PRINT February 1989


IN 1984 THOMAS MCEVILLEY blew the whistle on exhibitions of tribal art. He reprimanded William Rubin, then director of the Museum of Modern Art’s Department of Painting and Sculpture, for his “ ‘Primitivism’ ” exhibition at MoMA, charging him with embalming tribal art in the clear synthetic fluid of parochialism, willfully scripting native artifacts into supporting roles within the epic “MODERNISM.” Written between the 1982 opening of the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing (dedicated to the art of Africa, the Americas, and the Pacific Islands) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the 1988 Asia Society exhibition “Dreamings: The Art of Aboriginal Australia,” McEvilley’s essay, “Doctor Lawyer Indian Chief” (Artforum, November 1984), is a centerpiece of consciousness in the ’80s infatuation with the cultural Other. His essay still smolders, as do the sparks that flew between Rubin, Kirk Varnedoe, and McEvilley, as the two curators of the exhibition mustered their defenses in letters that appeared in subsequent issues of the magazine.1

The futility of trying to crawl “inside” a tribal culture and reconstruct meaning from there was ostensibly agreed upon by Rubin and McEvilley, as they batted about the limitations of both the emic (a first-person familiarity with a culture) and the etic (a third-person interpretation of a culture) approaches. But at issue for McEvilley wasn’t whether an emic view can be consciously recreated (as Rubin suggested his opponent was demanding). As McEvilley stated in his response to Rubin:

What we must learn is to see a doubleness, the two aspects at once, simultaneously feeling these objects as art, which is our way of appreciation, and maintaining a sharp and constant awareness of the fact that the people of their own culture did not so feel them.2

Four years later, the anxiety over the threatened exhaustion of Modernism that McEvilley discerned in Rubin’s exhibition has gone beyond its crisis point. Post-Modernism has slipped into the saddle and firmly taken the reins. We can see this triumph, variously measured, in everything from the cynicism that orbits near the center of much contemporary art and theoretical discourse (Jeff Koons’ recent Uberkitsch and Jean Baudrillard’s America), to the popularity of those Santa Fe shops that transform handicrafts, culled from the underclass of native cultures, into the pastel accessories of interior decoration. Indeed, we have become strange Clovs in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. Rather than ceaselessly surveying our culture in the last phases of dysfunction, scanning a colorless, dusty horizon in order to seize at experience still moist, warm, and beating, we grab at the garish colors of any banner designed to celebrate our end-of-the-road status.

Thus 1988 arrives, with a seemingly new twist in the primitivism game. Wisened up to our own ethnocentrism, we can accept, for example, the notion that Australian aboriginals dream their religion, and understand that it means something similar to, yet vastly different from, our own relationship to religion. But post-Modernist theory has seeped into our parched bones, so we’re all pretty clear on the fact that if we don’t dream our religion, we may have dreamed our own art. Consider, in this light, the Asia Society’s characterization of aboriginal dreamings versus traditional Western value systems:

In traditional Aboriginal thought, there is no central dichotomy of the spiritual and material, the sacred and secular, or the natural and supernatural. . . .3

_Another obstacle to the non-Aboriginal response to Aboriginal works can be described as a basic ontological gap, a difference of underlying world views. Traditional Aboriginal thought is not progressivist. Things will always be the same. . . . 4

Replace aboriginal thought, in these quotes, with post-Modernist assertions, and is it any wonder that we might feel justified in conjoining our Age of Acrylic and the agelessness of aboriginal culture? We know that aboriginal artists originally made their religious pictures in colored sand and on the dark bodies of ceremonial dancers; that these were images never meant to be preserved. But in 1971, a young white schoolteacher arrived in the Papunya settlement in Australia, and initiated a mural project there. “Following this project,” the catalogue reports, “the men began to paint on on any materials available to them, including plywood and linoleum.”5 These “permanent” acrylics (and with the introduction of canvas) began to enter the art market, fetching prices of A$25 to A$30. As public interest has grown, and dealers have become involved, prices for the works of “well-known painters” rose, by 1987, to a range from A$2,000 to A$15,000.6 Acrylic paint on canvas has become an instrument of modern ethnology, while at the same time it has effectively served as a fast-acting antidote, dissolving a sacred ritual the aboriginals had preserved for! thousands of years, affirming Jean Baudrillard’s observation that “for ethnology to live, its object must die.”7

