Sunday, June 21, 2009


In 1912, Alexander Shevancho, a painter and member of the Russian avant-garde, wrote an essay on “Neo-Primitivism” in which a singe line sums up the legacy of Western Modernerity - that, “Ideas are not born but reborn, and so everything that is normal is successive and develops from preceding forms”. This idea not only sheds light on the legacy of Modern Art but also the process in which ideas are recycled and built upon.

The “primitive” impulse in painting around the turn of the 20th century can be linked to other reactionary movements like Art Nouveau which attempted to counter the mechanization of life because of the Industrial Revolution. Primitivist painters favored an expressive inner-response unadulterated by the restrictions of formal academic representation or enlightened spiritualism advocated by the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. They saw in primitive technique a way to make painting more authentic by refuting the futile optical effects and pictorial structures so prominent in such work - think stylistically of Impressionism, Divisionalism and Fauvism.

The idea that the so called “primitive” approach can bring back a certain amount of naturalism, a closer relationship to the individual and their realities, reaches far beyond the limited scope of early 20th century European painting. The same sense of getting back in touch with reality is an important element in facing the ecological concerns we have to deal with today. The disjunction between what people need to survive and the means of obtaining those needs is a more pressing, practical application of these thoughts.

In the second half of the 20th century, after WWII, our country switched from industry to consumption. Top-down powers structures became stronger. We outsourced much of our factories and in the 1960’s let people like Robert Moses build highway projects that decentralized our cities. Today, even the privatization of water seems possible. (It has already happened in Bolivia, where it was illegal, for a time, to collect rainwater).

The relationship we now have to the food we eat comes from the same post-WWII development. War propaganda techniques were quickly adapted to consumer marketing schemes. Ruthless mass-profit capitalism reigned. Consequently, it has become normal to know little about where food comes from. It is normal to know nothing of how it is produced and what exactly is in it. We have another failing relationship between production and consumption and the failure of consumers to see this seems normal as well.

What I liked most about Participation Park is that it counters the displacement of the means of production and control. It reclaims unused space and localized a community food space. The project is evidence of a self-sustainable lifestyle bringing the production of food back to the individual. It intends to create a community space and helps revitalize a portion of East Baltimore without top-down politics.

As ideas grow and develop upon one another in any system there is always a point at which operation fails because the basic necessities which keep the system working become lost. For the Neo-Primitivists the failure in the progression of modern painting was a lacking relationship between naturalistic artistic expression and overly intellectualized technique. Today, we are seeing the potential failure of certain systems we have come to rely on due to marketing, privatization, government …etc. We will either have to take back the means of production or we will be forced to when the systems that govern our accessibility fail - we have to sidestep stagnating ideology and do what actually works.

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