A quasi-scientific presentation of seminal exhibitions from the past, through primary evidence such as original texts, images, clippings, scans, transcriptions

TOTEMS NOT TABOO

February 26 - March 29, 1959
Curated by Jermayne MacAgy
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Contents:
1 Essay from the catalogue
by Ralph C. Altman, University of California, Los Angeles
9 Installation views
1 Press clipping from The River Oaks Times

Notes: Jermayne MacAgy (1914–1964) was a museum director, exhibition designer and art professor. She began her career as an instructor in the education department of the Cleveland Museum of Art, where she worked from 1939 to 1941. From 1955 through 1959 she served as the first professional director of the Contemporary Arts Association, the forerunner of the present day Contemporary Arts Museum. During her four-year tenure as the Contemporary Arts Museum’s first professional director, Jermayne MacAgy organized twenty-nine exhibitions, each accompanied by a catalogue. She presented a wide range of topics, many of which were unusual at that time, such as Yard Art (1957), Films 1948- 58 (1958), and The Disquieting Muse: Surrealism (1958). MacAgy’s most successful exhibition for the CAM was Totems Not Taboo (1959), one of the most comprehensive exhibitions of primitive art organized in the United States by that time. The expense of her exhibitions strained the resources of the CAM, however, and her contract was not renewed in 1959. Later she went on to found the University of St. Thomas’ art history department with her friends John and Dominique de Menil.

This is the strange title to this exhibition of strange objects commonly called "Primitive Arts." Some of them were totems, beings somehow associated with ancestors or souls of people. Some of there were sacred to their makers, taboo to the uninitiated. None of them are taboo to us because they speak a universal language of form; a language we can't always understand in detail although we feel it expresses needs, hopes, dreams, prayers, common to all mankind.

The show is an invitation to see, not merely to look. It is an invitation to marvel at the variety of man's artistic expressions, at the range of styles from severe abstraction to relative naturalism, from surrealist dream imagery to non-representational patterning. Absent are attempts at copying nature; photographic likeness was of no concern to the people who created primitive arts.

What is Primitive Art?

The exhibition shows object carved or painted or modeled or cast or woven or fashioned otherwise by the Negroes of Africa, the peoples of the South Seas, the Indians of the Americas. The show does not claim to be comprehensive; otherwise, Stone Age Europe and certain parts of Continental Asia would have been represented too.

Primitive arts have one thing in common, no matter when or where they were created: they grew out of cultures which existed essentially beyond the orbits of the major civilizations of the Orient and Occident. What else have these objects in common? What are the common denominators which justify their being lumped together under this one all-embracing term, "Primitive Arts"?

Compare the superposed figures on the Maori architectural carving with those on the North-West Coast Indians poles; or the seat from Ecuador with the stool-shaped carving from New Guinea; or, to concentrate just on Negro sculpture, look from the Senufo to the Cameroons mask, from the face of the Bakota figure to that of the Lower Congo.

The longer one looks, the greater the differences become. The more the eye overcomes the initial, general impression of strangeness in the use of color, carved surface patterning, the combination of heterogeneous media...
 And the more it penetrates unfamiliar subject matter to see underlying, basic forms and designs, the more clearly does it see the individual character of the objects.

Ignorance was the only justification for the creation of the catch-all term "Primitive Arts"; an ignorance which saw in the arts of our own, Western civilization the ultimate of achievement. True, the arts of China and Greater India had been dimly perceived as entities in their own right. But our culture, together with its roots in classic antiquity, was still the standard by which the rest of the world was judged. This is an extraordinarily primitive type of behavior, indeed. It recalls the fact that several tribal names mean, literally translated, "the people" – implying that others were "non-people," that their own world was the world, their ways of life the only possible ones. Such attitudes conditioned us to look down from the pinnacle of our own achievements to the "primitives," be it in smug condescension or romantic nostalgia. No wonder the antiquity of great cave murals of Ice Age man was not accepted; the native, Negro origin of Benin bronzes was denied when they first came to our attention around the end of the last century. They did not fit our notions of primitive man and his works. They were not "primitive."

