Unreal Nature

July 21, 2015

Annexation as an Ancestral Source

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:42 am

… By appeal to Primitive precedents, modernist individualism was thus defended …

This is from the essay ‘Abstract Expressionism’ by Kirk Varnedoe in “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern edited by William Rubin (1984):

… In the thirties, the seemingly unbridgeable gulf between modernist originality keyed to inspiration in the “unconscious,” and public responsibility (an art devoted to and comprehensible by the “masses”), had prompted a nostalgia for Primitive societies in which the artist’s practical functions made him integrally essential to communal well-being. The rhetoric of the vanguard artists of the forties, however, stressed the spiritual and psychological power of Primitive art rather than its social efficacy, and insisted on the ahistorical links that joined the modern and Primitive artist, rather than the historical factors that separated them. This emphasis on collective truths that were timeless/psychic rather than historical/social matched and supported claims for a new “apolitical” artistic individuality.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] The modern artist’s unconscious was held to be a direct link to a living well of collective memory, and difficult, apparently, noncommunicative modernist abstraction was argued to be the true embodiment of eternal communal verities. By appeal to Primitive precedents, modernist individualism was thus defended as recovering a universality beyond matters of class or nation. Writing on the native-American art of the Northwest Coast in 1946, Barnett Newman argued: “There is an answer in these works to all those who assume that modern abstract art is the esoteric exercise of a snobbish elite, for among these simple peoples, abstract art was the normal, well-understood dominant tradition. Shall we say that modern man has lost the ability to think on so high a level?”

… When the American artists sought an art to evoke the elemental truths they shared with immemorial ancestors, several factors favored the indigenous cultures, and not the least of these was racial. For the European nations, who had (despite their colonial policies) never developed internally an African slave population, “art nègre” lacked a problematic social aspect that it obviously possessed in the United States. Europeans, remote from both Africans and American blacks, tended to elide the two cultures. The fortunes of Africanizing primitivism in Europe had thus become associated with the chic of Negro Blues and jazz (Josephine Baker et al) in a fashion that was not exportable to pre-World War II America.

[line break added] Even though artists such as Gottlieb owned and admired African objects, it would have been quite a different matter for white painters in New York in 1940 — as opposed to Picasso or Modigliani in Paris decades before — to evoke an ancestral linkage between their innovations and the art of Africa. While many American artists insistently called up general Primitive precedents as validation for their work, a specific linkage — via overt African sources — between an already beleaguered modernist minority and the far more seriously oppressed and populous black culture would have brushed too close to the specific social engagement that most of the artists were busy expunging from their art. Native Americans, constituting a smaller and more comfortably folkloric social presence, were more easily available to Caucasian artists for annexation as an ancestral source.

… Whether from the Primitive tribes of North America or the Archaic court cultures of Mesoamerica, indigenous art was associated with a ceremonial dignity and with mythologies regarding the interaction of man and cosmos, in a way that made it especially appealing to a new generation of primitivizing artists.

More from this essay next week.

My most recent previous post from this book is here.

-Julie

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