We generally refer to a geographic area the core of which is Europe and North America after the sixteenth century. Sometimes we add Australia and less frequently Latin America. Latin America is seen to be some kind of a mixture of the West and the Nonwest. The epicenter of the "West" is actually even smaller, being limited to the civilization of western Europe and some of the U. Non-geographically, the "West" is also the concept of a scientific and technological culture that has come to colonize the "Nonwest"—politically, economically, militarily and ideologically—over the last four centuries.
The West has had a dominating world discourse for so long because its scientific and technological approach revolutionized the relationship of humans to nature and to one another. This is what we call "modernity".
The concept of modernity is confused in the West because aspects of industrial culture are indissolubly blended with western ideological values. Nonwesterners easily take apart what they see as a more or less neutral modernity cars and cell phones from western beliefs. To put it another way, modernity happened in the world in western clothes—it could have happened in another guise, perhaps East Asian, and that would have been another story.
For example, today, China's relation to Africa is as, or more important than, it's relation to the West; and the world watches more Indian Bollywood films than American Hollywood ones. Nonwesterners are relating to each other without the mediation of the West. This essay is about some of the shifting western attitudes towards nonwestern arts and cultures especially in the last century.
Until fairly recently, the West looked on the Nonwest as exotic—that is, as something not quite normal from its point of view, alternating between admiration for or denigration of it.
Despite the patronizing tone of much western commentary, the West appears to have needed its idea of the Nonwest in order to define its own identity as always in opposition to it. As a result of this, westerners have not wanted to obliterate nonwestern culture; on the contrary, many idealistic westerners have tried to encourage native arts and cultures to remain native i. They saw nonwesterners as potentially split between "authentic" native and modern aspects, which is ironic because they have been unable to see themselves as split between their modernity and westernness.
I will discuss this western process of "nativization" in the second half of this essay. Modernization has progressed so far in the arts that many of the works of nonwesterners are indistinguishable from the works of western artists, thus wiping out the difference between west and Nonwest entirely in this realm. Yet the story of the paradigm shifts of how this came about is worth telling.
Exoticism has been a part of the West at least since Herodotus' Histories in which, to the Greeks, the Egyptians were a mysterious, ancient civilization who did everything in reverse, the Scythians bloody barbarians, the Persians contemporary powers to emulate and beware of, and the Chinese perhaps only an indirect myth. To them, the Orient was the equivalent of the Nonwest. The word "Orientalism," as Said and others use it, is a western denigrating attitude towards the Orient as a place of tyranny, irrationality, laziness, effeminacy and unchanging-ness.
Both types of Orientalism were current in ancient Greece. Tacitus in particular praised the barbarian Germans for their bravery, loyalty, and honesty despite the poverty of their culture and in contrast to the soft and corrupt Romans.
It is not my aim to recite the long history of exoticism in the West, but merely to point out its existence prior to the eighteenth century when modern attitudes emerged. Generally, the earlier centuries up to the sixteenth and seventeenth saw other peoples through the lens of religion, dividing the world into Christians and heathens.
There was little interest in the heathens' art in as much as the concept of "art" had not even been formulated in the West. Strange objects had curiosity value and along with fossils, bones and shells they found their way into curiosity cabinets as individual oddities. The gods of other peoples were represented in engravings as Christian devils. In some seventeenth century prints of the Aztec patron god Huitzilopochtli, the image resembles neither Aztec gods nor Aztec style but the devil.
A major paradigm shift occurred in the eighteenth century that can be described as "schizophrenic": The word "aesthetics" was coined by Baumgarten in to describe this newly conceptualized realm of human activity. Most cultures do not have a word for this western concept of "art" and often someone from our culture invented one for others. For example, the Chinese and Japanese words for art were created by the American Ernest Fenollosa, who admired everything Oriental in the 's in Japan.
The devilish idols of the past century had become the works of art and a steady stream of travelers went East and West to search them out to illustrate and publicize in books.
New explorations were undertaken in the eighteenth century. However, this time the paradigm was not the bloody conquest of Mexico and Peru, as it had been in the sixteenth century, but the sexual welcome of South Sea Island women.
The newly found natives were friendly, and these explorations raised questions about the nature of man in the state of nature, that is, in contrast to the prohibitions and inhibitions characteristic of civilized western life. As early as the sixteenth century Montaigne audaciously presented the New World cannibal as superior to the Frenchman—following, of course, the time honored device of Tacitus. Nonwesterners were still considered to be bloody, lazy and promiscuous, but these qualities were excused and admired on the grounds of greater naturalness and honesty in their life than in life in the West.
The eighteenth century was the time of the Marquis de Sade, whose violence was accepted as a part of human nature. The twentieth has been remarkably positive.
The history of Primitivism and Orientalism is one of ambivalence over or undervaluation, depending on what the West looks for as a corrective in itself. Only rarely, if ever, is the nonwestern other seen for what it is. The center of both Primitivism and Orientalism was and is Paris. It is here that Bougainville brought the news of the friendly Tahitian women 10 ; that Montesqieu wrote the Lettres Persanes 11 ; that Picasso discovered African art; and the first exhibit of nonwestern contemporary art, Les Magiciens de la Terre, was held in The effect of these primitivist tendencies on the arts of the West was very pronounced.
