Artist and art historian Roger Fry used Paul Gauguin's 1896
painting, Poèmes barbares, to advertise his 1910 exhibition, Manet
and the Post-Impressionists. In Vision and Design (1920), Fry
promoted the so-called "primitive" art of Oceania and sub-Saharan
Africa as depending on unmediated perception that he associated with the
Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. Although Fry's assumption of an
"ultra-primitive directness of vision" on the part of African makers
ignores their own mediating conventions, his reliance on the Vischers' notion
of empathetic connection enhances the possibility of regarding the cultural
products of peoples foreign to the percipient with what Paul C. Taylor terms an
attentiveness that combats reductionism and objectification." Further,
such a form of attention can displace attempts to privilege European and
Eurocentric art and thought, by referring to "primitive" art and
thought, promoting recognition of their value in their own right.
aesthetic judgment; African sculpture; decolonization;
empathy (Einfühlung); Roger Fry; Paul Gauguin; Oceania; primitive
1. Decolonizing cultural relations
Decolonization is not confined to ending particular forms
of political rule as settlers and their metropolitan sponsors cede authority to
the Native inhabitants whom they had dominated. It entails a purging of those
attitudes that sustain the possibility of such behavior and sanction a continuing
inequitable power relationship between colonizer and colonized. Colonial attitudes, by which
hegemonic groups continue to discount or denigrate the thought and practice of
subaltern groups, remain an insidious characteristic of those groups that enjoy
power, even if their members proclaim their modes of inquiry to be dedicated to
the disinterested pursuit of pancultural truth.
One of the major consequences of efforts to decolonize
areas of hegemonic thought and practice is a tendency to promote cultural
isolationism. That is, various culturally distinct subaltern communities, many,
though not all, of which identify as Indigenous, assert an identity that their
members hold to be impenetrable to members of other groups that generally enjoy
an advantage in terms of power disparity. I do not doubt that subaltern
communities have an absolute right to assert the validity of their own cultural
knowledge and practices that their members alone are best placed to understand.
Neither do I doubt that certain aspects of such cultural knowledge and practice
should be reserved to members of those communities, remaining beyond what it
might be proper for outsiders to inquire into. The assumption on the part of
thinkers in hegemonic societies—primarily, though not exclusively, Westerners
whom I shall henceforth term European, in the sense of being culturally members
of the worldwide European settler diaspora—that they have an absolute right to
the knowledge of other human communities has caused untold damage to countless
such communities. Although not all cultural appropriation is unequivocally
injurious, appropriation that amounts to intellectual despoliation, from theft
to destruction, accelerated from the
onset of large-scale European intrusion into the Americas in the early
sixteenth century. Injurious appropriation has been and continues to be
In some circumstances, Europeans have practiced
appropriation out of admiration for aspects of the cultural knowledge and
practice of colonial subjects and other subalterns. However, as formal European
empire and colonial settlement took firm hold in large parts of the globe in
the nineteenth century, encompassing the greater part of sub-Saharan Africa,
the Americas, northwest Asia (Siberia), south Asia, and Oceania, contempt or, at best, condescension
tended to displace any earlier admiration on the part of Europeans for
Indigenous peoples. A notion of the primitive as inferior to the civilized
came to dominate hegemonic thought, implying a hierarchy among human
communities. Ancient Society (1877), by American historian and
anthropologist, Lewis H. Morgan, sets out what was to become the dominant
European notion of social evolution. Morgan proposes human progress from
savagery (characterized by the use of the bow, fire, and pottery) through
barbarism (dominated by agriculture, the domestication of animals, and
metalworking), to civilization (which alone employs writing). Although long
since superseded in anthropological scholarship, Morgan's model still underlies
assumptions widely held in hegemonic societies about human social organization.
One of the most insidious and damaging aspects of European
hegemonism has been its co-option of the primitive to sanction European
achievements. From the late nineteenth century onwards, various European
thinkers, including some artists, critics, museum curators, and art collectors,
appealed to selected artifacts from subaltern communities not as examples of
inferiority and error, as had been the case when, for example, between 1814 and
1910 the London Missionary Society had displayed "idols" from Oceania
and elsewhere in its museum, but as sources of inspiration. Various late nineteenth and early
twentieth-century European artists responded to the works of Indigenous makers,
creating new forms. Certain critics also discerned elements in novel European
art practice that appeared to be consonant, in terms of certain values and
practices, with characteristics of various Indigenous items, even if they
differed in form.
One such artist, curator, and critic was Roger Fry
(1866-1934). Early in the twentieth century, thinkers such as Fry mobilized
what they considered to be primitive art to sanction the practice of certain
European artists. This indisputably drew European attention to select formal
characteristics of some subaltern items leading to their positive aesthetic
evaluation. Even though there is much to which to object in this kind of
aesthetic apprehension, in which any European appreciation of subaltern items
is solely on hegemonic terms, it can also help lead the way to questioning the
inevitability of cultural isolation: that members of different cultural
communities cannot hope to have any legitimate access whatsoever to aspects of
one another's cultural products. Even while allowing for the danger of
acquiescing in injurious appropriation, I propose that empathy has a role to
play in fostering such access and overcoming the social isolation of cultural
groups. I shall attempt to explore this proposal by appealing in the first
instance to some of Fry's writings on "primitive" art and aesthetics.
