was that these cultures—by definition—are those that have not been swept up in the diffusion stream of Greco-Roman culture and hence do not have the specialized concepts peculiar to that stream. Rubin replies that African tribal peoples do have terms to discuss art. But in fact, as the anthropologist Daniel J. Crowley remarks in the essay in African Aesthetic,“ these terms discuss only craftsmanship. As others have pointed out, for example, terms meaning ”smoothing of the surface“ are very prominent in African tribal object discourse, but there are none for compositional factors, or for such Western esthetic concepts as disinterested contemplation or functionlessness. ”New masks were preferred to old because they have the stronger power that comes with youth," Crowley says. What’s at issue in such decision-making is magical power, not esthetic power.

“Each artist,” Crowley goes on, “considers (or says he considers) his own work superior to all others except that of his own teacher.” This is the custom of the magician, or shaman, whose own magic must be claimed the best, except that it depends on his or her master’s magic, which therefore must be even better. Finally, Crowley remarks that in African attitudes toward art, “the stress on technical skill rather than on personal expression parallels the value systems of Western craftsmen such as carpenters and joiners.” One anthropologist seeking to find the names of makers of masks found it very difficult even when the maker was local, because no one ever thought of who made them, just of who owned them. This is the way we relate to goods like automobiles or hand-knit sweaters. It is of course true that there is a degree of personal variation in African sculpture and that investigators like William Fagg and Robert Farris Thompson have managed to distinguish works of individual artists. “But the marks of identity,” as Edmund Carpenter writes, “turn out to be details of craftsmanship or minor stylistic innovations. This is not self-expression. Carvers merely interpret traditional designs the way actors interpret parts.” “Questions of ‘creativity’ and ‘selfexpression,’” Carpenter notes, ” . . . belong to literate traditions. The labels just do not apply to preliteracy" The point that Rubin finds difficult to confront, but which we must, is that although purely in the design sense primitive objects are obviously like our Modern art, still they were not made in anything like the mind-set that we call self-expression. The point is that the production of beautiful objects can be carried out without any of the high-art feelings that we associate with it. This should hint to us vastly different available understandings of our own activity.

My purpose is not, of course, to deprecate the non-Western works—it could only seem that way to one who took our values as absolute—but to reassert their selfhood, and let them be themselves. Our cultural mind-set associates art so strongly with concepts like self-expression that it is difficult for us to confront cultural objects that conform to our sense of beauty but do not arise from anything like our mood of self-expression. What Rubin did was work the material as he would, which, as it turned out, was in his own likeness. What he and countless others have found in the primitive objects is the type of esthetic decisions they are familiar with; they find an account of the type they would give—because of course they are giving it. They find themselves. The question that we must face is whether our so-called etic, international, quasi-objective, scientific point of view is not just another emic or tribal point of view—just our own tribal attitudes and values inflatedly projected into an absolute (an etic norm), much as any tribal member does with the myth of his or her tribe. What awaits us if we take this step may be an experience of ourselves so far gone in mystery as to be unimaginable now.

In an interview in The New York Times of February 20, ostensibly about a new position at the Museum for a contemporary curator, Rubin discussed the criticism “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art” has received. “A lot of people are grinding their own political axes,” he said, “and while I’m not blaming them for that—gung ho, let them do it!—I ask only that they get their facts straight.” I think most of us did. Significant critiques were offered by a number of critics, among them Arthur Danto, who focused on the show’s philosophical presuppositions for The Nation, and Cynthia Nadelman, who dismantled some of its art-historical connections for Artnews. Both these authors regarded substantial numbers of Rubin’s juxtapositions of Modern and primitive works as “meaningless.” Michael Peppiatt attacked several of Rubin’s assertions of influence. According to a story in the January 1985 Art & Auction, Connaissance des Arts, the magazine Peppiatt wrote for, refused to publish Rubin’s and Varnedoe’s replies on various grounds, including content, length, and the inclusion of color photographs. The situation, judging from the Art & Auction story, became deeply embroiled, with strong feelings on both sides. “Here I spent five years on the exhibition,” Rubin is quoted as saying, “I broke my back to make observations in scholarly ways, and some fellow used the show as an excuse to say we presented suppositions as facts.” Rubin, according to Art & Auction, threatened a lawsuit against Connaissance, and the president of the company that publishes the French magazine, Dimitry Jodidio, complained that “ . . . Rubin has commanded his side to sue, if required . . . We can’t work with Rubin now—a pity.” In the end, no lawsuit was brought, and the main points of Rubin’s and Varnedoe’s letters were published by another French magazine, Art Press, in December. Later Connaissance des Arts agreed to publish another letter by Rubin, with no illustrations, in their March issue. There’s a lot riding on this, you see. In the New York Times interview Rubin said that Hilton Kramer and I were “firing at each other through the medium of the exhibition. My attitude about it is, a pox on both your houses.” In fact neither Kramer nor I mentioned each other. Rubin seems to feel that he is invisible in the center.

