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University of California Press
The Death of Authentic Primitive Art: And Other Tales of Progress / Edition 1

The Death of Authentic Primitive Art: And Other Tales of Progress / Edition 1

by Shelly ErringtonShelly Errington


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In this lucid, witty, and forceful book, Shelly Errington argues that Primitive Art was invented as a new type of art object at the beginning of the twentieth century but that now, at the century's end, it has died a double but contradictory death. Authenticity and primitivism, both attacked by cultural critics, have died as concepts. At the same time, the penetration of nation-states, the tourist industry, and transnational corporations into regions that formerly produced these artifacts has severely reduced supplies of "primitive art," bringing about a second "death."

Errington argues that the construction of the primitive in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (and the kinds of objects chosen to exemplify it) must be understood as a product of discourses of progress—from the nineteenth-century European narrative of technological progress, to the twentieth-century narrative of modernism, to the late- twentieth-century narrative of the triumph of the free market. In Part One she charts a provocative argument ranging through the worlds of museums, art theorists, mail-order catalogs, boutiques, tourism, and world events, tracing a loosely historical account of the transformations of meanings of primitive art in this century. In Part Two she explores an eclectic collection of public sites in Mexico and Indonesia—a national museum of anthropology, a cultural theme park, an airport, and a ninth-century Buddhist monument (newly refurbished)—to show how the idea of the primitive can be used in the interests of promoting nationalism and economic development.

Errington's dissection of discourses about progress and primitivism in the contemporary world is both a lively introduction to anthropological studies of art institutions and a dramatic new contribution to the growing field of cultural studies.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520212114
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 12/21/1998
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 335
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Shelly Errington is Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, author of Meaning and Power in a Southeast Asian Realm (1989), and coeditor of Power and Difference: Gender in Island Southeast Asia (1990).

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The Death of Authentic Primitive Art

By Shelly Errington

University of California Press

Copyright © 1998 Shelly Errington
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780520212114

Three Ways to Tell the History of (Primitive) Art

At the turn of the twentieth century, when the idea of progress was at its height, "primitives" were regarded as savage, brutal, and heathen, and their imminent disappearance was thought generally to be a good thing by the interlocking directorates of sites of public educational displays and knowledge production. The low regard in which colonized people were held made it wildly radical of Picasso to take up and celebrate African masks as "art."

One of the most common ways to tell the story of how primitive art entered the mainstream of art is thoroughly celebratory: it begins with the mythical origins of primitive art in Picasso's and Vlarninck's "discovery" and construes its subsequent history as one of being increasingly appreciated by the public and by major museums.

The comic emplotment of the simplest versions of the discovery narrative must, of course, be completely retrospective: in it, the author casts a glance back over the often confusing jumble of events and causes of the past and sees a clear line leading to the present. The authorial voice then tells a tale of triumph, ruthlessly excluding the uncertainties and particular historicities of any given moment.Applied to primitive art, the discovery narrative goes something like this:

Picasso and Vlaminck found African masks at the flea market and recognized that they were Art. From then on, it was a slow steep climb for recognition, but due to the vision and taste of important collectors and the heroic efforts of enlightened curators, these extraordinary pieces now have a secure and enduring place among the arts we rightly celebrate.1

Here I want to give a more historical and secular account of how primitive art entered the mainstream of art in this century. I am immediately faced with a problem: the subject of my story ("primititive art") is not a platonic category that remains constant over time, but one thatfluctuates in both form and content over the course of the twentieth century and hardly existed the century before. To tell the story of the fluctuation itself would require a serious historical exploration of what l'art negre actually meant to Picasso or to the Parisian on the street in 1905 (which certainly was different from the sorts of objects that eventually ended up in the Rockefeller Wing of Primitive Art in the Metropolitan Museum in 1982) and would require a careful exploration of the competing discourses concerning primitivism and art that occurred between those two points. Because I want to tell this story briefly as a pre-cursor to its death rather than as the subject of the book, I have accepted the provisional existence of the category "primititive art," even though doing so means there will be anachronisms, on the grounds that we (the readers and writer) are curious about a conceptual object already real and constituted for us. Accepting the fact that we are situated temporally at the turn of the twenty-first century, I will cast a glance back over time to discover the "origins" and transformations of primitive art.

Three Ways to Tell the History of Art

The emplotments available to me to tell a history of primitive art are derived from the emplotments available for telling the story of art in general. These fall into three major types: universal accounts of art derived from Hegel's view of the shape of (European) history; stories of discovery and appreciation; and finally secular accounts emphasizing the marketplace, fashion, and dominant and persistent ideas. Stories of art derived from the Hegelian narrative assume that art always existed; given its European focus combined with universalist pretensions, it poses nearly insuperable problems for telling a story about authentic primitive art. Stories of discovery likewise assume that art always was, but assert that certain kinds of art were not always recognized as such. This narrative of the history of authentic primitive art serves collectors and the art market best, since it allows space for change while asserting the timelessness and transcendent value of true art. Secular and market tales emphasize the changes in fashion and economic status of the objects being discussed. These stories, often in the ironic mode, treat art like any other commodity.

