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  • The Somewhat Exaggerated Death of Primitive Art
  • 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 [End Page 243] 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...

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pp. 243-255
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