Northwest Coast Museum: Travel Reflections

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Northwest Museums
In James Clifford’s essay, “Four Northwest Coast Museum: Travel Reflections,” the appearance of tribal art and artifacts, some grouped with modern art, in several museum galleries comes under fire. He very critically addresses such museum’s attempts to classify and reclassify primitive art and modern art into one by pointing out only vague similarities. Clifford also highly objects to one museum’s, the Museum of Modern Art, use of the word ‘affinity’ in a gallery held in 1984 entitled, “Primitivism in 20th Century Art.” The driving force behind this essay is that the status of tribal artifacts has been forced to shift and deviate from their original classification as remnants of an ancient past with anthropological definitions, to those with more modern, aesthetic definitions. The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) exasperated Clifford on numerous levels. Their 1984 gallery, “Primitivism in 20th Century Art,” coupled so-called tribal artifacts with modern works in order to show a correlation between the two. In particular, the affinity was used, meaning a “deeper or more natural relationship than mere resemblance or juxtaposition.” Perhaps we should speak not of the ethnographic object but of the ethnographic fragment. Like the ruin, the ethnographic fragment is informed by a poetics of detachment. Detachment refers not only to the physical act of producing fragments, but also to the detached attitude that makes that fragmentation and its appreciation possible. Lovers of ruins in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England understood the distinctive pleasure afforded by architectural fragments, once enough time had passed for a detached attitude to form. Antiquarian John Aubrey valued the ruin as much as he did the earlier intact structure. Ruins inspired the feelings of melancholy and wonder associated with the sublime. They stimulated the viewer to imagine the building in its former pristine state. They offered the pleasure of longing for the...
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