The term empathy has become unwieldy in its
elasticity and imprecision. I use it in the sense evoked by Fry, as a
"feeling of a special tie" that the percipient can come to sense
between herself or himself and the maker of an artwork, based on
self-realization prompted by the work that evokes this feeling. Fry's emphasis on empathetic
connection enhances the possibility of regarding the cultural products of
peoples foreign to the percipient in an ethically informed manner that promotes
acknowledgement of the full human complexity of their makers. Such a
form of attention can promote recognition of the value of works that remain
foreign to the percipient, even though they may have a role in sanctioning the
percipient's own culturally familiar art and thought. Further, an acknowledgement of a capacity for
empathy promises one way of circumventing claims that human cultural groups
enjoy exclusive access to their own cultural products and knowledge.
2. Paul Gauguin's Poèmes barbares
and Roger Fry
No late nineteenth-century European artist practiced
cultural appropriation more blatantly than Paul Gauguin (1848-1903). In 1896,
during his second visit to the islands in Oceania known as French Polynesia,
Gauguin made a painting, now in the Harvard Art Museums, to which he gave the
title inscribed in the upper left corner, Poèmes
barbares, sometimes translated as "Savage Poems" (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Paul Gauguin, Poèmes barbares, 1896, oil on
canvas, Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Bequest from the Collection of Maurice
Wertheim, Class of 1906.
Photo © President and Fellows of Harvard College.
Gauguin derived the title from a
collection of poems first published in 1862 by Charles Leconte de Lisle under
the title Poèsies Barbares, but which he renamed Poèmes barbares when he reissued the collection with a different publisher in 1871. The poet chose this
revised title to be a contrast to his collection published in 1852, Poèmes
antiques, that had been largely inspired by the cultures of classical
antiquity and ancient India. In Poèmes
barbares, Leconte de Lisle evoked the mythologies of non-classical—"primitive"—cultures,
including Oceania. Among them is a poem with the title, "La Genèse polynésienne"
(Polynesian Creation). Some scholars have proposed that Gauguin's painting
follows this poem in evoking the Tahitian account of the creation of the universe,
the gods, and humankind by the creator deity called, in Tahitian, Ta'aroa, who
is represented by the figure at lower left. This
creation account has equivalents in most, if not all, southern and eastern
Oceanic societies, from Aotearoa New Zealand to Hawai'i. It is not my purpose
to elucidate the iconography of this painting. Rather, I want to examine how
this work intersects with the aesthetic ideas of Roger Fry.
What is the connection between Poèmes barbares and Roger Fry?
Admittedly, it is tenuous. In 1910, Fry, having quit his position at the
Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York the previous year, organized an exhibition
at the Grafton Gallery, London. The Grafton Gallery
had long shown a tolerance towards what has come to be seen, from a normative
art historical perspective, as progressive art, showing, for instance, French
Impressionist works in 1905 before these were generally admired. In 1910, it
went a step further and hosted a loan exhibition conceived by Fry comprising
paintings from France that he considered to be even more radical. In focusing
on the work of Paul Cézanne, Paul
Gauguin, and Vincent van Gogh,
in particular, Fry coined the designation "Post-Impressionist," using
it in the title of his exhibition. As art historian Anna Gruetzner
Robins writes in her study of the exhibition: "What
cannot be disputed is that Manet and the Post-Impressionists, through
many canonical exhibits, ensured that Cézanne,
Gauguin, Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso and to some extent
Seurat were established as pre-eminent figures in the landscape of Modernism as perceived in the Anglophone art world. From there on it was impossible to
Figure 2. Exhibition
poster, Manet and the Post-Impressionists, Grafton Gallery, London,
Gauguin's Poèmes barbares dominates the publicity poster for the exhibition
(Figure 2). It is hard to believe that Fry did not choose it for this purpose. Indeed, it is highly unlikely
that Fry, who was an accomplished graphic designer in addition to being a
painter and print-maker, did not design the poster himself. He saw value in
what he termed "that ultra-primitive directness of vision" that he detected in the works of those whom he at
times termed "savages." In his writings on
sub-Saharan African art, in particular, he promoted an awareness of that
specific value of what, at the time, was termed “the primitive” as a way of
furthering the status of the works of contemporaneous European artists who had
sought inspiration in sub-Saharan African and Oceanic material culture. This
presumably led to the choice of a painting for the poster that makes explicit
the connection between innovative European practice and so-called primitive
sources of inspiration.
The use of Gauguin's Poèmes barbares
on the poster implies not only that it held a special place in Fry's conception
of the exhibition, but that it was actually included in the exhibition.
However, that appears not to have been the case. Robins concludes, "it is possible that the picture was
promised but did not reach the exhibition since there does not appear to be any
reference to it in the extensive press commentary." I have been unable to discover
unequivocally by whom it might have been promised. It may have been owned at
that time by the Munich banker, Alfred Wolff. The painting had been through the
Hôtel Drouot auction rooms in Paris in 1906, and
was acquired directly or indirectly by Wolff. Wolff collected avant-garde
French art with the advice of the Belgian designer, Henry van de Velde. By 1912, little more
than a year after the Grafton Gallery exhibition closed, Poèmes barbares
was in the collection of Michael Sadler.
