Approaching Quality

America Meredith (Cherokee), “Bringing Harmony into the World,” 2009. Gouache on paper. Courtesy of the artist.

SWAIA is hosting a series of panel discussions this summer on the subject of quality in current Native American art. How is quality discussed in relationship to art in general? What additional aspects of “quality” come to light when the conversation is about quality in art created by Native American artists? How can we talk about quality sensitively, collaboratively, and productively? This is the third blog post on the subject.

The initial blog entry on quality in Native American art defined two broad philosophical categories useful for discussing the first thing that usually comes up: authenticity. (Please see The ‘A’ Word)[1]

Like the public panel discussions, this segment of the blog project begins with the unpacking of assumptions around authenticity. A useful philosophically-based analysis of authenticity of art come from Denis Dutton. He identifies two broad categories of sense: nominative authenticity and expressive authenticity. Nominative authenticity deals with the identification of the artist, the object’s provenance, etc. Basically, anything you need to answer the question, “Is it a fake or not?” For objects being considered as “Native American” or “American Indian” artworks, there is an added layer – is the artist Native American? Because of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act (IACA) of 1990, legal definitions often determine who is a Native American artist.[2] Dutton’s term expressive authenticity refers to an object’s character as an expression of an individual’s or a society’s values and beliefs. The artists who participated in SWAIA’s first panel on the subject of quality (July 12, 2012) primarily discussed authenticity in terms of the second concept, expressive authenticity, although each artist made clear their “nominative authenticity” by introducing themselves with their tribal affiliations and additional cultural backgrounds.[3] An interesting distinction about nominative authenticity in regard to Native American art is that there is a component that judges the artist’s nominative authenticity, rather than the object’s authenticity. Is it possible that discussing the authenticity of an art object (in this particular case) objectifies the artist rather than acknowledging their agency and subjectivity as human beings?

This first public panel discussion on the subject of quality in Native American art (July 12, 2012) was moderated by Bruce Bernstein, director of SWAIA. The panelists were artists Alex J. Peña (Comanche), America Meredith (Cherokee), Cannupa Hanska Luger (Mandan/Hidatsa/Arikara/Lakota), and Dr. Matthew Martinez (Ohkay Owingeh), Director of Northern Pueblos Institute and Assistant Professor of Pueblo Indian Studies at Northern New Mexico College.

Dr. Matthew Martinez said the following upon being asked for his thoughts about the idea of quality:

“One of the notions that first came to mind was this idea of the English word of quality. You really can’t translate it from a Tewa perspective into an English sensibility of what quality and value and aesthetics might mean from a tribal perspective. One thing that pueblos often think and practice is this idea of inclusion, and incorporating aspects. There is always this notion of thinking about new ways of understanding through trade, through travel .We can point to our use of coral, shells, the macaw parrot feathers we use in song and ceremony; there have always been these items of travel, trade, and influence. They have become, in a sense, pueblo-ized, or Tewa-ized, if that’s a word. You think about what makes those specifics when it comes to pueblo sensibilities and pueblo religion? They can come from the outside world, so to speak, but they become ours. We don’t own them, but they are ours in the sense, when it comes to using them, to using songs and prayer. When I think about these notions, and working with students, we always point to these examples of trade, travel, and influence. Indian Market is one way to think about this traffic and culture in northern New Mexico and […] our approaches to the art world. I’m not sure I have a quick answer to what quality is, specifically, but it is this notion of how we adapt to new ways of understanding and how we approach art and beauty from a tribal perspective. It’s an ongoing conversation.”[4]

Alex J. Peña , “Too Many Ways to Say Nothing,” Photo Intaglio, Pochoir, Screenprint, and Chine Colle, 2011. Courtesy of the artist.

Each of the speakers on the July 12th, 2012 panel spoke about their upbringing and the mix of influences they experienced growing up, Native and non-Native. They also spoke about challenges they encountered in their art training in college and graduate school, including the pressures to have their work look identifiably “Indian.” Each of these artists work with content specific to their cultures, experiences, and history, using materials and styles chosen to best communicate their ideas. Their remarks during preparation for the panel, and during the panel itself, responded to particular pressures on Native artists that are embedded in any discussion of “quality,” at least so far: firstly, authenticity of a racial “Indian” identity; secondly, authenticity of materials and style. The perception of authentic materials is commonly expressed as a combination of factors; “old” materials, rare materials, materials that are labor-intensive to obtain, labor-intensive to work with, and “natural” in origin, as in pottery, basketry, or weaving, in particular. Peña, Meredith, and Luger all use materials that, while they may be costly or laborious to work with, are all commercially available and not perceived as particularly “natural.” Artist Alex J. Peña used a brief story from graduate school to transform the conventional discussion of the relationship between quality and authenticity:

“I had an interesting professor in graduate school. After all kinds of critiques, group critiques, with a whole bunch of different students, at the end of all of this, she goes, ‘it only matters to you, if you like it or not.’ So I think that it’s important when talking […] about an idea of honesty, especially when it comes to quality. Is it honest to the artist’s self? Were you trying to make something that looks quality? To make something to make somebody happy, or whatever it is? I really appreciated that one professor’s advice to me. It’s that you’re the one who can look at it and you’re the one who’s going to ultimately assess its quality, or its worth, or whatever it is. All the professors in the world can say all they want to, but it’s you in the end. And so I think that’s important for my work: I need to be honest about who I am and for that to come across in my work, and not force myself into any type of imagery or any type of symbolism or anything that doesn’t feel right to me, or that doesn’t feel honest. So that’s how I assess my own quality of my work. When I feel myself going away from that and I feel myself being coerced by another outside force, then that’s when I start to question my own quality of my work.[5] 

