In the 1980s a shift occurred in the way that global art was shown and discussed, one that can be illustrated with a famous institutional misstep: the exhibition "Primitivism" in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern at MOMA (1984). William Rubin’s attempt to argue that an affinity exists between primitivism and modernism was not read as modestly progressive, but rather as blatantly neo-colonialist. Thomas McEvilley and others wrote caustic reviews.
The reception signaled the collapse in the consensus for how to display what had previously been classed as ethnographic objects. Retrospectively, the scandal can be seen as crucial to the development of Gell’s anthropology of art, triggering his provocative argument in Vogel’s Net that the art object is, quite literally, a kind of cognitive trap.
Gell’s response to ART/artifact ultimately culminates in an alternative ontology of art in Art and Agency. Around Gell’s posthumously published work there is ongoing and substantial interest. Gell’s theory offers a strong defence for the presentation of objects from disparate cultures, allowing a belated resolution to the dispute between Rubin and McEvilley. His theory also contains potential conceptual strategies for exhibition makers now.