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Primitive Art in Civilized Spaces - Sally Price

Poetics and Politics of Race Tags

I found this text to be both critical and informative. Even the title Primitive Art in Civilized Spaces suggest a tone that erases the beauty, depth, and vitality of so many cultures in the face of Western/European ideals and perspective. However, Sally Price’s writing offered a framework that constructively questions these structures. Firstly, Price begins with discussing themes of ownership and responsibility. Before even delving into the implications of primitive and civilized art, Price allows for a reconsideration of how we consider what’s tasteful and who establishes an aesthetic. Aligning with the thinking and approval of many of the connoisseurs she defines, many follow a mystifying approach to appreciating art. Instead of automatically trusting what one says is a “good” or “beautiful” piece of art, Price helps to shed light on how the history and education of why this ideals of good and beautiful are so deeply entrenched in an Western/European perspective.

She furthers to explain how this Western/European perspective contributes to a universal way of thinking, that values brothership, kin, and charity. However, these values show that a harmonic and connecting only applies to a certain group of people, the “civilized”. While these ideas seem open and progressive, they actually present themselves in a fashion that is narrow and limiting. Therefore, what is considered primitive is considered to be predated, not modern, savage, and the dark sides of humanity. This dark side is the erotic, haunting, and exposed. These forms of art, for example the mbis poles constructed by the Asmat, who many in the museum thought were from Africa, do not appeal to the western eye. The Asmat people are actually from the West side of Indonesia, on a island that is New Guinea. These poles are a part of a ritual that restores balance after a death, which the Asmat viewed as unnatural and an occurrence caused by enemies. Therefore, they would stick the heads of the murdered bodies on the poles and then after a final feast they would abandon the poles in the jungle. Since this was inconceivable and scary to Western perspective is what’s labelled as primitive and regarded as less than civilized art/space.

What resonates the most is audience. Price writes, “We partake of an identification with African art; this allows our self-recognition and personal rediscovery and permits a renewed contact with our deeper instincts; the result is that we increase our understanding of ourselves and our relationship to art. Admittedly, the authors of such statements are writing for Western audiences, not African artists.” (Price 34) This point is crucial. It shows how Western conceptions of art undermine the purpose of art. It shows there is only one person benefitting from the world of art. I question who is writing for African artists? This text is important, especially for our exhibit. It raises the essential critiques that allow us to be true when interacting with art and also appreciating it. Furthermore, Price gives us room to be open and rethink power structures and do the work that Nora Chipaumire prescribes in her TED Talk, which is think for ourselves.

The title of Chapter 5 – ‘Power Plays’ – encapsulates much of what Price tries to convey about Primitive Art in Civilized Spaces. Western tactics of asserting power and influence over Primitive people have been going on for centuries and this control over the arts is exhibited in a number of ways. In many ways, artifacts from third world nations mean little to nothing until Westerners authenticate the artifacts. Western connoisseurs deem themselves in charge of not only interpreting art, but also conserving, marketing, and deciding the future existence of these art pieces. These intentions were not always as obscure as they have turned to be now. Loius Shotridge says, “I took it [said artifact] in the presence of aged women, the only survivors in the house where the old object was kept, and they could do nothing more than weep when the once highly esteemed object was being taken away.” (Pg 70) These colonial/imperial tactics were veiled in such a way that researchers formulated ‘principles’ for collecting objects that were designed to show respect for the interests of the community being taken from. However the dreams of researchers for data and personal career boots often displaced ethical considerations.

It would be erroneous to suggest that Primitive Art collectors didn’t know what they were doing; I think it is safe to say that these researchers were aware of the ethical problems and yet were careful not to let these concerns interfere with the possibility of a thriving art market. This is the very kind of European cultural arrogance I am so interested in; the notion that “with a credit card and sensible walking shoes, nothing is out of reach” manifests into something real – colonialism. The observation of art used as a power play is not limited to the situation of the Primitives, although they occupy a unique position of inferiority. Museological contextualization takes places when an artist in NY feels manipulated by forces beyond their control; but at least they have the awareness and access that allows their voices to be heard. The exploitation of Primitive creativity however takes on a different look.

This comes in many forms. When Picasso’s art piece is displayed side-by-side with a “primitive” art piece, the audience is meant to be impressed with the realization that these could be similar. When it is showcased at the MoMA, people know Picasso’s name and fame and it is the Primitive piece seen as new, even when the latter was the original and Picasso’s was a copy. An “as good as” status becomes unthinkable for Primitive art and this extends to and expands Western cultural arrogance.

A recurring theme in the book is the need to contextualize Primitive Art within modern contexts. Typically this meant adding extensive didactic information that would not be needed for Western art due to cultural familiarity. This is talked about in terms of “labels” in the book -- extra detail signified Primitive Art, minimalism was for Western Art. I wonder how we will be able to do this with our exhibit -- how are we going to describe the art that we exhibit? In talking about language (re: Jody’s class) these signifiers are important. It signifies how we depict objects with different kinds of identities; are we going for anthropological context over aesthetic merit? Is art originally a Western construct and do we/should we have to subvert this framework? Is Bryn Mawr a place we can do this successfully?