Dissing the Primitive

John Haber
in New York City

Primitivism and Primitive Discord

Primitive Discord—it could make a fine title for a textbook on Modernism. But is it too hopelessly primitive to be in harmony with art today? The answer may turn on whether art and criticism can find the chords and discords in their own history.

The promise of concord

The primitive calls up the countless nightmares of modern art, everything from African masks to Jungian archetypes. Willem de Kooning, to name just one, called a breakthrough work Excavation. Dig it? 'Adolph Gottlieb's The Alchemist (Tate, Adolph & Esther Gottlieb Foundation, 1945)

For more than a century, too, art has prided itself on discord. Formally, Modernism skips lightly from idea to idea, from the space of vision to the space of the mind, daring anyone to keep up. Emotionally, it challenges the cozy complicity between the work of art, its proud possessor, and the "civilization" that claimed them both as its own. A de Kooning nude can still feel rude, funny, scary, and exhilarating, all in the same moment. Have a problem with that?

Yet Woman I turned fifty last year. So did a lot of baby boomers, staring in the mirror not at abstract painting but at their own loose abs. Art, like much of society, largely accepts sex and discord as private affairs, except perhaps for presidents. In America's encounters with other nations today, the only thing primitive is its foreign policy.

Now de Kooning has entered museums, and a desire for the primitive has served less as a release than an accusation. Using outsider imagery to give women an inhuman face only makes things worse. Once again, art and the West appropriate everything in their path.

Think that's bad? What if, worse, the primitive and discord sound less insulting than irrelevant? Now appropriation stands for a conscious artistic strategy, within a rigid framework of scholarship and museum institutions. Its harsh sounds have lost much of their ability disturb. The primitive, as a point of origin and return, has slipped away.

Stranger still, the terms have started to contradict each other. Once the primitive stared back, confronting art and the viewer with discordant echoes it had seemed to deny. At the same time, however, it evoked an authentic response. Whether as "nature" or artistic genius, art "After Nature" or the spiritual in art, it held the unfulfilled promise of concord.

What primitive?

Certainly, to associate Africa, women, or the unconscious with nature denied others their history. Today, however, even to suggest a framework of human life prior to culture sounds not so much racist as plain silly. The artist's gaze becomes the tourist's stare—or that of the African refugee.

Art history has turned again and again to "the primitive" as a handy label, only to regret it as the certainty of progress gave way to historical insight. In response to Pablo Picasso's portraiture as art's psychobiography, Henri Matisse turned to the early Renaissance as a source of blunt, physical forms like those of Matisse's Bathers. Before long, however, historians were avoiding the term Italian primitives as an embarrassment.

Ironically, modern art anticipated the criticism and ushered in the change. One could say that de Kooning domesticates Picasso's women, with an easy intimacy that gives them back their flesh and their ability to smile. When Eric Fischl revives de Kooning's sexuality and macho humor, he sets their roots even closer to home, in suburban America.

So can one salvage anything about primitive discord? Can one hope even for its blunt insensitivity? Is it an insult even to think of a "Primitivism Revisited"? When juxtapositions like Fischl's are not supposed to add up, it makes little sense even to describe them as discord.

The answer may lie in a more discordant history. As I have already tried to suggest, art's turns to the primitive themselves have an intricate past.

Did the primitive—or the formal logic of art—promise to have existed well before the West and to outlast it? Perhaps, but to write off the old mistakes in fact replicates their dream of standing outside of time and culture. It reinforces a present-day complacency, as when scholars of Caribbean art celebrate the meeting of Europe and native tradition. All those blockbuster exhibitions, auction-house records, and media monopolies deserve a discordant note or two.

The historicity of origins

In fact, stepping backward to a clash of origins has a long history in art, and that heritage actually includes a heavy premium on culture. Just for starters, the Renaissance not only defined itself as a rebirth, but had multiple births of its own. Artists from Giotto through Leonardo and Michelangelo, Mannerists like Hendrick Goltzius, and the Baroque's epic first generation had to rediscover sculpture in Rome. Soon the trip to Italy indeed became a template for arts education.

The step outside academic tradition to a point of origin had overtones of progress, much like any search for empirical foundations. As an exhibition at the Met observed this past year, the French discovery of Spanish art coincided with a political revolution and a cultural civil war. If the avant-garde soon threw down the primitive as a gantlet, it promised still another kind of elite.

Conversely, starting with Romanticism, artists have seen the primitive as an escape, like Caspar David Friedrich staring out from a Romantic interior or at the full moon. In other words, the primitive comes both in service of enlightenment and as a last recourse against its advance.

With early Modernism, the past increases refuses to stay past, just as Constantin Brancusi's dark imagery or Picasso sculpture upends sculpture's pedestal. The primitive now enunciates a specifically Western art history without kowtowing to the West. In its confrontational images and frontal compositions, art now rubs the viewer's nose in his own desires.

I use the male pronoun deliberately. Paradoxically, the artist both does the rubbing and shares the desires. Picasso's women and Frida Kahlo's self-portraits alike turn on a male viewer. Both also give women the dignity of seeing themselves in the mirror.

When postwar art invokes the primitive, as with Adolph Gottlieb, the relationships shift yet again. Older art and Romanticism played out in front of the viewer, as a lesson. Early Modernism taunted the viewer with a bad dream. The artist stands ambiguously behind and in front of the canvas, but at least the audience stays put. After World War II, one cannot even count on that.

The primitive in discord

Even more than in Surrealism, the outsider is now fully inside a complex personality and culture. Take a young Adolph Gottlieb or Jackson Pollock, each still finding his way. For each, a broken grid of icons and representation asks the viewer to enter into the artist's mind as if sharing a private language. Pollock's later drip painting does not assault the viewer so much as invite one into its formal web. Gottlieb called one of his grids The Alchemist. Stepping in will not recover one's authentic ground but change one forever.

This art starts to dissolve the cultural and mental boundaries that it invokes, much like Deborah Grant with African American art now. It asserts the artist's personality while embedding it in a network of signs. Formerly, primitivism allowed the divided individual to express struggles within culture. Now the individual articulates a division within language itself. Postmodernism's foregrounding of culture already seems inevitable.

Leap ahead, then, to art today. Sometimes violent, sometimes complacent, art criticizes the possibility of a given, a pure state of nature—perhaps even with masks. Yet it can do so only because the absence of firm ground is its essence.

Maybe one no longer can hear the discordant notes. Not even an online magazine can ensure a true alternative. Besides, nostalgia for the primitive sounds sillier than ever in digital form. Sure, digital art and writing can evade corporate distribution channels, but artists and writers still have to earn a living. Sure, one can put publish anything, but no one has to listen.

Still, I want to know who will listen—and where it will lead them. Perhaps only a fresh start can reveal how much discord lies in shifting notions of the primitive. This could help restore the art of others, too, to a more complex history. That has greater importance than ever, in light of this nation's monolithic view of Islam. A few years ago, an exhibition of African art at the Guggenheim found a surprising diversity of aims. I can only look forward to the reopening of the Met's Middle Eastern galleries.

One can bear in mind, too, how primitive past disruptions of the mainstream have come to look. Perhaps the only true primitive left is discord.

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This essay was slated to appear first, in slightly different form, in a webzine called Primitive Discord that, to my knowledge, never came to exist. I wrote it in August 2003 to help launch this online publication on culture and the arts.


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