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.

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).

 ——

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.