Rubin refers to the “success” of the exhibition that Danto called “stupendously misconceived.” One is forced to wonder what success means to him. Is it the turnstile? The blockbuster? The approval of a nonspecialized press? The problem with this is that the Museum should have its sights set much higher than entertainment. It should be an institution that would lead the way into a serious cultural future, yet its idea of success seems to have more to do with resisting change,and with a hobbyist enthusiasm for the past. Rubin presented a value system that had been firmly in place for sixty years as if it were a terrific new discovery. This is a holding action against the future, and against art’s tendency to make a living advance into it rather than ride in on a morgue table surrounded by the scent of formaldehyde.

In Rubin’s latest letter the claim of the show’s success is framed as an endorsement of Varnedoe. "Lest there be any doubt whatever in McEvilley’s mind, I very much like Varnedoe’s selections for ‘Contemporary Explorations’ . . . Varnedoe’s particular contributions to all parts of the show were critical to its success.” I would say it another way: Varnedoe’s failure was critical to the failure of the show, to its failure to address the real issue, which is the present—and the contemporary was specifically his job. The Modern’s failure to confront the primitive is directly connected to its failure to confront the contemporary. This linkage seemed implicit in the Times article, where criticism of the museum’s hibernation through contemporary painting and sculpture was edited together with the criticisms the primitivism show received. Varnedoe’s input was both antiprimitive and anticontemporary. About a third of the works included were by dead artists. The truly contemporary, like the truly primitive, wasn’t clean enough for Varnedoe. It has the unpredictability of life upon it, and this exhibition, in the grip of a cliché of the classic, veered with an unstoppable impetus toward the cult of permanence, eternity, and the past. Like a gentleman of the old guard, Varnedoe edited out of the contemporary section anything that too conspicuously lacked “weird manners.” In his catalogue essay he even wrote about his selections as ethically motivated toward sustaining Western institutions, as if Western civilization were so weak and nonadaptive that it would not have a chance in a confrontation. But this is ossification. Cultures do not grow by resisting changes.

A vision very much like Varnedoe’s in his choices for his section of the show was seen ten years ago in a show called “Primitive Presence in the ’70s,” at the Vassar College Art Gallery, which Carter Ratcliff wrote about in the November 1975 Artforum in an article called “On Contemporary Primitivism.” These were conceptually the same shows: both emphasized women, especially Nancy Graves, and the ranges of types of work were similar—Ree Morton’s pieces of wood on the floor in the earlier show, Richard Long’s stones at the Modern; Salvatore Scarpitta’s Fish Sled instead of Michael Singer’s First Gate, and so on. I am not saying that these artworks are alike in themselves or in their makers’ intentions, but I am discussing the curatorial use that can be made of them by exploiting design. Faced with the whole challenge of the present and the future, the shock is that Varnedoe came up with a conception no fresher than one curated by undergraduates at Vassar ten years ago. His approach to art—and Rubin’s, too—is similar to that of Australian aboriginal shamans who would bury power objects in the ground, or hide them in caves; as long as they remained buried, the aborigines believed, the end of the world was postponed. The ritual functioned as reassurance about the endurance of their traditions. If we look at ourselves the way we look at them we can see something similar. We segregate artworks away in places dedicated to maintaining a sense of permanence on every level. The older works that have survived into the present through being buried in museums reassure us that our traditions are intact. The younger works more recently buried derive from the example of the older ones the assurance that they too will survive into a distant future-and with them, it is implied, the traditions that produced them. The primitivism show was a kind of ritual which transpired in a magical atmosphere of complete control. Viewers were bullied through by an exceptionally manipulative and interfering system of wall plaques. As with the canned tours at places like Disneyland or Graceland, the viewer’s mind was not offered an inch of space to move in.

The Museum of Modern Art has given us a 19th-century model on the most pressing issues of the about-to-dawn 21st century. In this generation, tribal points of view are being shed: Roland Kirk plays the didgeridoo in Texas while Mozart’s Susanna sings from a radio in the outback. Today any artist can be stylistically primitive or stylistically Modern. To perpetuate, on the basis of differences in look, the distinction that obtained a century ago is to commit a blindness worse than that of the eye. There is no longer much justification for the distinction; today primitive and Modern are elements in a single vocabulary. In the emerging global information moment, classical Yoruba tradition will take its place beside classical Greek tradition, primitivist Modernism beside Modernist primitivism. This is the great and epochal subject that Rubin and Varnedoe so willfully missed. We no longer live in a separate world. Our tribal view of art history as primarily or exclusively European or Eurocentric will become increasingly harmful as it cuts us off from the emerging Third World and isolates us from the global culture which already is in its early stages. We must have values that can include the rest of the world when the moment comes—and the moment is upon us. Civilization transcends geography, and if history holds one person in this global village, it holds another. In fact, if one of us is privileged over the other in art-historical terms it is the so-called primitive object-makers, through whose legacy we got our last big ride outside our own point of view, and called it Modern art.

