Fascinated by the Primitive and the Popular by Néstor García Canclini

Why do the promoters of modernity, who announce it as an advance over the ancient and the traditional, feel more and more attraction for references to the past? It s not possible to answer this question in this chapter alone. It will be necessary to explore the cultural need to confer a denser meaning on the present and the political need to legitimize the current hegemony by means of the prestige of the historical patrimony. We will have to investigate, for example, why folklore finds an echo in the musical tastes of young people and in the electronic media.

Here we will be interested in the increasing importance critics and contemporary composers give to premodern art and the popular. The high point that Latin American painters find at the end of the eighties and the beginning of the nineties in the markets of the United States and Europe can only be understood as part of the opening to the nonmodern initiatives some years before.

One way to verify what it is that the protagonists of contemporary art are looking for in the primitive and the popular is to examine how they stage it in museums and what they say to justify it in the catalogs. A symptomatic exposition was the one presented in the 1984 by the Museum of Modern Art in New York entitled

“ ‘Primitivism’ in 20th century art”.

The institution, which in the last two decades was the main instance for legitimating and consecrating new trends, proposed a reading of modern artists that emphasized the formal similarities of their works with ancient pieces rather than their autonomy and innovation. A woman by Picasso found her mirror in a Kwakiutl mask; the elongated figures of Giacometti in others from Tanzania; the Mask of Fear by Klee in a Zuni war god; a bird’s head by Max Ernst in a Tusyan mask. The exhibit revealed that the dependencies of the modernist on the archaic encompass everyone from the Fauvists to the Expressionists, from Brancusi to earth artists and those who develop performance inspired by “primitive” rituals.

It is lamentable that the explanatory preoccupations of the catalog concentrated on detectivelike interpretations: establishing whether Picasso bought masks from the Congo in the Paris flea market, or whether Klee used to visit the ethnological museums of Berlin and Basel The decentering of Western and modern art remains halfway between being concerned only with reconstructing the ways objects from Africa, Asia, and Oceania arrived in Europe and the United States and with how Western artists assumed them, without comparing their original uses and meanings with those modernity gave them. But what interests us above all is to note that this type of collection of great resonance relativizes the autonomy of the cultural field of modernity.

Another notable case was the 1978 exposition in the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, which brought together so-called naïve or popular artists: landscape painters, builders of personal chapels and castles, baroque decorators of the everyday rooms, self-taught painters and sculptors, and makers of unusual dolls and useless machines. Some, like Ferdinand Cheval, were known through the efforts of historians and artists who knew how to value works that were foreign to the art world. But the majority lacked any training or institutional recognition. They produced works of originality or novelty, without any publicity, monetary, or aesthetic concerns – in the sense of the fine arts or the vanguards They applied unconventional treatments to materials, forms, and colors, which the specialists who organized this exposition judged presentable for a museum. The catalog prepared for the collection has five prologues, as if the museum had felt a greater need to explain and forewarn than with other exhibits. Four of the prologues seek to understand the works by relating them to trends in modern art rather than by looking for anything specific to the artists being exhibited. They remind Michael Ragon on the Expressionists and surrealists byt heir “delirious imagination,” and of Van Gogh by their “abnormality”; he declares them artists because they are “solitary or maladjusted individuals”- “two characteristics of all true artists.” The most delightful prologue is that of the director of the museum, Suzanne page, who explains her having entitled the exhibit “Les singuliers de l’art” because the participants are

“individuals who freely own their desires and their extravagances, who impose upon the world the vital seal of their irreducible uniqueness.” She assures the reader that the museum is not mounting the exhibition in order to look for an alternative to a “tired vanguard,” but rather to “renovate the look and reencounter what there is of the savage in this cultural art.”

To what is owed this insistence on uniqueness, the pure, the innocent, the savage, at the same time that they acknowledge that these men and women produce by mixing what they learned from the pink pages of the Petit Larousse, Paris Match, La Tour Eiffel, religious icononography, and the newspapers and magazines of their time? Why does the museum that is trying to free itself from the now untenable partialities of “the modern” need to classify that which escapes it not only in relation to legitimized art trends but also to the boxes created for naming the heterodox? Raymonde Moulin’s prologue provides several keys. After pointing out that since the beginning of the twentieth century the social definition of art has been extending itself incessantly and that the uncertainty thus generated results in the also incessant labeling of strange manifestations, she proposes to consider these works as “unclassifiable,” and wonders about the reasons why they were selected. Above all because, for the cultured gaze, these naïve artists “achieve their artistic salvation” while “partially transgressing the norms of their class”; next, because

“they rediscover in the creative use of free time – that of leisure or, frequently, of retirement – the lost knowledge of individual work, isolated, protected from all contact and from all commitment with cultural and commercial circuits, they are not suspected of having obeyed any other need than an interior one: neither magnificent nor damned, but rather innocent…In their works the cultivated gaze of a disenchanted society believes it perceives the reconciliation of the pleasure principle and the reality people.”

Excerpt from:

Canclini, N.G. (2005) Hybrid Cultures. Translated by Christopher L. Chiappari. University of Minnesota Press.