Awkwardology (TM)


When creating new art terminology it is bound to cause controversy and its useage/meaning will not be
suitable for all, however if the word can illuminate art that all has similar affinities and influences
(ancestry) then its use shall be determined over time. This new expression is Awkwardology and in its
shortened form is the theory of an awkward society, which for our purposes shall include various fine art
movements and artists.

We live in an awkward world where awkward is normal, this will be explained in detail, however it should
be noted that awkwardness has been around since the beginning of man, thus our acknowledgement of
it should not be shocking. Awkwardology shall place both primitive art and some 20th century art
movements into a new historical revisionist context to help demystify the myriad art forms into a unifying
outlook. The etymology of the word awkward helps to explain its liberated use; from (Middle English)
backhanded, wrong, turn the wrong way round, in other words something is strangely rearranged.

At this point there should also be a distinction & clarification between awkward, odd and eccentric, using
the dynamic of actor, observer awareness as a primary variable. One, who is awkward lacks tact, grace,
in skill in manner, can be clumsily in movement, performance and now art. The person knows (ahead of
time) that their actions are awkward and so do others. Lacking graceful moments on the dance floor both
knew they were awkward dance partners due to their lack of skill.
Odd is deviating from what is ordinary, usual, or expected; strange or peculiar, the person knows that
their behavior is odd and so do others. The actor and spectator are more equally aware. One goes
everyday to get a specialty coffee and then misses going for one day, the next time they go back to get
their coffee the clerk says that it was odd that you did not show up yesterday.
A person who is eccentric deviates from “normal” forms of behavior especially in a bizarre manner, but
not necessarily with a specific intent or awareness, the person might not seem to know that they are
eccentric but the observer is keenly aware. Wearing brick painted pants and a necklace made of beach
glass is considered eccentric.


As William Rubin has written the seminal book & exhibition Primitivism in 20th Century Art,(1) “During the
last two decades, the words Primitive and Primitivism have been criticized by some commentators as
ethnocentric, and pejorative, but no other generic term proposed as a replacement for “primitive’ has
been found acceptable to such critics, none has even been proposed for ‘Primitivism’. Awkwardology
fills the rhetorical void of the primitive essence of 20th century modern art. Tribal/primitive art’s
nomenclature has not been solves, this is where Awkwardology steps in to answer the need for a
collective term for this type of art.

Primitivism is the core ingredient for most 20th century modern art. The struggle of 20th century modern
art is similar to Einstein’s unifying theory of everything, as something that fully explains and links
together all known physical phenomena. All the simultaneous facets that contribute to the different art
movements of the 20th century have awkward origins, especially if they have affinities and influences
from primitivism. However, it is in my view better to modify this term to pure primitivism, since it’s a
better word to explain and distinguish primitivism as opposed to 20th century modern art integration of
“subjective primitivism” use in their own creative art, i.e. Fauvism, Cubism, Surrealism, Abstract
Expressionism and Outsider art.

Pure Primitivism as Colin Rhodes (2) has noted uses “amateurish draughtsmanship, crude construction,
plus they resemble children’s drawings in their flatness and crude technique.” What does one expect
the tools that were used by these Primitive artists were made of stone, bone or shell, not very well
designed for easy or effective use and this contributed to crude construction, they were unskilled
instruments which is why it takes so much mechanical skill involved to produce refined works.

Does this not imply an awkwardness not only in creative terms as fundamental primitivism in modern art
is predominantly about making the familiar strange, this echoes elements in their society, too, as their
lifestyles mimic their awkward culture? The ritual performances made their lives more meaningful, the
tribal cultural aspects at least from out rational perspective show the awkwardological aspects of their
primitive awkward society. Or, was their culture considered perpetually awkward?
Thus, early primitive society was an awkward society, an Awkwardology of their existence. Primitive
signifies less civilized, a simpler and less sophisticated society, at one time primitive meant savage as in
the “noble savage,” they are child-like, naive and spontaneous in their view of the world as opposed to
the encumbrance of 20th century rationality.

