SAN DIEGO — If you were part of the vocal minority that objected to the imposition of Western values on tribal art in " 'Primitivism' and 20th-Century Art," at New York's Museum of Modern Art three years ago, you're in for another struggle with "Perspectives: Angles on African Art," at the San Diego Museum of Art. Though they're not in the same league, the two shows invite similar criticism.
While the Museum of Modern Art's landmark exhibition was immensely popular and loaded with insights for mainstream scholars, it set off a flurry of complaints about our uses of primitive art. "Perspectives," organized by New York's Center for African Art and now touring the provinces (in San Diego through Aug. 16), inspires serious questions about the show's premise.
What exactly is going on in an exhibition that simply offers a bunch of artworks that 10 people like, along with their reasons for gravitating to them?
Why should we care about their affections?
Not necessarily because the co-curators are experts, though some are noted scholars and all have a serious interest in the material. The message underlying their words is that it's all right to like African art even if you don't know much about it. In short, this is a show about accessibility, not scholarship or even insight.
There's nothing wrong with letting down barriers, but this particular approach seems patronizing or, at best, wrongheaded. The problem is that "Perspectives" focuses attention on personalities. Visitors are likely to learn more about the preferences of artist Romare Bearden, collector David Rockefeller, dealer Ivan Karp and company than about African sculpture.
We find, for example, that sculptor Nancy Graves is mad about a Nigerian pendant mask because it is a technical wonder. She writes, "It is difficult to believe that a bronze with this many interstices and decorative details could have been cast directly."
Writer James Baldwin enthuses over a wood sculpture of a "Yoruba Man With a Bicycle" with a batch of exclamations: "This is something. This has got to be contemporary. He's (the figure is) really going to town!"
The explanations with two Baule figures selected by African artist Lela Kouakou say, "I chose this because I like it." Kouakou is more specific--but no more enlightening--about a seated male, saying "I like that one because of its scarifications and its hair and because of the stool on which he sits."
Then there's Rockefeller, who asks us to consider a Fang reliquary head because "I just thought this was artistically very attractive." Of a Senufo helmet mask, he comments, "I have to say that I picked this because I own it."
Well, at least he's honest.
After a frustrating array of remarks that tell us next to nothing about the art, it's a relief to arrive at the scholars' choices. Ekpo Eyo, retired director of the National Museum of Nigeria, explains that a double bowl supported by carved figures is "meant for the glorification of man rather than the glorification of the spirits" and that he chose it as a highly imaginative example of "the range of things that the African carver can undertake."
A Chamba double figure, he says, is "like an instruction piece to a young married couple: as you marry, you do not separate."
William Rubin, director of the Museum of Modern Art's department of painting and sculpture and organizer of the "Primitivism" show, says he looks at tribal art with as hard a heart as he applies to Western painting. "These guys have to be as good as Picasso and Brancusi or they don't interest me," contends the man who insists upon art that "transcends its own context."
One can argue with that point of view, but at least it is a point of view in a show that seems to have discouraged intellectual rigor.
Rubin discusses characteristic stylizations of Dogon and Bembe figures that he likes, and of Grebo masks that he knows well but is "not hellishly attracted to." One piece that really moves him is a Makonke mask with incised patterns and fuzzy hair. "This is one of the few truly frightening and alien pieces of art I've ever seen," he says. "It's really talismanic; it's like one of those things you see as a kid, when you're at first fascinated and then ultimately horrified by it."
Yet even Rubin, who generally supports his choices with aesthetic or art historical arguments, hedges his bets because--like all the co-curators--he made his selections from slides. Thus, we find him saying of a reliquary guardian figure, "At least from the angle at which it's photographed, it's really a whiz-bang piece! If the photograph isn't deceptive, it's one of the greatest Fang pieces I've ever seen."