Okay, Tumblr, here’s paper #2. In Response to William Rubin’s “Modernist Primitivism: An Introduction”
Given that the meaning of the words “primitive” and “primitivism” change multiple times within this article, it is curious that the art world should be able to maintain the idea that they are useful. Perhaps the problem is not the lack of a satisfactory alternative vocabulary word, but in the idea of classifying certain peoples and their art as “primitive” while classifying others, who are the contemporaries of the so-called “primitive” people, as “modern”. Indeed, the definition of “modern” art is widely contested itself. It seems reasonable to think that it may be the binary classification, and not the specific vocabulary, which is the cause of confusion.
Rubin attempts to describe why “Primitivism” is a problematic term but proceeds to use the terms “tribal”, “primitive”, and “Primitivism” while excusing himself by blaming critics for not having come up with a more agreeable term. While it seems that Rubin has grasped the superficial issues with the use of such terms, he fails to understand that the trouble with the term has less to do with the term s than the actions which the use of such terms represent. Evidenced throughout the essay, Rubin often admits that the terms are ethnocentric but resolves that “This ethnocentrism is a function nevertheless of one of modernism’s greatest virtues: its unique approbation of arts of other cultures… Its consequent appropriation of these arts has invested modernism with a particular vitality that is a product of
cultural cross‐fertilization”; promoting the yet-surviving idea that ethnocentrism is not inherently bad or harmful, but is only so when one consciously thinks explicitly less of others. He fails, however, to observe the cognitive dissonance within his own writing. For, what does the reader hear of the “primitive” people to whom Rubin refers? Cross-fertilization means that both things grow stronger. Yet, Rubin himself says the ways of life of the Dan people and others were fading and history tells us that ‘fading’ is too non-violent a term. The countless non-Western peoples who serve what is later concluded to be a non-essential role in “inspiring” Western artists during the early to mid twentieth century are voice-less, ignored and spoken over by the assumption of the authority and illustriousness of the West. After telling the reader that calling a people “primitive” is not necessarily saying that they are less, he goes on to say things like “the vogue enjoyed by Japanese art in France”. But the reader never hears from the Japanese. We are led to believe, however, that the French consumption of Japanese art is a compliment higher than any other that Japanese art had received until that point. He effectively conveys that Western favor was a high honor and a confirmation of value or validity.
Rubin accuses art dealers of the early twentieth century of deciding what African and Oceanic art was “good” by the standards of Western art of that time period. He does so and yet makes value judgments of non-Western pieces throughout this introduction but gives almost no definition of what it is that he believes makes one piece of art more “fine” than another. In fact, the only solid distinction he makes in this regard is between “authentic” and “inauthentic” pieces.
The definition of inauthentic is given as pieces that were made for consumption. The definition of authentic is given as sacred items. These definitions give a perfect description of the Western attitude towards non-Western people. If Picasso created a piece that was meant to be viewed and consumed by Western audiences, it was an authentic Picasso unless someone other than Picasso created it. When non-Western artists created pieces for Western consumption, they were considered inauthentic. The West, here, sends a clear message: “We, the West, define what is authentically African/Ocenaic/etc.. We will take nothing less than your most sacred items. We will do so on our terms. And you should be grateful for our attention.” Even the way that Rubin discusses African contributions to “world art” defines “world art” on Western terms. Nothing can be “world art” until it is recognized and consumed by the West, on the West’s own terms.
We must stop discussing colonization as if it were a cultural exchange. Exchange happens willingly, colonization and imperialism do not and stealing the culture of others while trivializing or ignoring the people themselves is not a compliment. The definition of the word “primitive” changes because the word does not describe anything real. There is no group of non-Western people that is inherently “primitive”. The issue is not in the terminology, but in the mindset that allows the terminology to be used. Rubin’s brief and underdeveloped consideration of the problematic nature of the term(s) is not explicative, but symptomatic, of the true issue. The true issue is the lumping together of all non-Western people as an earthy, mystical “other” to be used to further the journeys of Western people and the solution is not a replacement term, but a replacement mindset.