Furthermore, like a powerful narcotic, acrylic paint served to create the hallucination that even if the aboriginals do not see themselves exactly as we see them, or as we see ourselves, they could clearly perform for us as though they do. And as the market for their acrylic paintings has grown, as this “industry” has become the largest employer of their adult population, the aboriginal art world has taken on an uncanny resemblance to our own. With rampant unemployment in the general society, aboriginal artists have become protective, not of their religious icons, not of their art, but of their livelihood. Papunya men, for example, have begun to discriminate against women, claiming that it was “inappropriate” for women to paint.8 Sales to white collectors have become the measure of “artistic truth.” In a gesture as swift as it is efficient, we have reduced their religion to commodity, their culture to a scale version of our own, and congratulated ourselves for having discovered the real thing.

But once again, the question remains: what is the real thing we are looking for? With more than III a century’s worth of clearly documented interest in “primitive art” behind us, tribal art is now being indexed as something distinctive to the ’80s. In a December article for the New York Times (“Collecting the Eighties: Stash the Swatch; Keep the Kettle”), Patricia Leigh Brown tried to get the jump on the destined revival. With the Andy Warhol auction still fresh in everyone’s mind, she thought to ask the likes of Philippe Starck, Betsey Johnson, and Malcolm Forbes to define the decade by its cultural collectibles. If the architect Charles W. Moore took a more explicit tack—“I think I’d save Mexican and East Indian folk art, because I don’t think, 30 years from now, there will be any left”—it was clothing designer Betsey Johnson who (surely unwittingly) hinted at the real story beneath. “People are desperately looking for stuff that means something,” Johnson said. “I’ve been buying spiritual luxury items: Day of the Dead figures, Hindu masks, great oils and perfumes and Tibetan crafts.” Put Day of the Dead figures together with another Brown Times story of January 1988—this one documenting the new interior decoration mania for bleached cow skulls and the like (one Sante Fe artist whose work is featured at a Manhattan store refers to the skulls as “dead tech,” Brown reported)—and we can begin to get a picture of what our culture is looking for when it looks for “stuff that means something.” Perhaps we’ve come farther than we think. In short, if the Modernist approach sought out the “primitive” to appropriate what was considered its unmediated vitality, the post-Modernist approach may send us after precisely the same kinds of works, but this time around, to appropriate the “primitive’s” messages of mortality, its powers to reflect and confirm our own “deadness.”

Thus the Asia Society exhibition treated the aboriginal artists neither as tribal shamans nor as presagers of the avant-garde. Instead, these native artists served us as the painters of the Barbizon School served the artists of Modernist Paris. It was the Modernists’ project to undo the effects of what they saw as visual tranquilizers, designed to insulate the bourgeoisie from acknowledging the hardships of rural life, the life from which many had fled to make their success in the city. The noble peasant, backgrounded by the warm glow of the evening sunset, and suffused with a “robustness” that only a marginal existence of backbreaking work can give, represented to them a pernicious illusion that a simple honesty and mysterious spirit that tied everyone to mother earth had indeed been preserved—just somewhere else.

Now, in our own similar commitment to prove that there is no “somewhere else,” we turn again, paradoxically, to “primitive art.” If only someone had warned the natives. For one of the first rules of lifesaving is to position yourself so that a thrashing victim can never gain the upper hand. But once we got the natives to swim to out to meet what we have implicitly understood as our sinking ship, perhaps the rest was inevitable. In a manner indigenous to our culture, one we are currently practicing to perfection, we hold their culture under until it goes limp, and now balancing on it, hold our heads just above the water and smile into the camera.

Ronald Jones is an artist and critic who lives in New York.



1. See Artforum XXII nos. 6 and 9, February and May 1985.
2. Thomas McEvilley, in “Letters to the Editor,” Artforum XXII no. 6, February 1985, p. 51.
3. Peter Sutton, Dreamings: The Art of Aboriginal Australia, ed. Peter Sutton, New York: The Asia Society Galleries, in association with George Braziller Publishers, 1988, p. 16.
4. Ibid.. p. 46.
5. Christopher Anderson and Frangoise Dussart. “Dreamings in Acrylic: Western Desert Art,” in ibid., p. 97.
6. Ibid., p. 98.
7. Jean Baudrillard, Simulations, New York: Semiotext(e), 1983, p. 13.
8. Sec Anderson and Dussart, p. 128.