Primitive society, therefore, had inelegant components and the ritual performances of African or
Oceanic cultures at least to our revisionary method of interpreting the ceremonial use of masks and
costumes, these have myth, ritual or survival meanings (such as the beginning of the planting season).
Pure primitive modes of thought were not elemental to those of their era, as it was the state of the art to
their culture. It was their evolutionary development that created art for magical, tribal or ceremonial
purposes that have nothing to do with an aesthetic of art with a capital “A”, it was art with a small “a,”
their was no signature art, as art (at least in our western view) was part of the community. Their art was
no different than anything else in their lives; however, in some of the Oceanic societies the best mask-
maker was often “elected” the leader of the clan, creativity counted for something.

Pure Primitivism’s disparity to Renaissance Art
in relationship to 20th Century Modern Art (including Subjective Primitivism)

The development of Renaissance and/or realistic art in the 14th to 16th century was a formalistic
approach to chiaroscuro painting by the development of the artistic methodology of using a color
keyboard technique, i.e. taking a primary color and then using equal increments of white or black paint
to create highlight and shadow scale. The color red has five equal shadings from light red to pure red
and then five equal shading to black, therefore there are ten (or more) shading from white to pure color
(out of the tube) to black, this allows the artist to paint realism. In this way they can mix the full color
spectrum. Therefore, when one paints a deep shadow and they have determined that shade number
eight is to be used for all the colors, it is very easy to Renaissance “paint by the numbers.” When one
adds the use of perspective, fundamental primitivism is incomplete and unrealistic, since they did not
understand the how to paint in a representational fashion.

Additionally, chiaroscuro painting taught the eye to determine one area of the brightest highlight (water)
painted as pure white and one area of the deepest shadow as pure black. This was done as to not
confuse the mind’s eye and then every color was worked around these two contrasts.
Realistic painting was not child-like as it is the opposite of amateurish draughtsmanship, crude
construction, or resembling children’s drawings, this is especially true when one looks at photo-realistic
paintings. Impressionism as in Monet’s work takes light to its fullest development and is the height of
Realism and Cezanne post-impressionistic paintings set the evolutionary stage for Cubism.

Additionally, Art Deco use of modern metals, chrome and stainless steel, is characterized by streamlined
and geometric shapes which are the polar opposites of Awkwardology. Subjective primitivism has a
stylized look as it is always in the oeuvre of an artist’s work, but it is a new instinctive aesthetic drawing
on the artist’s affinity to interpret pure primitivism. This visual articulation has an uncivilized veneer
which contributes to its allure.

Subjective Primitivism

Awkwardness has been accepted when one indicates that they have affinities for Primitive art and. or
those techniques. Subjective Primitivism is the core ingredient for all 20th century modern art as it is the
defining paradigm, it becomes the common denominator, however it should be noted that not all artists
work falls under this banner, we mean artists of certain works only, and no doubt there will be
misconceptions about Awkwardology.

It all began in 1906 when Picasso had either an affinity or influence with African masks, as these tribal
influences were magical to him. Picasso attempts (whether successful or not) to reveal through his
creativity an ancient awkward process; how to tap into mythological, ritual or ceremonial signifiers for
inspiration. This is the dawn of the creative awkward age, as Cubism is a reorganization of simplified
forms that fractured the picture plane into awkward compositions; pure primitivism’s crudeness thus
becomes apparent.

Yet Les Demoiselles continues to hold a prime position among the 20th century's most important and
influential art works. Thus, 100 years later, Picasso's awkward and provocative painting is still a
monumental work of modern art. (3)  Braque is remembered as saying, “In spite of your explanations,
your painting looks as if you wanted to make use eat tow or drink gasoline and spit fire.” It is in this
altered state that so many artists experienced an exigent ingenuity.

Therefore, all his Cubistic art after Les Demoiselles has awkwardological aspects since his affinities or
influences are from the roots of pure primitivism. When one looks at the Dames the faces and bodies are
not quite right, like a clumsy fit. In fact, Cubistic art is often uncomfortable to view, since the geometric
forms are two-dimensional flattened from natural appearances, they combine flat pictorial space with
multiple viewpoints. Light sources thus creating numerous simultaneously overlapping images. The
result might be innovative; however, this multi-faceted aspect is often difficult for the viewer to grasp as
the picture plane is so thematically fractured, it looks exceptionally awkward, even if it is visionary.
Additionally, if we look at Picasso’s 1912 Guitar it becomes one of the first awkward sculptures as its
construction is reminiscent of an African mask.

