Unreal Nature

July 14, 2015

The Charged Separation

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:44 am

… [Primitivism] finds its energy in violating the gaps … , by asserting affinities that are fundamental to human thought and especially to modern creativity.

This is from the essay ‘Gauguin’ by Kirk Varnedoe in “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern edited by William Rubin (1984). My quotes from this essay are from Varnedoe’s comments on primitivism and modern art in general, rather than specific references to Gauguin:

… The revolution in modern man’s approach to the arts of tribal societies, begun by Gauguin and brought to fruition by the artists of the early twentieth century, has resulted in a shift of these tribal objects from the domain of scientific data to that of aesthetic valuation, a conceptual shift equivalent to — and eventually echoed by — a displacement of these objects from the natural-history museum to the art museum. It might seem logical, then, to depict artistic primitivism as antithetical to scientific attitudes — either by celebrating twentieth-century artists’ new valuation of Primitive art as victorious over the aesthetically “blind” limitations of an anthropological approach, or negatively, by faulting the modernist appreciation of tribal objects for imperialistically disregarding the ritual and societal contexts in which such forms have their true significance.

We cheat the complexities of history, however, if we suppose such an irreconcilable antipathy between subjective aesthetics and objective knowledge. The differences between the artist’s view and the anthropologist’s are obviously formidable, and the distance between the natural-history museum and the art museum constitutes a true gap. But the charged separation between such categories and such institutions only occurs within the equally important common ground both sides share as evolving expressions of the values of a larger Western culture.

Primitivism centers on a charged and fruitful relationship between differences and affinities. As a way of thinking about human diversity, it first abolishes hierarchies and allows a plurality of valid, independent, and truly different ways of constructing the world. Then it finds its energy in violating the gaps thus established, by asserting affinities that are fundamental to human thought and especially to modern creativity.

My most recent previous post from this book is here.




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