Getting down
The debater who will relate only to facts is not unlike the formalist who will relate only to shapes and colors. Rubin say she argues with my statements of fact because my conclusions are based on them; yet he never touches a point with significant content, but only numbers and details that cannot alter the outcome one way or the other. I am confident of my facts, but Rubin’s attitude goes beyond them; it is symptomatic of the whole lost opportunity of this exhibition, which commissioned a team of scholars to seek out details of fact without ever using the information to address larger questions about the subject. Facts need a surrounding framework of ideas to make them meaningful, and their situations are never static. The frameworks have to be constantly revised as social needs change, and the facts have to be constantly revised as the state of the evidence changes. These remarks are not in reference to Rubin’s letters to me but to his larger confusion between facts and growing knowledge. He notes, for example, that the pioneer Modernists sometimes held mistaken ethnological views about the objects they were relating to, and he condescendingly contemplates “the visitors reeling out of the galleries after attempting to digest such dual-track information.” But it would not be very hard to explain, say, that the Modernist artist thought such and such an object was used in a fertility rite when in fact it was used in a healing rite. The visitor might have considered with interest whether that view did or did not appear in the work, and how different or the same the primitive object looked under the different interpretations, and so on. Some actual thought and questioning might have gone on. Rubin’s apparent assumption of the visitor’s lack of intelligence precludes this.

Hibernation can be a productive method—one can go into solitude and come back with understanding—or it can cloud the mind with dreams of scrambled facts, of fabricated-evidence and marble charioteers. “The charioteer of Delphi,” I wrote, “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.” The word “marble” is Rubin’s, not mine, and comes up in his claim that I misreported the classical bronze as a marble work—after which he exercises his wit against me by referring to “the marble charioteer.” Rubin never deals with the question of why I brought the charioteer up in the first place. My point was about the manipulation of the object through its context; we now see the work alone on a pedestal in a white room in the Delphi archaeological museum, in the typical kind of installation with which we relate to works from other cultures or times by isolating them so that they are available to receive our projections. The charioteer is decontextualized in this artificial white atmosphere and made meaningless in terms of his native context, function, and intention. I drew the analogy in my initial article as a criticism of the installation of the primitive works at MoMA, where, similarly, fragments of complex pieces were isolated in such a way as to render them meaningless in their own terms, as if indeed they had no terms of their own. Rubin chose to ignore this issue, as well as others that related to the example of the charioteer, and instead to argue a point of physical detail that would not have affected the argument in any way even if he had gotten it right.

Rubin’s dispute over the goddess Kave is on no higher a level. I said the goddess had human sacrifices offered to her; no, he says, she was only reputed to have had human sacrifices offered to her. But the practice of human sacrifice is always known by report, which is to say, repute. This is a tactic Rubin employs repeatedly: he checks out one of my statements, finds that I was right, then pretends to have found otherwise by focusing on something like the word “reputed,” which does not materially change the evidence in the case in question. The reports of human sacrifice in Oceanic religious practice go far beyond empty travelers’ tales. Any study of ritual practices in the area in the 19th century (and for that matter well into the 20th) will confirm it.

At this point in his argument Rubin makes an interesting transition. He appeals to the authority of Susan Vogel, of The Center for African [not Oceanic] Art, who observes, “hardly any of the African [not Oceanic] objects in the show ever had blood on them, and, in those few exceptions, it was always chicken blood, not human blood.” To begin with, I did not claim that human sacrifices had been offered to any African pieces. Rubin’s calling in of an Africa authority on a question in Oceanic art, his not even addressing the question at hand, is indicative of his unconscious politics toward these objects, which he makes use of as he will. He goes on to say that “McEvilley tries to qualify his statement by saying that the objects in the show ‘were used in conjunction with’ sacrifices.” The locution “tries to qualify” is odd here: I did qualify the statement. Does he suppose that I meant that the statues were used to club victims to death, the masks used to smother them? I wrote, “Many of the objects in the show, if they are genuine, were used in conjunction with sacrifices and ritual bloodshed.” Vogel clearly confirms this for the African works. Rubin has hidden in a footnote the crucial statement: “As the making of sculptures was, for the African artist, a primarily religious function, he often—as Vogel notes—sacrificed a chicken before beginning a piece.“ In other words, the pieces were involved in bloodletting from their very beginning as a matter of course; their later careers would add to it. In the same footnote Rubin goes on to acknowledge that human sacrifice was performed in Africa on major ritual occasions and more frequently ”in the kingdoms of Dahomey and Benin." His authority, though having nothing to do with the Kave question at all, has inadvertently confirmed my larger point.

