Last time we met, I promised to dig in deeper on what American Art is, since it’s more than just paintings of horses, ships with sails, or men holding swords staring off into the distance.
Art world “insiders” and academics might be unimpressed with this series as Art History 101 survey courses move into more inclusive practices. As an undergraduate I didn’t have any Americanists in my Art History department and actually, don’t even remember having any adjuncts supplement that content area. By contrast, today’s students are a bit better off, with textbooks such as Framing America: A Social History of American Art by Francis K. Pohl dedicating a significant portion of pages to the art and civilizations of Native Americans in their own right, as well as the interactions between their cultures and European settlers, and the same for African Americans.
However, lest we feel like everything is fixed, let me remind you that I hail from the same town as an art museum that proudly boasts itself to be “the oldest American Art museum in the country,” who do not own any artworks by Native American artists. I’m not picking on one small museum – remember that the National Gallery of Art acquired its first major painting by a Native artist, Juane Quick-to-See Smith, in 2020. And issued a press release like this was an exciting and cool thing rather than something to be, frankly, a little embarrassed by. Quick-to-See Smith herself said of the acquisition, “[b]ecause of popular myth-making, Native Americans are seen as vanished. It helps assuage the government’s guilt about an undocumented genocide, as well as stealing the whole country.” She goes on to say that she hopes that this does spark a long-term shift, but at the same time, the 80 year old artist has not yet seen the day when Native American history is widely taught in public schools.
In some ways, arriving in 2021 with so little progress being made to incorporate Native Americans into the narrative of American history and art history isn’t surprising. It wasn’t until the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed in 1978 that Native families were granted the right to refuse their child be placed in an off-reservation school. The legacy of boarding schools destroying indigenous culture through forced assimilation and terrible abuse is no secret, but if you’re not familiar with this chapter of our history please read up. Similarly, we are all familiar with forced resettlement in the 18th and 19th centuries, but did you know that in the 1950’s, brand-new forced resettlement policy was passed? Technically it wasn’t “forced,” and was called the Voluntary Relocation Program, but as it offered families a monetary incentive to move and a promise for employment, which was and is sparse on reservations, I wouldn’t really categorize that as a “choice.” The idea was to shepherd indigenous folks into cities. “Then, the government would make tribal land taxable and available for purchase and development. The vision was that eventually there would be no more BIA, no more tribal governments, no more reservations, and no more Native Americans.” (I highly encourage reading the linked article to get a clearer picture of what we mean when we say “forced assimilation and termination policies.”)
Still, 60 years removed from the Voluntary Relocation Art is a long time for it to have taken to recognize that major works by indigenous artists belong in the National Gallery of Art in America. What I think is most interesting is the fact that indigenous art has been intertwined with the larger story of American art from the very beginning, yet didn’t reach some of these institutions that pride themselves on being the most quintessentially “American.” There are dozens of reasons that indigenous art wasn’t thought of to be collected for “traditional” art museums in America, each one more complex than the last – burning and destroying Native-made objects, followed by salvage ethnography which focused on the lens of artifacts vs. art objects, the history of art as the history of the art market, and importantly, indigenous peoples having the agency to not allow things to be collected that they didn’t want in other peoples’ collections.
Regardless of what wing of a museum Native American art was relegated to, indigenous creativity and culture was and is infused into American artists and American visual culture. The ways in which indigenous peoples show up in our visual culture are well-documented in the stunning recently added permanent exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian in D.C., Americans.
While working on research for this post, I came across a 2018 dissertation from a student at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts in Portland, ME, that picks up where scholars like W. Jackson Rushing III leave off talking about Jackson Pollock’s influences from Navajo sand painters. (I’m referencing the essay “Ritual and Myth: Native American Culture and Abstract Expressionism” from 1986, which isn’t available in full online.) The author of this dissertation speaks about Jackson Pollock “recuperating mimesis,” or in other words, the fact that Pollock was influenced by Native American practices proves the pervasiveness of indigenous culture within American culture writ large at the time of his career. (Sorry to the author of this dissertation, I did not read all 400 pages, but I think you’re great!)
It stands to reason that if Pollock was inspired by indigenous ritual, other artists were as well. It’s well-documented that notable 20th century American artists, from John Sloan to Georgia O’Keeffe to name any other famous artist from the early 20th century, spent time in Santa Fe and/or Taos, drawn to not only the unparalleled natural environment, but also the social environment of cross-cultural exchange between East Coast folks, Spanish and indigenous peoples that lived and worked there. This means that not only the aesthetics but also the epistemology and philosophy imbued the work of artists that worked alongside this blend of cultural exchange. This means that the American art of the mid-twentieth century, that put American art on the cultural map, so to speak, is imbued with an awareness of ritual and ceremony learned from indigenous peoples.
