Sunday, March 27, 2011

Unpacking the Myth of the Other And the Destruction it Can Reap

What is the other? If you were to ask some, they would say it does not exist; we are all simply a family of man, all the same and equal. However much people would like to believe this, however, it is simply not true. When viewing someone who is not you, or a group that is not your own, they inherently become “the other”. This, in and of itself, is not necessarily bad or dangerous, but when this fact is not recognized, the results can be truly devastating.

The glossing over of facts and realities as a means to unite all people, in other words, the normalization of things that should actually be normative, began to help spread the concept of universality. Universality is not real. [1] Nothing is “timeless”, especially not art. Art is a product, and in some ways it is also a victim, of its time and place of creation. Timelessness is a myth, and a destructive one at that.

In Jonathan Crary’s “Critical Reflections” piece for Artforum, he discusses the phenomenon of Globalization, and how it has dominated our lives since the early 90’s. “The inescapable yet continually evaded truth is that participation in the emerging information, imaging and communications technologies will never (in the meaningful future) expand beyond a minority of people…”(Crary, 3). With the spread of a supposedly global culture came the normalization of many ideals that led to a supposed worldwide equality. [2]

First and foremost, the idea of a world culture is a construct, not a reality or truth as it is often perceived.[3] The “world culture” that is often referred to in a vernacular way is actually that, most prominently, of white European males. They were the ones with much of the power at a critical point in history. Around the time of the scramble for Africa, it was the white European powers who were the ones scrambling.

The European nations were the ones to spread across the world, and colonize other nations as they saw fit. Being the ones who had both the technology and desire to do so, it became a contest to see which could gain the most territory, and in turn, the most power. In this spread, they brought with them their world-views, narrow as they were.

Seeing the native peoples of varied nations as backward and inferior, the Europeans cast their net of otherness over any whom were in any way different. Seeing these people as “primitive”, and inherently inferior to themselves, the Europeans placed themselves upon the higher ground to look down on their newly conquered colonies. The very idea of primitivism shows how skewed their view was, and in some ways still is.[4]

This is not the only example of how otherness has had an impact on culture, and in her article The Art Historical Canon: Sins of Omission, Nanette Solomon discusses the marginalization of women in the history of art, and the reverberating effect this has had through the course of history. In this article, Solomon brings to light the two main texts that are responsible for much of the damage done, H.W. Janson’s The History of Art and Giorgio Vassari’s Le Vitte De piu eccellenti Architetti Pittori et Scultori Italiani, with Janson’s text owing much of its inception and creation to Vassari’s earlier Renaissance compilation.

In this hierarchy, first presented by Vassari and later continued by Janson, the precedent is set for men being the artists, and women being the other. Men are the artistic genius, to whom all creative drive must bow and by whom all great masterworks of brilliant art are created. Women artists, the few included (only in Janson, never in Vassari), are either portrayed in an incidental/accidental way and/or their stories are dominated by the men with whom they were associated (and to whom they owed all of their success.)

The crux of all this is the power of Vassari’s original model. It was a hugely influential construct, and, as a result, has endured. This is where the danger comes from; anytime a construct like this endures without recognition that it is actually a construct, it becomes a paradigm. This paradigm then becomes canon, and canons are hard to even challenge, let alone actually change.

As a result, Vassari’s model has been applied long past the time in which it was relevant.

“Vassari’s creation of the artist, the critic, and the canon is tied to the economic and social conditions of his moment in history. While these conditions have changed, the deeper stratifications…continue to operate within the culturally expressed power relationships that he articulated,” (Solomon, 355).

Solomon’s point about the importance of recognizing constructs as constructs warns of the way people/groups are marginalized due to these constructs when not properly recognized for what they really are.

Since the dawn of the post modern era, the awareness of this lack of conscious consideration of the other, and the constructs that comprise it, have begun to come to light. Theoreticians have begun writing about the other, and how it factors into art, and people’s conception of that art, both past and present.