Farther up in his text Rubin notes that “classical Greek art . . . also functioned ‘in conjunction with’ sacrifices and ritual bloodshed . . . McEvilley’s attempt to show that tribal objects cannot be considered ‘art’ in the Western sense because they were sometimes used in conjunction with sacrificial activities is simply unfounded.” But he has missed the point. The ancient Greek and tribal African situations were not the same in this respect. Many of the objects from Bronze Age Greece that are now in our museums were anonymously made ritual and tomb objects, as in traditional societies around the world, including Africa and Oceania. But around 600 B.C. this situation was visibly changed. Greek artists began self-consciously to sign their works and to use them for nonritual display; soon picture galleries came into existence. This is really when art in our full sense of the word began. In the classical period of Greek culture to which Rubin is referring, there were residual sacrificial rites in connection with sacred architecture, but there was also a self-conscious practice of making artworks intended for self-expression and esthetic appreciation and nothing else. The ritual environment in which some classical Greek artworks found themselves was not their raison d’être,as it was in traditional African and Oceanic societies. (Today some self-conscious artworks are sited in ritual locations–the Roman Catholic mass, for example, with its symbolic sacrifice of flesh and blood, is sometimes performed in the Rothko Chapel—but this does not make them primarily ritual objects.)

The general obsession with numbers in these replies from MoMA is getting comic. Varnedoe was after me about a number in a footnote, Rubin about a number in the text. Can’t they read words? Rubin, in the current letter, refers to the 44 Oceanic objects in the Menil show when really it seems to be 45. Isn’t it dumb of me to even bother bringing it up? The jackpot number that really set this debate cooking is 100, a figure I mentioned in the original article. In addressing “McEvilley’s claims about various other exhibitions that were supposed to have made ours old hat.” Rubin insists, “I have very little appetite for this debate, since such questions of priority normally hold no interest for me at all.” The body language of that sentence as well as all the PR around his show—not to speak of his effort to deny the importance of the many other exhibitions—say the opposite.

In my article in November, in an effort to pick a fairly recent example of these earlier exhibitions, I wrote: “For five years or so 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 I’Homme. Though not actually intermingled with Modern works, these were intended to illustrate relations with them . . .. “ Rubin replied, citing JeanHubert Martin, that ”the two vitrines at the Centre Pompidou together never contained more than twenty or so objects.“ I then replied, ”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 anyone 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.“ Now, in his latest letter, Rubin mentions,that he has nudged the Musée de l’Homme into finding the list and. in the usually unread footnotes,that the number was actually 65. (Rubin remarks in his footnote that 13 pieces were returned to the Musée de l’Homme ”almost immediately“; in my original inquiry I was told that the vitrines, immediately after the installation, looked overcrowded, resulting in the removal of some pieces. I assume that these were the objects returned.) I am glad Rubin had the power to unearth the original list; I didn’t. But I could have said the vitrines contained ”a number" of primitive objects and made the point. My number was the number given in our checking and it is still closer to the mark than Rubin’s original 20.

In the article I went on to say, because this is what I had heard in my fact-checking, that some of the objects in the vitrines had belonged to early Modernist artists including Picasso and Braque. Three months later,on the same subject, I wrote in my reply to Rubin’s first letter: “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 [i.e., the vitrines] 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 objects has been found.” In his current letter Rubin places great emphasis on my use of an unnamed authority and on my statement about the list. He naively equates my reference to an unnamed source with the logical fallacy argumentum ad auctoritatem, the Appeal to Authority, though the two rhetorical moments have nothing to do with one another. In fact they are opposite: the point of the Appeal to Authority is that the name of the source is what carries the power to convince; I repressed the name of my source to protect him from the underlying power situation of this debate.

As for the list, Jean-Hubert Martin, then of the Beaubourg, told me that though it was probably extant its whereabouts were uncertain. Rubin declares, with odd, hysterical emphasis, “I never mentioned any list.” But the fact that he had not seen a list was tacitly acknowledged by several elements in his argument. He spoke, for example, of his recollections, then referred to a “rapid check” of the facts. Now the question is, a rapid check of what? If he was checking the list, then he had it and was being misleading about the number 20, which I knew from Martin and Mock to be definitely too low. If he was checking the memories of informants, then he did not have the list. I was giving him the benefit of the doubt; perhaps I was being too generous. Now that he says he has the list Rubin makes a bald denial (“none of the objects lent by the Musée de I’Homme ever belonged to a Modern artist”), and then, in a footnote, takes it back and acknowledges that there may have been at least one such case as I claimed. Someone with lots of spare time and no hobbies might undertake to analyze and publish the list and clear the matter up.