Metaphysical painting founded by Carla Carra and Giorgio de Chirico and used distorted perspectives,
strange juxtapositions and found objects to explore the structures of anxiety and isolation in a modern
age such as exemplified in Chirico’s The Disquieting Muses.

The aim of Dada was primarily to shock, which creates awkward juxtapositions, as to the intent of Dada,
one of the finest example is Marcel Duchamp’s sculpture, Fountain, is a real men’s urinal.
Man Ray fathered Awkwardology; he was quoted on Man Ray Prophet of the Avant-Garde an American
Masters PBS program on his awkward creative technique: “I made a point of knowing the people who
interested me. They came to my studio. I invited them to sit for portraits and the whole human being
came out, there and then, their awkwardness in front of me. I felt like a doctor, except they came to me
when they thought they were at their best, not sick, and I felt a certain power as a photographer. That’s
what fascinated me in photography, especially the human face and human reactions.” Man Ray’s portrait
of James Joyce reveals this awkward technique.

The Surrealist technique of juxtaposing incongruous pictorial elements was utilized by Salvador Dali,
Rene Magritte, Hans Bellmer, and Jackson Pollock. Post wartime artists Francis Bacon and Wilhelm de
Kooning predecessors to Awkwardology developed their signature paintings of powerful bodily

Furthermore, when Tom Wolfe wrote the Painted Word, he showed that in the case of abstract art it
needed critical art theory to justify the high prices that those painting fetched. But what makes this even
more absurd and thus conceptually awkward is that without the critics the paintings have limited
understanding and value (to be further explained in a later essay). Abstract art uses pictorial elements
alone to transform ideas intangible form, however, this is an awkward relationship by the artist and to
the viewer, thus the act of creativity can be an awkward process.
In the beginning of the 20th century Einstein was searching for a unifying theory of special relativity,
which for some is just to awkward to figure out, just trying to understand the distance of a light year
5,878,625,373,184 (how many miles light can travel in one year, is way beyond our comprehension), it
becomes an awkward concept to grasp, cultural Awkwardology attempts a similar unifying art theory
except in this essay is within an artistic thematic framework.

Awkwardology can interpret the 20th century modern art movements through philosophical/aesthetic
theory, technique, or style, as these words are used to describe them; dissociative, contradiction,
dreamlike, subconscious, and pure psychic automatism. These words are inherently awkward, as dream-
like states produce uncomfortable relationships.
Today in 2010 and for the past fifteen years since the advent of Windows 95, computer usage has
developed a meta-language which can be called computer speak. This awkward new communication
takes the form of text messaging, and website names.  A new meta-language only reinforces how
technology constructs dialect edifices. Website names (or an URL) are a linking of words without regard
to grammatical rules which is often confusing and misleading, however, it might be amusing such as,
www.expertsexchange.com.  How can we have grammatical rules being ignored in text messaging (LOL
which stands for laugh out loud) and website use and still expect them to be used accurately as English,
as Internet usage is being required and taught in schools? This is an uncomfortable pedagogical
handbook designed for understanding and learning.


Awkwardology asserts to make sense of the lack of grace and elegance in our lives, through a new
awareness, offering a way for artists to express the apparent awkwardness in our society. Artists both
through technique and intellectual discourse can bend, burn, tear, tape, staple, ripple, rip, fragment and
fold their fine art in as many ways as we distort our minds and bodies. The poetic possibilities of
creative/artistic distortion musically inspired Jimi Hendrix. Technically, awkward art is an outgrowth of
past and present renegade art forms.

  1. William Rubin has written a chapter in the seminal book & helped organize the exhibition Primitivism in 20th Century Art.  P.5
2. Primitivism and Modern Art (World of Art) Colin Rhodes- various pages
3. From the: ART & DESIGN BLOG
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