Denis Dutton on Shelly Errington


The Death of Primitive Art

Philosophy and Literature 23 (1999): 243-55.

Denis Dutton

The status and treatment of so-called primitive art is an important topic, and caused me to pick up Shelly Errington’s The Death of Authentic Primitive Art and Other Tales of Progress (University of California Press, $48.00 cloth, $19.95 paper) with some excitement. There are elements to admire in the book, not the least of which is a clear and unpretentious writing style. This probably owes little to her copy editor who, as she explains in the preface, tried to get her to change the phrase “Freud’s construction of the primitive” to “Freud’s construction of indigenous people.” Errington says that although she, like her copy editor, does not want to offend, she does not want to be anachronistic either. We can applaud that intention, but I fear anachronism remains one of the incidental faults of a book which fails more seriously to mount anything resembling an argument, replete though it is with feelings and opinions.

It doesn’t adduce evidence for its central sentiments so much as assemble reminders of what Correct Thinking People agree about the generally deplorable attitude of Western Civilization toward primitive art: the book frequently employs ironizing capitals, especially for such apparently delusional entities as “Reason” and “Objectivity.” Conditions for reader acceptance are set out conveniently at the beginning. An introductory page informs us that the book begins from the “Foucault-friendly premise” that primitive art is not a “timeless category existing in the abstract world of ideas and essences” but rather “a constructed category that appeared at a certain moment.” This category has remained unstable ever since it was “invented,” depending on “the semantic field in which the term exists” and the objects to which it refers. So Errington naturally treats with predictable quotation marks the “discovery” of primitive art by Picasso and Co. around the turn of the century.

This art, she explains, “reached the peak of its rise to fame” in 1982 with the opening of the Rockefeller Wing of Primitive Art at the Metropolitan Museum. There was also an Amazonian art show at Macy’s that winter which Errington “rushed to see,” camera in hand, presumably to record a more commercial manifestation of primitive-art construction. Since these glory days, however, primitive art has fallen on hard times. First it suffered the condemnation occasioned by the “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art” exhibition in 1984. This show “marked the fact that authentic primitive art had died, or at least had become moribund.” Moreover, in the aftermath of the “Primitivism” exhibition, the concept of “authentic primitive art” had been attacked “head-on by a pack of cultural critics, leaving it bloody and for dead. (Well, at least deconstructed.)”

Why, the increasingly confused reader might ask, was authentic primitive art dead — or moribund? Or was it bloodied and left for dead? Or was it “deconstructed”? Just disputing an idea doesn’t murder it. Before we can get an answer, Errington jumps to a second sense in which authentic primitive art had died: authentic primitive artifacts “were disappearing at an alarming rate.”

In 1984? Complaints by collectors and dealers that artifacts were disappearing in New Guinea were heard as far back as the late nineteenth century and were encountered even earlier in New Zealand. To report such alarm in the early 1980s is peculiar indeed. And who exactly was “alarmed”? Here is Errington’s elaboration:

This second type of “death” of primitive art — the limiting of its supply — does not kill the concept of primitive art, of course. Quite the contrary. The concept of authentic primitive art is alive and well among collectors, primitive art galleries, and the art market generally. But the supply is more limited than ever, just at the point when the art has achieved mass appeal. As a consequence, a new generation of artifacts claiming to be “art” or art-like, “authentic” and “ethnic” if not “primitive,” in various permutations of the terms, has rushed in to expand its market share.

But wait: now we are told that the putative death of primitive art did not affect the concept of authentic primitive art, because dealers and collectors still use it; it meant that the supply was diminishing. So the so-called deconstructive effort of that pack of critics was apparently ineffectual. But even granting this, what does it imply to say, for example, that pre-war New Guinea artifacts have died because pre-war carvers aren’t making them anymore? You might as well say that 1980s painting died because it became impossible to paint in the 1980s on January 1, 1990. Nor is it surprising that as older artifacts became more scarce, a new generation of artifacts has moved into the market; it happens in every sphere, and does not mean that the original artifacts are either dead or inauthentic. I cannot remember a book with a capacity like this one to generate ever more tangles and confusion on every page.