After explicating the ways each of these types of narratives treats primitive art and giving brief examples of the first two, I concentrate on explicating and refining a model of the third type by applyingsome of Michael Thompson's insights from his book Rubbish Theory (1979) to the story of primitive art.

The Hegelian Narrative

The first type of tale is derived from Hegel's account of the universal story of the unfolding of Man's Spirit. In its purest form, this story moves inexorably from the Ancient World, to the Middle Ages, to the Renaissance, and then to the Modern World (as in the table of contents of H. W. Janson's History of Art [1962]). This story's enabling assumption is that art always already was and that its story always already was there for the telling. No historiography, no social history need intrude on this straightforward and blessedly simple tale. This narrative frame probably served writers of universal histories of art quite adequately in the mid-nineteenth century, when the genre originated in Germany (see Minor 1994).

It served less well in the late twentieth. The problem for a contemporary textbook writer using it is to incorporate objects that were not produced in the art-historical periods the Ancient World, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, or the Modern World, and which therefore have no temporal or spatial location in that unfolding. Where can the other, non-Western, "arts" be inserted into the great timeline of European art? Two major strategies and several minor ones emerge from a perusal of art history survey texts.

One was invented by Helen Gardner, the first textbook author in the United States to make a serious and sustained effort to incorporate non-Western arts into a universal art history textbook based on a Hegelian frame. The strategy she developed (she uses it in the third edition of Art Through the Ages , and it is prefigured in earlier editions) follows the familiar sequence of stages (from ancient to modern, in four or five periods); within each major period she discusses European art of the time but also has sections on the arts of other non-European art traditions.2

Hugh Honour and John Fleming adopt the same strategy in all three editions of their widely used universal history of art (1982, 1986, 1991). The main narrative frame of their third edition consists of the standard four-part sequence of periods, interestingly enough almost identical to that of Janson's table of contents, albeit with different labels. The narrative moves from the Ancient World (called inHonour and Fleming "Foundations of Art," covering prehistory to A.D. 300) to the Middle Ages (called "Art and the World Religions," from A.D. 300 to 1000), to the Renaissance (with a chapter setting the stage for it and one finishing it off with the Enlightenment, called "Sacred and Secular Art," from l000 to 1800), and finally to the Modern World (divided into two parts, one for the nineteenth century, one for the twentieth).

Like Helen Gardner's narrative of periods in her third edition, Honour and Fleming's narrative periodizes art in the standard stages, but, different from other texts, it interrupts each stage with one or more chapters in which the focus of the narrative shifts from the geographical location of Europe to other times and climes. It is rather as though a person striding along on a clear path and looking straight ahead paused, once in each period, to look around and ask, "What's happening on other paths? What's going on over there?" These text-books' complex structures, which were doubtless arrived at with much thought and agony, are clearly compromises between the necessity or urge to tell a single-story universal history of art whose geotemporal focus is Hegel's "Europe," on the one hand, and, on the other, to tell multiple stories from multiple traditions.

The second major strategy—a far simpler one—for incorporating non-Western arts into this grand Eurocentric but "universal" unfolding was adopted in 1933 by Joseph Pijoan in his History of Art , by E. H. Gombrich in The Story of Art (first published in 1950), and in the several editions of Janson's History of Art: A Survey of the Major Visual Arts from the Dawn of History to the Present Day (first published in 1962). These authors place the arts of primitive people with the magical beginnings of art proper, prior to history—that is, prior to Egypt and the ancient Near East. In The Story of Art , for instance, Gombrich called his first chapter "Strange Beginnings: Prehistoric and Primitive Peoples; Ancient America." These "strange beginnings" include the caves of Lascaux, from which the narrative moves quickly to the "magical" masks and images of contemporary "primitive cultures" as well as archaeological remains in the Americas. Janson's History of Art similarly begins with "Magic and Ritual: The Art of Prehistoric Man," which is the first chapter of the section entitled "The Ancient World" (Egyptians come next). Illustrations for the chapter's text run the gamut from Lascaux paintings and the Venus of Willendorf, to Stonehenge, to the sculptures of Easter Island, to nineteenth- andtwentieth-century masks and other items from Africa, Alaska, and the Northwest Coast of North America, and an undated picture of a "Sand Painting Ritual for a Sick Child (Navajo), Arizona."

The organization of these books is premised on the notion that there is a "primitive" mentality that exhibits "magical thinking" and that the contemporary "primitive" humans referred to in these chapters are "Stone Age people." The authors assume the tone of benevolent and omniscient guides throughout their texts, explaining the rationale for lumping together prehistoric paintings with the artifacts and ceremonies of living humans, all from widely divergent geographical and cultural locations.