Michael Sadler was a historian and
educational theorist who had been appointed vice-chancellor of the University
of Leeds in northern England in 1911. Sadler became president of the Leeds Art
Club, founded in 1903. The club was a proponent of the most avant-garde
European art of the day from France and, especially, Germany. Sadler owned not
only Gauguin's Poèmes barbares but his Vision after the Sermon
(National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh). He was a notable supporter of
Wassily Kandinsky, owning Fragment
2 for Composition VII, of
1913 (Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY). Indeed, Sadler's enthusiastic
support of German Expressionism in Kandinsky's Munich acknowledged the Bavarian
city as of an importance in the production of avant-garde art equal to, if not
greater than, that of Paris. The Leeds Arts Club explored progressive work even
more outrageous to contemporary European taste than that championed by Fry, who
focused on artists in Paris. And Sadler was undoubtedly acquainted with the
Munich art collector, Alfred Wolff.
In Gauguin's Poèmes
barbares we see a prime example of
the work of European artists who found inspiration in items from Oceania and
sub-Saharan Africa. This is a familiar topic in European art history. Yet why
should Gauguin and Picasso, emulating the work of Oceanic and African makers,
be thought of as admirably inventive and innovative, whereas the work of
Oceanic and African artists subsequently finding inspiration in that of Gauguin
and Picasso be considered derivative? At one time, the argument that the
attention of European artists to the work of supposedly primitive makers
sanctioned, in turn, viewers' attention to such work, was a new and, to an
extent, a liberating argument. That argument was made by Roger Fry in his collection
of his essays, Vision and Design, published in 1920. We should note,
though, that Fry's sympathetic observations regarding so-called primitive art
were confined to material from Africa. He did not address Oceania or other
non-Western areas of the world often described as primitive at that time.
3. Fry on
"Bushman Paintings," and "Negro Sculpture"
Fry's first published thoughts on African
art concerned drawings by members of the hunter-gatherer peoples of southern
Africa, today predominantly grouped in Botswana and Namibia and known as the
San, but then as Bushmen. Fry's thoughts appeared originally as a book review,
"Bushman Paintings," in The Burlington Magazine in 1910. In 1920, Fry visited
an exhibition of sub-Saharan African sculpture at the Chelsea Book Club with
his friend, the author Virginia Woolf, and published a review in The
Athenaeum as "Negro Sculpture at the Chelsea Book Club." In the same year, he
included both short essays (the former retitled "The Art of the
Bushmen") in Vision and Design. This book is an incremental
argument about how discerning what Fry termed "that ultra-primitive directness of
vision" found in African art can open viewers' minds to related qualities
in European Post-Impressionist art. As such, even if the book invites
attention to African material, it remains an example of the continuing
subordination of subaltern cultural items to European values.
In "Bushman Paintings," Fry argues that in the
process of making art, "the retinal image passed into a clear memory
picture with scarcely any intervening mental process." This resulted, he claims, in images
that incorporate the kind of foreshortening that many of his contemporaries
thought absent from what he terms "early art," the term he uses to
refer to Assyrian, Egyptian, archaic Greek, and Neolithic art. He suggests that the art of the San,
by contrast, is similar to the art of Paleolithic peoples, exemplified by the
cave paintings of Altamira, in that it can depict appearances because the
"concepts were not so clearly grasped as to have begun to interfere with
perception." He argues that in such works, the
maker depended on an "immediacy and rapidity of transcription" rather
than on "express[ing] a mental image which is coloured by
his conceptual habits." Early Greek artists, on the other
hand, relied on the representation of visual concepts and showed what they knew
to be the case regarding what they represented, rather than simply what they
saw. Far from lauding the Greeks and denigrating the Africans, Fry points to
the art practice of the San—"what we
call the lowest of savages" —as the very mode of perception and
execution that the Impressionists were seeking in their paintings: that is,
"that ultra-primitive directness of vision."
"Negro Sculpture," written ten years later, makes
a different point. It is a salutary blast aimed at the unthinking valuation of
the European sculptural tradition derived from ancient Greece. Here, Fry lauds
sub-Saharan wood sculpture for what he terms its "expressive plastic
form" and its "complete plastic freedom." Its figures, he argues, are wholly
free in conception from the predominantly two-dimensional constraints of the
bas-relief that he argues characterize Greek and subsequent European statuary.
Although Fry praises the qualities he discerns in sub-Saharan wood sculpture,
ascribing a "creative aesthetic impulse" to their makers and
associating them with the "most exquisite sensibility and the finest
taste," he nonetheless holds that "[i]t is for want of a conscious
critical sense and the intellectual powers of comparison that the negro has
failed to create one of the great cultures of the world."