Foremost among these problems is the meaning of “authenticity” as applied to primitive art. Of all conceptual questions alluded to in the book, this is the one on which I anticipated the most clarity, given its importance to Errington’s project. Disappointingly, she produces no analysis of authenticity and instead relies on a few quotations from thinkers to whom she is generally unsympathetic. The first of these is James Johnson Sweeney, who wrote the catalogue for the 1935 MoMA exhibition, “African Negro Art.” This was a time when, she says, “primitive art was still in the process of being invented as a legitimate subtype of art, and Sweeney was one of its promoters.” Sweeney’s ideas, she goes on to say, “correspond extremely well” to what James Clifford and Sally Price have criticized. Unfortunately, she doesn’t specify, let alone analyze, the ideas she has in mind nor how or why Clifford and Price criticized them. All she says is that Sweeney apparently believed that since the time of European colonization African culture had entered a decadent phase; before Europeans came, there was, in Sweeney’s quoted words, “general prosperity; large, populous cities; extensive areas of land under cultivation; and orderly, peace-loving inhabitants keenly sensitive to beauty in their environment, habiliments, and art.” After European conquest, Sweeney says, “Fine pieces were no longer being produced due to the decadence of the natives following their exploitation by the whites.” Errington summarizes Sweeney’s attitude in these words: “The message is that once upon a time Africans were great artists, now they are commercial hacks; once their work was pure, now it is polluted. Only ancient Africans, like ancient Greeks, stand as worthy ancestors; just as the ancient Greeks were ancestors of Art with a capital A via the Renaissance’s discovery of them, so too the ancient Africans are worthy ancestors to modern art via Picasso’s discovery of them.”

Commercial hacks? Is this anything close to a reasonable reading of Sweeney’s text? Let’s recall that Sweeney wrote in the 1930s. The Nazis and others were marching around Europe preaching racial superiority not only against Jews but against the black race. Jim Crow was in force and lynchings were still occurring in the United States. Sweeney would have had a job convincing the museum-going American public that African carvings deserved a place in the Museum of Modern Art, that the idea was not just one more joke perpetrated by wacky modern artists. More broadly, in Africa itself, the Congo was still Belgian, and the depredations of the British in Benin were barely a generation past. Sweeney was reminding his readers of crimes committed against Africans, including the destruction of their cities and culture, by what can only be viewed by us as deeply wicked colonial powers. In the passages Errington quotes, Sweeney pleads with his 1930s audience to take African art seriously, to understand that it was produced by a people keenly concerned to create and enjoy beauty. But to her postcolonial-studies sensibility, Sweeney’s is what she calls a “legitimating gaze.” In other words, Sweeney’s sin is to try to persuade his readers that the arts of Africa are a legitimate part of world art and worthy of a place in the Museum of Modern Art.

Her next target is William Rubin, whose discussion of authenticity in the catalogue for “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art” occurs in an endnote of that text. Rubin understands authenticity to be essentially a question of whether an object was made by an artist for traditional use by the artist’s own people, or was made for sale to outsiders, such as tourists, colonials, or anthropologists. This distinction — a matter of the function and audience for an object — is fundamental to any discussion of authenticity. Errington claims that Rubin is trying to keep primitive art “in a timeless zone untouched by history”; but that’s not the issue. Rubin believes that it is important to distinguish the old traditional art of a people, made perhaps for gods or ancestors, from an art knocked off for the tourist market.

Arguably, Rubin places too much emphasis in the brief passage in question on whether outside influences may have affected a traditional tribal art. He does, however, say that a great artist might produce splendid work even at a time when an artistic tradition is dying. He cites the example of a Torres Straight mask obtained by Picasso in the 1920s that has an underpinning of metal, probably merchant marine debris. His point is against snobby connoisseurs who would claim that the best indigenous art is always the older piece that predates contact with Europeans. Errington quite falsely accuses him of validating the Torres Straight mask as a work of genius merely because it was part of the personal collection of Picasso. This is sheer abuse of Rubin: there is no evidence whatsoever that he thinks the mask is beautiful because Picasso owned it.