The gallery space and museum show have played a large part in the furtherance and ultimate integration of the concept of the other, and have been integral in its amalgamation from construct into canonized paradigm since the birth of the museum in the late 19th century.

With the origin of the museum, and the hierarchical systems of organization inherent to its process, came the organization and classification of objects collected. Things collected from around the world, in the beginning largely Africa, were reassigned from their original context and purpose, often which was never actually know to begin with, and re-designated with the moniker of “art objects”. They were then placed in museums for people to come and marvel.[5]

These very issues came to a head in the now famous exchange between Thomas McEvilley and William Rubin in their back and forth, published over the course of many months in Artforum magazine, about a show Rubin curated at the MoMA. The conversation between the two is a perfect example of conversation between Modernists and Post Modernists; namely the recognition of constructs as such.

The argument between McEvilley and Rubin centers around the use of the museum space in the show at MoMA, and its lack of critical distance in dealing with primitivism and, in turn, the other. McEvilley claims that the“…difficulty with the truly contemporary and the truly primitive is that this exhibition is not concerned with either: the show is about classical modernism,” (McEvilley, 343).[6]

The banter back and forth between the two became sort of legendary, but in the end nothing was really resolved. Rubin held firm to his argument that he had done as best he could to portray the link between primitivism and Modernism in an accurate way, but McEvilley intoned again and again that Rubin was missing the point. The point, said McEviley, was not about portraying the tribal in an accurate way, but rather acknowledging that there is no accuracy or truth in the matter, only constructs.[7]

From the Post-Modern point of view, the show at the MoMA was guilty of a variety of offenses, but none so great as its own lack of self-awareness. Such is the trap that culture often falls into, where a norm becomes something that is normal, and where a construct is not recognized for what it actually is. With the ingestion of such ideas, it is easy to let these things happen, because it is always easier to compare similarities than it is to discuss difference.

Otherness is not about whiteness and the rest of the world, or about one specific group against the other, but rather it is about difference. In a productive way, it can lead to discussion and discourse about difference, and lead to greater understanding for everyone. In reality, however, this is most often not the case. When it is not recognized for being what it is, or even allowed the acknowledgement that it exists in the first place, the construct of otherness can breed ignorance and a lack of understanding that is detrimental to everyone.

[1] Universality is, in truth, the normalization of differences with the fake label of sameness attached to it. It is not recognition of difference. It is not followed by the overcoming/understanding and ultimate ascension beyond quarrelsome differences that it is made out to be in much of the dominating cultures of the world. It is rather the glossing over of important differences, and the sweeping under the rug of very important aspects of people and culture in an attempt to label everyone as “the same” or “equal”.

[2] Again, it is important to point out the difference between global and universal. Global means it accepts the faults and realities of a given thing. Universal, however, is the glossing over of inequities and other problematic elements.

[3] From the beginning of colonialism, and the start of the spread of “world culture”, there have been cultural trends that have become increasingly more problematic as society has developed. As is often the case, those with more power make the rules, and are usually responsible for the spread of more widely received cultural ideas and values.

[4] In truth, there is no such thing as “primitive”. Primitivism is a western construct, used to set in place and later reinforce an unbalanced power structure. It was used as reason and excuse, a method of keeping an order in place that favored the western world over the rest.

[5] These ideas and behaviors are very much tied to the idea of a type of universality in art and culture, and to Modernism itself. Modernism was all about a “universal” discourse, but that discourse was anything but. The universality of it really only extended to those who were male and white. This construct helped perpetuate the spread of “primitivism” and the other.

[6] Even the name of the exhibition, ‘Primitivism’ in Twentieth Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, suggests that there is acknowledgement of the myth of the tribal and the modern, but McEvilley claims that was not actually true in the show itself.

[7] In McEvilley’s view, the show should have stepped back some, and allowed for conscious acknowledgement of what it was: a show about a show, really. A Modernist show, however, does not accept that concept. Modernism is often accused of assimilating everything into its own frame, without responding to the origin of its intention.

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