Of course, I brought up the vitrines in the first place to illustrate the point that the practice of exhibiting primitive works either with Modern works or in their milieu was nothing new or unusual. The case was sound, and Rubin hid among the numbers to evade it. But it should be emphasized that there is no ambiguity whatever about this. Rubin’s primitivist hat is indeed an old one; it’s the amount of surrounding research that’s new, what they call the “light of informed art history.” One could go on naming earlier shows that exhibited primitive art in the milieu of Modern art till the bears come out of the caves and say they’re sorry. Rubin’s essayists in the catalogue are well aware that the practice began early in Modernist primitivism itself. (Even Rubin, nudged by my article, acknowledged some of them in his first letter.) Alfred Stieglitz showed African wood carvings at the Gallery 291 in 1914. In 1915 Modern and primitive works were shown together at the Modern Gallery in New York. In 1933 the Museum of Modern Art showed “American Sources of Modern Art (Aztec, Maya, Inca)”; in 1935 “African Negro Art”; and in 1941, “Indian Art of the United States,” curated by René d’Harnoncourt. A key precursor, one that had special status in the background of Rubin’s show—but that he chose not to mention in his letter—occurred in 1967. In that year the Musée de I’Homme held a major exhibition called “Arts primitifs dans les ateliers d’artistes.” Here, according to the Musée de I’Homme catalogue (I did not see the exhibition), were exhibited primitive art objects that had been in the collections of Braque, Picasso, Derain, Matisse, Max Ernst, Jacques Lipchitz, Vlaminck, Henry Moore, and dozens of other Modern artists. Here were the fantastic photographs that moved so many at MoMA—of Picasso in his studio with a variety of primitive objects in 1909, and above all of Braque in 1911, playing an accordion in front of a wall with a Fang mask on it. And on and on.

Ultimately Rubin is so obsessed with the idea that his exhibition had no precedents that he makes my comments in regard to the Menil-collection exhibition, “La rime et la raison,” the linchpin or rhetorical climax of his letter. I did not see the show. I was not writing about artworks in themselves but only about the record of what had been exhibited, and this record is available through the extensive catalogue. There is of course no requirement of firsthand viewing for scholars who are writing about the record of things. I have written about Plato without ever having seen him. Astronomers write about the stars without visiting them ; physicists write about things too little or too big to see. Present-day writers on the Armory show write about it from the published record, not from having seen it. The press release on the Menil-collection show clearly suggests that it paralleled the MoMA project in its main lines. It said, for example, that “the show tracks the ideas early twentieth-century artists found in primitive art, and the relation of these works to successive, linked waves of European and American art movements: Cubism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism.“ In addition, I saw in the catalogue several references to the mixing of primitive and Modern objects. This is what I wrote about it in my initial article: ”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."

I want to remind the reader that in his first letter Rubin listed three objections to those remarks. I replied. In the current letter he has abandoned two of his objections and focused everything on the statement that the exhibition “sometimes showed a Modern artist’s work in conjunction with primitive objects in his collection.” In that regard I depended on certain indications in the catalogue. There was, for example, a statement by Walter Hopps in the introductory essay that “in the section on the Surrealists, beside their own works one finds objects that belonged to them.” The question now is, what kind of objects? The statement appears among sentences on the mixing of primitive art and Modern art, and I understood, on the basis of context and of the inference contained in the word “ainsi,” or "thus,” that this sentence was on the same topic. Rubin first objects that “Hopps’ sentence about ’objects that belonged to [the Surrealists], though slightly ambiguous because poorly translated, is not located, as McEvilley claims, in a discussion about the ‘mixing of primitive and Modern objects.’” The reader will have to read the Hopps passage to see what I see:

Ici l’art primitif est représenté à égalité avec l’art occidental; l’art occidental Ie plus ancien est juxtaposé avec l’art Ie plus moderne. Les affinités ne sont pas chronologiques, elles sont conceptuelles, iconographiques et formelles, destinées à suggérer les correspondances profondes entre les valeurs esthétiques et spirituelles de peuples et de temps fort divers. Ainsi, dans la section des surréalistes, on trouve, à côté de leurs oeuvres, des objets leur ayant appartenus. Dans Ie même esprit, quelques oeuvres modernes sont exposées au milieu d’objets archaïques ou traditionnels.

(Here, primitive art is presented 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.) [My italics on the English.]

Perusing the catalogue in search of more information on those objects I found, in the “Catalogue” section proper, after several hundred pages of pictures with occasional introductory paragraphs, pictures of some Kuskokwim Eskimo masks, with the l follow ing passage introducing them:

Ces masques éteien: portés à I’occasion de danses et de cérémonies liées à l’invocation du monde des esprits. L’artiste, qui réalisa les pièces 292 à 294 les vit d’abord “apparues en rêve.” II exécuta ensuite seize paires d’objets. La série complète, trente-deux pièces, fut achetée au début du siècle par un Américain, George Heye, et plusieurs furent acquises ultérieurement par des suriéalistes francais établis à New York.

