Another “A” Word: Aesthetics

The panelists from SWAIA’s July 12th discussion of “Quality” in Native American Art.

Panel Discussion at Collected Works Bookstore – Thursday, July 19, 2012 – 6pm

Quality in Native American Art

This Thursday brings a continuation of SWAIA’s public panel discussions about the subject of quality in Native American art. Last week’s panel discussion started the task of pulling apart what “quality” might mean when the subject is Native American art. One of the first considerations is authenticity. Last week’s panel complicated what it might mean to make authentic work, from an artist’s perspective and a community perspective. Any discussion of quality in art will eventually bring in another “A” word: AESTHETICS. I put together a brief list of sources that specifically address the concept of “Indigenous Aesthetics” in case the topic interests other readers. This list is a work in progress. Again, this list is limited specifically to “Indigenous Aesthetics.” Aesthetics (in general) is an enormous subject with thousands of possible sources.

Do you have a favorite source not listed here? Add it in the comments section or send me an e-mail.

Ahtone, Heather. “Designed to Last: Striving toward an Indigenous American Aesthetics.” The International Journal of the Arts in Society 4, no. 2 (2009): 373-385.

Heather Ahtone (Choctaw/Chickasaw Nations) is a curator and scholar. She earned a Master’s degree from University of Oklahoma. This journal article analyzes ideas from Steven Leuthold’s book, Indigenous Aesthetics, which focuses on aesthetics in relationship to video and film, and works on adapting his consideration of indigenous aesthetics to address other art forms.  Ahtone’s essay identifies and describes four concepts that may be useful for defining Indigenous Aesthetics: materials, metaphors, cultural reciprocity, and symbolism. Artist America Meredith wrote a post on her blog about Ahtone’s scholarship: Heather Ahtone Reads Beneath the Surface.

McMaster, Gerald and Bruce Bernstein. “The Aesthetic in American Indian Art.” In First American Art: the Charles and Valerie Diker Collection of American Indian Art, edited by Bruce Bernstein and Gerald McMaster, pp. 37-56. Seattle: University of Washington Press and NMAI Smithsonian Institution, 2004.

Gerald McMaster is an artist, curator, and author. He is Plains Cree and Blackfoot and currently lives in Toronto, Canada. He earned a Master’s degree in Anthropology and Sociology from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario. Bruce Bernstein earned a Ph.D. in Anthropology from University of New Mexico. Both authors have worked extensively within museums that exhibit Native American and First Nations art. This chapter, “The Aesthetic in American Indian Art,” was written by Bernstein and McMaster, particularly centered around works collected by Charles and Valerie Diker over a thirty-year period. Their collection intermingled historic-period American Indian works with American and European painting and sculpture. The collectors appreciated their American Indian collection based on their aesthetics, as art objects, rather than ethnographic artifacts. Bernstein and McMaster set out to define a framework for thinking about objects in this collection in terms of indigenous aesthetics. In consultation with a number of other scholars and artists,[1] they defined seven principles of an indigenous aesthetic: idea, emotion, intimacy, movement, integrity, vocabulary, and composition.[2] Other chapters in this book are also useful for considering indigenous aesthetics.

Leuthold, Steven. Indigenous Aesthetics: Native Art, Media, and Identity. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.

This book examines documentary film and video by by Native filmmakers, including Victor Masayesva, Jr. and George Burdeau. The book jacket description says: “What happens when a Native or indigenous person turns a video camera on his or her own culture? Are the resulting images different from what a Westernized filmmaker would create, and, if so, in what ways? How does the use of a non-Native art-making medium, specifically video or film, affect the aesthetics of the Native culture?”

Haberland, Wolfgang. “Aesthetics in Native American Art. In The Arts of the North American Indian: Native Traditions in Evolution, edited by Edwin L. Wade, pp. 107-131. New York: Hudson Hills Press and Philbrook Art Center, 1986.

Wolfgang Haberland wrote this book chapter during his time as curator for the Museum für Völkerkunde in Hamburg, Germany. It focuses on historic-period objects, 1400s-1940s. It provides some research, history, and analysis of particular southwest and northwest coast works (mostly textiles), but the author’s approach to the subject of “aesthetics” assumes the art objects were produced by a primitive and non-literate population.  It is useful as an example of a particular stage in the development of non-Native scholars’ attempts to merge anthropological/ethnographic approaches with art criticism, including brief references to Warburg, Panofsky, and Gombrich.


[1] Bruce Bernstein and Gerald McMaster, “The Aesthetic in American Indian Art,” in Bruce Bernstein and Gerald McMaster, eds., First American Art: the Charles and Valerie Diker Collection of American Indian Art, (Seattle: University of Washington Press and NMAI Smithsonian Institution, 2004) 39. Participants in discussions leading to the seven principles of an indigenous aesthetic included the following: Arthur Amiotte (Lakota), Janet Berlo, J.J. Brody, Robert Davidson (Haida), Frank Ettawageshik (Odawa), Harry Fonseca (Maidu), Emil Her many Horses (Lakota), Tom Hill (Seneca), Mary Jane Lenz, Truman Lowe (Ho-Chunk),Peter Macnair, and Ann McMullen.

[2] Bernstein and McMaster, 40.

One thought on “Another “A” Word: Aesthetics

  1. Pingback: Approaching Quality « Not Artomatic

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