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.

The “A” Word

Anna Tsouhlarakis, “Aesthetically Speaking I”, 2011. Inkjet print. Courtesy of the artist.

“Whenever the term ‘ authentic’ is used in aesthetics, a good first question to ask is, Authentic as opposed to what?” –Denis Dutton[1]

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?

In a fundamental manner, talking about quality involves talking about how we make critical judgments – assessments of value, of the degree of excellence of an art object. The description of the first session, which takes place tonight (Thursday, July 12, 2012) at Collected Works bookstore in Santa Fe, sets up “authenticity” as one of the first determinants of “quality.”

A discussion of “authenticity” could go in numerous directions. I will use a passage from philosopher Denis Dutton to identify some distinctions in the use of the term authenticity: “Despite the widely different contexts in which the authentic/inauthentic is applied in aesthetics, the distinction nevertheless tends to form around two broad categories of sense. First, works of art can possess what we may call nominal authenticity, defined simply as the correct identification of the origins, authorship, or provenance of an object, ensuring, as the term implies, that an object of aesthetic experience is properly named. However, the concept of authenticity often connotes something else, having to do with an object’s character as a true expression of an individual’s or a society’s values and beliefs. This second sense of authenticity can be called expressive authenticity.”[2]

Nominal authenticity therefore involves verifying the identity of the artist, and in the case of Native American art, the tribal affiliations of the artist. Expressive authenticity includes consideration of cultural authenticity, though interest in this this type of authenticity has potentially negative ramifications when analysis of cultural authenticity is influenced by racism, nationalist narratives, and/or cross-cultural misunderstandings.

From the point of view of artists, we might consider the assertion that artistic value is dependent upon whether or not an artwork expresses the authentic values of its maker, especially when those values are also shared by the artist’s immediate community.[3] How “immediate community” gets defined is absolutely crucial for Native artists.

I started this essay with the artwork Aesthetically Speaking I by Anna Tsouhlarakis[4] because it very graphically communicates the experience of carrying on a dialogue about art. The complex visual patterns in the speech balloons convey both more and less to us as viewers than conventional text-filled speech balloons. The body language of the figures indicate one person is speaking earnestly and the other is listening, perhaps with some confusion or skepticism. The contents of their speech balloons appear to be somewhat in opposition, implied by the strong diagonal lines and the hierarchical placement of the two speech balloons. The differences between the contents of the balloons may initially leap out at a viewer, but the two patterns share some features in common. Both are organized in bands of parallel lines and contain repeated geometric patterns. The patterns take up the totality of the field for speech. Each elliptical form shows that the women are discussing a symbol arranged into a pattern, a specific context, not just a symbol in isolation. I am using this artwork to tease out relationships between discourse, interdependent complexity, formal relationships, and categorical distinctions we attempt to make around indigenous art.

Nancy Blomberg, curator for Denver Art Museum wrote in her introduction for the book [Re]inventing the Wheel, “If we accept American Indian art as a valid category for scholarly study, then it must no longer be studied solely in isolation––for it was never created in isolation. American Indian art did not develop in a vacuum. There were many, many influences among different tribes––and from non-Indians. We have all been complicit in a false narrative of purity, immutable tradition, and isolation. We must acknowledge and celebrate the complexities of cross-cultural exchange, because the Taos School, the Hudson River School, and the Santa Fe Studio School of artists did not develop in isolation. Our segregation of American Indian art has not raised awareness; instead we have unwittingly fragmented a common narrative to the detriment of the narrative.”[5]

On that note, SWAIA is bringing together panels of speakers to address “quality” in art. The first panel includes the following: Deborah Jojola (Isleta), Matthew Martinez (Ohkay Owingeh), America Meredith (Cherokee),  Alex Pena (Comanche) and Cannupa Hanska (Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Lakota, Austrian, Norwegian).

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Event Announcement from SWAIA:

Authenticity in Native Arts, Lecture Series: What does “quality” mean?

July 12, 2012 6:00 pm, Collected Works Bookstore & Coffeehouse 202 Galisteo St. Santa Fe

Free Admission. From its state flag and license plates to the romanticized ideology of the southwest, New Mexico is immersed in Native cultural influences; indeed, Native art is its central identity. With such a broad platform and visibility, the ubiquity and sale of Native art has the potential to be highly lucrative. SWAIA is producing a series of lectures that address these issues directly. As the producer of the Santa Fe Indian Market, SWAIA is the authority on authenticity issues in the Native art world. With panelists including artists, art dealers and experts, the lectures provide a broad and up to date view of the dialogue surrounding these controversial topics.


[1] Denis Dutton, “Authenticity in Art,” in The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics, ed. Jerrold Levinson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003). Also available online at www.denisdutton.com/authenticity.htm

[4] More works from Tsouhlarakis’s Aesthetics series on can be seen in the catalogue We Are Here: The Eiteljorg Contemporary Art Fellowship, 2011, pp. 84-89. Additionally, an installation work, titled “Edges of the Ephemeral,” is on exhibition at Museum of Contemporary Native Art in Santa Fe until September 15th, 2012.

[5] Nancy J. Blomberg, “Advancing the Dialogue,” in [Re]inventing the Wheel: Advancing the Dialogue on Contemporary American Indian Art, ed. Nancy J. Blomberg (Denver: Denver Art Museum, 2005) pp. 19-24.