We generally consider neoclassical art as cloyingly western, but around those simple, imaginary Greek forms had the power of the primitive. Like Picasso's African masks, the directness of Classic art annihilated the baroque and rococo styles of the previous century.
The starkness of David's Oath of the Horatii was a revolution in its time. By , the Neoclassic lost its force to shock and destroy and stronger measures were needed to reveal the primitive inside the civilized western soul. The creation of Modern art with the inspiration of primitive art was a complex process that abandoned the western tradition of mimetic art for a new conceptualism.
This shift was clever and necessary in that, by , mimetic representation was taken over by photography and film media. The conceptual language of Modern art came closer to the rest of the world whose art had always been less mimetic. Modernism was thus potentially global from its inception.
Indian woman with Franz Boas and George Hunt holding up a blanket The overvaluation of the nonwestern in modernism helped to maintain the necessary fiction that these cultures have continued to exist in more-or-less unchanged form from their primitive Edens to the present time. Gauguin's glorious painted Tahiti c. People in the West wanted to know how the natives had lived and not how they live today.
Anthropologists like Franz Boas used blankets to cut out all signs of modern life in their nostalgic ethnographic photos. So long, of course, as headhunting and human sacrifice were given up. The western search was for a pure and uncontaminated exotic culture—uncontaminated by us—that could be voyeuristically experienced. It is what the Native American artist Jimmie Durham calls the search for "virginity.
During much of the twentieth century, many westerners, often art teachers, sought to revive the declining native arts in commercial workshops. While ostensibly for the benefit of the natives, this obsession with maintaining their authenticity was a desire on the part of westerners to maintain an "other" outside of themselves.
Psychologically it can be said that this was to justify the existence of a hidden nonwestern "id" in rebellion against a western "ego", a split within the western self. Originally primarily an attitude of the elite intelligentsia, these ideas have filtered down via Hollywood films to a larger public. Nevertheless, modernist art along with its primitivism remained an elite taste in the West, and actual nonwestern art had an even smaller audience.
This agenda came to its florescence in the theoretical attitude of what is now called Poststructuralism. In their most influential work, Anti-Oedipus , Deleuze and Guattari idealized a new humanity that would live in a semi-schizophrenic mental state not governed by a western, oedipal ego but instead consisting of equal yet partial psychic elements supposedly characteristic of the non-rational world view of nonwestern peoples.
Roland Barthes idealized the traditional Japanese ethos and aesthetic in the nineteen sixties in similarly glowing terms as if it still existed unsullied in his time, despite the thousands of Japanese cars rolling out of modern factories. This Poststructuralist primitivism came out of Paris, the deep wellspring of exoticism in Europe.
The original French title of this account, Tristes Tropiques —translated as A World on the Wane in the first English edition—expresses all this guilt and nostalgia towards the nonwestern other. The various interlinked utopian issues of free sex, "back to the land," and altered states of consciousness were all revolts against capitalist western cultures. Much Poststructuralist thinking, such as Deleuze and Guattari, were inspired by the events of ' How did this Orientalism-Primitivism come to another shift?
It was not by the West and least of all by the U. It was demolished brick by brick by nonwesterners. While the West was imagining and emulating nonwesterners, they were critically evaluating the West and adapting facets of that life that they found useful. A wonderful painting by Omar Onsi from Lebanon shows a clutch of black-clad Lebanese women staring at a western painting of female nudes in an exhibition. This process is of course as old as contact. The Plains Indians adapted the horse and weapons of the white man in the eighteenth century.
The anthropologist Giancarlo Scoditti told me sadly that the Kitawa Islanders where he did his fieldwork gave up their pottery for plastic containers.
When he remonstrated with them in the name of beauty and tradition to keep the pottery going, they argued that plastic is more durable, unbreakable and in all ways superior to their pottery. Was he trying to keep a superior material away from them? It is we who live in a world of myth while nonwesterners are often remarkably pragmatic. Untitled [Man Leaning on Radio], Seydou Keita These "primitives" didn't just adapt the horse and plastic, they also adapted the camera for their own purposes as a superior way to make images.
The best known native photographer is Seydou Keita of Mali, who got a camera as a gift in and used it for snapshots while he made a living as a carpenter Fig. By that he meant that people began to wear western clothes and wanted to look as modern as the figures in western magazines. He had props like bicycles and radios in his studio as well as costumes and accessories his clients could choose for their photos.
Of no interest to the West at the time, Seydou Keita's photographs were suddenly appreciated in the s in Paris, and in , he had a major exhibition. So much acculturation would have been considered a sign of inauthenticity in the past and seen as a regrettable development. But between and , the "authentic" nonwestern native disappeared all over the world. Even the most remote Amazon villagers had access to camcorders and made applications to fund their own survival from granting agencies.
The Metropolitan Museum now has nearly half a dozen Seydou Keita photos in its collection. This acceptance was neither immediate nor simple. The major question was how to classify these images—were they modern or native? An instance of this dilemma concerned the large Australian aborigine canvases that look like modern abstractions and would look at home in The Museum of Modern Art but when offered to museums by donors the museums did not know where to put them they seemed to be "contemporary art" but those curators did not want them.
The curators of native art did not want them either because they were not traditional.