Placing the arts of Asia, Africa, and Oceania in magical beginnings, thus freeing the narrative to address European art without stumbling on the long path to the present, is a tidy solution. Many other solutions to the problem are less tidy. A random survey of other, less-used textbooks reveals other strategies and tactics. Some ignore Africa and Oceania but place the arts of India, China, Japan, and Central and South America in the stage of ancient civilizations, wedged between the Romans and the Middle Ages; some clump all non-Western arts, from primitive to Far Eastern, at the very end of the survey or right before the twentieth century; some devote chapters to Far Eastern and Indic arts but mention primitive art only in passing and in relation to early-twentieth-century European art. The point is, the placement of non-European arts into the Hegelian story is unstable across textbooks. That instability is instructive: they do not fit conveniently, because the story was not laid out originally with them in mind.

Helen Gardner, as I mentioned, was a pioneer in the effort to incorporate non-Western arts into a universal art history textbook. The changes in the first three editions of her book (the ones she wrote; the fourth edition was edited by others) are instructive, both because the changes reveal a continual rethinking of the issue by an open-minded and warmly appreciative writer, and also because the changes reflect the state of knowledge and status about non-Western arts in the United States. (She obviously read assiduously in anthropology and kept current with the Museum of Modern Art's exhibitions of non-Western arts under the direction of Reni d'Harnoncourt.) It is interesting to note, however, that by the fifth edition—Gardner's Art Through the Ages (1970)—the authors, Horst de la Croix and Richard G. Tansey, abandon the rest of the world to concentrateon "the art of Europe and its ancient antecedents, to the exclusion of the arts of Asia, primitive art, and the art of the Americas." The authors justify the exclusion on the grounds that these other areas deserve their own college courses and are now being treated in survey courses in their own right, and furthermore books dealing exclusively with non-Western arts are available.

In this they are certainly correct: These days, only writers of universal textbooks feel obliged to incorporate Western and non-Western arts into the same story. The most common way to give accounts of non-Western arts is as freestanding subjects in themselves: single-topic books about the nature of Islamic art, or Chinese painting, or whatever. In these books, Europe, European art styles, or changing European tastes in collecting can be brought into the account as an "influence" on the production of artifacts in a non-European area (for example, the European taste for porcelain stimulated the production of export porcelain production in China), but Europe's universalist story about its own art can be completely ignored. On the occasions when the story of, say, Chinese painting must somehow be brought into conjunction with narratives of European art—for instance, on the occasion of a major exhibit of that art—the account given is likely to take the form of the second major way of telling art's history, a narrative of discovery and appreciation.

The Discovery Narrative

The discovery narrative celebrates primitive art's discovery and the increasing appreciation it has come to enjoy. Unlike the Hegelian narrative, the discovery narrative has the virtue of allowing for changes in taste and institutional valorization; but like the Hegelian narrative, the discovery narrative asserts and maintains the essential value of art itself as an ahistorical, transcultural, universally valid category of object. Not surprisingly, it is the one most beloved of collectors, dealers, and curators with a budget for new acquisitions.

A complex version of the discovery narrative can be found in the work of some of those few art historians and writers about art who have interested themselves in the social history of collecting and in the reception of various kinds of new arts into the European mainstream, such as Francis Haskell (see, for instance, Haskell 1976). However scholarly and perceptive these are, most are fairly narrow in historical scope, with the result that the reader can regard the vagaries of collecting, of taste, of pricing, or of revaluation of certain categories of objects as isolated incidents. In other words, the reader can assimilate the accounts piecemeal, rather than be forced to fit them into a totalizing history of art told as social history.

The most ambitious exception to the generalization I have just made is Joseph Alsop's The Rare Art Traditions: The History of Art Collecting and Its Linked Phenomena Wherever These Have Appeared , which was published in 1982. In it Alsop outlines the history of the expansion of the kinds of objects that count as art in the West as three revolutions in "ways of seeing," each of which has brought different (and usually more) sorts of objects into the category.3 "It was the Italian Renaissance ... that made the 'ancients' the grand exemplars, and the remains of classical antiquity the models of all art," he writes, and Greco-Roman copies formed a good part of what counted as antique art (7). "The downgrading of the Greco-Roman marbles that started with the electrifying appearance in London of Lord Elgin's loot from Athens" in 1814 forms Alsop's first "revolution in seeing" 10). His second "revolution" is the nineteenth-century Gothic Revival, which legitimated and transformed Gothic architecture into art, whereas previously it had been largely neglected or destroyed. Alsop's final "revolution" is the reassessment of the fourteenth-and fifteenth-century Italian painters, who previously were viewed not as "masters" themselves but as mere precursors to the High Renaissance. The three revolutions in conjunction, Alsop claims, constituted a "final rejection of the standards of excellence and error established by the Renaissance, and thus the final abandonment of the long-enduring canon of art resulting from the Renaissance" (13).

