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The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2013

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MAY 2013 Issue

Art Criticism That Made A Difference

There is one striking counter-example to the recent skeptical claims about the reach of art writing. Soon after 1979, when Ingrid Sischy became editor of Artforum, she asked Thomas McEvilley to write for her. That was surprising, for he, trained as a classicist, didn’t have a background in art history. Shortly thereafter, in September of 1984, the MoMA presented an ambitious survey exhibition titled “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art, which included 150 modern art works and some 200 tribal artifacts. The then New York Times critic, Michael Brenson, admired the show. McEvilley, however, took issue with the exhibition publishing his now infamous review, “Doctor Lawyer Indian Chief.” At that moment, as Holland Cotter noted recently in his Times obituary for McEvilley (who passed away in early March), everything changed. Once the implications of this account were understood, it was impossible to think of “primitivism” in the same way. Although the MoMA curators protested in long letters to Artforum, the more they said, the less convincing their case was.

The argument of “Doctor Lawyer Indian Chief” was simple and convincing. The curation of “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art displayed tribal art, without labels or explanatory wall text, alongside modernist pieces in order to show its influence upon modernism as a movement. In doing so, the museum refused to take this “primitive” art seriously, refusing to consider how these artifacts were understood by their creators. The exhibition merely affirmed the superiority of Western culture. Indeed, even in calling tribal artifacts “art,’ so McEvilley observed, already begged crucial questions, for much of this “primitive” art originally dealt with religion or magic and not the sphere of art history. The exhibition, he wrote:

shows Western egotism still as unbridled as in the centuries of colonialism and souvenirism. The Museum pretends to confront the Third World while really co-opting it and using it to consolidate Western notions of quality and feelings of superiority.

Within the academic world the most influential art critics of the 1980s were associated with October: Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Yve-Alain Bois, Hal Foster, and Rosalind Krauss. But nothing they wrote had the larger resonance of McEvilley’s treatise. When, for example, Krauss defended Richard Serra’s “Titled Arc” (1981–89), she didn’t take seriously the concerns of people outside of the art world. As a publication, October developed a style of theorizing which even academics find difficult to understand. McEvilley’s argument didn’t invoke any abstruse philosophical claims. And it wasn’t just a critique of one exhibition—what he offered was a convincing indictment of our most important museum devoted to modernism.

I would love to say that “Doctor Lawyer Indian Chief” immediately changed how I wrote art criticism. In fact, however, only much later, after I traveled to China, did I respond. The aesthetic theorizing of my teachers, Arthur Danto and Richard Wollheim, claimed to be universal, although it relied exclusively on examples from American and European art. It took me a long time to realize that their way of thinking was problematic—philosophers only very belatedly have responded to multiculturalism. But by 2006, when McEvilley was Chair of the program devoted to art writing at the School of Visual Arts, I was prepared. When invited to give a lecture on world art history, I plunked down his masterpiece, The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies on the podium. And thanks to his support, I published A World Art History and its Objects (2008). “Doctor Lawyer Indian Chief” has had a long shelf life—it truly changed the intellectual art discourse. Before McEvilley wrote for Artforum, that journal focused on art made and displayed in Western Europe and the United States. After the publication of “Doctor Lawyer Indian Chief” (although he parted from that journal in the 1990s because it would no longer support his agenda), the situation changed dramatically. Now survey exhibitions like the Carnegie Internationals, worldwide Biennials, and shows at New York galleries and museums (including MoMA) often feature art from outside the West, as do many journals and books devoted to contemporary art. And we hesitate to use the word “primitive”—even with scare quotes. That nowadays we devote serious sustained attention to visual art from Africa, China, and India—from everywhere outside of the West—is due in large part to McEvilley’s influence. 

Note: The full debate is published in Uncontrollable Beauty: Toward a New Aesthetic (New York: Allworth Press, 1998).


David Carrier

David Carrier is writing a book about the historic center of Naples.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2013

All Issues