History of Indigenous Peoples

American Indian Art/Ward Churchill

American Indian Art and Artists

In Search of a Definition

By Ward Churchill

"Your images are interesting, even beautiful. But I'm afraid I
could never buy one because they're too modernistic to be really
Indian." Non-Indian woman observing the author's images during solo
exhibition at the Institute for American Indian Arts Museum - Santa
Fe, New Mexico, 1982. "Your work is too traditionally-orientated to
sell here. We deal in contemporary art." Representative of the
Elaine Horowitz Gallery to the author during the same show - Santa
Fe, New Mexico, 1982. The phrase, American Indian art, immediately
presents me with a problem because we are dealing with a basic
misnomer. "Art", like "philosophy" and "religion", is not an
American Indian concept. It is a notion and category of activity
imported from Europe right along with the horse, firearms, trade
beads and smallpox. In this sense, contemporary efforts to define
what is traditional American Indian art and who are legitimate
American Indian are more than passingly absurd.
This is not to say that Native American cultures demonstrated
no aesthetic sensibilities during precontact times. They did. The
various aesthetic forms indigenous to the Americas prior to 1492
were in many cases highly refined. But the essential point is that
these material manifestations were not the result of some
specialized knowledge or social activity. Rather, Iroquoian masks,
Puebloan pottery, Pacific Northwest wood carving, and all the rest
were partial outcomes and ingredients of a range of living, inter-
related social functions. "Art" was bound up in everything, everyone
was an artist, the aesthetics involved were harmoniously
inseparable from the cultural whole. The idea that you could
somehow separate artistic endeavor from the whole, for a particular
tradition, is to fundamentally misunderstand this tradition.
Since contact, of course, European aesthetic concepts have been
absorbed by Native America right along with the dominant cultures'
expressive media; paper and canvas, bronze, guitars, film and video
tape - utilized by all Americans who pursue art. I would argue
there is nothing wrong with this sort of assimilation. All healthy,
viable cultures adopt forms from other cultures to which they are
exposed. Look at the Renaissance Europe did with the Moorish arch,
or the images Picasso based on his observation of African masks.
Left to its own devices, any culture will adapt foreign cultural
forms to its own purposes.
The problem here is that during the entire post-contact period
American Indian cultures have NOT been left to their own devices,
free to adopt, adapt, and assimilate things in accordance with
their own needs and dynamics. Instead, they have been colonized,
and increasingly subordinated to the whims and perspectives of the
invading Europeans. This has substantial implications for the
evolution of Native American aesthetic endeavor since 1900. For one
thing, it has made the non-Indian "art market" an overwhelming
determinant of value and legitimacy. J.J. Brody's book, INDIAN ART,
WHITE PATRONS, does a good job laying out how certain naive
stylistic forms were approved for this market during the 20's and
30's and used as a predicate for establishing the so-called Santa
Fe and Oklahoma "schools" of Indian art. After that, Indians were
supposed to paint ONLY within these accepted genres; if you didn't,
non-Indians quickly explained that you weren't "really Indian" any
more. The dominant culture was saying, "You have no right to
cultural autonomy, to pick and choose what is useful to you. WE
will make those decisions for you."
Today, you will find many potentially fine American Indian
painters - Rance Hood is a classic example - still trapped within
this externally imposed aesthetic straightjacket. It wasn't until
the early 1970's that ANY Indians began to break out of the box
into which they'd been consigned. Although some debt is owed to
Oscar Howe's appropriation of cubist techniques during the 50s, it
was really Fritz Scholder who finally opened things up. His
rejection of "bambi painting", radical stylistic expressionism and
use of color, as well as his willingness to engage in overt
political statements within his prints and paintings, were a
phenomena which unleashed a virtual torrent of "liberated" Indian
output. T.C. Cannon was his first heir, followed rapidly by Robert
Penn, Grey Cahoe, Linda Lomahaftewa, Earl Biss, Kevin Redstar and.
more lately, Juane Quick-to-See Smith, and such more-or-less con-
ceptualists as Jimmie Durham and James Luna.
What began to happen with Scholder's breakthrough was that
American Indian art was freeing itself from the imposition of
non-Indian standards of acceptability, appropriating aspects of the
dominant culture which were supposedly off-limits to Indians and
thereby becoming increasingly autonomous and self-defining. This
was/is an intensely political situation, quick divorced from the
polite confines of art, per se. For this reason, if no other, the
work in question quickly transcended itself, returning to its
indigenous roots in the sense that it interpenetrated with the
topical, socio-political ferment overtaking all native life in the
'70s. Sadly, it took little more than a decade for the market to
reassert control over this explosion of talent and emotion, to
sanitize it, sterilize it, pigeonhole and render it subservient to
the status quo.
At this point, we find the stylistic restrictions that once
served to constrict the development of modern Indian art supplanted
by other mechanisms. And, after the fashion of advanced colonial
systems everywhere, the dominator has duped the dominated into
using such devices against themselves. The most glaring example is
a group in Santa Fe, New Mexico, headed by painter David Bradley,
who insist that no one lacking a certain amount of Indian blood or
possessing a federally-issued certification of his/her Indian-ness
id entitled to be described as an American Indian artist.
Regarding the first point, I would say that application of a
"blood quantum" standard to identification of a people amounts to
adoption of a eugenics code no different in principle from that
used by the Nazis against the Jews, the Afrikaners against blacks
and "coloreds" in South Africa, or by the Israelis against
Palestinian Arabs. Blood quantum in any guise is a virulently
racist proposition and deserves to treated as such.
As to the U.S. government certification of tribal membership, it
is an absolute denial of American Indian national sovereignty, just
as if the U.S. were to begin to stipulate who is and who is not to
be considered a member/citizen of France or Belgium. Definition of
it's own membership or citizenry is the INTERNAL PEROGATIVE of ANY
sovereign nation. No nation has the right to impose upon another
the definition of its citizenry as the U.S. has historically done
to Native Americans. The present demands of the Bradley group -
designed to improve their own "take" in market proceeds - obviously
leads directly AWAY from the exercise of indigenous sovereignty in
North America. Correspondingly, they retreat from the needs and
emergent realities of Indian life and thence from any vestige of
traditional aesthetic function.
It matters little to me what pedigree is held by any Indian
artist. Still less am I concerned with the success evident in their
sales records. What DOES count is the extent to which their art
informs and reinforces the contemporary American Indian struggle to
regain the standard of dignity and self-sufficiency once enjoyed by
all peoples indigenous to thos hemisphere. To this extent, Indian
art can never be a formal artistic or aesthetic proposition. To the
contrary, it MUST be an inherently political, spiritual and
socially activist process. This is the spirit which guides my own
production of objects, and the standard by which I measure my own
success or failure. For me, nothing else is, or could be, truly
Indian.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
[Comment- I decided to type this in mainly because the point that
Ward is making about art can be extended to many areas of the
current situation of indigenuos peoples. In order to regain dignity
and autonomy they must demand the right to define themselves.
Non-Indians take their own self-definition for granted a it is
reinforced constantly by their dominant society. -Michele]

+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+
Michele Lord * Walk in Peace with
milo@scicom.alphacdc.com * our Mother Earth
+=*+=*+=*+=*+=*+=*+=*+=*+=*+=*+=*+=*+=*+=*+=*+=*+=*+=*+=*+=

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