Sally Price on Primitive Art

Philosophy and Literature 15 (1991): 382-87.

Denis Dutton

Sally Price’s Primitive Art in Civilized Places (University of Chicago Press, $12.50 paper) treats a subject in dire need of sober, serious discussion and analysis. Price sets out to expose the myriad forms of blindness and stupidity that have infected the European response to so-called primitive art. Fine; on this topic there is enough blame to go around. But she spoils her case by choosing easy targets and basing her criticisms on doubtful and false generalizations about primitive peoples and about European attitudes to primitive art. She also shows herself incompetent to handle the partly empirical, partly philosophical question: are there universal aesthetic values? But most annoying to some readers will be her persistent moralizing. In a field rife with authors who like either to look down on the tribal artists they write about or on Europeans who have written about them, Sally Price has produced one more exercise in moral self-congratulation.

In order, I guess, to establish early on her credentials as a sensitive observer of race relations, she pounces on Leonard Bernstein. To illustrate her point that white people’s attempts to show benevolence toward dark races can be condescending and even racist, she cites Bernstein’s enthusiastic introduction of André Watts to the music world in 1963. After quoting some remarks by Bernstein about Watts which I cannot read as other than merely laudatory, Price tells us that Bernstein “was playing the role of white patron for a black performer, and the patronizing undercurrent lasted into the final words of the introduction: ‘With warmth and pride, André Watts’.”

This is a cheap shot. Maybe it’s news to Sally Price, but in music, established names sponsor the careers of young performers. Bernstein was always generous in this way, as have been such notables as Menuhin, Stern, and Rostropovich. To be a musical patron does not entail that one is being patronizing. If Bernstein was typically enthusiastic on this occasion (Glenn Gould was acting temperamental, if I recall rightly, and Bernstein used Watts as a stand-in on a Philharmonic program), it might be explained by the fact that black classical pianists were thin on the ground in the early 1960s and, race aside, Watts was (and still is) an exciting pianist. Who is Sally Price to lecture Leonard Bernstein on how you introduce a young, unknown, black pianist in 1963 to a Philharmonic audience that bought tickets expecting to hear Glenn Gould?

A couple of pages later she’s ridiculing Bernstein again, this time for the 1976 Norton Lectures, in which he proposed to demonstrate that there is a universal grammar of music. If you’ve heard or read Bernstein’s lectures, you’ll know that he adduces a substantial case about harmonic relationships and how they inevitably require that separately evolved musics will share some formal elements in common. Price does not even begin to engage his arguments; she merely quotes a few exuberant sentences, almost all from the first dozen pages of The Unanswered Question, to prove that Bernstein only wants to further his ideological commitments about the Brotherhood of Man (whenever Price uses such gender-bound terminology she capitalizes for irony).

She also quotes some “Family of Man” twaddle from Carl Sandburg in order to discredit the notion that there might be human universals embedded in the various aesthetic responses of widely differing human cultures. But just because Sandburg’s support for it is facile and sentimental, that doesn’t make the idea false. Absent from Price’s book is any attempt to deal with the small but significant anthropological literature on the question of cross-cultural aesthetic universals, or even to nod in the direction of the philosophers — especially Hume and Kant — who have made relevant remarks on the subject. All right if she’s not up on philosophy, but to write a book on this subject and ignore the empirical studies of people like Child and Siroto or Paul Bohannan is incompetent. Incompetence, on the other hand, is just one of the charges Price continually levels at the authorities discussed. Apparently just about everybody who has ever ventured an opinion on tribal art is presumptuous, imperialistic, or patronizing.

For example, in her chapter, “The Night Side of Man,” she quotes qualified researchers such as Werner Muensterberger and Edmund Leach and more-or-less armchair aesthetes such as Georges Bataille and Kenneth Clark. Her purpose is to show that European peoples impute to primitive art “nocturnal darkness and fear of monsters” as well as an untamed sexuality. She also says that Westerners treat primitive artists as bohemian nonconformists, and cast primitive societies “into the mold of an artistic counter-culture.” If these assertions constituted a fair characterization of how European critics see primitive art, she’d have a point. But they are neither fair nor accurate. Would anyone familiar with the literature on Hopi and Zuni pottery say that it reveals a European inclination see tribal societies as living in a nightmarish fear of monsters? On the question of whether tribal peoples are bohemians in the European imagination, Price herself eventually must admit that many Westerners stereotype tribal life as allowing much less nonconformity or bohemianism than modern European culture.