It is not my purpose simply to echo the observations of
scholars such as Marianna Torgovnick, who rightly points out the undertow of
early twentieth-century racist assumptions in Fry's remarks on African art. Neither am I concerned to do more
than merely mention that Fry's striking enthusiasm for West African sculpture
in wood was shared by a small number of European and American taste-makers,
who, although informed by different philosophical considerations, shared with
Fry an interest in emphasizing the formal properties of artworks. Readers get a
glimpse of this shared concern in the sole illustration accompanying
"Negro Sculpture,” in Fry's Vision and Design: Plate III (Figure
The item reproduced was subsequently identified as a Sãdo'o
Society ritual female figure made by a member of the Senufo nation in Côte
d'Ivoire in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. Fry simply
captioned it "Negro Sculpture" and "Collection Guillaume"
on the plate in his book. "Guillaume" was the Parisian dealer, Paul
Guillaume, who championed African sculpture, and from whom the pharmaceutical
entrepreneur-turned-collector and art educator, Albert Barnes, bought nearly
all the African works that he acquired for his institution in suburban
Philadelphia, beginning in 1922. The Senufo female figure is among the
works Barnes acquired from Guillaume. Even though the French designation l'art
nègre included Oceanic works during this period, Barnes acquired just one
Oceanic piece, apparently believing it to have been African and Fry confined
his brief discussions to works from Africa.
Figure 3. Senufo artist (Côte d'Ivoire), Seated female figure of the
Sãdo'o Society, late 19th–early 20th century, wood, Barnes Foundation,
Philadelphia, as illustrated in Roger
Fry, Vision and Design (1920), Plate III.
4. The decolonizing response
When trying to establish grounds for why people from
hegemonic societies might pay attention to works from subaltern communities in
their own right, the familiar European appeal to works from both Oceania and
sub-Saharan Africa as a means of sanctioning certain kinds of European art
practice, outlined above, is beside the point. Two factors that might help
promote ambition to respond across cultural boundaries meet fleetingly in the
context of Gauguin's painting, Poèmes
barbares. They are, first, Roger
Fry's aesthetics, regardless of the range of artworks, whether African or
European, to which he appealed; and, second, imagining a view not from
the European world to Oceania, but in the other direction, from Oceania, such
that European art by Gauguin and his European contemporaries diminish in
importance and Oceanic things seen in an Oceanic light reappear. We might term
this a decolonizing response.
An inkling of a decolonizing response came to my mind when
viewing the exhibition Gauguin, Tahiti at the Museum of Fine Arts,
Boston, in 2004, also shown at the Grand Palais, Paris. The curators, George Shackelford and
Claire Frèches-Thory, included considerable numbers of works from Tahiti, the
Marquesas, and elsewhere in Oceania. They did so to invite comparisons with
numerous works in various media—paintings, prints, wood, ceramics—by Gauguin.
The works from Oceania were there in order to validate Gauguin's inspiration,
yet on this occasion they overshadowed Gauguin's own efforts at anything other
than painting, drawing, and printmaking. Although one can admire Gauguin's work
in all the media he employed, a work in the exhibition such as the Māori carved
wooden canoe stern (Musée national de la Marine, Paris) has an aesthetic
presence just as compelling as anything that Gauguin himself fashioned in this
medium. The presence of Gauguin's art—art
that in other circumstances I have admired—was on this occasion a distraction.
Rather than enhance Gauguin's achievement, the Oceanic items drew attention to
its shortcomings, and I found myself wishing that his works could be purged
from the galleries to leave the Oceanic pieces there alone. In this exhibition,
Gauguin's art had inadvertently and unfortunately taken on the role of
epitomizing arrogant European intrusion in Tahiti, the Marquesas, and Oceania
as a whole.
Do Western hegemonic institutions invariably have to
subordinate works from subaltern societies to the role of sanctioning Western
art practice, as in the case of Gauguin, Tahiti? Not necessarily. In
2006, anthropologist Steven Hooper organized the exhibition Pacific
Encounters: Art and Divinity in Polynesia, 1760-1860 at the Sainsbury
Centre, University of East Anglia, Norwich, England. The Robert and Lisa Sainsbury
Collection, given to the university in 1973, intermingles works of European
Modernism with ancient Mediterranean, African, and Oceanic pieces. Its explicit
purpose is to draw attention to the formal properties of all. The Sainsburys
owed their inspiration in part to Fry's principles, including an invitation to
"dispense once and for all with the idea of likeness to Nature, of
correctness or incorrectness, as a test, and consider only whether the
emotional elements inherent in natural form are adequately discovered." The Sainsbury Collection Website
states that it "uniquely presents art as a universal global phenomenon." However, its implicit purpose is to
sanction European Modernism.
Hooper's exhibition transcended the
premise of the institution that produced it. In Pacific Encounters,
there was no overt intrusion of European Modernism. The encounters were of
three kinds: first, among the inhabitants of Oceania themselves; second,
between these inhabitants on the one hand, and Europeans, including European
North Americans, on the other who visited Oceania and intruded increasingly
from the mid-eighteenth century onwards; and, third, between the array of
extraordinary and very varied things made and first used by residents of
Oceania then on view, and the exhibition visitors whom those things encountered
and who encountered them. Hooper eschewed pressing these things
into the service of an art history concerned solely with gauging artistic
progress from Impressionism through Post-Impressionism to the beginnings of
Modernism. He also avoided a purely ethnographic presentation, for he
skillfully invited aesthetic attention to the things he showed. Unlike the Musée
du quai Branly that opened in Paris in the same year, 2006, dedicated to the
so-called arts premiers of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, there was
little sense of colonial superiority in Pacific Encounters. Indeed, the exhibition opened the way
for an engagement not only with Oceanic things, many of them invested with mana
(spiritual power), but with the ideas of Pacific thinkers. It was as close to a
decolonizing project as one could imagine in the heart of a society that had
thrived by means of colonial exploitation.
