Torgovnick 3 … with lagniappe on 4, 5, 6

27 Jan

Torgovnick Chapter 3: “But Is It Art?” 

– (Dis)organization of displays of African objects in museums: suggests that the Other needs Western order

– The statue of the Arab disputing the African for the woman: a sexual drama enacted for voyeuristic Western eyes

– In the Belgian museum display the implication is that Belgian intervention might not be so bad in this situation: Africans are already disordered, and are already subjugated by Arabs

– Notice how the logic here parallels that of the Tarzan novels: the Westerner is benign

– Late 19th century museum displays in France as well were designed to provide information about the countries France had colonized, and to posit the need they had of colonization (“civilization”). This ethnographic approach survives in many museums today.

– Also, museum displays preserve vestiges of dying or dead civilizations. Their ideological basis and practical origins are in conquest and killing. And now we would like to believe we have put that attitude, and those practices, behind us. Have we?

– Now, by contrast, museum displays of primitive objects resemble jewelry stores. The objects are isolated, beautiful, sensuous, mysterious, context-free.

– Displays sometimes force physical relations to sacred objects one should not or would not have in real life: looking head on at something not meant to be looked at head on, for instance, as though its ritual power really were mere superstition

– The example of “culture contact” (the girl with the palm fronds and flash cubes) – what is this “culture contact,” really? Remember that behind the West’s rhetoric about the primitive there is often an interest in power – psychological, sexual, economic.

– Western tropes invite us to associate the primitive with the irrational, the instinctual, the swarming, but what else does Western discourse associate with it in more veiled ways?

– Note that art historians originally thought of primitive objects as functional, and only later came to study them as aesthetic objects. What is involved in this shift? Is it really less condescending to see these objects as aesthetic?

– By saying these objects are art, we think we are honoring their makers by implying that they have a civilization, a culture (civilization produces art). But we are also ignoring what that culture might have thought of these objects – do they call them art? Does what they think matter?

Chapter 4 Preview 

– Note, in modern art, the association between African art, Blackness, women, sex, horrors, and death.

Chapter 5 Preview 

– Note writer Michel Leiris’ constant rewriting of Africa as a way to rewrite himself.

And note again the intertwining, in his work, of sexuality, misogyny, and Western interest in African art.

– Note how sex and violence are associated in Western culture, and how women are represented as either wounded or dangerous

– Leiris says he was interested in ethnography (because of) the ways in which he was interested in sex; to wield the penetrating, Western gaze in a museum of primitive objects was a source of pleasure to him

– What he has to say academically on these matters parallels in many ways what he has to say personally

Chapter 6 Preview 

– Modernism is very primitivist – it depended upon and absorbed the primitive.


Posted by on January 27, 2008 in Torgovnick


3 responses to “Torgovnick 3 … with lagniappe on 4, 5, 6

  1. Jennifer Cascadia

    February 2, 2008 at 11:59 pm

    The Westerner’s industrial modernist system is deeply irrational — it barely serves humanity per se.

    Check it out, y’all, we got a comment from a person out in the world. Remember, you too can comment! 🙂 –yo, LB.


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