THE PUREST ART ON EARTH

by James Mann, Ph.D. - LVAM Curator

 

The traditions of African art are foreign to those citizens of the world not conditioned in the cultures of that art's origins. In the Euro-American countries, people are accustomed to the notion that art has no practical purpose. In the poet W.H. Auden's words, "Poetry makes nothing happen." That is, works of art, outside the spectrum of art itself, have no practical, demonstrable consequences--beyond the fact that most of them cost some amount of money to acquire, and require somewhat less money for the materials and labor to fabricate them. There are still, of course, the odd arrest and prosecution on various quaint criminal charges, but their frequency seems to be declining. All over the world, however, including in Africa, innumerable millions of items and objects, of design and the decorative arts, do have practical uses: food vessels, fabrics, costume, furniture, weaponry, battle armor, tools, appliances, printing, cars, advertisements, ceramic tiles, and so on. The Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the Mus‚e des Arts D‚coratifs in Paris, and other repositories around the globe are treasure houses of such objects. But African art is different. Most African-made objects that post-industrialized peoples look at, and almost automatically accept as free-standing, independent, singly wrought works of art, were never intended for that rarefied and refined role by their creators. Much of this art is indeed made for practical use--but right away the word "practical" raises serious difficulty. If a mask's form of hyena jaws, wart-hog tusks, and antelope horns represents a mythical being who protects against sorcerers and soul-stealers, it has a practical if not utilitarian purpose for the people who create and employ it. Is this custom fundamentally different from praying to a Catholic reliquary of saintly bone shards, or to the icon of a patron saint, for protection or deliverance? No time or space to pursue that question here. Yet oddly, a European, American, Japanese or Chinese will more readily accept the African mask as a true work of art than he will the glass-and-gold reliquary, one may wager. The fundamental esthetic problem is that those outside a given African tribe and its culture will have to esteem a given tribal "artistic" object for reasons essentially other than the reasons of those by whom it is created and actually used. The first-world aliens cannot re-civilize themselves to achieve a more compatible insight. This incomprehension can to varying degrees apply between the members of two different and geographically separated African tribes as well. Are outsiders-looking-in then doomed to such a constricted vantage point of appreciation? If so, what can a brief discourse like this essay do to diminish the shortcomings of that situation? Does mastering the too little that has thus far been discovered, recorded, and systematized about the history and development of African art solve the problem? Not really. The superficial display of maps and lists locating and enumerating tribes and differentiating styles can do little to illuminate the basic cultural chasm; little to crush the irreducible crux. The fundamental barrier to full understanding and sympathy is not a lack of key information, or of enough information. Rather, the insuperable impediment to full sympathetic understanding is a lack of belief. Not an absence of the spiritual, of which there is plenty to go around in this world of pain and troubles, but a lack of particular belief or beliefs. A lack of belief that no amount of learning in any number of fields of knowledge can overcome. A generalization of the following sort, for example, offers no effective assistance to the problem of belief. "The African doesn't consider these things art at all, because he doesn't share the concept of art that a European has." But he shares the same art-making technologies: carving, moulding, casting, painting, weaving. And with them the African, like the European, makes objects that represent something other than the physical substances of which the created objects themselves consist. To say that although the methods of making the objects are the same, but that once he has made them, the African thinks of these things differently than does the European, is not a defining distinction on the nature of the objects themselves. The European himself, over the last 500 years--not to mention 30,000--has made quite a number of wholesale changes, in both the social uses of, and intellectual attitudes toward, the works of art he makes. And the European has never made such changes more than during the course of the century now coming to an end. With cross-cultural attitudinal congruence about humanly wrought objects of esthetic design being an unattainable goal, therefore, where are we left, or where do we go from here? To a quite satisfactory and even desirable place, one can venture. Much has been made of the embrace of African art (theretofore considered merely artifacts) by Modern art in the first four decades or so of the 20th century, until about 1950, when even highly distorted figuration (as in Surrealism) virtually disappeared altogether from art at the highest cultural level. But in terms of establishing the real importance of African art, its assimilation by Picasso, Modigliani, Klee, Ernst, Lipchitz, German Expressionism, Torres-Garcia, Gottlieb, middle Pollock, early Giacometti, etc.: all that was merely a diversion in the slow recognition of African art's true imaginative stature and excellence. These and other occidental artists were really employing African-derived iconography as a ready-made tool in their ongoing assault on the European visual tradition. They were enlisting African art's aid in order to help critique their own inherited artistic tradition's artificiality, and to essentially destabilize and dismantle its considerably arbitrary esthetic values. This analytic dismantlement continued, systematically and inexorably, to final completion through Abstract Expressionism, Post-painterly Abstraction, Color-field Painting, Op Art, Minimalism, Conceptual, Performance, Installation, and Environmental Art. Today we are now the fortunate inheritors of that complete analytic dismantlement. The effected deconstruction, the finished devolution, has rid the highest level of the visual-arts culture we live in of the intellectual and esthetic prejudices it had been burdened with since before the Roman Empire. Now we are free to explore, for the first time in what we are pleased to call recorded history, ALL the possibilities of art, not just the comparatively limited ones (from our finally liberated vantage point) of, say, Durer, Michelangelo, Raphael, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough, Ingres, Turner, Monet, Miró, Rothko--you name it. And as a bonus, we may keep the technical artistic innovations of the last hundred years as well, to use as any given individual artist chooses. Today at last, African art may really come into its own, within the new terms and wide-open perspective of the self-liberation from esthetic prejudice that 20th-century occidental art has accomplished for itself, and for those who live within its cultural reach and envelopment; has accomplished through its own long, self-purifying purge. To use the arresting term from Scientology, occidental visual-art culture has at last gone CLEAR. African art can now be looked at, in the new millennium, with new eyes, with better eyesight and insight than it has ever been perceived with before, outside of Africa. Its astonishingly original formal and symbolic beauty can now stand free and clear of the burden, relieved of the weight of twenty centuries of European, Asian, and American art's preconceived, overly formulated, too orderly, half-adulterated notions of beauty. Perhaps the most direct and instinctive, purest art on earth, tribal African art's worldwide stature can only grow in the new century that is upon us, as newborn millions of mankind look at it with the freshness of vision that it so profoundly deserves, and that it will so richly reward.