I cannot claim that Fry's ideas
directly affected Hooper's in his production of Pacific Encounters, but
neither does Hooper's work implicitly reject Fry's ideas out of hand.
Commentators, anxious to avoid complicity in racism, have accused Fry, among
others, of having been a racist imperialist. While Fry, albeit equivocally, shared
certain racist assumptions, to follow this course entails the risk of rejecting
those parts of Fry's thinking that might help to promote attention to
sub-Saharan and Oceanic aesthetically charged items without reference to works
in the European tradition.
5. Empathy in Fry's aesthetics
There is variety of opinion and there
are disagreements among Oceanic thinkers, but a truly post-colonial
Oceania—hard to imagine at present—free of the taint of ascriptions of the
primitive, whether in the past or present, is at long last conceivable. For
people of European origin, this change entails setting obsessions with the art
of their own makers, that of Picasso, Gauguin, and the rest, in perspective.
Perhaps surprisingly, Roger Fry, who subordinated the qualities he genuinely
valued in African art to the promotion of European Post-Impressionism, can
offer help in grasping aspects of the peculiar qualities of non-European
creations. In his 1909 article in The New Quarterly, "An
Essay in Aesthetics," subsequently included in Vision and Design,
he points to what he conceived of as the purpose of the artwork:
But in our reaction to a work of art …
there is the consciousness of purpose, the consciousness of a peculiar relation
of sympathy with the man who made this thing in order to arouse precisely the
sensations we experience. And when we come to the higher works of art, where
sensations are so arranged that they arouse in us deep emotions, this feeling
of a special tie with the man who expressed them becomes very strong. We feel
that he has expressed something which was latent in us all the time, but which
we never realised, that he has revealed us to ourselves in revealing himself.
And this recognition of purpose is, I believe, an essential part of the
aesthetic judgment proper.
The notion that an artwork connects
the mind of the maker with that of the percipient informs work in the
philosophy and history of art, both earlier and later than Fry's. Fry, himself,
acknowledged his debt to Leo Tolstoy, who published What is Art? in
1897, in spite of "disagreeing with almost all his results." John Dewey also espoused an
expressive theory of art. His arguments likely encouraged Albert Barnes, whom
he supported intellectually, to see value in the sub-Saharan African art that
we have seen him acquire. In Art as Experience, moreover, Dewey takes
issue with Fry's near total subordination of "subject matter"—that
which is represented in an artwork—to purely formal properties and his
discounting of artists' experiences prior to creating artworks as informing
those artworks. Yet all these thinkers agree, in
outline, that the artwork connects the mind of the maker with that of the
percipient. A later, prominent advocate of this contention was Richard
Wollheim, for whom the "marked surface must be the conduit along which the
mental state of the artist makes itself felt within the mind of the spectator
if the result is to be that the spectator grasps the meaning of the
picture." However, whereas Wollheim, and others
who have followed his lead, believe that the "mental state of the artist
makes itself felt within the mind of the spectator," Fry evokes something
different that is less directly communicative; that is, a "feeling of a
special tie" that the percipient can come to sense between herself and the
maker based on self-realization prompted by the work that evokes this feeling.
This is a variant of the influential notion of empathetic connection (Einfühling)
proposed by Robert Vischer and taken up by his father, Friedrich Theodor
Vischer, notably in his 1887 article, "Das Symbol," even though his
claims largely concern the putative relationship between the percipient, the
representation and its referent rather than its maker.
Insofar as Fry postulates the
possibility of evoking an empathetic connection, a "feeling of a special
tie,” on the part of the (colonizing) percipient with the (colonized) maker,
his idea promises help. But we should temper optimism with caution. Whether
such an aesthetically generated emotion can actually deliver on a promise of a
revision of attitude, on the part of the hegemonic subject towards the
subaltern subject, is open to question and generates a skeptical response among
many subalterns and their supporters. Furthermore, there is a possible
serious flaw in the ascription of efficacy to Fry's claims. It seems likely
that by drawing inferences from their visual material alone, Fry had failed to
grasp that the San are no less dependent on cognitive processes and visual
conventions than any other cultural group. In claiming that "the retinal
image passed into a clear memory picture with scarcely any intervening mental
process," he may have mistaken what in actuality are cognitive processes
and distinctive San visual conventions for a supposed "ultra-primitive
directness of vision," partly as a consequence of wishful thinking.
Reliance on empathy in this instance may have come to naught in terms of
analysis. Nonetheless, such a call for human empathy has a place in ongoing
attempts to overturn the pernicious appeal to the primitive, in the denigratory
sense that was in common use prior to the publication, in 1927, of Primitive
Art, in which anthropologist Franz Boas discredited the idea of
"primitive" humans as being inferior to "civilized" humans
by arguing for a species of cultural relativism, suggesting that human
communities have developed equally but in distinct manners that are the
consequences of historic conditions rather than genetic predispositions.
