reinvented the idol of origins. They dreamed of their Primitive
as someone standing apart from science and reality by curiously
rediscovering the paths of history. As early as the 1920s, they
were among the first to revolt against the serfage of non-Western
peoples, and they did so not by calling, in the name of fine sentiments,
for some moderation in the ways these peoples were being subjugated
but by calling for a radical condemnation of the very conditions
The history of
art retains especially André Breton’s passion for
Eskimo, Indian, and South Sea masks and for the dolls of the Hopi
Indians of Arizona, of which he kept some beautiful specimens.
He did so because he admired their expressive and poetic value,
the very same value he sought everywhere else as so many signs
of life in a modern world whose disenchantment he tirelessly denounced.
For, the basic
problem was less the other than one’s own self, caught in
the nets of a Western world whose alienation and decay were being
heralded by its poets. Antimodern, yet at the very heart of modernity,
the Surrealists opened the way toward the kinds of reflections
art history is taking note of today.
Aby Warburg, Jean
Laude, and a few others have spoken of the indispensable contributions
of anthropology and ethnology and of how unstable were the status
of the artist and of the art work and, necessarily along with
them, the criteria of uniqueness, originality, and superiority.
At a time when the new Quai Branly Museum is looking like Pandora’s
Box while inviting comparison with other countries and other ways
of presenting collections, the remarkable studies by Nélia
Dias, Sophie Leclercq, and Maureen Murphy reopen the file on a
More broadly speaking,
we can say that it is discontent with civilization itself that
was at issue here. Michel Leiris had noted the coexistence of
such discontent with a culture in which everything seemed to have
been said already because a certain level of technological development
had been achieved but in which that development had been rendered
possible only by stifling certain aspirations for the infinite.