Copyright The New York Times
Published: March 22, 2005
Once upon a time (not long ago), what people called primitive art was rarely seen in major museums. Now we see a fair amount, and it has acquired the standard museum perks: handsome exhibitions, critical raves, academic studies and eager audiences.
It is called non-Western art. And this is not a squeamish politically correct term. It is a bland, functional one, just like “Western art.” Both kinds can be organized according to continent, country, ethnic group, period or style. The word “primitive” trumped all such categories. It didn’t mean ancient or civilized. It meant primal, instinctual and ahistorical.
Primitive was also the term applied to Western folk art. Oh, those whimsical country people painting their religious visions; those working-class eccentrics rooting through garbage for art materials; those prisoners and schizophrenics scribbling on cell walls and paper scraps.
These are cultural brand names, and they often determine what will be written in or out of art history. Think of the heavy lifting the word “post” has done for several decades now. Even a simple “new,” judiciously placed before a term like “portraiture” can make it as chic as any color just christened “the new black” by Vogue.
But the art formerly known as primitive has undergone a change. Now its practitioners are called folk, self-taught or outsider artists. “The irony is that the art hasn’t gotten better, we have,” said Brooke Davis Anderson, curator and director of the Contemporary Center at the American Folk Art Museum in New York. “At last we can recognize its quality.” That is why she dislikes the term outsider art. “Outside compared to what?” she asked. After all, it took what she called “the cultural machine” a long time to catch up with what went on inside this world.
Why? People still debate the relative value of art made to be used (crafts and design), and art made to be contemplated (painting, drawing and sculpture). It’s the utilitarian versus the high art tradition. But why must high mean better? Why can’t it just describe a certain history of techniques and practices?
Given the adulation and money poured into the high art world by collectors and corporations, the notion of art for art’s sake seems pretty passé. Maybe we’re talking about art for the sake of cultural and financial gain. Maybe the “vision thing” is a marketing strategy for a lot of artists.
Certainly, one key distinction between folk and high art has always been the status of the individual artist. The high artist has been hailed as a genius, a seer, a path breaker. The folk artist has tended to live in anonymity. This is no longer true. Artists like Henry Darger and Bill Traylor have become world-famous.
The Whitney Museum’s celebrated show “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend” (2002-3) was a turning point. Here were women from a small, isolated black community in Alabama who had been making quilts for generations. Certain formal qualities united their work. But as with any significant school, gifted individuals had found their own styles. Their experiments could be tracked; their artistic ambition was clear.
Quilts have been an honored, revitalized form for a while now. But now the high art imprimatur was firmly in place. Why? Not only were these quilts beautiful, potent and surprising, but they were also abstract, and in the world of high art, abstraction is treasured. Many people still tend to associate it with the privileges of formal education and middle-class urbanity and sophistication.
An elegant show currently on view, “Ancestry and Innovation: African American Art From the Collection,” also points up the complex union of traditions and individual talents. (It can be seen through Sept. 4.)
Here are quilts, paintings and sculptures from three generations of artists. (The oldest were born at the tail end of the 19th century. The best known, like Bessie Harvey and Thornton Dial Sr., were born in the late 1920’s. The youngest was born in the 1950’s.)
In Mary Maxtion’s “Snake Trail Quilt,” big gnarled black shapes lead – almost drive – the eye across fierce pink to borders of black and yellow. Mozell Benson’s “Strip Variation” quilt is like a tactile map. Each piece of fabric in red, green or black-and-white checks could be an imaginary country. Two sides are framed by floral print material, as though Liberty of London had found its way to Waverly, Alabama.
Sitting in the gallery center with aggressive majesty is “The Last Frontier,” Willie LeRoy Elliot’s love seat. It strides the worlds of function and sculpture like a colossus. Swirls of blue, white, red and yellow cover its wood surface. But who would choose to rest one’s weary back against the torso of a man with a snake around his neck?
The love seat doubles as a vanity (table, tray and mirror, no drawers). Why look at yourself, though, when you can look at tiles, metal, bits of glass and popsicle sticks at odd angles? “The Last Frontier” is a marvel.
Happily, institutions and individuals are deciding to throw out the old debates about the relative values of art designated fine, folk, high or utilitarian. The point is to understand each tradition. The point is to open one’s eyes to any artist who, as Joseph Conrad said, can make us hear, feel and above all see
MARGO JEFFERSON – The New York Times
Copyright The New York Times