(These masks were worn on the occasion of dances and ceremonies linked to the invocation of the spirit world. The artist who made pieces 292 to 294 first saw them “appearing in dream.” He then executed 16 pairs of objects. The complete series, 32 pieces, was bought at the start of the century by an American, George Heye, and several were later bought by FrenchSurrealists living in New York.)

At this point I had found two references in the catalogue to things owned by Surrealist artists (a third, more general statement was consistent with these): one statement said that they were in the show, the other that they were Kuskokwim masks. The first statement was by Walter Hopps; the second was unsigned. Compressing for space, I wrote the following: “‘Ainsi, dans la section des surrealistes, on trouve, à côté 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).”

Rubin says in reply, at the very end of his second letter, that if you held the Menil catalogue in your hands

_you would see that Hopps’ sentence about “objects that belonged to [the Surrealists],” though slightly ambiguous because poorly translated, is not located, as McEvilley claims, in a discussion about the ”mixing of primitive and Modern objects.“ And if you had seen the show, you would have known that the ”objects“ to which Hopps was, in fact, referring were not tribal sculptures at all but bibelots, exotica, and memorabilia; the few tribal sculptures in those areas were not from artists’ collections, nor did Walter Hopps ever say they were.15 But that’s not all. The last part of McEvilley’s paragraph cites Eskimo masks in the Menil show as examples of tribal objects supposedly owned by Surrealists, an assertion elaborated with a quotation seemingly continued from Hopps’ text, But this passage (”several were bought . . . “) is by another author, occurs 339 pages later in the Menil catalogue, and does not refer to the Eskimo masks in the show.16 Is this the scholarship that ”is a type of science”? There are six objections here. The first, about the context speaking of mixing, I have discussed, and the second, about the appearance in the show of objects belonging to Surrealists, too. The third point—that the second quote seems to continue the first—is empty, and suggests that the bear has a punctuation problem. The two French quotations are enclosed in separate sets of quotation marks, indicating that they are not continuous. Fourth point: the second quote was unattributed; as Rubin agrees, in the catalogue it was unsigned. Fifth point: the 339 pages that intervened between the two passages were almost entirely filled with pictures; in any case, if the same subject is discussed in separated passages, one must quote separated passages. Rubin’s sixth and crowning point, the culmination of his letter, is that the passage about masks owned by Surrealists “does not refer to the Eskimo masks in the show.” There he has a footnote, and the footnote refers to a private conversation as his proof. I relied on the published record and believe that in my method there was no error.

This question of whether the dates of the non-Western works should have been included either in the show or the catalogue or both may seem at first glance as sterile and merely factual as the old tattered hat, but I think it is not; it points to hidden presuppositions of great moment. In the article that began this debate I objected that by omitting dates from the non-Western works in both the show and the book Rubin was presenting their makers and their cultures as really “primitive,” that is, outside of history—as, really, less than human. He was acting out a presupposition that had a great deal in common with the Conquistadors’ belief that Amerindians did not have souls, and he was doing so ultimately for the same purpose—to justify taking over in the one case their bodies and in the other their cultural objects. I wrote: “Anyone who opens a scholarly book on primitive objects, or who visits anthropological museums . . . will see that at least approximate dates are usually given for the works.” In his citation of this passage Rubin conveniently omits my reference to books and deals only with the question of whether museums put dates on their vitrines. Earlier on in his current letter he says that “we had described [the tribal objects in the show] as mostly from the later 19th and early 20th centuries. . . . ” He is evidently referring to a wall plaque in the exhibition. But the checklist of the exhibition says nothing about the dates of the primitive objects, though of course it dates all the Modern objects. Clearly the information belongs there, for starters. Wherever it is in the book (if indeed it is anywhere) it hasn’t jumped out at me. In any case it is inadequate. Rubin’s unconscious politics toward the primitive objects are coming out again; lumping them all together is not something he would do for the museum’s Picassos.

In my claim that the policy of most museums is to give such dates as are available I granted that precise dates are usually not available. Rubin in reply acts as if I had demanded precise dates for everything, and states that often only centuries are known, as if to show me that my request was ridiculous; yet I had specifically written: “even knowing the century would help.” “Not one of the labels for any of the hundreds of objects [in the African section of the Musée de I’Homme],” Rubin insists, “contains even an approximate date. The same thing is true for the tribal objects in the African and Oceanic galleries of the American Museum of Natural History—among other ethnological museums.”