More generally, missing from Errington’s account is even the most rudimentary acquaintance with historic theories of aesthetics. Plato and Aristotle worked out mimetic theories of art. There are formalist theories, such as those found in the early, most often-read pages of Kant’s Third Critique (Kant takes back some of his strict formalism later on in that work) or in Clive Bell’s Art. There are the expressionist theories, and most recently theories that come out of adaptationist psychology. That Errington is oblivious to this entire descriptive and analytical tradition is betrayed by her chapter, “The Universality of Art as a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy,” in which she tries to show that those who believe that art is “an enduring universal” are wrong. She claims they are “offended” by the notion that art is determined by a “schema” which observers impose on objects they call “art”:

Such people will say (and this is a composite of many conversations I have had), “Of course art has some characteristics that let us recognize it as art. How else would we know what we’re talking about? You’ve identified what we mean by ‘art’! How could it be otherwise.” And that is a good point, although I think it is not the whole story. Art universalists then ponder the topic more deeply. After a few minutes of furrowed brow and deep thought, they struggle to define why art is universal, and how they can tell it from non-art. In the end, they pronounce, it is not portability, iconicity, and all the rest of it that define an object as art, but its “transcendent quality.”

I have quoted this specimen passage to indicate how it might provoke a thoughtful reader’s exasperation. The problems the passage embodies are so numerous that they could drive a conscientious reviewer to bullet points:

♦ Errington imagines an opposition that seems to insist that the word “art” wouldn’t be useful if there weren’t defining conditions for its use. This, incredibly, she grants as a “good point,” though not the whole story. Doesn’t she understand that if it’s a good point, it undercuts her repeated dogmatic claim that art is made art by being brought under a schema? Why is it good, and why isn’t it good enough?

♦ Her opponents, says she, continuing in her fictional narrative mode, knit their brows and struggle to “define” why art is universal. But shouldn’t they define “art,” or explain why it’s universal? Or provide evidence that it is universal in the first place? Is there any evidence? Many have thought so.

♦ Moreover, her struggling opponents try to indicate how we tell art from non-art. That apparently would then be a question of definition, and as such has nothing necessarily to do with universality (you can define “bicycle” without any claims implied about the cultural, geographic, or historic universality of bicycles).

♦ The wrinkled brows then decide that it isn’t portability or iconicity that define art. Portability? Indeed, Errington had earlier included the concept of portability in her standard, socially determined definition of art. Portability is part of the definition of art because collecting is essential to constructing the concept of art, and you can’t collect things unless they are portable. Where this leaves the Parthenon or Chartres as art is naturally a curious matter. Later in the book when she comes to discuss the vast, rebuilt temple-monument of Borobudur in Central Java she remembers to refer back to her portability requirement for art. Well, she says, huge objects can be collected: look at London Bridge in Arizona or the Cloisters in New York City, moved brick by brick and stone by stone. And anyway, “nonportable objects can be collected symbolically as drawings or postcards or miniature models.” Gigantic rock structures like Borobudur, however, “resist collection.” Indeed, they resist so much that the portability criterion is rendered either trivial or false.

♦ Finally, the punch line: it’s art’s “transcendent quality” that defines it. As a last definitional resort of the aesthetically perplexed, transcendence seems to me one of the least likely responses you could expect to receive to the question, “what makes something art?” Why then does Errington latch on to it as her candidate? She reveals the answer in the next paragraph, where she alludes to Arthur Danto’s well-known 1988 paper about the Pot People and the Basket Folk. Toward the end of that article, Danto — in his sometime Hegelian fashion — remarks off-handedly that the art he pits against utilitarian craft in his argument is transcendent. He provides no explanation of this whatsoever (nor should he, since other issues concern him in the article). Errington naively treats Danto’s article as evidence that transcendence is widely seen as the defining feature of works of art. It is not. [I have discussed Danto’s essay at length here.]

