Demonization : Nathaniel Berman

V. The Aesthetics of Demonization

In thinking about the genealogy of our contemporary discourse of demonization, I have been looking for a cultural pattern that: 1) confronts the terrors of alterity without trying to “get behind” them; 2) refuses to collapse difference into sameness; and certainly 3) declines to congratulate itself for its triumphant rationalism. So I return again to the early twentieth century, now not to its rationalist side, the side of Freud the man of science, but to a particular strand in cultural modernism, that in which primitivist fears and fantasies played a crucial role in the revolutionary transformation of European high culture in domains ranging from visual arts, architecture, and music to political theory, economics, and psychology. The crucial role of primitivism in modernism is, of course, an oft-told tale which I will not rehearse here.35 Let the example of modernist visual artists suffice: drawing on their images of the ferocious, destabilizing “primitive” to batter representational norms and open up Western art to unprecedented formal exploration. This dynamic yielded many paradoxical juxtapositions, one form of which is encapsulated in the observation that “the alliance of primitivism and abstraction is one of the most copiously documented facts of the period.”36

Nowhere is this “alliance” more patently visible than in what is perhaps the most famous modernist art-work, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” perceived by its contemporaries as “insane,” even “monstrous.”37 Both Picasso’s deployment of the “primitive” and the recoil of his contemporaries from it participates in a matrix of European fears and fantasies about the non-European Other – a matrix which may be aptly described as constituted by the dialectics of demonization.

Here’s Picasso on his notorious first encounter with his “African” masks, or, more precisely, with his image of masks brought from colonized Africa to Paris:

The masks weren’t just like any other pieces of sculpture. Not at all. They were magic things . . . They were against everything – against unknown spirits, threatening spirits . . . I understood; I too am against everything . . . they all served the same purpose. They were arms. To help people no longer be subject to the spirits . . . If we give form to the spirits, we become independent. Spirits, the unconscious . . . emotion – they’re all the same thing. I understood why I was a painter . . . Les Demoiselles d’Avignon must have come to me that very day . . . because it was my first exorcism-painting – yes!38

This outburst of Picasso – one might well say to him, “Pablo, you’re demonizing!” – deserves to be studied for all that it reveals of modernist primitivism. The outburst is thoroughly ambivalent, even in all its exuberance and irony: the primitive masks are arms against the spirits, but they also give form to the spirits – the demonic adversary as the impulsion to creativity, but also as the form of creativity. The demonic as the necessary enemy, but also as the mask of the artist himself. The inaugural work of modernist art as an “exorcism” that draws its vitality from all it exorcises, “spirits, the unconscious, emotion” – a crucial clue to the vast resurgence of the demonic in twentieth century art and literature.

In fact, Picasso claimed that this is what differentiated him from Braque – what drove him on to continually re-create himself, to ceaselessly adopt and discard styles, while Braque remained a steadfast, even plodding, explorer of Cubism. Picasso on Braque: “Exorcisms didn’t interest him … he was always at home … he doesn’t understand these things. He’s not superstitious! … He doesn’t understand life.”39 To understand life is to be superstitious, to be in relation to the spirits, to the unconscious – not to stay “at home,” but to tarry with the Other Side.

Picasso’s outburst brings together many of the themes I have been discussing throughout: the discursive and libidinal ambivalence of the demonic, the relationship to the aesthetic, the location of the demonic in contexts of power. The latter can be identified here in the massive colonial conquest and expropriation without which the masks would not have physically arrived in Paris – nor would they have appeared charged with that ferocious, vitalizing, threatening energy so valorized by Picasso and repellent to his adversaries. At a more personal level, a context of power may be identified in the use that Picasso made of the demonization of the “primitive” by others, as a weapon in his combat to create a new art. The perception of the powerful, demonic nature of the “monstrous” aesthetic that Picasso (among others) introduced into European art gave him a mark of distinction, in an ultimately successful bid for personal superiority over his artistic peers.

Politically, modernist primitivism was as ambivalent as it was aesthetically and libidinally. Patricia Leighten, among others, has shown in complex detail the ways primitivism played a significant role in driving the anti-colonialism of the left-wing European avant-garde.40 This could take a number of quite different forms – at times, through proclamations that it was the colonialists who were the “real primitives” due to their brutality; at other times, on the contrary, through valorizing the fantasized, primitive vitality of colonized peoples against the ossified, dead cultures of Europe. Left-wing modernists participated in, though often transformed and revalorized, the prevalent images of colonized peoples, but their ferocious fantasies about the non-European other often brought them into the streets in solidarity with their revolts.41

There was, to be sure, much irony in many modernists’ relationship to the demonic. Picasso himself was known for both affirmations and denials of his relation to primitivism. His embrace of “exorcism” and “superstition” must be read with notes of irony, situated on that ambiguous border between the world of “spirits” and the disenchanted world, between the sacred and the secular. Like Sartre, though in different ways, Picasso plays ironically with the ambiguities and indeterminacies of that border, and, like Sartre, he sometimes seems not entirely in control of that irony.

But irony was not the only tone with which the demonic was broached by modernists. It may be high time, in fact, to get serious, to directly face the demon that has walked with us throughout this journey, that of theology.

35. The literature on modernist primitivism is vast. For an early example, see Robert Goldwater, Primitivism in Modern Art (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1938). My own work has situated modernist primitivism as key to the post-World War I transformation of international law. See, e.g., my ‘Modernism, Nationalism, and the Rhetoric of Reconstruction’, Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities, 4 (1992), 351–380.

36. J.C. Middleton, ‘The Rise of Primitivism and Its Relevance to the Poetry of Expressionism and Dada’, in The Discontinuous Tradition, (ed.) P.F. Ganz (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), 194.

37. Daniel Henry Kahnweiler, Mes Galéries et mes peintres (Paris: Gallimard, 1961), 55-56.

38. André Malraux, La Tête d’Obsidiene (Paris : Gallimard 1974), 18-19.

39. André Malraux, La Tête d’Obsidiene, 19.

40. Patricia Leighten, ‘The White Peril and L’Art nègre: Picasso, Primitivism, and Anticolonialism’, Art Bulletin, 72 (1990), 609-630.

41. See, e.g., my essay, ‘“The Appeals of the Orient”: Colonized Desire and the War of the Riff’, in Karen Knop (ed.), Gender and Human Rights (Oxford University Press; 2004), 195-230.

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