Well, the story certainly does not end there. Is Rubin really unaware that the Musée de I’Homme does in fact give such dates as are available in its most widely distributed catalogue, Chefs d’oeuvre de musée de l’homme (Paris: Musée de I’Homme, 1965)? Is he really unaware that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York gives available dates in its primitive collection? And that the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago does also? He refers lightly to “other ethnological museums”—too lightly, I’m afraid. The general catalogue of the Museum für Völkerkunde in Vienna gives dates such as “vor 1879”’ (before 1879) or “Frühes 19. Jahrhundert” (early 19th century) when they are available. The Berlin Museum für Völkerkunde, in a catalogue of West African masks, gives available dates. The Linden-Museum in Stuttgart, in a catalogue of objects from Cameroon, gives dates such as ”collected . . . in Bali, 1905.“ The catalogue of Indonesian and Melanesian works in the Collection Barbier Müller (Geneva, 1977) gives dates. The catalogue Exotische Kunst im Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum (Cologne, 1967) provides such dates as are available. The Museum of Primitive Art in Rimini, in its general catalogue, edited by Delfino Rialto, gives available dates. The Museum of Primitive Art in New York, in a catalogue of the primitive works in the John and Dominique de Menil collection edited by Robert Goldwater himself in 1962, gave available dates such as ”before 1896.“ Douglas Newton, when director of this museum, gave dates in their general catalogue, Primitive Art Masterpieces, 1974. As chairman of the department of primitive art at the Metropolitan Museum, Newton included dates ”when known“ in the catalogue The Nelson A. Rockefeller Collection: Masterpieces of Primitive Art, 1978. The catalogue Traditional Art of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, published by the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco in 1973, gives dates such as ”collected before 1900“ when they are available. The catalogue of The George G. Frelinghuysen Collection at UCLA, 1968, gives, when they are known, such dates as “made in the 19th century.” Cottie Burland, in Gods and Demons in Primitive Art, 1973, gives dates such as ”Collected by Dr. Emil Holub c. 1860,“ ”Possibly mid-nineteenth century Tsimshian work,“ and ”Made by Tlingit Indians in the mid-nineteenth century“; and Henry John Drewal, in the catalogue African Artistry: Technique and Aesthetics in Yoruba Sculpture, 1980, gives dates such as ”probably by Akiode (died 1936)“ and ”possibly by Oniyide (died 1947)."A recent book by Werner Gillon titled A Short History of African Art, 1984, proposes correctly that it is time to begin regarding non-Western objects within the context of history.

Rubin employs a reverse form of argument when he writes of the Menil catalogue, as if disproving me, that “many of the African objects are totally undated and only six of the 44 [sic] Oceanic objects are given even approximate dates.” But the point is the opposite of what he implies: it is that the catalogue in question does give available dates. I could go on. Rubin claimed there was a general practice not to give dates; clearly he is wrong. But it is not difficult to guess why Rubin did not want individual dates in his show. Consider the pink Sulka mask that adorned the cover of Artforum in which my initial article appeared, and which was one of the really prepossessing objects in the show. In the 1975 edition of Helen Gardner’s Art Through The Ages it is dated “1900- 1910.” Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, in the Museum’s collection, is dated 1907. The fact the exhibition was at pains to conceal from the nonexpert public is that “the primitive and the modern,” as anthropologist Remo Guidieri wrote, “are contemporaries.” And yet this contemporaneity is, finally, the most interesting fact of all. Is 1910 in Africa or Oceania a different year from 1910 in Europe? Is history only for us? Why are the object-makers of Africa and Oceania invisible to us except in this degraded, anonymous, dateless, timeless, childish, ahistorical role as pedestals for—guess what—our art? To push them into the nursery of childish timelessness while researching every tiniest detail of the chronology of the grand Europeans is grotesque.

There is an inner contradiction to this attitude that recontextualizes primitive ritual objects as art in the Museum of Modern Art and then leaves them anonymous and dateless: our Western idea of art is premised both on the maker as a self and on the historical progression of the works. I suggested that Rubin had enunciated no clear criteria for using the primitive objects the way we use our artworks, and that he did not want to think about the complexities of their transpositions. I had claimed that “virtually every object” in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo had been intentionally buried underground away from all human eyes, and that this showed something fundamentally different in intention from our intentions about art. Rubin attempts to rebut me, saying, “contrary to [McEvilley’s] assertion, there are [in the Egyptian Museum] a great many objects not intended to be buried underground.” He has a footnote number on this, and the footnote says the following: ”I checked with the Egyptologists at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who suggested that something less than one-fourth of what is visible of this immense and as yet not fully catalogued collection would be material not taken from tombs. Thus, tomb material could hardly be said to comprise ‘virtually every object’ there." The information itself is hidden in those sentences. Less than one-fourth of the objects, Rubin learned, were not taken from tombs; it follows then that more than three-fourths were taken from tombs. More than three-fourths, of course, means something between three fourths and all of the objects. The range is conservative and an actual count, I think, would come in at around 90 percent. In any case, saying more than three-fourths is very much the same as saying virtually all. Again Rubin has confirmed my original statement. He found that I was right, pretended that he had found otherwise, and hid the real information in a footnote. (Rubin treats the footnotes like a burial area away from all human eyes.)