Alsop does not add a fourth revolution in seeing, but he does point to one when he writes, "The drama by no means ended [with the Italian primitives], however, for the twentieth century had a further, stranger tale to tell," and proceeds to tell about the revolution in taste that allowed primitive art to be accepted into the mainstream:

With the former canon abandoned, in fact, all art gradually became equal—although some people's art has never ceased to be more equal than other people's. Group by group, culture after culture, the products of all the known non-Western cultures, whether surviving above ground or wrenched from the shelter of the silent earth, were scrutinized anew with altered eyes. Grimy archaeological finds and obscure ethnographic specimens, curios from family whatnots, souvenirs of life on far frontiers, and loot from half-forgotten military expeditions to the remoter corners of the globe—all these came to be seen as works of art deserving the grave, minute attention of art historians, the angry rivalry of art collectors, and the more polite but no less cutthroat pursuit of museum curators. In the upshot, the descendant of the obscurest British officer who brought back bronzes from the sack of Benin in 1897 became a luckier man by far than the inheritor of the Greco-Roman marbles eagerly, expensively collected by one of the greatest Whig grandees of eighteenth-century England. And as these words are written, New York's Metropolitan Museum is building a whole wing to be devoted to "primitive art." (13–14)

Alsop is a believer in high art, and he believes that art has occurred rarely in the world—in fact, only in Europe and in China. But because social histories of art and collecting—even when told within the general ethos and worldview of the discovery (and appreciation) narrative—tend to provide rich, historically detailed information, they tend also to invite readings their authors did not necessarily intend. Joseph Alsop's monumental work is certainly among those that invite other readings. Alsop is very convincing, for instance, about the interconnectedness of art collecting, art history, and the art market, viewing them as "by-products" of an already constituted category of objects he regards as self-evident, "art." A more secular commentator would give these observations a contrary spin by asserting that art collecting, art history, and the art market constitute the phenomenon we name "art" rather than being its "by-products."

Secular Narratives

The third grouping of stories about art's history I call "secular." These have no teleology, no essential universal categories (such as art versus craft), and no assumptions about good and bad taste, the intrinsic qualities of a masterpiece, the genius of the artist, etc. The tellers of these tales characteristically have little or no investment (economic, psychological, or intellectual) in the conventional categories of art history and museology or in the objects they write about. Indeed, their sympathies and intellectual energies tend to be elsewhere, and the tellers often are using art objects as illustrations for more general theories they hold about other kinds of things and processes. In this third class of narratives, for instance, one might putthe large number of works that have been written in the last twenty years about the looting of archaeological sites, the repatriation of cultural heritage, the invention and fashions in historic preservation, the sociology of taste, the fluctuations in the art market, and so on. I emerge from this general camp of historians and social scientists, as does the anthropologist Michael Thompson, whose book Rubbish Theory provides, in my view, a very useful set of ideas for beginning to understand the art market and transformations in taste.

I now tell an entirely hypothetical tale of my own devising about rubbish becoming collectibles, and eventually decorative art, and even a form of unmarked art, inspired directly (though not in particulars of subject matter and narrative style) by Thompson's chapter called "Stevengraphs—Yesterday's Kitsch." This is a short and compressed story, but it serves as a model for what may happen during longer stretches of time. This model is relevant, I believe, to understanding how primitive art was constituted as an "art" object and could therefore enter the mainstream of art during the course of the twentieth century. After telling this paradigmatic tale, I outline Thompson's views on rubbish theory and then return to the case of primitive art.

How Widgets Entered the Mainstream of Art

Many objects move through a regular trajectory in which they begin as objects produced in quantity, go through several transformations, and end up as objects in a museum. Their stories go something like this:

Objects are made in quantity by hand or machine (Shaker boxes and Amish quilts, say, or glass paperweights, or toasters—call them widgets) and they begin a useful life containing things, covering people at night, holding down paper in a breeze, toasting bread, or whatever. But eventually they wear out or a new fad comes in, and they are stowed in the backs of drawers or in cardboard boxes to be sold at a garage sale. The stuff that doesn't sell is given to Goodwill. Since the widget is perfectly serviceable but not up-to-date, it sits on the shelf for a while. Nowadays, after all, people are buying more modern-looking widgets.

Eventually a Mrs. Smith buys a widget when cruising through Goodwill because she finds it charming, just like the one she had as a child; the very next week she comes upon two of them at St. Vincent de Paul. She buys them both and suddenly realizes she has the beginnings of a collection. From then on she begins to seek out widgets wherever she goes. Within a few years she has 237 widgets, all of them different, and has special cases built for them. The local newspaper publishes a piece in their Home Style section called "Displaying Your Widgets to Best Advantage," featuring Mrs. Smith's collection. This piece brings her passion for widgets to a wide audience of people who remember there are widgets in their attics, which they promptly start offering to sell to Mrs. Smith by mail. By now, however, she has become quite discriminating, and wants only widgets of excellent condition and interesting design.

Thinking to facilitate her collecting and wishing to hobnob with like-minded enthusiasts, Mrs. Smith begins a mimeographed newsletter unpretentiously called "Widget Collecting." It keeps her in touch with other collectors, and, as a rather unintended consequence, it also helps to create a market, establish prices, and so on. The newsletter occasionally features the work of local belletrists who write nostalgic pieces about the uses of widgets in the old days; of amateur historians who write on the origins of widgets; of cognoscenti who have opinions about which widget designers are especially to be admired, expound on how widgets are much underrated as objets d'art, and so forth. Within a couple of decades Mrs. Smith's widget collection has grown to nearly a thousand pieces. Based on the subscription list of the newsletter, Mrs. Smith has created a Society of Widget-Fanciers, of which she is president. The newsletter has become the organ of the society and has become a bulletin. It is now printed instead of mimeographed, and people pay a moderate subscription to receive it and get notices of widget fairs and auctions of estates that include caches of widgets.