If rejecting Fry's ideas outright is not an adequate
response on the part of those who enjoy hegemonic advantage, neither is an
exclusive reliance on his appeal to empathetic connection. If an appeal to
empathetic connection has a place in articulating aesthetic responses to items
made within subaltern groups, so does it in attempting to come to terms with
ideas expressed by members of those groups in other ways. Hegemonic theorizing
routinely ignores the work of thinkers from subaltern communities. This is the
very thinking that Europeans most need to address if they are to make any
attempt to expand upon their own culturally circumscribed viewpoint. With
regard to Oceania, I can do no more than signal the contributions of a few
among the following Oceanic thinkers: Epeli Hau'ofa, Hūfanga 'Ōkusitino Māhina,
Paul Tapsell, and Albert Tuaopepe Wendt.
For instance, Māhina, concurring with Hau'ofa, sees time
and space in a manner different from Europeans. Māhina sees Oceanic people
"walk forward into the past and walk backward into the future, both taking
place in the present, where past and future are constantly mediated in the
ever-transforming present." This is an epitome of Tongan concepts
of temporality and spatiality, called tā and vā, that articulate
human beings' experience of their place in the world.
Unsurprisingly, tradition has a particularly urgent place
in the work of all these Oceanic thinkers. Māori scholar Paul Tapsell writes of
the return in 1993 of an especially important taonga (living ancestral
physical item) to his iwi (tribe), Te Arawa. This is a dogskin cloak
called Te Kahumamae o Pareraututu ("the cloak of pain of
Pareraututu") that had been in the Auckland War Memorial Museum since the
1870s. In spite of the aesthetic characteristics that sustain attention to this
exquisitely made, mana-charged item, he stresses the importance of Māori
ancestral values, in particular, whakapapa, or genealogical order, over
the aesthetic and historical values that attract Europeans. Yet various Oceanic thinkers do not
regard traditional values as immutable. For Epeli Hau'ofa, "Tradition
was not the arid, formulaic routine of what had gone before. For Epeli, it was
a living, breathing organism of the present day. It drew from the past, yet was
neither bound nor limited by it." Neither do all Oceanic thinkers see
the cultural groups that sustain traditional values as necessarily unchanging.
Some go so far as to deny that shared ethnicity is the sole basis for adhering
to or understanding such values. For example, Samoan thinker, Albert Tuaopepe
Wendt, argues that access to a culture is not a matter of ethnic belonging. He
writes: "To advocate that in order to be a true Samoan, for example, one
must be fully-blooded Samoan and behave/think/dance/talk/dress/and believe in a
certain prescribed way (and that the prescribed way has not changed since time
immemorial) is being racist, callously totalitarian, and stupid." He
continues, "This is a prescription for cultural stagnation, an invitation
for a culture to choke in its own body odour, juices, and excreta." If Fry, an elite member of a
hegemonic culture, holds out the possibility, albeit far from perfectly, that
those in one culture can grasp aspects of another, so do some members of
Such a forthright rejection of social, cultural, and ethnic
isolationism and stasis among scholars beyond the European mainstream is not
found in Oceania alone. Distinguished Caribbean scholars, such as the Jamaican
sociologist and cultural theorist, Stuart Hall and the Martiniquan literary
theorist, Édouard Glissant, challenged
assumptions regarding the static cultural identity of communities. Hall
proposes a fluid notion of cultural belonging in what he terms "diasporic
identity," while Glissant propounds an idea of relation—relational
belonging—as opposed to the cultural and social isolation induced by an
essentializing conception of cultural identity. It is far from inconceivable that
parts of Fry's thinking might be redeployed as a productive element of analysis
in terms of relation.
6. The perils of appropriation, and
the persistence of the "primitive"
Placing confidence in empathy offers
no easy solution, for the question arises: How can European people who enjoy
all kinds of hegemonic advantages engage with Oceanic art and thought, and the
art and thought of other disadvantaged peoples, without appropriating them
injuriously or offensively? There are members of subaltern
communities who deny that hegemonic peoples can ever respond to their cultural productions
empathetically or without appropriating them. While we should not assume that
some small degree of empathy might be available without instruction,
correction, and hard work, for a community to assume a position of complete
cultural isolation, by denying that it can be the subject of empathetic
engagement by others, seems a denial of a basic human capability. Such a
hyper-defensive attitude may be understandable as a consequence of the
experience of injustice and inequity over generations, but it leads to extremes
of identity politics that can seek to impose limits on comprehension and
expression intolerably. As one graduate student put it: "I am a pregnant
African American Jewish lesbian: Can I understand and speak only on behalf of
pregnant African American Jewish lesbians?" Even while guarding against
appropriation, aesthetic apprehension with an empathetic component has a
distinct role to play in overcoming social isolation. As philosopher of Black
aesthetics Paul C. Taylor puts it, "the
aesthetic can be a resource for moving, as María Lugones and Peta Bowden might
put it, from perceiving racial ‘others' arrogantly to perceiving them lovingly,
with the ethical attentiveness that combats reductionism and
Aesthetics has a role to play in postcolonial reconciliation, if, even
selectively, such a thing might be possible.