Times have changed. The term "primitive arts" has been retained as a convenient label for arts other than those one is accustomed to refer to by specific names, but no longer are the works of primitive art mistaken for inchoate, spontaneous manifestations of wild, childlike, naive instincts. They are recognized now as organized expressions of complex art traditions, as creations of men in tune with the style tradition of their people. And no longer are their forms strange to us. We can relate them to the arts of our age – and all ages. The recent explosion of our art standards and canons into a multiplicity of co-existing styles and schools has accustomed us to appreciate the validity of more than one artistic statement. The entire world of artistic solutions in now open to us in its boundless range – "one world of art" in which we are able to love a Cycladic head and the Venus of Milo. A Khmer Buddha and a Brancusi, a Picasso and a Rembrandt – and an anonymous New Guinea painting. No forms, no "totems" are taboo to our eyes.

But totems, if this may stand for the entire corpus of primitive arts, are definitely taboo – or thought to be so – in another sense. Nobody has the right to judge them in other than superficially aesthetic terms who does not know the world they came from, their position and function in the milieu which gave birth to them. Naturally, everybody has the right to love, to derive pleasure from, an African mask, to establish a personal relationship to it as a work of art without any knowledge of its background, its significance, its creator – naturally, it is valid to do so just as it is valid to love an Egyptian statue without knowledge of ancient Egyptian culture or a Giotto without acquaintance with the early Renaissance. But who, except the ignorant, would dare to judge such work without study, to approach it without awareness of his own limitations? There are people who are convinced of the autonomy of a work of art without ever questioning, though, that comprehension of Giotto's or Cézanne's genius is enhanced by knowledge of their times and antecedents, or that knowledge of the Gothic cathedral and philosophy contributes to the necessity or even validity of studying the background and significance of primitive arts. Such people may say, what difference whether the wide-eyed Dan mask is the unique creation of a great master or one of many like expressions of a traditional, regional style? Or, what good is it to inquire into the apparent absence of formal relations between painted décor and sculptural form of the large New Ireland mask? What difference whether one knows what native concepts, what philosophies, lie hidden behind the labels "fetish," "ancestor," "totem," "ceremonial" – as long as the object is beautiful or moving, inspiring, exciting, aesthetically satisfying to us?

The study of primitive arts is still in its infancy – no matter how much has been written about them. Our knowledge of inter-relations between artistic form and its native cultural or physical environment and its intended function is fragmentary. High obstacles keep us from fully sharing the primitive artist's experience. Only the concerted work of art historian and anthropologist, archaeologist and specialists in other disciplines, may bring some answers to the staggering number of open questions.

Most generalizations made about Primitive Arts as an entity are meaningless: one learns now to treat them in specific terms, no longer as one blurred, hazy specter. Their individuality must be known before one can begin to generalize. Equally important, aesthetic enjoyment is curtailed if one fails to perceive them in their limitless range of visual arts.

Many peoples worked primarily in media which did not last in the climate of their country. For example, most of the known African Negro, Melanesian, Northwest Coast American Indian sculptures in wood were probably made sometime during the last 100 or 150 years. One can analyze and classify these pieces and their styles, but without learning what such people created in earlier times.

Few are the primitive cultures whose arts can be seen in continuous historical sequence. The pottery styles of the Pueblo Indians of Arizona and New Mexico can be traced from their beginnings, thirteen or fourteen centuries ago, into our times. But pottery is only one of their many arts. They painted murals, engraved cliff walls, carved in wood, constructed masks of painted hide resembling the heads of their wooden dolls; they laid out designs in dry, powdered pigments, embellished textiles and baskets, made jewelry, carved small figures in shell and stone. What do we know of the aesthetic evolution of all these art forms?

Many works of art frequently classed as primitive are products of cultures which no longer exist, such as those of pre-Hispanic Mexico or Peru, or Ice Age Europe. In general, only a fraction of their arts in time-resisting materials like stone or pottery survived, excepting, for example, in some areas of Peru. Only the archaeologist and art historian can together shed light on such arts of the past, and in many areas scientific excavations have just begun. The pre-Columbian arts of Mexico and the Andean countries are now often treated as distinct from primitive arts. This might be valid were all Pre-Columbian arts the products of civilizations as complex as those of the theocracies of Mexico or the Inca Empire of Peru. But many were not. Which are, which are not "primitive"? Where draw the line? This dilemma illuminates some reasons that make it desirable to see the arts of each culture in their own right.