At this point Mrs. Smith's widget collection comes to the attention of a prominent and wealthy citizen named Mr. Doe, who upon seeing it becomes utterly entranced by the variety, the workmanship, the sheer beauty of widgets, which he had never noticed until seeing them amassed and well displayed. He buys the entire collection in one fell swoop for a very good price from the aging Mrs. Smith (much to the relief of Mrs. Smith's daughter, who thinks that entirely too much family capital is tied up in widgets).

Mr. Doe, whose connections are wider in the world than Mrs. Smith's, augments his collection with some truly remarkable and rare forms of widgets. He displays it prominently in his house, where his guests admire the charm and craftsmanship of old widgets and denigrate the shoddiness of new widgets, which, though admittedly more functional, lack the vibrancy of design, the fine decoration, the history, the culture—the art—of the old designs. He becomes the publisher of the old, sporadically published Bulletin of the Society of Widget-Fanciers , appoints a professional editor, has it printed on glossy paper with full color photographs, and changes its name to the Princeton Journal of Widgets and Teleology .

When he dies, Mr. Doe bequeaths his widget collection to an art museum on whose board of trustees he sat, but only on the condition that the collection never be dispersed or de-accessioned and that it be housed in a special room. The curators are in a rage: widgets are Kitsch, not Art, they say among themselves. But their rage must be somewhat constrained by the fact that Mr. Doe is also giving money for a much needed new wing having no connection to widgets, although the funding for it is contingent upon finding a room for the widget collection. An internal institutional fight ensues in which two associate directors are fired and there is a reshuffle. Eventually the wing is built, the room found, and the Mr. and Mrs. John Kingston Doe Room of Widgets takes its rightful place in the temple of art. The curators continue to roll their eyes at each other when discussing at lunch the tact needed to deal with collectors, and they make delicate allusions to the widget collection. Oddly enough, the Widget Room proves a very popular draw for visitors.

Decades later, the Widget Room is a point of pride for the museum. John and Jane Doe's eclectic and generous taste is celebrated and admired, and a traveling exhibit—called Masterpieces from the Collection of Jane Beaufort Doe and John Kingston Doe—is organized to celebrate the Widget Room's fiftieth anniversary. New assistant curators are socialized into museum culture by being told in hushed tones of the vision of the last and great director of the institution, who accepted widgets as art and snagged the precious collection before anyone else knew it was to be worth anything.

Meanwhile ... people are discarding wadgets without a thought. Wadgets, after all, are common and worthless, not even a collectible. In fact, mere rubbish.

Rubbish Theory

In Rubbish Theory: The Creation and Destruction of Value , Michael Thompson begins with the fact that objects (not just art objects) arerevaluated over time, and he proposes a theory of "rubbish" in order to explain how it happens. (Thompson's work is actually an extensive theory of objects, value, and social class, and he attaches it to mathematical catastrophe theory. I draw here only on the ideas most relevant to the way I want to construct a story about primitive art.)

Thompson begins by suggesting that we tend to classify objects into two major overt categories, which he calls "transient" and "durable." Those objects considered transient decrease in value over time and have finite life spans. Objects in the durable category increase in value over time and have (ideally) infinite life spans. Clothing and cars are "transient." They cost something, they are used, they wear out, they are sold for less than bought, and they are then thrown away. Ming vases are "durable" objects. Their value increases or should increase.

Thompson points out that the way we act toward an object relates to its category membership. We treasure, display, insure the vase; we use and eventually discard or sell the car. At the same time, how we act toward something also determines what its value is. Although it is not always so, it helps if the objects categorized as durable are in fact durable, not immediately subject to disintegration.

Now, people who have the most durables, he claims, also define what is durable, and so the question is how things ever change value:

We can uncover the control mechanism within the system: the manner in which durability and transience are imposed upon the world of objects. This is perhaps the first stumbling block in presenting rubbish theory, for we all tend to think that objects are the way they are as a result of their intrinsic physical properties. The belief that nature is what is there when you check in is reassuring but false: the belief that it is made anew each afternoon is alarming but true. We have to recognize that the qualities objects have are conferred upon them by society itself and that nature (as opposed to our idea of nature) plays only the supporting and negative role of rejecting those qualities that happen to be physically impossible.

The operation of this control mechanism would seem inevitably to give rise to a self-perpetuating system. Briefly: it is decidedly advantageous to own durable objects (since they increase in value over time whilst transient objects decrease in value). Those people near the top have the power to make things durable and to make things transient, so they can ensure that their own objects are always durable and that those of others are always transient. They are like a football team whose centre-forward also happens to be the referee; they cannot lose. (Thompson 1979: 9)

But, he says, we are all familiar with the fact that things do change categories:

We are all familiar with the way despised Victorian objects have become sought-after antiques; with bakelite ashtrays that have become collectors' items; with old bangers transformed into vintage motor cars. So we know the changes take place, but how? The answer lies in the fact that the two overt categories which I have isolated, the durable and the transient, do not exhaust the universe of objects. There are some objects (those of zero and unchanging value) which do not fall into either of these two categories and these constitute a third covert category: rubbish.