Unfortunately, pre-Boasian usage still
has its supporters. At the annual meeting of the American Philosophical
Association in 2018, the respondent to a paper on Nietzsche and the origin of
obligation mentioned "primitive human beings." When asked, "Who
or what is a primitive human being?" the respondent's answer was: "A
member of the species Homo sapiens who has not developed the ability to
function in the complex contemporary world," to which the questioner's
riposte was: "If you were to find yourself among the Asmat people of
Papua, might you not take some time to develop an ability to function in their
world?" The primitive in some pre-Boasian sense remains alive and well. It
may fade further if Fry's admittedly flawed appeal to human empathy, by evoking
"that ultra-primitive directness of vision,” can serve to prompt serious
engagement with works by Oceanic and sub-Saharan African makers and thinkers.
Fry's aesthetics offers no one-stop fix to correcting the predominant hegemonic
valuation of subaltern aesthetically charged items. On the contrary, we have
seen that his argument subordinated such works to his championing of European
Modernism. Yet aesthetic apprehension, with an empathetic component, has a
distinct role to play in overcoming the social isolation of cultural groups.
Fry's attention to subaltern works in the context of an aesthetics that
postulates the "feeling of a special tie" on the part of the
percipient to the maker paves the way to an opening of hearts as well as eyes.
Professor of Cultural History and
Bard Graduate Center
Ivan Gaskell is an interdisciplinary
cultural historian who focuses on philosophical questions arising from writing
history from tangible things. His most recent book is Paintings and the
Past: Philosophy, History, Art (2019). In 2016, he was appointed a
permanent fellow of the Advanced Study Institute of the University of
Published on October 1, 2019.
 One early instance of the promotion of
decolonization in this sense, by advocating the use of Indigenous languages, is
Thiong'o, Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African
Literature (London: J. Curry and Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1986).
 See, inter alia, James O. Young and
Conrad Brunk, eds., The Ethics of Cultural Appropriation (Oxford and
Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009).
 I use the terms Oceania and Oceanic
rather than Pacific, in conformity with the preference expressed by
Epeli Hau'ofa, who points out that the peoples of the ocean "viewed their
world as a 'sea of islands', rather than 'islands in the sea,'" the latter
being the prevalent European conception: Epeli Hau'ofa, "Our Sea of
Islands," in his We Are the Ocean: Selected Works (Honolulu:
University of Hawai'i Press, 2008), pp. 27-40, ref. on 32.
 Lewis H. Morgan, Ancient Society:
Or, Researches in the Line of Human Progress from Savagery, through Barbarism
to Civilization (Chicago: C.H. Kerr, 1877).
 See Rosemary Seton,
"Reconstructing the Museum of the London Missionary Society," Material
Religion, 8, 1 (2012), 98-102; and Chris Wingfield, "'Scarcely more
than a Christian trophy case'? The Global Collections of the London Missionary
Society Museum (1814-1910)," Journal of the History of Collections,
29, 1 (2017), pp. 109-128.
Roger Fry "An Essay in
Aesthetics," in his Vision and Design (1920; Mineola, NY: Dover,
1998), p. 21 (first published in The New Quarterly 2, April, 1909).
 Paul Gauguin, Poèmes barbares, oil on canvas, Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Cambridge,
Massachusetts, Bequest from the Collection of Maurice Wertheim, Class of 1906.
 Charles Leconte
de Lisle, Poèsies Barbares (Paris: Poulet-Malassis, 1862), definitively
retitled Poèmes barbares (Paris: Lemerre, 1872).
 Charles Leconte
de Lisle, Poèmes antiques (Paris: Lemerre, 1852).
 The first to do so was Mary Lynn Zink,
"Gauguin's Poèmes barbares and the Tahitian Chant of
Creation," Art Journal, 38, 1 (1978), 18-21; ref. on 18-19.
 For Fry's agonistic relationship with
the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and its imperious chair of trustees, J.
Pierpont Morgan, see Charles Molesworth, The Capitalist and the Critic: J.P.
Morgan, Roger Fry, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Austin: University
of Texas Press, 2016), esp. 79-135. Fry was successively Curator of Paintings,
and European Advisor on Paintings from the beginning of 1906 until his
dismissal at the end of 1909.
 Benedict Nicolson,
"Post-Impressionism and Roger Fry," Burlington Magazine, 93
(1951), 10-15; ref. on 12.
 Anna Gruetzner Robins, "'Manet
and the Post-Impressionists': A Checklist of Exhibits," Burlington
Magazine, 152 (2010), 782-793; ref. on 793.
 Fry, Vision and Design, p. 69.
 Robins, "'Manet and the Post-Impressionists,'"
787 n. 53.
 Thomas Föhl and Stephan Wolff, Alfred Wolff
und Henry van de Velde: Sammelleidenschaft und Stil (Berlin: Deutscher
Kunstverlag, 2018): "Alfred Wolff and Henry van de Velde: passion for
collecting and style."
 On Sadler as a collector, see Tom
Steele, Alfred Orage and the Leeds Arts Club 1893–1923 (Aldershot and Brookfield, Vermont: Scolar Press, 1990), and
Avant-Garde in Interwar England (New York: Oxford University Press,
 Roger Fry, "Bushman
Paintings," Burlington Magazine, 16 (1910), 334-38.
 Roger Fry, "Negro Sculpture at
the Chelsea Book Club," The Athenaeum (April 16, 1920), 516.
 Fry, Vision and Design, p. 69.