Alex Peña, Mid Summer (Early), 2012, Monotype/Mixed-Media. Courtesy of the Artist

Peña’s recounting of this graduate school exchange uses a small piece of rather normal art school advice to work through an issue he encounters regularly because of the fact that he is Comanche and non-Native. He also reframed the discussion, moving from Denis Dutton’s nominative authenticity to expressive authenticity, which Peña describes as “honesty.” Pena examines his own work’s quality for the artworks honest expression of his influences, experiences, and complicated cultural history.  Prior to the panel, Peña said, “This is my first year at Indian Market, so I’m really interested to see the response to my work. It’s not Native-looking at all. I’m a printmaker mainly. I do a lot of painting and drawing, and I make my own paper.” Another panelist asked if making his own paper, from natural materials, is specifically indigenous.  Peña replied, “I feel like it’s inherent. It’s not something that I consciously have to tell myself every time I make a piece, ‘Alex, you’re Native; you need to do it this way.’ It’s just part of who I am and I how I look at things.” [6]  

Cannupahanska, “Up keep,” 2012, ceramic, wood, EVA sheet, courtesy of the artist.

Cannupa Hanska Luger also responded positively to Peña’s transition to talking about the artist as the starting point for quality. “My work is a subjective byproduct; it’s what’s left over after I have developed the most qualitative aspect, which is like the creation process. I enjoy that part. One once that’s completed, I may end up with something beautiful, or I may not. As far as quality goes, first and foremost, I am the first person to determine whether its quality. Beyond that, it is just a level of acceptance for anybody else, from any viewer.[7] 

Discussing quality in Native art involves pulling in a number of different components. I will return to a quote I used from Dr. Matthew Martinez. He said he did not have a quick answer to what quality is, “but it is this notion of how we adapt to new ways of understanding and how we approach art and beauty…” He spoke about quality as part of a process, not necessarily an end result. The way that Alex Peña and Cannupa Hanska Luger spoke about quality as starting from their own experiences of the process of making artworks may also imply that quality is something one approaches, rather than achieves. From a market-ended perspective, the basic assumption seems to be that quality is an end-result, a tangible object, with a (negotiable) monetary value. As subjective as quality is at the creation-stage even the consumer stage involves highly subjective elements. The terms often used to discuss these subjective elements are aesthetics, authenticity, taste, and style. Most commonly, published discourse on these subjects is from a non-Native point of view. A small number of scholars have worked on devising means of discussing aesthetics from indigenous viewpoints. (For a brief annotated bibliography, see the previous post “Another ‘A’ Word: Aesthetics.”)

America Meredith brought the scholarly work of Heather Ahtone (Choctaw/Chickasaw) to the audience’s attention during the July 12th panel discussion as an example of a useful framework for analyzing some of the differences and similarities in systems of aesthetics. Ahtone’s essay, “Designed to Last: Striving toward an Indigenous American Aesthetic,”[8]analyzes ideas from Steven Leuthold’s book, Indigenous Aesthetics (which focuses on aesthetics in relationship to video and film). Ahtone’s essay works on adapting Leuthold’s consideration of indigenous aesthetics to other art forms.   Ahtone identifies and describes four concepts that may be useful for defining Indigenous Aesthetics: materials, metaphors, cultural reciprocity, and symbolism. Could Ahtone’s components of Indigenous Aesthetics help us talk about “quality” in Native American art in a way that moves beyond discussing the artist’s authenticity or the authenticity of their materials? Ahtone starts with materials, but she does not end there. Her analysis of “cultural reciprocity” could be expanded to consider inter-cultural reciprocity, both as part of the process of artmaking artists are engaging in, but also as part of the cultural exchanges that happen as a result of the art market. The second panel discussion (from July 18th) focused almost exclusively on materials and material processes, defining “authentic” and “inauthentic.” Are materials the only subject possible to discuss when there is a gap in, as Ahtone puts it, cultural reciprocity?

I will close this essay with a quote from artist America Meredith: “What do you aspire to with the art? I think for us it is the harmony ethic. Western art, in grad school, all that people were looking for is something more and more extreme. ‘Take this further!’ That was always the dialogue. And for us I think it is, ‘Make it more balanced. Make it more centered and balanced.’ I think that’s a big difference in conceptualizing quality.”[9]

SWAIA’s next panel on Quality in Native American Art takes place Thursday, August 2nd at 6pm at Collected Works Bookstore in Santa Fe. Panelists are: Andrea Fisher, Jeff Lewis, John Dressman, Travis Suazo (Laguna, Acoma, Taos), Elizabeth Pettus.

 

RELATEDPOSTS (in Order)

July 12, 2012 The “A” Word

July 18, 2012 Another “A” Word: Asthetics

August 16, 2012 First Priority

 


[1] All links open in a separate window.

[2] A good source for more information on the history, intent, and impact of the IACA of 1990 is by William T. Hapiuk, Jr. “Of Kitsch and Kachinas: A Critial Analysis of the ‘Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990,’”  published in Stanford Law review, Vol. 53, No. 4 (April 2001), pp. 1009-1075.

[4] Matthew Martinez, panel discussion, July 12, 2012 at Collected Works Bookstore in Santa Fe, NM.

[5] Alex J. Peña, panel discussion, July 12, 2012 at Collected Works Bookstore in Santa Fe, NM.

[6] Alex J. Peña, personal communication, July 12, 2012.

[7] Cannupa Hanska Luger, panel discussion, July 12, 2012 at Collected Works Bookstore in Santa Fe, NM.

[8] Heather Ahtone, “Designed to Last: Striving toward an Indigenous American Aesthetic,” in The International Journal of the Arts in Society, Vol. 4, No. 2 (2009) pp. 373-385.

[9] America Meredith, personal communication, July 12, 2012.

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