Modern Meets Tribal Art


by Armand Duchateau, Prestel, 135 pp., $50.

A sense of unease or simple bafflement that many people express about modern art may come from a feeling that such art often appears to have no point to it.

It is not enough to assure such doubters that a work of art is self-sufficiently its own point, that it has no other purpose than to be what it is. In other words, to those who are baffled by modern art, art cannot be just for art's sake. For them, art must have a purpose outside its own mere existence.

Yet it seems that artists in our century have been convinced that art can be a hermetically sealed world with its own isolated values; that its values are not based on any other system; and that they do not even need the justification of precedent or tradition.

But the very difference of art from anything else is its reason for being - and this baffles some people most of all. For many modern artists, art's chief purpose, if such a word is apt, appears to be to pursue its own liberties, to keep itself free from rules other than self-imposed ones, and above all to question rather than answer.

But the persistent questioning posture of art does, surely, have a certain usefulness. Take, for instance, art vis-a-vis natural science.

The scientist looks for answers and solutions. The questioning artist, unconvinced by the scientist's claims, asks whether science is not actually failing at the first hurdle by ignoring or covering up many of humanity's basic needs as it pursues its own goals.

Art, concerned with freedom of imagination, with the irrational and even the absurd, rather than with measurable goals, suggests that by comparison, it may be science that is a hermetically sealed system.

Art deals in incalculables: emotion, empathy, and even in a humanity that is too often outside the purview, or even the interest, of science - or, for that matter, of other useful systems such as statistical analysis, accountancy, politics, and planning. While all these systems find no possible point in art, art has, somewhat mischievously, no doubt, sometimes invaded their sacrosanct ground and used their methods for its own enigmatic, questioning purposes.

Perhaps, in the early part of this century, this instinctive distrust artists felt about the advancing achievements of the sciences made them turn for stimulus or inspiration to the art of so-called primitive peoples. What could be more undermining to the sophisticated assumptions of science than the unsophisticated, primal potency of an African tribal carving?

Perhaps, on the other hand, the artists felt a kind of threat from the functional and technical achievements of the scientists, and realized that science cast art increasingly into a role of irrelevance.

A small instance of this was the challenge presented to painting by photography. A straightforward realism, a laborious imitation of appearances in paint, started to look pointless in the face of cameras able to reproduce appearances in minutes or seconds.

So, art needed to rediscover something of its basic, primal impulse, and primitive art, previously the exclusive province of anthropologists, was one new source of energy and excitement to which artists turned.

Such works of art were not much concerned with reproducing appearances. Part of their appeal to Western artists was, paradoxically, that they had once had a purpose. It hardly mattered what that original function had been; to Western culture, that function was mysteriously unknown or (better still) so savage as to be positively anarchic.

All the same, when such works as the sculptures in brass or ivory from the kingdom of Benin in West Africa (present-day Nigeria) were first seen in Europe in the last few years of the 19th century, it took time for artists to appreciate their value. Collectors were the first to see their potential, as collectible objects, many of them superb examples of craftsmanship. @bodytextdrop =

Indeed, the initial influx of the Benin works into Europe was not the result of artistic interest at all.

A recently published book about one of the fine European collections (in Vienna) of Benin work, ``Benin Royal Art of Africa,'' by Armand Duchateau, ends with the observation that the ``cultural value of the collection [in the Museum fur Volkerkunde, Vienna] cannot hide the fact that its formation derived from the destruction of a civilization. Just as the museum preserves these great objects from Benin, so too does it serve as a reminder of this tragic event in Benin history.''

The tragic event referred to in this politically correct sentence was a punitive expedition by British colonialists (in 1897) enraged by the slaughter of an earlier ill-advised and unarmed British expedition to Benin. The British revenge was devastating - the ``destruction of a civilization.''

It was not until 1914 that an oba (a king) was once more allowed to rule in Benin, though with much more limited powers. The Benin royal treasures had, by then, long since found their way into such collections as the Viennese one celebrated in this book and an exhibition currently traveling in the United States.

These treasures had been claimed as spoils of war. But the underlying reason for their removal from Benin was political - a recognition that they were much more than art objects. They were symbols of the king's power and of the power of his ancestors. They were integral to the rituals of the Benin religion, in which the oba was, writes Duchateau, ``a sort of divine king.''

The British undoubtedly saw that to remove the royal treasures was one further way of destroying the oba's power. Some 2,400 Benin objects, according to one calculation, were eventually incorporated in different museum or private collections - and so their new life as ``art objects'' in European terms began.

Today such artifacts from one of hundreds of different African cultures have become so much a part of the Western tradition of modern art as to have lost something of the charge found in them when first brought to European museums.

So it probably does no harm to point out, as Duchateau does in his book, that not only were most of these objects - including the carvings of leopards or birds - emblems of a hierarchical royal power, but that many were war trophies.

Brass heads, for example, were sometimes castings after the heads of decapitated enemies of notable valour. The sons of such beheaded enemies would be sent a casting of the paternal head as a warning. And other artifacts were used as receptacles to catch the blood of sacrificial victims. Human sacrifice was one of the ritual practices of the Benin cult.

One wonders if, in our enlightened, politically correct times, it might be wrong to suggest that a positive result of the destruction by the British colonialists of the Benin kingdom almost a century ago was the termination of such traditional bloodletting in the name of religious belief.

Perhaps these once lethally significant objects really are better - and safer - for being merely admired as superbly crafted art. They may have lost their original point.

But, they have instead become their own self-sufficient reason for existing in their new role as modern art. And that is not, in the final analysis, entirely pointless.

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