The Four Non-Western Aliens

“A story we might call “Art History”—is still relevant, especially if it becomes apparent that art as a category can only be defined within this story. Instead of being perceived as the story, Art History should become a story. Similarly, the work of art should be treated as an artifact, as a product of a certain kind of Western culture rooted in the Enlightenment and shaped by Romanticism.” — Walter Benjamin

In 1936, The Museum of Modern Art in New York City boasted the beginning of Modern Art by showing one of the most historically valuable pieces that became and is still used as one of the most important educational pieces in the history of Modern Art, a poster titled “Cubism and Abstract Art”. The main purpose of this diagram poster is to show the invention of Abstract art and it’s starting point from European neo-impressionism and Paul Cézanne. Designed by the first American director of MoMA Alfred Barr, The poster has not only treated as a tool of advertising but it treated also as a piece of art itself. It exhibited inside the space of the exhibition. In other words, the poster has also used for reproduction the original piece by Barr, assuming the importance of the idea of “his invention”. the diagram was made with two colors black and red. It illustrates the history of modern and avant garde art from 1890 to 1935, one year before the exhibition.

Black typeface shows the western art movements that culminated the invention of Abstract art. The four non-western Influences marked in red include Japanese prints (1890), Near-Eastern Art (1903), Negro Sculpture (1905), and the Machine Esthetic (1909). The red typeface against the isms of the western art movements shows the non-western alien. An alien influence can’t be considered a movement or even art in its full western meaning. While its not containing the western secret recipe as what Greenberg would say. It’s important to mention that all these descriptions are based on western values that decide the exact value of each artistic gesture.

According to Barr’s poster, Near-eastern art (in relation to Europe) registered in 1903. This year given on Barr’s poster illustrate only the year when this alien influence is registered in history. The history that narrated by the western artist eye when he decided to use one of the otherness objects in his piece. This action is discovered and gets its value from the western artist eye during his journey to the orient.

Such a similarity to the direct example Picasso’s process of using primitive african masks in his art. it destroyed the important symbolic power of the objects and the role they played in their social contexts, this appearance of the otherness could help to fill a historical hole and to grow a dialectical presentation. According to E. Said “Case of orientalism in the American case is more abstract.” Orientalism never been hidden. On the contrary, it was treated as the same as the most highly refined western objects.

In other words, Barr’s process of making this diagram poster could be defined and explored by the western artist when he took the journey looking for a tool to be used as an inner in his product. To make an “invention” that later lead him to have a movement or new ism. This is the lineage of such movements as the great Cubism and/or the great Abstract Art inventions. The idea of mentioning these influences is not only to show the west as the inventor; but they also exist only in the context of the west, Inside Barr’s poster frame, giving a graphical balance to his two colors design.

This poster provided us with a western curriculum to understand Modern art; It fills few gaps in the art history by Barr’s eye and perspective. But why should I understand and learn about “Near-Eastern art” and “Negro sculpture” only to understand Expressionism, cubism or any of the other art isms? why should I understand and learn about Japanese culture only to understand the American pioneer John Cage and his “influences” by Buddhism? Just as another western product to boast about. Such a curriculum that decided the narrative of art history and the exact “otherness” that should be mentioned.

“We all know that textbooks express the point of view of those who write and publish the books”. I’m not only interested in Art History, but also in its Curriculum ; the way we retell the story of Art History, Is teaching art history is site specific? I mean how we could understand each region’s art story instead of only building a curriculum that reflects specific regions that becoming later the locations of the story.

Barr could celebrate the invention of Abstract art in 1936 while it existed already a hundred years before by otherness such as abstraction art in both the Indian and Islamic art “Near and Far-Eastern”. Such a generalization necessarily depends upon ignorance of the non-western art that obeys the prevention against representation in art. An argument for the uniqueness of modern abstraction dismisses Islamic and Indian Abstract art as “decorative.” How did Orientalism shape the past? If I say “did”, does that mean it doesn't shape the present?

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