But even Danto receives no analysis, for she jumps then to the one thinker she views as most valuable for her purposes: Walter Benjamin. Of all the theorists she could have chosen to develop ideas of any value on the topic of authenticity and ethnographic art, it would be hard to imagine one more inappropriate than Walter Benjamin. His obsessions with mechanical reproduction and how this would rob works of art of their aura are dubious (the widespread reproduction of van Gogh paintings has not made the originals less valuable or decreased their “aura” or cult status; it has increased both). But regardless of whether one agrees with that, to drag Benjamin into this context is a barren exercise.

A standard routine for criticizing a book has the reviewer faulting it for not being the book that he or she wanted to review. This situation can merely demonstrate that the reviewer is unimaginative. In the case of The Death of Authentic Primitive Art, however, it seems to me that the author’s exposition falls woefully short of any adequate intellectual standard or expectations of coverage of the topic. If Errington is going to talk about theories of art and apply them to so-called primitive art and issues of modern primitivism, the reader has the right to expect that she be minimally familiar with the philosophy of art. Given the title of the book, we also have a right to expect a coherent account of authenticity, in its many overlapping categories of meaning. For example, some might say, with Rubin, that a mask made for indigenous use in a ceremony is authentic, whereas one made for tourist trade is inauthentic by that standard. But what about a tourist mask that for some reason ends up in an authentic ceremony, or a mask made for indigenous use that is sold to a tourist before it can actually be used? These things do happen, and they raise important questions which, if pursued systematically, reveal unexpected implications of the concept of authenticity. As issues, they are not mere Western impositions, but often have a life within the cultures anthropologists study. All of this is missed in a book whose general strategy is dogmatically to proclaim that authenticity is obsolete and irrelevant.

Stepping back, I realized in reading The Death of Authentic Primitive Art that the intellectual poverty of so much current writing in cultural studies, Foucault-friendly or not, stems from a failure to grasp the meaning or power of the opposition’s arguments. It’s possible to say that almost all great expository and analytical texts — works that go beyond the merely descriptive in their attempt to impose a large interpretation on a field of study — deliver to the reader a sense of alternative, opposing views and tell us why they are not to be preferred. In this manner, the best analytical writing is implicit dialogue, or struggle: there is an opponent whose persuasive competing view must be resisted. (I think of Plato, but also Aristotle, Hume and Kant, Descartes and Wittgenstein; and it’s not just philosophers who think and write in terms of intellectual dialogue.) How far this is from Errington’s case! She seems, for instance, to have not an inkling that there might be adequate reasons in some contexts for speaking of the arts of small-scale, nonliterate societies as a single class, even when these societies are found on different continents and at different historical times. (She naturally shares with other postcolonial theorists no inhibitions whatsoever in generalizing about “Western” values and ideas.) She is unaware that there might be plausible alternative views of authenticity, that Danto and Benjamin are not the best allies in the field of ethnographic arts, or that there is empirical evidence (not just prejudice) that inclines some reputable scholars to assert that art is universal.

So her book is littered with assertions such as, “Art was invented simultaneously with collecting; the two are inconceivable without each other.” Even the most charitable reader might immediately wonder where the Lascaux caves stand in relation to this claim (they are apparently either not art or were collected). Lascaux is just the example that sprang to my mind; other readers will respond to Errington’s “inconceivable” with different counter-examples. There can be no objection to entertaining the hypothesis, however improbable, that art and collecting arose together. But how perplexing the idea is when one considers the vast array of non-collected arts (e.g., dance, architecture) as well as the staggering list of collected non-arts, from license plates and match boxes to dead sea horses, cello bows, and retread fragments picked up off roads (all real examples).

Shelly Errington is a cartoonist of considerable talent and she illustrates her book with examples of her work, including in the introduction a characterization of her critics shown in the sketch above. The drawing suggests that Errington has been condescended to more than once by the likes of the left dog. Perhaps the right dog’s “grrrrrr” is an expression of exasperation, rather than aggression. But I’m afraid that the “brute fact” on the left, however rude, is not being unreasonable in requesting basic clarity and coherence.

Copyright 1999 Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.