And so the book treads circles from quoting false generalizations by past writers on primitive art, to making false generalizations about Western writers on primitive art, to endorsing explicitly or by implication false counter-generalizations about primitive art and peoples. It does not suit Price to acknowledge that over the past two hundred years there has emerged in “civilized places” a wide and varied assortment of views of tribal art. Some of these ideas of the primitive are ignorant, confused, philistine, and racist, others are aesthetically sensitive and culturally informed, while most include some mixture of all these elements (especially ignorance). But Sally Price only cites examples that fit her catalogue of stereotypes, since they support her ideological commitments about the non-Brotherhood of Man.

She scrapes bottom of her bucket in the description of an encounter she had with a security guard in 1984 in the Michael C. Rockefeller wing of the Metropolitan Museum. The guard volunteered for her edification an assortment of unfounded opinions and misinformation on the Asmat of Irian Jaya. Though this woman was earnestly trying to help Sally Price gain a better understanding of an Asmat exhibit, the guard actually believed, it turned out, that the Asmat lived in Africa (imagine hearing a dubious lecture on Soviet culture from someone who thinks Russia lies between Brazil and Argentina). Price spends four full pages describing and picking apart the views of this ignorant person because, she assures us, her views epitomize European stereotypes and misunderstandings about how primitive savages live in a world of physical violence, darkness, and threatening spirits.

The trouble is that, Price’s skepticism notwithstanding, the guard was — though by accident — broadly correct about the broad character of Asmat society, since her confused account derived from having read (and misread) the museum display material, and this was accurate. The Asmat were notorious headhunters (Michael C. Rockefeller was decapitated in the Asmat) and when it came to taking heads, any child or old woman caught on the outskirts of a village would do. A proper analogy to understand the level of fear and threat endured by many Asmat tribespeople would probably be that felt by old ladies living alone in rough sections of the Bronx. This fear was compounded by the Asmat belief that sickness and death were, if not the result of a ritual indiscretion on the part of the sufferer, due to sorcerers, witches, or evil spirits. Anybody could be accused and possibly killed. Of course, such levels of fear are not found in most tribal societies, and the museum was not making the claim as a general one anyway. So who cares about what a benighted security guard thinks?

As it happens, I read Primitive Art in Civilized Places in Sydney on my way home from five weeks on the Sepik River in New Guinea doing research on Sepik art. Most of my time was spent living with Sepik carvers, talking with them about what they want to achieve in their art, what they condemn or try to avoid, and why. It is not easy to enter the emotional, spiritual, and aesthetic world of traditional Sepik carvers, but neither is it wholly impossible. My quest was aided by some of the most generous and articulate so-called primitive people you might ever hope to meet, people indeed whose grandfathers or even fathers were headhunters. I was also helped by the writings of generations of mosquito-swatting Germans, Britons, and Australians who ventured up the Sepik before me. These included scallywags and profiteers, explorers, earnest missionaries, canny patrol officers, and anthropologists. Whatever their motives — and not all were dishonorable — these early-contact colonials have left an irreplaceable record of a disappearing form of human life, and preserved some stunning expressions of human creativity. Some were rogues, but others were obsessed with Sepik carving and a desire to see it preserved as a living art form (for example, the Catholic missionaries who have tried to encourage carving). There’s no purpose served in heaping contempt on their misinterpretations of Sepik art and life, except to inflate our own sophistication and righteousness. A correct view of Sepik art was never simple to achieve (even if you could know you’d achieved it). The only easy thing is to be mean-spirited and sarcastic about people who have gone before us and gotten it wrong or, just as bad in Price’s book, have not stated their views with proper sensitivity toward issues of colonialism, oppression, and gender-equity in language use.

Except for one section of her book, Sally Price has almost nothing to say about who has managed the “correct” attitude toward tribal art, or how this beatific state might be attained. The exception is chapter eight, “A Case in Point,” where she describes how she and her husband, Richard Price, mounted an exhibition of art of the Suriname Maroons “in four major museums" in the United States: “We did our best to present Maroon art as Maroon art, complete with makers’ well-articulated aesthetic principles and consciousness of art history, as these had been laid out to us during our several years residence in the interior of Suriname.” She spends the next couple of pages explaining why all the Dutch museums to which the exhibition was offered turned it down (too anthropological for the art museums, apparently not political enough for the anthropology museums). Then a surprise: the Prices wanted to show the exhibition in Suriname, but this “was ruled out because of the lack of climate controls and security measures adequate to meet the conditions of some of the lenders.” In light of this book’s strident moralizing about the denial to tribal peoples of their own art by European cultures, one would have expected its author to manage somehow to make her exhibition, or part of it, available to the people from which it was...uh...obtained.


Copyright © 1991 Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.