The red herring of whether some temple sculpture and painting was meant to be seen in the light of day is of course true, but makes no significant difference in the issue; in ancient Egypt both temple and palace were hieratic settings in which the works in question functioned magically, as they did in tombs. It is known that the Egyptians themselves regarded their sculpture and painting (as for that matter their architecture in durable materials) as functional magical objects, and expressed no consciously articulated esthetic propositions about them. I trust it’s clear that I’m not saying that they’re not pretty. To me, as to many Western Moderns, they have a powerful, even an uncanny, esthetic appeal. Indirectly, by way of the Greeks, the Egyptian canon of proportion and harmony trained our eyes, and can still be felt resonating behind Renaissance and Modern European art.

The second element in Rubin’s Egyptian reply is his report of a personal conversation with Leo Steinberg. My quarrel is not with Steinberg, and one wonders why Rubin does not cite a published authority on Egyptology. In any case, the speaker of these remarks acknowledges that the Egyptian works were mostly buried underground—this really is an undeniable fact—but goes on to say about the buried objects that “they were designed to be enjoyed both functionally and esthetically by human eyes in an assured afterlife precisely forever.” The words “and esthetically” are without a basis in evidence. To begin with, I hope it is clear that the speaker is referring to dead human eyes. The speaker means that after the works were deliberately buried behind the most elaborate obstacles, they were meant to be enjoyed “both functionally and esthetically” by corpses or ghosts. I wonder if the speaker would care to cite documents for the esthetic pleasures of the dead. I repeat that as far as I know there is not a scrap of evidence in extant Egyptian literature for the idea that ghosts or gods in the tomb were meant to take an explicitly esthetic pleasure from these objects. In fact. there is no more articulation of esthetic propositions in ancient Egyptian literature than in African and Oceanic tribal discourse; the category of esthetics as we know it had not yet dawned and cannot be called a part of the intention behind the work, except in the same unconscious way that Rubin and others attributed to the African and Oceanic works in the show—that is, by the same Eurocentric projection of our feelings and intentions into their works, despite the fact that all the evidence shows their work to have arisen from quite different intentions. One wonders why Rubin doesn’t tell us what the Egyptologists he consulted (and whom he does not name) had to say on this point, rather than suddenly ignoring them and going to a Western-art historian for opinions about Egyptian questions. For the absence of evidence in the literature is not the worst of it: anyone who had reviewed the material from the tombs themselves in detail would know better. Some of the highly ornamented objects, for example, were found in animal cemeteries. Were they meant to be enjoyed esthetically by dead crocodiles, vultures, and jackals? Furthermore, the only important tomb whose original contents we know in detail is Tutankhamen’s, and the speaker should note that it contained far more stuff than it could hold in exhibition. The magnificent objects that we admired in the museum show were not originally arranged for esthetic appreciation: they were stacked on top of one another as in a closet or a storeroom. (The partial ancient robbery does not alter this fact.) They were there, in other words, because their magical presence was necessary, not because anyone would be looking at them.

Finally, the speaker chides me for supposedly ignoring the fact that the Egyptians believed in an afterlife, and that therefore the idea of esthetic appreciation in the afterlife would have seemed less than comical to them. But the speaker seems to feel that the Egyptian view of the afterlife involved the mummy living forever in the tomb, enjoying its goods. There are traces in the Egyptian literature of such a rudimentary belief system, but in the historical period—the period in which virtually all the objects that are known to us as Egyptian art were made—this form of the afterlife myth had been subsumed within and largely replaced by a more complex myth in which the selfhood of the deceased breaks up into fragments which go various ways. Most of the tomb objects have magical functions involved in the reconstitution of the fragmented self for wanderings beyond the tomb. The self, when ritually reconstituted, does not continue to inhabit the tomb and enjoy the grave goods, but goes on to the Field of Reeds and the Court of Osiris, and finally, converted into Re, achieves an eternal life among the circumpolar stars. The tomb objects, meanwhile, lie in the tomb as a kind of magical support system. There are various forms of this myth, and none of them provides a whole self living on in the tomb and enjoying its furnishings. Rubin’s views here are like those of the anonymous Greek tourist who entered an Egyptian tomb in about 600 B.C., and wrote on the wall, “I have seen these things and I understand none of them.”

Well, big bear, that about wraps up the news from here. It’s getting late. You might feel that I have abstracted this topic from a more concrete array. But the force and power of your show, its scale, its time and place—all these things have made it historic, because it raised questions. It made us ask exactly how and why it was deficient. I thought it was above all inadequate because the relationship was all one way.

I’d like to read you some choruses of Aeschylus and show you my favorite poems. We could both bring a friend. We could explain to our friends that we have shared something special together, you and I. Take care of kitty. I don’t think I’ll be writing to you much anymore, but I want to say that I hope the future profits from what we have done. And that we do not drink the black milk of morning, you and I, for doing it.