Art-Artifact

By Danto, Arthur Coleman | The Nation, March 5, 1988 | Go to article overview

Art-Artifact


Danto, Arthur Coleman, The Nation


Art/artifact

In the spring months of 1907, Picasso began work on the large and fateful painting that became Les Demoiselles d'Avignon and paid a no less fateful visit to the Musee d'Ethnographie du Trocadero in Paris. Whether the painting opened him up to the exotic fierce effigies he saw there or if some revelatory inspiration drawn from his encounter with them gave him what he needed to achieve that masterpiece is a hidden truth in the psychochemistry of his creative genius. What is beyond historical question is the fact that the transformations induced upon Western art by the forms and cadences of that stupendous painting induced a simultaneous transformation in the perception of what continued to be called "primitive art," making it aesthetically visible. Until then the carvings and assemblages of Africa and Oceania had been viewed chiefly as ethnographic data for a science of man that addressed primitive cultures primarily as yielding analogical insights into stages through which our own culture must long since have passed. It was accordingly impossible to view their products as art except in the most marginal sense, as marking the lower boundary of a scale whose upper limits were defined by the glories with which Raphael, Correggio or Guido Reni graced high civilization. And natives, if brought as living anthropological specimens to one or another international exposition, might, if taken to the Louvre or the Musee du Luxembourg, see in the luminous images along those walls an almost impossibly distant hope. It would have been taken for granted that a scarred or painted tribesman from the Congo, shown some rude effigy from his own culture together with, say, a carving by Donatello, would have confronted evidence of his own culture's inferiority so palpable and plain that only the paternalistic consideration owed him by his betters prevented so cruel an aesthetic experiment.

Picasso changed all that. He was, to be sure, not the first artist in France to cultivate African sculpture. But he certainly transformed the way in which the world perceived it. In one way this was an unqualified matter of artistic justice. By 1920, the English critic Roger Fry was able to write, in response to an exhibition of "negro sculpture" shown at the Chelsea Book Club in London:

The power to create expressive plastic form is one of the greatest human achievements, and the names of great sculptors are handed down from generation to generation, so that it seems unfair to be forced to admit that certain nameless savages have possessed this power not only in a higher degree than we at this moment, but than we as a nation have ever possessed it. And yet that is where I find myself. I have to admit that some of these things are great sculpture--greater, I think, than anything we produced even in the Middle Ages.

"I went to see the carvings," Fry's friend Virginia Woolf wrote to her sister Vanessa, "and I found them dismal and impressive. . . . If I had one of the mantelpiece I should be a different sort of character--less adorable, as far as I can make out, but somebody you wouldn't forget in a hurry." Woolf, I think, is closer to the mark than Roger Fry, who was an aesthetic formalist and so saw in these works only those qualities that appeared to license the affinities upon which the Museum of Modern Art erected its flawed exhibition "Primitivism" in 20th Century Art, in 1984. For Fry, these objects "have the special qualities of sculpture in a higher degree. They have indeed complete plastic freedom . . . rare in sculpture." So they do. Fry was judging them in just the terms he would have applied to Praxiteles or Bernini, subtracting, as irrelevant, considerations of naturalism in representation, which Picasso had in any case put in brackets. By those criteria, he perceived them as superlative exercises in plastic art. "Heaven knows what real feeling I have about anything after hearing Roger discourse," Woolf wrote, waspishly; but she clearly responded to something shuddering and unsettling in these works to which Fry was rendered numb by his aestheticism. …

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