My hypothesis is that this covert rubbish category is not subject to the control mechanism (which is primarily concerned with the overt part of the system, the valuable and socially significant objects) and so is able to provide the path for the seemingly impossible transfer of an object from transience to durability. What I believe happens is that a transient object gradually declining in value and in expected lifespan may slide across into rubbish. In an ideal world, free of nature's negative attitude, an object would reach zero value and zero expected life-span at the same instant, and then, like Mark Twain's "one hoss sha," disappear into dust. But, in reality, it usually does not do this; it just continues to exist in a timeless and valueless limbo where at some later date (if it has not by that time turned, or been made, into dust) it has the chance of being discovered. (9–10)

Non-Western Art and Rubbish

Rubbish theory provides a way to conceptualize the categorization of art objects, including primitive art, and lays the foundation for a sociological and economic understanding of the continual revaluation of objects. The first step in applying it to this topic is to ask: What counts as rubbish when it comes to art, especially non-European art?

First of all, the term does not indicate that the objects so labeled are literally rubbish or garbage: they have not necessarily been discarded. Nor is it a value judgment: it does not mean that they are ontologically worthless. Rubbish consists, rather, of objects that do not fit, or cannot be accommodated within, the categories of objects that have been valorized and institutionalized within art history and the museum system.

An example is the tourist art made by Native Americans. In her article "Why Not Tourist Art?" the art historian Ruth Phillips recounts her discovery of these objects as art objects:I began this research with the full quota of standard prejudices inscribed by my disciplinary training as an art historian during the 1960s and 70s. I sought out the rare and the old, the "authentic" and the unacculturated for presentation in teaching, exhibitions and written texts. Working in collections, however, I was regularly side-tracked by the pull of other objects ... that lay alongside them on museum storage shelves. The glove boxes of birchbark and porcupine quills or the Hiawatha and Minnehaha dolls in fringed buckskin seemed to recall the roadside stands of childhood, to illuminate briefly the private lives of unknown strangers, to witness innumerable small meetings across cultural boundaries. These objects were walled off, untouchable according to orthodox curatorial and discursive practices. Rarely exhibited or published, excluded from the canon, they have been shrouded in silence. (1995: 99—100)

The glove boxes, beaded purses, and pincushions she found were not literally rubbish or garbage—after all, Phillips found them in the museum's storage—but they were invisible to normal art-historical scholarship. Or, for that matter, to anthropological scholarship: witness the labels in a display case I encountered in Chicago's Field Museum in 1986, which helpfully categorizes objects as "art," "decorative art," and "non-art" (figure 15). Tourist art did not even make it into the display case as non-art in 1986; it was beneath the level of conscious attention. (As a matter of note, it appears to me that "tourist art"—that is, objects made deliberately for the market by third-and fourth-world people and made deliberately to signify the "primitive" or the "ethnic"—is currently making an acceleratingly fast climb out of the murk of invisible rubbish and becoming respectable transient objects; some of it is shooting straight into the durable class; but that story comes later in the twentieth century and later in my tale.)

Tourist art, then, is rubbish from the vantage point of celebrants and believers in authentic primitive art. In this analysis, transient objects would be the "lesser" arts, crafts, and decorative items that may be discarded or sold when their useful or decorative life is over.

Objects that have been securely valorized as art, of course, have made it into the category of "durable." Their value is believed by Hegelians and many art historians (who often are Hegelians) to be transhistorical and transcultural, and a bevy of conservators and restorers in the employ of collectors and museums seek to make the art objects' physical perfection conform to their eternal conceptual worth.

Figure 15. 
A 1986 display case in Chicagos' Field Museum helpfully educates the 
public by defining (primitive)  ART, DECORATIVE ART , and (miserable thing)

If the story of the discovery of primitive art were to be told in terms of rubbish theory, it would emphasize that the objects Picasso and Vlaminck discovered were rubbish, the flotsam and jetsam that surface in flea markets and hang on the walls of bars as decor; these objects were invisible to the art market and to most artists. To move out of flea market rubbish and become durable art, they had to become visible to major collectors and to the institutions whose exhibitions define what counts as art.

Rubbish theory provides a secular language of analysis for understanding the social processes within which flea market rubbish could be transformed into Metropolitan Museum durables and how this kind of durable object has continued to transform into other named varieties of marketable and collectable objects. Rubbish theory informs my account of primitive art during the rest of the book. But there is more to the story than market forces working to elevate rubbish into durables. Rubbish theory and accounts of the economics of taste do not provide in themselves an understanding of the cultural categories that lie behind and inside market processes, which shape historical process fully as much as markets do.

