``Masterpieces'' and ``aesthetics'' are two words many of us prefer not to use when discussing African -- or indeed any other kind of ``primitive'' -- art. We have a hard enough time as it is taking even the best of these ``brutish'' objects seriously without elevating them to the status normally reserved for works by the likes of Rembrandt or Picasso. After all, weren't those who made these things ignorant and superstitious savages, lacking sophistication and culture, and incapable of genuine nobility and refinement?
While we might prefer not to admit it, that is pretty much the way the argument goes. And there are those whose position is even more extreme, who insist that since it's obvious these works reflect mankind's baser instincts, they must also be perceived as morally reprehensible.
Nothing distresses Susan Vogel, director of the Center for African Art, more than this kind of prejudice. She has fought it for years, both as author and curator, and she is currently waging a particularly effective campaign against it with the center's present exhibition, ``African Aesthetics: The Carlo Monzino Collection.''
She is especially concerned that the public perceive African art in its proper context. As she writes in the introduction to the excellent, profusely illustrated catalog that accompanies the show: ``African art . . . has unfortunately continued to be seen as the unconscious expression of a people endowed with a kind of innate sculptural sense, the visual equivalent of `natural rhythm'. . . . For the full richness and complexity of African art to be recognized, we must have an understanding of its intellectual basis; it cannot take its rightful place among the greatest artistic achievements of mankind as long as it is thought to be the result of a purely unconscious or instinctive process.''
One hopes this exhibition will make a significant dent in that misconception. The show certainly presents a high enough level of quality and is accompanied by just the right kind of detailed but clearly presented textual analysis to do so. Its 100 pieces are on loan from the Carlo Monzino Collection, one of the world's finest private collections of African art, which began in the 1960s with a nucleus of works previously owned by the sculptor Jacob Epstein.
This is an assemblage of masterpieces, which includes several famous ones not seen in the West since the 1930s. These, and other works of possibly less importance but of no less interest, are grouped to illustrate African principles of form and content. As is always the case with the center's exhibitions, everything is handsomely displayed, with as much attention paid to the ideas and attitudes that helped shape the examples shown as to the objects themselves.
Many of the latter are truly spectacular. The reliquary guardian figure carved by a Fang artist of Gabon and dubbed ``The Black Venus'' when it was shown in New York 50 years ago, is a superb work of art and, according to Dr. Vogel, a perfect example of Fang aesthetic values translated into sculpture. It depicts a seated figure with the oversize head of an infant and the body structure of an adult; it represents the ideal of a perfect fusion of age and youth, wisdom and physical vigor.
One also cannot help but be impressed by ``The Brummer Head,'' another reliquary guardian figure by a Fang artist; the hauntingly lyrical Bangwa ``Seated Male Figure'' from Cameroon; the aggressive and somewhat awesome ``Power Figure'' from Zaire with its assortment of fur, feathers, raffia, metal, snakeskin, and other materials; and the extraordinary ``Hermaphrodite'' from Mali.
All are astonishing works of art, as are most of the other pieces on view. Quality is not at issue here, any more than it would be in an exhibition of Rembrandt etchings or Michelangelo drawings. And yet that quality may seem remote to those who insist on viewing these carvings from the perspective of Greco-Roman and European formal ideals, or who refuse to acknowledge that any culture but our own might have a genuine insight into the nature of creativity.
There is so much to learn about what lies behind African art. I find it both fascinating and significant, for instance, that it is created not only to provide pleasure but to uphold moral values as well. I was surprised to discover that in many African languages, the same word means both beautiful and good. I also wasn't aware that, since suffering serves no redemptive purpose in many African philosophies but is seen as punishment for an infraction or as evidence of having been attacked by witches or spirits, African artists avoid depicting illness or deformity unless they wish to teach a moral lesson or to chastise by mockery. And I probably would never have known, had I not read Dr. Vogel's essay, that the purpose of most African art is to promote increase in family and community, and that the many images of pregnant women and women with children, therefore, express the ultimate cultural ideal.
All this, however, only scratches the surface of what can be enjoyed or learned by visiting this exhibition and by reading its catalog, African Aesthetics. I highly recommend both.
At the Center for African Art, 54 E. 68th Street, through Sept. 7.