Art historians stumble over the concept of art versus artifact because the art market teaches us that only something that is subtracted from any other purpose can be “fine art.” But remember, “fine art” means “art that can be bought and sold via that art market,” not “the best art.” And remember, in our textbooks, there are tons of things that we define as “art” before the modern art market comes along. Thus, we do not need to be restricted by what has been thought of as “art” for the last 200 years. As my parents are fond of saying, “everything is made up.” So we are allowed to change the rules of what belongs in art museums – and indigenous peoples belong in the stories we tell about America.
It’s difficult to make generalizations about what belongs and what doesn’t as a non-Native person. (And would be for any one person to speak for their entire culture or even their entire nation.) Fortunately, an exhibition and accompanying catalog arrived in 2019 that gives us an excellent blueprint for incorporating Native American art into art museums. Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists combines historical art with contemporary, displays the longevity of traditions and continuity of family creativity alongside the consistent innovation of Native American artists. The show contends that most of what we know of as Native art was actually created by Native women. It was conceived and introduced at the Minneapolis Institute of Art and after four years of talks and collaboration, presented in cooperation by top artists and scholars.
The exhibition includes clothing, basketry, painting, embroidery, weaving, quillwork, beadwork, traditional ceramics, contemporary ceramics, drawing, sound, glass, photography, and also a car. The reason the exhibition works so well as a blueprint is not only because it demonstrates how to present and discuss many types of artwork that have not traditionally been characterized as such in the art world – but also, because it was curated and presented from its inception with Native partners. Museums must build relationships with Native partners – better yet, employ Native people! – to appropriately incorporate Native art into their narrative.
Let’s be clear about one thing before I let ya go: Native American art doesn’t only exist in service of the “melting pot” ideal of American culture writ large. Native American art is and deserves to be it’s own jam, and we don’t need to collapse it into the service of a broader American art. (See above, assimilation and termination. We’re against that.) Also, it cannot be stressed enough that while there is a pan-indigenous culture and many contemporary Native artists share certain attributes, there are hundreds and hundreds of unique indigenous cultures that have nothing to do with pan-indigeneity or America. This is one of the reasons that while I defer to indigenous peoples sharing their own perspectives on Native art, it’s such an incredible field of study because it exists within these separate and individual realms. Another note – I never want to stop learning about Native art, but I also recognize that there are things that I can’t learn, and that is good and fine. We don’t need to understand everything to appreciate it. For obvious good reason, a lot of Native people keep their culture close to the chest and insulated within their own communities. Arguing for better representation means, again, involving indigenous folks in how they want to and should be represented and respecting whatever that may look like.
Also, lest you somehow think that we’re still overreacting and this isn’t worth talking about any more, just as I was about to unleash this monster of a post out into the world, a friend shared a NY Times gaffe from just today in which a caption failed to name one of, if not the most, famous Native American potter in American history.
As my friend brilliantly explained it, this is exactly akin to publishing a photo of Picasso and captioning it “a Spanish artist in his studio.” Nampeyo’s work is in the collection of hundreds if not thousands of prestigious museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. I truly can’t picture this happening to an artist of another cultural background. Imagine publishing an image of Jackson Pollock and writing “a male artist action painting.” So, yes. Let’s continue advocating for Native American art.
This is a monster of a post, but I still feel I’ve said so little! I will leave you with a brief bibliography for further reading, although let me tell you what, we need an awful lot more publications on Native artists. Looking forward to feedback on this post. Did you learn anything new? What did it leave you hungry for? Will you, like me, now hunt out Native art in every museum you visit?
Bibliography – I’ll continue to add to this as I harass my beloved friends and colleagues for recommendations:
- Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists , 2019
- Native Fashion Now, Peabody Essex Museum, 2015
- Native North American Art, Janet Catherine Berlo and Ruth Philips, 1998
- Native American Art and the New York Avant-Garde: A History of Cultural Primitivism, W. Jackson Rushing III, 1995
- Native American Art in the Twenty First Century: Makers, Meanings, Histories, W. Jackson Rushing III, 1999
- Art for a New Understanding: Native Voices, 1950 to Now, Mindy N. Besaw, Candice Hopkins, and Manuela Well-Off-Man, 2018
- Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, 2012
- Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums, Amy Lonetree, 2012
- Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer, 2013