A Brief History of the Birth and of Primitive Art

The discovery by early-twentieth-century artists that pieces of invisible flea market rubbish were really art initiated the process that would eventually make such objects visible to a wide public as art. It was a critical moment in their transformation in status, enabling (but not immediately effecting) their conceptual and institutional move from rubbish to durables. And yet, had the discovery been made by artists but never been taken up by the art market, major collectors, and major institutions, it would have become a dead-end in the great line of art-historical time, constituting a passing fancy that was dropped. As it happened, dealers in modern art began dealing in objects from the African colonies as well, selling the two kinds of art side by side. Avant-garde collectors and artists and those in their circles decorated their houses with both.

In New York and therefore in the United States, the histories of the collection and promotion of modern art and of what was to become primitive art are highly intertwined. The collecting and patronage of the Rockefeller family; the solidification of the exclusions and inclusions of which objects were to be designated as "primitive art"; the legitimation of primitive art; the legitimation of modern art; and the institution of the Museum of Modern Art—all are enmeshed.4

First Phase

In the United States, the Armory Show of 1913 introduced New York to modem art.5 By 1929 it had its own permanent installation space in the form of New York's Museum of Modern Art. One of MoMA's founders was Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, a promoter of modern art who was also collecting American folk art, both tastes very advanced for the time. MoMA was founded to educate the public and to exhibit the work of living artists, which had been found too avant-garde by the Metropolitan.6 Modernism was established and legitimated at MoMA during this interwar period, and outreach efforts attained their peak of intensity during the years of World War II. A big push came in the 1940s. For instance, the show "We Like Modern Art" opened in 1941; exhibitions called "Understanding Modern Art" occurred in 1941, 1942, and 1943, along with "What Is Modern Painting?"

The major collector who made visible and legitimated objects from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas as primitive art was Nelson Rockefeller.7 According to one account, he became an enthusiast in 1930 when, in Sumatra on his honeymoon, he was offered a knife whose handle was sculpted in the shape of a human head, to which was attached human hair: "He found it irresistible" (Saarinen 1958: 390). He acquired some pre-Columbian objects soon afterward, and in 1934 he met Reni d'Harnoncourt. D'Harnoncourt appreciated the artistic value of indigenous American artifacts, from both North America and Mesoamerica, and he organized an exhibit of them for the San Francisco World Fair of 1939, soon followed (in 1941) by another show at MoMA. With Rockefeller patronage, he became the museum's director in 1950.

Like modern art, objects made by colonized and conquered peoples were being valorized as art between the two world wars, with MoMA as a major venue. Exhibits there include "African Negro Art" (1935), "Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art" (1940), "Indian Art of the United States" (1941), and "Arts of the South Seas" (1946). The theme continued into the early 1950S with "Understanding African Negro Sculpture" in 1952 and "Ancient Arts of the Andes" in 1954. Each of these shows displayed objects from a single geographical area. Apparently these objects were not yet lumped together and displayed as a single kind of entity called "primitive art." By means of exhibitions and sales in art galleries, objects made by colonized peoples of Africa and Oceania, and eventually objects made by the native peoples of Mesoamerica and North America, were leaving the realm of invisible rubbish and entering the realm of visible art.

From about the second half of the nineteenth century to beyond the end of World War II, Europe and the Europe-derived cultures of the Americas stood for the modern, history, progress, and technological change and advances; the peoples colonized by European nations, most especially those with little industrial technology or writing, had come increasingly and then definitively to stand for the opposite of progress and rationality—for stagnation, superstition, and savagery. The dichotomy between European civilization and primitive savagery was generated by the metanarrative of progress, which gripped the imaginations of Euro-American colonial powers and the knowledge-producers of these nations during that century (from about 1850 to 1950) and continues to this day as "developmenttheory," which insists that all peoples of the world must modernize, else be left behind to wallow in their ignorance and superstition. In any case, the two significations, the civilized and the primitive, defined each other in classic Saussurean form; each had a value because its opposite existed.

How did avant-garde artists' appreciation of primitive art diverge from the dominant metanarrative? The art elite associated the primitive with the mythical and the magical, rather than the stagnating and the superstitious. Substantively, they may have been naming the same thing, and structurally they certainly were (that is, the opposite of the conceptual space occupied by "Europe"). The difference between the conservative, basically nineteenth-century, conventional, and bourgeois dichotomy between the civilized and the primitive, on the one hand, and the mutual definition of modern art and primitive art, on the other, during the first half of the twentieth century, was the valorization of the primitive in the eyes of painters. Primitivism and the modern art avant-garde formed each other's flip side, as well: each implied the other.

Certainly, the dominant, educated, as well as popular-culture view in this period was that the peoples who produced these primitive magical artifacts lived outside of history, without history. There was a great deal of political evidence to confirm this "fact." In the second half of the nineteenth century, Euro-American colonial powers had expanded and consolidated their holdings in Asia, Africa, the Pacific, and domestically in the Americas, making their last definitive push at the turn of the twentieth century. By the end of World War I, the colonial map took the stable form it was to have until it was disrupted by the anticolonial revolutions in the wake of World War II. Between the two world wars, the thoroughly defeated colonies, their external and internal political boundaries stabilized by European administration and force, had no "history," no "progress"—for the hallmark of history is change, and the colonies were static (albeit by fiat). Thus their structures appeared timeless, unchanging.

