August 29, 2018

M. NourbeSe Philip Quote


It was during those lectures I heard one of the truisms that form part of the canon on African art, and one which helps foster another type of erasure - this time about Western art. It also reveals how useful African art and primitivism have become as countercultural alternatives to Western art practices.

African art is functional, inseparable from the social order, the argument goes, vis-à-vis the Western art tradition where art by designation is what we have come to understand art to mean. Integral to this approach is the belief that art exists here in the West over and above the social order - often apart from the social order. The commodity value assigned to art - and to the artist - makes it a part of the economy, but essentially it is a thing apart - alien, alienated and, at times, alienating.

It is, however, integral to the concept and understanding of art here in the West, that its connection to the social matrix - to labour, history and politics - not be seen, acknowledged or articulated. Which is where the African and Oceanic - the primitive - has served such a useful purpose, for with the primitive, the cultural connections between art and the social fabric - although irrevocably torn - could be clearly seen and held up as a significant difference from the Western tradition.

On the one hand, the cultural object forcibly torn out of its context, assigned artistic value and meaning, and reinterpreted as functional - an integral part of the social order; on the other, the cultural object still within its context, but with its connections to the social fabric hidden or obliterated. What are, in fact, flip sides of the same coin are presented as radical differences.

- M. NourbeSe Philip, from Blank: Essays & Interviews

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