In some ways, art historian, critic, teacher, translator, and studier of Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, and classical philosophy Thomas McEvilley started multiculturalism as we know it in the art world. In 1984, MoMA organized “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern. In a series of brilliantly reasoned scathing letters to the editor of Artforum, McEvilley blasted MoMA, all museums of modern art, and the entire art-historical infrastructure as it then existed. His claim, which was then correct, was that European and American art history was using third world art and artists as footnotes to Western art history without recognizing the primacy of these formal cultures. Asian and African works were rarely not seen in lower hierarchical position to western art — which played the role of masterpiece and genius to tribal art’s perpetual role as influence or antecedent. McEvilley’s role as spokesperson was elevated to general in the war on cultural imperialism when, to everyone’s surprise, the show’s curators answered back in Artforum. For a few issues the art world watched and read a war of words take place.
The establishment was being intellectually challenged by an upstart rebel leader. In those letters in Artforum, it was like the walls were crumbling. In a way, the crucial thing was really just watching this battle play itself out in public and to feel like “our side” was winning. It was like McEvilley was Bob Marley. I have a memory of yelping in glee at McEvilley writing about the curators as “bears coming out of the woods.” Within a few years, there ensued numerous investigations of indigenous cultures and of contemporary African, Indian, Southeast Asian, Latin American, and Native American art and other excluded traditions. Along with the various liberation movements, multiculturalism was one of the biggest blasts of fresh thinking of the last half of the twentieth century.
That wasn’t all. McEvilley was also a major player in post-modernist art history and a great voice in the old “painting is dead” debate. He loved painting but also saw why it could be said to be dead. If you want to read about monochrome painting, he’s your man (“Seeking the
Primal Through Paint”). One of my favorite of his essays is “On the Manner of Addressing Clouds,” in his book Art & Discontent: Theory at
the Millennium. Here, McEvilley radiantly deconstructs layers and layers of deep content in the all-white paintings of Robert Ryman. I never met McEvilley. Until 2006. Sheepish about having no degrees and wanting to learn more, I wrote to ask him if I could sit in on his lectures at the School of Visual Arts, where I also taught. He agreed. I went for two years. About twelve students sat enrapt around a large boardroom table and he’d hold forth. In my three notebooks full of class notes, which I have since kept at the ready on the shelf in front of my desk, I now see that he covered how God’s commandment not to make any “graven images” relates to modern art; monotheism and iconoclasm; the burning of the Library at Alexandria; Plato echoing God in saying that representation misleads; lots about Kant that I never understood; Hegel which I somehow did; Marx; perspective on
Greek pots; the cruelty of conquistadors; and Paleolithic art. I never spoke once in any of those classes. All I did was take notes madly,
always feeling like a freshman getting the education of a lifetime from a very sage old soul.