The Death of Authentic Primitive Art by Shelly Errington


As it’s provocative title suggests, the long, slow, irreversible death of primitive art is the subject of this important, very readable and refreshingly contrarian view of the Primitive Art world of museums, art theorists, mail-order catalogs, boutiques, tourism and world events.

Ironically, the artifacts and textiles of marginalized people like the Papuans, Dayaks and Lesser Sunda islanders are often celebrated as examples of national heritage at the same historical moment that these same people who make the objects are being turned into urban poor and menial workers.

Tracing a loosely historical account of ethnic art, author Shelly Errington explores an eclectic collection of public sites in Indonesia that have become the quintessential architectural language of the Indonesian nation state, endlessly mutating and adaptable – the Taman Mini cultural theme park and the national airport in Jakarta and the restored 9th century Buddhist monument of Borobudur – to show how the idea of the primitive can be used in the interests of promoting nationalism and economic development.

Errington argues that primitive art was invented as a new type of art object at the beginning of the 20th century. Radical and unexpected at the time, tribal art was looked upon by avant-garde artists as a sort of magical, timeless source of ideas and images that were both an antidote and rebuke of repressive Western civilization.

The market for authentic primitivism grew with the birth of modernism and had a major influence on Cubism and Surrealism in the early in the 20th century. With the triumph of the free market, it continued to gain vogue in the decades after WW II. By the end of the last century, the supply of artifacts in the older “Rockefeller-Wing mode” of high primitive art had become nearly exhausted as the societies that produced them had been absorbed into the global economic system.

The golden age of primitive art were the first two decades of the Cold War when the number of airline companies had increased exponentially, heralding the new age of mass tourism by air and bringing primitive art newfound availability and legitimacy. The coming out party for primitive art was the opening in 1957 of New York’s Museum of Primitive Art, but it was the inauguration of the Rockefeller Wing at New York’s Metropolitan Museum that was the genre’s Debutante’s Ball that would usher in a world market.

Starting in the 1970s, in order to seek both foreign exchange and construct a national identity from a vast patchwork of inhabitants, the Indonesian government began an endless search for natural resources (minerals, oil, timber), human resources (cheap labor) and cultural resources – exotic and colorful peoples and their ritual artifacts.

After the production of true primitive art came to an end in remote tribal areas, “ethnic art” rushed in to fill the vacuum and expand its market share. We only have to witness the ubiquity of silly, sad primitive tourist kitsch, tastefully selected to match the sofa or coffeetable, that now surrounds tourist sites all over the world to realize how “primitive art” has been transformed and monetized.

The souvenir shops of Legian and Seminyak reveal the amount and variety of inexpensive tourist folk art and generic tropical jewelry that is churned out, spin-offs of traditional artifacts designed for people in touch with world taste or jobbers dealing in the world art market.

The book’s title belies the fact that it is more than a discourse on how crafts, antiques and primitive art have been corrupted. Its 310 pages is also a cultural analysis which takes on larger issues of philosophy and political history. The defilement of tribal art in fact reflects a massive power shift between the vanguard of civilized modernity that represents “progress” and the rear guard of “stone age” people clinging to tradition, an ever growing underclass of people throughout the world at the periphery of the economic system.

Errington asserts that with their homelands displaced by mining, oil, logging and hydro-dam projects, artisans have become modern-day peasants. The status of primitive art is now essentially that of a dead modern art master. Errington presents a number of piercing insights, revelations and clear and inspired explanations:

*Holding the belief that as a natural process “the culture is dead” or that a craft has “died out” or that the society that made certain artifacts “is defunct” serves the psychological needs of dealers, collectors, thieves and governments, enabling them to ignore the fact that the looting of cult objects hastens the culture’s demise.

*In Indonesian art, the Java-centric government asserts wide-ranging political, cultural and economic hegemony over an enormously diverse country. The way the Javanese view it, modern art is produced in Jakarta, classical art comes from central Java and primitive art is from the Outer Islands.

*The best customers of Indonesian ethnic art and sculpture are collectors of African art who are accustomed to paying tens of thousands of dollars for authentic fine old pieces. By comparison, “authentic fine old pieces” from Indonesia are a stunning bargain.

*The over busy art objects of Bali have never qualified as primitive art because the sensibilities of the island favor highly ornate and densely elaborated designs that are not a modernist aesthetic. Bali’s art is influenced from India, a complex and literate “high” civilization. Moreover, the expression of a world religion such as Hinduism in Balinese art mitigates their primitiveness in the hierarchy of primitive art. The characteristic arts of Bali are based on sound and movement – gamelan and trance dances – or consist of gold jewelry and textiles which are considered “minor” arts and are neither iconic or sculptural.

Witty, sophisticated, lucidly written and highly original, Errington’s study of the historic progress of primitivism in the contemporary art world is a lively introduction to art institutions and a significant contribution to the fields of cultural and anthropological scholarship.

The Death of Authentic Primitive Art should be assigned reading for collectors, art students and the growing numbers of scholars investigating issues of artistic authenticity, legitimacy and the ups and downs of the tribal art market. Written almost 20 years ago, the book’s premises have now become reality.

The Death of Authentic Primitive Art: And Other Tales of Progress by Shelly Errington, University of California Press 1998, ISBN: 978-052-021-2114, paperback, 310 pages, Notes, References (Bibliographies), dimensions 15cm & 23cm.

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