PARIS -- At the Louvre, you could always peruse galleries of Old Master paintings. You could pause on the grand marble staircase crowned by the Winged Victory of Samothrace, or join the crowd in front of the Mona Lisa.
Now, for the first time, you can also view masterworks of African art. A 15th-century bronze sculpture from the ancient kingdom of Benin, for example, or a 19th-century wooden mask of the Baga people.
They are part of a new exhibition of more than 100 objects from Africa, Asia, the Americas and Oceania -- an exhibition that marks the first long-term display of what, in this bastion of Western Art, has been referred to as "primitive art." And it's causing a stir.
Some have criticized the exhibit for being merely a political maneuver; others are skeptical that it truly will help the public understand African art. What's interesting is that the controversy highlights the ambivalence with which the art world regards African and other non-Western art forms.
"In most of our museums, African art rests uneasily beside Western art," says Fred Lamp, chief curator of the art of Africa, Asia, the Americas & Oceania at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
"The art of Africa and other non-Western areas needs to be explained in many cases. And art museums always have been -- even up to the present -- somewhat uncomfortable with providing context for the art that they display. There is always some feeling that if the art can't stand on its own, without interpretation, then it isn't art."
The phrase "primitive art" illustrates the peculiarities of the debate. A century or so ago, the term was used to describe African art, Oceanic art (from the Pacific islands), some Asian art, Native American art -- sometimes but not always including pre-Colombian art. The term "non-Western art" might make a better fit, but then, says Lamp, "you are defining things by what they are not."
The right descriptive word has not been invented yet -- and probably for good reason: It is very arbitrary. The phrase "primitive art" just happens to have grown out of a period when England and France and other countries just sort of vacuumed up the rest of the world.
"So the rest of the world then came to be known as primitive," says Lamp. "But these categories of art don't really belong together for any other reason."
The Louvre exhibit begins with an Egyptian stone sculpture from the 4th or 5th century B.C. Elegant in its simplicity, the male figure is made of smooth dark stone and sports a beard, symbol of wisdom and authority. Nearby, there is a sculpted clay-and-wood receptacle from the central Ivory Coast that was used to divine the future: a wizened soothsayer, a look of deep contemplation on his terra-cotta face, leans against a rough clay pot set on a wooden base.
To view the future, one filled the pot's hollow lid with rice stalks, then placed a hungry mouse inside the vessel and covered it. Later, the stalks that had been scattered by the mouse as it foraged could be read like tea leaves.
A third object is both spoon and woman. It is made of highly polished wood and its long handle gradually arches and becomes two thighs, rounded hips, breasts and slightly curving neck. The bowl of the spoon forms its head. Made by an artist who lived in the Kwazulu-Natal region of South Africa during the late 19th century, it embodies function and beauty; delicacy and fecundity. Little wall text accompanies the objects.
"The exhibit is beautiful, but the designers at the Louvre clearly were not interested in helping non-African viewers to understand the African culture," says Peter Mark, a professor of art history at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.
The exhibition at the Louvre came about at the insistence of French President Jacques Chirac. The president five years ago announced that works from Africa, Asia and Oceania should be permanently on display at the Louvre.
Some curators immediately argued that the Louvre was not a universal museum and that the works would be better off in places dedicated solely to special collections. They argued that "primitive art" could never be "fine art"; that, in effect, the criteria for what belonged in the Louvre -- generally Old World antiquities and Western art from the Middle Ages to 1840--- should remain frozen. Still other curators worried that African art housed in such a large, general museum might get short shrift.
Adding to the controversy are plans (also spearheaded by Chirac) to open in 2004 a new, $190 million museum on the Seine dedicated solely to this art. The museum, to be called Musee du Quai Branly, will absorb the collections now housed in two older French museums: the Museum of Man and the Museum of African and Oceanic Art. The objects at the exhibition, which are on loan from museums throughout France, would remain at the Louvre.
"One concern is that if two existing museums are going to be folded into one, will there be more exhibition space? Will there be more art on exhibition?" says Mark, who is writing about the Louvre exhibit for the journal African Arts.
"The Musee de L'Homme (Museum of Man) has 250,000 to 300,000 objects alone. It is, in itself, a historical monument to a moment in time when French Colonialism was at its height. Closing it would be obliterating a bit of French historical memory."
For decades, the art of Africa was ignored or snubbed by the Western art world. The Musee de L'Homme, for example, was founded in the late 19th century to promote understanding of the cultures that were part of the French Imperial empire.
"In the 19th century, there was an ascendancy of an attitude that might be called social Darwinism. Of course, it placed European society at the top," says Mark. "African material culture was seen as proof of various stereotypes that viewed African culture as primitive."
Attitudes began to change in the early 1900s, due in part to artists such as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, who looked to African art for inspiration. "It is an oversimplification, but one can say, 'Look at Picasso's "Les Desmoiselles d'Avignon" as an example of the artists who begin to draw inspiration from African art,' " Mark says. "The artists were busy tearing down the norms of academic art."
Today, installations of African art usually fall into two categories: aesthetic and ethnographic. The first approach treats each object as a pristine work of art, capable of being appreciated with no explanation or context, Mark says. The second places the object in context so that it can be appreciated as part of a larger culture.
The Baltimore Museum of Art, which began collecting African art seriously in the 1950s, now has about 2,000 objects in its holdings including masks and wooden shrine figures from west and central Africa. Its installation was curated by Lamp about 20 years ago.
Though no time frame has been set, the curator says, the BMA plans to reinstall all its non-Western collections with an emphasis on Africa. When the reinstallation occurs, "I'd like to contextualize the objects in the sense of presenting the African art form in its entirety as much as possible."
His goal is to create an installation in which each object is viewed as an individual work of art, but also is given artistic context. A mask, for example, can be beautiful when viewed on its own, he says. But masks, like many African objects, frequently are created as part of a ceremony or ritual: the dancing, the music, the theatrical setting, the person wearing the mask and the people watching the ceremony all are elements of the artwork.
""What we have now in the museum is not the entire art form. We have one fragment of the form," Lamp says. "This is an art museum so I don't think we have to do what an anthropological museum would do: to try to represent the social context or even the cultural context. I would just like to represent the entire artistic context."