Few people interested in primitive arts ever studied them in the countries of their origin. Most students have to rely on objects that have found their way into European and American collections. Collecting was obviously restricted by the physical properties of the works of primitive arts, be it their size and weight or their inherently ephemeral nature. This often makes it difficult to get an idea of the variety of different kinds of artistic expressions, even in recent cultures. There is, for example, no book on African Negro painting, architecture or ceramic arts. So it happens, too, that one looks at sculpture like the carved New Guinea beam as an object by itself, instead of as an integral part of a splendidly painted house-front, fifty to sixty feet high; or at the Tlingit painting, the Maori or New Caledonian sculptures in this show without being able to visualize them as parts of buildings, and as organically related to other sculptures and painting. Their isolation might create new values, but it might inhibit comprehension of their form.

It is a disastrous fact that so many of the first people to come into contact with these arts at their source were not trained in modern techniques of collecting information because, by now, most primitive arts are a matter of the past. They were so intimately linked to all aspects of primitive life that they started to disintegrate as soon as intimate contact with European or Islamic cultures began to undermine their foundations in social and religious life. We would have answers to so many tantalizing questions had they been asked by people who saw these cultures when they were still intact. Instead, we are so often left with records of the pageantry of ceremonialism rather than with studies of the significance of the rites observed; masks and statues used may be described, but data as to their meaning to the community in terms of philosophy or aesthetics are usually wanting, and so is information about the personality of the artist.

We know the people who made and used the pieces in this show were human beings like ourselves, with a mind and logic like ours, with aesthetic sensitivity like ours. Their institutions and philosophies, standards and values frequently differed from ours and from one another as much as their art forms and styles. However, dissimilar cultures may have similar art forms, while resemblances between artistic forms do not imply they grew out of cultures that were alike.

The motives which channeled their arts, their attitudes toward the completed work were often very alien to ours. In certain areas, for instance, the act of creating a sculpture or a painting was a sacred ritual; the finished product, though, as if a fleeting dance, lost all value after it had played its brief role in a rite.

Why then did all these peoples create art or, better, objects we call art? For the same ultimate reason which compelled man 100,000 years ago to make his stone tools beautiful beyond functional requirements. For the same reason which drove the Arunta of Australia to organize their symbols into a design; conceivably, an unorganized scribble could have served their purpose just as well. For the same reason which lies at the root of all art – one of the unknown quantities which makes us human, which makes art timeless and universal, primitive or not.

(Text by Ralph C. Altman from the exhibition catalogue)

Installation views of CAMH exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, <em>Totems Not Taboo</em>, 2/26/1959- 3/29/1959. Photo: Maurice Miller, Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Archive

Installation views of CAMH exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, <em>Totems Not Taboo</em>, 2/26/1959- 3/29/1959. Photo: Maurice Miller, Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Archive

Installation views of CAMH exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, <em>Totems Not Taboo</em>, 2/26/1959- 3/29/1959. Photo: Maurice Miller, Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Archive

Installation views of CAMH exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, <em>Totems Not Taboo</em>, 2/26/1959- 3/29/1959. Photo: Maurice Miller, Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Archive

Installation views of CAMH exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, <em>Totems Not Taboo</em>, 2/26/1959- 3/29/1959. Photo: Maurice Miller, Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Archive

Installation views of CAMH exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, <em>Totems Not Taboo</em>, 2/26/1959- 3/29/1959. Photo: Maurice Miller, Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Archive

Installation views of CAMH exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, <em>Totems Not Taboo</em>, 2/26/1959- 3/29/1959. Photo: Maurice Miller, Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Archive

Installation views of CAMH exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, <em>Totems Not Taboo</em>, 2/26/1959- 3/29/1959. Photo: Maurice Miller, Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Archive

Correspondence and clippings, <em>Totems Not Taboo</em>, 2/26/1959-3/29/1959. Museum Of Fine Arts, Houston Archives. RG05:01 Registrar’s Records, Exhibition Files.

Correspondence and clippings, <em>Totems Not Taboo</em>, 2/26/1959-3/29/1959. Museum Of Fine Arts, Houston Archives. RG05:01 Registrar’s Records, Exhibition Files.