How creative people see the world today and the respect we give to other cultures was profoundly changed by the act of a very brilliant if unassuming man. The world of art lost a champion and an intellectual heavyweight fighter who won through the power of words, with the passing of Thomas McEvilley on March 2, 2013. McEvilley, an art critic and author was founder of the M.F.A. criticism and art writing program at the School of Visual Arts in NYC. The New York Times wrote, “In the lingering wake of 1960’s formalist thinking dominated by Clement Greenberg and Minimalism, Mr. McEvilley was a crucial alternative voice. He demonstrated that abstraction was not a European invention, pointing to non-western abstraction art from Hindu Tantric painting to African masks to Islamic tile work.”
On September 27, 1984; the Museum of Modern Art opened one of the most ambitious exhibitions of its time, “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern” to positive reviews by the media. People Magazine headline exclaimed, “In a Magical Manhattan Exhibit, MOMA Curator William Rubin Brings Primitivism Right Up to Date.” Clearly, this was an all-star cast of curators, venue and sponsors with Picasso’s work headlining the show. William Rubin, the Director of Department of Painting and Sculpture collaborated with then Professor Kirk Varnedoe of the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University as the show’s curators. Corporate sponsorship came from Phillip Morris Inc and public support from the National Endowment for the Arts.
The exhibition however, sparked a spectacular philosophical battle of words between the show’s curators and McEvilley in a series of exchanges in Artforum magazine. McEvilley took on not only the show and its curators but MOMA itself and its Euro-centric bias towards Modernism and delivered a one-sided knock-out punch that forever changed how we understand the origins of contemporary art and abstract ideas. Critic, Jerry Salz in his column on Vulture.com wrote, “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 Europeans 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.”
McEvilley’s enlightenment gave us a preview of a new America we live in today, where multi-culturalism has become a part of our social and political life, challenging all sides to be more ethnically and philosophically aware. His strong alternative voice gave respect and truth to ideas that had been suppressed by a Western elitism camouflaged in our education and social practices, affecting all aspects of society.
McEvilley’s life-work is a reminder to all of us who work in creative fields such as advertising, communications and design, that it is our job to see the world with greater cultural empathy and deeper understanding. It is our responsibility to grow our experiences and skills to better relate and communicate with a broader audience and consumers. It is our job to question.
As globalism continues to spread its wings, as brands earn new status with their international impact and cultural influence; we as creative professionals who help to position these companies must develop better skills in being able to place ideas in the proper cultural context. As creatives, we must stop judging the world through our own narrow lens and better understand how other cultures live, work and perceive the world.
Thomas McEvilley studied Greek, Latin and Sanskrit, he taught courses in Greek and South Asian culture, as well history of religion and philosophy.
He was well-prepared for the world we live in now, a global society connected by technology and creative ideas. He offered us insight into the importance of real human connection and personal experiences. In an age where having instant information is often confused with real knowledge, the power of creativity rests in our ability to develop ideas with cultural understanding learned from life rather than search engines.
One of the important skills of any creative person is the development of cultural empathy, to create with a sense of openness and responsibility. More than ever, it is important for creative people to be curious and connected to those forces that influence the world. It is critical to think and live outside of our professional cliques and social comfort zones.
Thomas McEvilley’s life changed the art world and beyond. By debunking cultural and academic elitism, he prepared us for a more networked world. He made us more enlightened as creative people, he gave us a bigger lens to see our world. More than ever, we need to encourage alternative voices such as his, in order to keep us all honest.
Thank you, Thomas McEvilley for helping us to be truly modern.
— John C Jay
Books by Thomas McEvilley:
“Art and Otherness: Crisis in Cultural Identity” (1992)
“Art and Discontent: Theory at the Millennium” (1991)
“The Triumph of Anti-Art: Conceptual and Performance Art in the Formation of Post-Modernism” (2005)