 Marianna Torgovnick, Gone
Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives (Chicago and London: University
of Chicago Press, 1990), pp. 85-104: "The Politics of Roger Fry's Vision
 See Christa Clarke, "Defining African Art:
Primitive Negro Sculpture and the Aesthetic Philosophy of Albert Barnes," African
Arts, 36, 1 (2003), 40-51, 92-93; Christa Clarke, African Art in the
Barnes Foundation: The Triumph of l'Art Nègre and the Harlem Renaissance
(New York: Skira Rizzoli, 2015).
 Clarke, African Art in the Barnes
Foundation, p. 24 n. 6. The piece from the Marquesas, described by Clarke
as a "stilt step" with figurative elements, is not included in the
online database of the Barnes Foundation. My thanks to Christa Clarke for
drawing my attention to this item.
 George T.M. Shackelford and Claire
Frèches-Thory, Gauguin, Tahiti (Boston: MFA Publications, 2004), the
American edition of the catalog accompanying the exhibition at the Galeries du
Grand-Palais, Paris and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2003-4.
 Unidentified Māori carver, Canoe
Stern, before 1829, wood, Musée national de la Marine, Paris: see
accessed February 14, 2019. I repeat some of these observations from Ivan
Gaskell, "Encountering Pacific Art," Journal of Museum Ethnography,
21 (2009), 202-210.
 Steven Hooper, Pacific Encounters:
Art & Divinity in Polynesia 1760-1860 (London: British Museum Press,
 Fry, Vision and Design, p. 25.
 I use this locution deliberately in
order to acknowledge the belief of many Oceanic people in the living status of
many Oceanic items.
 For a trenchant critique of the Musée
du quai Branly, see Sally Price, Paris Primitive: Jacques Chirac's Museum on
the Quai Branly (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).
 Most frequently cited in this respect
is Torgovnick, 1990.
 Fry, Vision and Design, p. 21.
 John Dewey, Art as Experience
(1934; New York: Berkeley Publishing, 1980) pp. 86-90.
 Richard Wollheim, Painting as an
Art: The A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, 1984 (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1987), p. 22.
 Friedrich Theodor Vischer, "Das
Symbol," in Philosophische Aufsätze: Eduard Zeller zu seinem
fünfzigjährigen Doctor-Jubiläum gewidmet (Leipzig: Fue's Verlag, 1887),
pp. 153-93: "Philosophical essays dedicated to Eduard Zeller on the
fiftieth anniversary of his doctorate." See also Friedrich Theodor Vischer "The Symbol,"
trans. Holly A. Yanacek, Art in Translation, 7, 4 (2015),
 The most celebrated instance is
Frantz Fanon, Les Damnés de la
Terre (Paris: François
Maspero, 1961), translated as The
Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance
Farrington (New York: Grove Press, 1963).
 Franz Boas, Primitive
(Oslo: H. Aschehoug & Co., and Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press, 1927).
 Hūfanga 'Ōkusitino Māhina, "Tā,
Vā, and Moana: Temporality, Spatiality, and Indigeneity," Pacific
Studies, 33, 2/3 (2010), 168-202; ref. on 170.
 See further, Tēvita O. Ka'ili, Marking
Indigeneity: The Tongan Art of Sociospatial Relations (Tucson: University
of Arizona Press, 2017).
 Paul Tapsell, "The Flight of
Pareraututu: An Investigation of Taonga from a Tribal Perspective,"
Journal of the Polynesian Society, 106, 4 (1997), 323-374.
 Joni Madraiwiwi, "Epeli
Hau'ofa: Muse, Mediator and Mentor," Fiji Times,
January 19, 2009.
 Albert Tuaopepe Wendt, "Towards a
New Oceania," Mana Review, 1, 1 (1976), 49-60; ref. on 53 (original emphases).
 Stuart Hall, "Introduction: Who
Needs ‘Identity'?," in Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay, eds., Questions of
Cultural Identity (London and Thousand Oaks, California: Sage, 1996); Édouard Glissant, Poétique de la relation
(Paris: Gallimard, 1990), translated as Poetics of Relation, trans.
Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997).
 I thank John Carvalho for asking this
question in his formal response to an earlier version of this paper.
 Paul C. Taylor, Black is Beautiful:
A Philosophy of Black Aesthetics (Oxford and Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell,
2016), p. 70. I owe this reference to John Carvalho. See also, for example,
María Lugones, Pilgrimages=Peregrinajes: Theorizing Coalition against
Multiple Oppressions (Langham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), and
Peta Bowden, Caring: Gender-Sensitive Ethics (London and New York:
 This article derives from a paper
delivered at the symposium, Primitivism Before/Beyond Modernism, at
Ithaca College in May, 2018. I should like to thank the organizer, Risham
Majeed, for her invitation, and fellow participants, including Suzanne Blier, Josh
Cohen, Iftikhar Dadi, Jennifer Jolly, Elizabeth Rodini, Linda Seidel, and Susan
Vogel, for their comments. I presented a considerably revised version at the
annual meeting of the American Society for Aesthetics, Eastern Division, in
Philadelphia in April, 2019. Not for the first time, I owe a debt of gratitude
to the respondent, John Carvalho, for his comments. My thanks also go to two
anonymous reviewers whose observations led to improvements. I am particularly
grateful to Anne Eaton for alerting me to the abiding philosophical pertinence
of Roger Fry's thought.