Week #10 – Art and Museums

I took an aesthetics course last semester that discussed African “primitive” art, and I remember the class talking about the “Primitivism of the 20th Century: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern” exhibit that Appiah mentioned on page 442.  “Primitivism” was such a controversial exhibit because it displayed African artifacts alongside famous modernist pieces that the artifacts apparently inspired.  For example, Picasso’s Les Desmoiselles D’Avignon was said to be inspired by this African mask.  This exhibit was so controversial because, the curator William Rubin seemed to imply that there was a universal formal aesthetic (what Appiah refers to as a modernist “ideology of disinterested aesthetic value”) by which both “primitive art” and modern art could be evaluated.  Critics of the exhibit cried that Rubin discredited both primitive art and modern art by putting them in the same plane instead of allowing each to be studied in their own contexts.

I personally can’t decide whether displaying primitive art on its own (in its own “context,” as far as a museum can replicate that context) is any less insulting than displaying primitive art alongside modernist art.  For Appiah, this question may be beside the point.  As Trish mentioned in her post, Appiah seems to be saying that the modernist tendency of Western museums and collectors to appropriate African primitive artifacts contributes to the commodification of African art.  According to Appiah, the central feature of modern society is not rationality but rather: “the incorporation of all areas of the world and all areas of even formerly ‘private’ life into the money economy.  Modernity has turned every element of the real into a sign, and the sign reads ‘for sale’ (433).  The reason why African art is so collectible is due, in part, to the Western myth of Africa as the Other.

As the list of possible words for Inquiry #4 points out, the subject of museums recurs in Dream Jungle.  Zamora displays Paz Marlowe’s Filipino mother’s painting in the same room as the painting in which Spanish conquistadors meet “natives with faces like Sonny’s,” a painting that Paz imagines smells like “blood and betrayal” (156).  There was something acutely unsettling about this grouping of native Filipino art (inspired by Amorsolo, one of the Philippine’s greatest artists) with a painting representing the native’s conquest by the Spanish.  Perhaps that’s one reason why the critics were outraged by Rubin’s “Primitivism” exhibit.