But what, one might ask, of the history of colonization itself? Does that not count as history? Until the mid-1980s, the history of colonization was written almost entirely as the history of Europe's colonial expansion, not the history of the defeated territories and people, who stood merely as the passive recipients of European history. (At most, the encroachments of colonial powers could cause these people to deteriorate and become decadent, to be forced out of the authentic and pure existence of their ancestors.) And the colonies' nascent nationalist movements had not yet entered history (the sequence of events), which they would do at mid-century; nor had they begun to write their own nationalist histories (the narrative forms), although they would do so at mid-century and beyond.8

And so it was the received wisdom of governmental officials, anthropologists, historians, artists, and other educated people that colonized peoples of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas had no writing and had no history, but lived in a world of myth and magic. Thus it is not surprising that writers of art history textbooks like E. H. Gombrich and H. W. Janson, people whose education and sensibilities were formed in the interwar period, should place primitive art in the mythical realm prior to time and history, or that they should collapse the distinction between Lascaux paintings and the artifacts produced by Navajos.

Second Phase

Judging from MoMA's post-World War II exhibits, modern art had been fully established by then; rather than educational outreach we find, sprinkled in with shows for contemporary artists, a number of retrospectives and the work of great modern artists.9

Parallel to modern art's secure establishment, primitive art's legitimacy crystallized institutionally with the 1957 opening of the Museum of Primitive Art (situated, perhaps significantly, directly behind MoMA on 54th Street). Nelson Rockefeller's collection formed its core. With the opening of this new museum, MoMA ceased exhibiting primitive art, with a single exception: in 1962 Michael Rockefeller's collection, "Art of the Asmat," was shown in MoMA's sculpture garden, under the auspices of the Museum of Primitive Art.

The Museum of Primitive Art was open for nearly twenty years, from the mid-1950s until the mid-1970s. These two decades mark the golden age of primitive art's legitimacy. The existence of so many wonderful objects, beautifully exhibited and celebrated in fine arts museums as art, attested to the unproblematic nature of the category of authentic primitive art. During the period, liberal and right-thinking people admired and celebrated it. Art historians and anthropologists discovered primitive art as a worthy subject of study, and an increasing number of books and articles appeared on the topic. A few art history departments hired specialists in primitive art, and several Ph.D. programs in non-Western art were established and produced their first graduates; a number of major museums established departments and curatorial positions of primitive art. As an essential category, primitive art was almost unchallenged.

Not merely coincidentally, the first two decades after World War II were the period of American economic and ideological expansion into the newly independent countries of Asia and Africa, the former colonies of Europe. During this period, the United States promoted gradual, nonrevolutionary "modernization" in this newly invented "third world." Of course, the United States has never been keen on violent revolution abroad, but what is striking in this period is the extent to which the structure of historical and anthropological narratives about the "changes" in primitive art occurring during this period reflected the political notion that change can be peaceful, a kind of naturalized outgrowth of tribal people's greater contact with markets and desire to leave their old ways behind. Numerous articles and books about topics ranging from art to politics carried titles beginning with "Continuity and Change among the ..."

The Museum of Primitive Art closed in 1972 to enable the collection's transfer to a new wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. With the opening of the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing of Primitive Art in 1982, primitive art became a member of the most exclusive club of high art in the United States: it had achieved the apex of legitimation, a place in the Met.

Two years after the Rockefeller Wing's opening, the Museum of Modern Art held its first show on primitive art since 1954, the 1984 exhibit " 'Primitivism' in 20th Century Art." I think its spirit was entirely consistent with the tenor of its other postwar exhibits of early modernists. Whereas MoMA's prewar shows of modern art had sought to legitimate it by promoting new art on the edge of established high art, its postwar exhibits included a number of single-artist retrospectives of established great masters of modernism. In the same way, prewar exhibits of non-Western arts at MoMA sought to establish the objects as worthy of art-historical attention, whereas the " 'Primitivism' in 20th Century Art" show was primitive art's own retrospective: William Rubin's introduction to the catalog, as well as the exhibit itself, relegitimized the place of primitive art inthe history of modern art by tracing the history of its influence. The show was a retrospective of a category of art, the Primitive, in effect tracing the history of an already established great master. It was about "Masterpieces of Primitive Art," the name, indeed, of the catalog issued by the Metropolitan on the opening of the Rockefeller Wing. In that winter of 1984, the category "primitive art" reached its zenith, which also marked the beginning of its end.


Excerpted from The Death of Authentic Primitive Art by Shelly Errington Copyright © 1998 by Shelly Errington. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
A Note on Punctuation and the Primitive


1. Three Ways to Tell the History of (Primitive) Art
2. What Became Authentic Primitive Art?
3· The Universality of Art as a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
4· The Death of Authentic Primitive Art
5· Authenticity, Primitivism, and Art Revisited

6. Nationalizing the Pre-Columbian Past
in Mexico and the United States
7· The Cosmic Theme Park of the Javanese
8. Making Progress on Borobudur

Illustration Credits

Customer Reviews