"Primitivism" in 20th Century Art

By Danto, Arthur Coleman | The Nation, December 1, 1984 | Go to article overview

"Primitivism" in 20th Century Art


Danto, Arthur Coleman, The Nation


In one of its less felicitous efforts to instruct its readership in matters of high culture, Life once ran a photographic eassay on Abstract expressionism. It consisted of juxtapositions of paintings with objects in the world that resembled them, sometimes quite precisely: heavy black scaffolding silhouetted against a blank sky went with a painting by Franz Kline; tangles of waterweeds were put next to a Jackson Pollock; perhaps--my memory here grows vague--faded and peeling posters on a worn fence, a found collage, were placed beside a Willem de Kooning. All this was meant to reassure readers that these new and perplexing artists had not really abandoned the mimetic imperatives of Western art but had merely changed the subjects to be imitated, copying fragments of reality heretofore neglected. The implied rule of appreciation was to treat the paintings somewhat like the photographs of most-wanted criminals in the post office: carry the image around until you find something to match it, then collet your reward. It would be difficult to think of a more serious perversion of the art movement this eassy set out to clarify. If the artists in question had not altogether forsaken what was referred to as The Image, they never used images in the manner of exact resemblance that the Life juxtapositions required.

I am reminded of that dim didactic effort by the publicity for "Primitivism" in 20th Century Art at the Museum of Modern Art, which sets beside one another examples of primitive and modern art: an elongated Nyamwezi effigy is yoked with Alberto Giacometti's "Tall Figure" of 1949; a Zuni war god is put alongside Paul Klee's "Mask of Fear" of 1932; a Mbuya mask from Zaire keeps company--both have concave noses!--with one of the heads from the right side of "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," and so on. All this is placed under the teasing title "Which is primitive?" The difficulty of answering that question on the basis of visual data alone--there are, admittedly, the resemblances, making the title teasing in a different way from, say, placing a wigwam beside the Chateau de Versailles--is doubtless meant to make the observer rethink his or her concept of primitivism. If those dark exotic cultures could produce objects indistinguishable from artworks produced by some of the most celebrated artists of our culture, well, either they are not so primitive or we are not so advanced as we might have thought. Nothing, I believe, could more seriously impede the understanding either of primitive or of modern art than these inane pairings and the question they appear to raise.

If there is a single lesson to be learned from recent philosophical analyses of art, it is that it is possible to imagine objects that are visually indistinguishable though one is a work of art and the other not; or where both might be works of art with such different meanings, styles, structures, references and thematizations that their perfect resemblance is incidental to any point save the demonstration of its irrelevance. That lesson could be nowhere more usefully kept in mind than in approaching so stupendously misconceived an exhibition as the present one, which obligingly deconstructs itself by making that very point midway through. Next to an Ibibio mask from Nigeria is installed Edvard Munch's celebrated lithograph "The Shriek." The print provides the visual equivalent of an auditory phenomenon in that we not only see that the woman on the bridge is screaming, we in effect see the scream, since the artist has transduced the landscape into a pattern of soundwaves. The mask, like Munch's screamer, has an open mouth, and it is covered with a linear pattern which, if read like the one in the Munch, would yield the stunning interpretation that the mask bears a scream on its forehead. I heard a number of visitors express doubts about this pairing, but had they read the guide booklet, they would have seen it was made precisely to raise that doubt. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

"Primitivism" in 20th Century Art
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.