|Great Lakes Girls by Teri Greeves|
The New York Times recently reviewed an exhibit of American Indian art, and that review has irrirtated some people (read about some of them here). The reviewer, Ken Johnson, was unhappy with the curators of Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains at the Brooklyn Museum. He took them to task for, it seems, not being tragic enough.
The review complains that the gift shop is located in the midst of the exhibit, so to see all of the items on display you must pass through the gift shop. Like nearly every museum gift shop I have seen, this one contains some kitschy versions of the works on display. What traveling exhibit does not allow you to buy Picasso pencils or Monet magnets?
Johnson disapproves: "Considering the tragic, still painful history evoked, if not directly addressed, by the exhibition, you’d think that the organizers would have given some thought to locating this tasteless concession elsewhere."
Johnson dwells on and praises the "historical" exhibits, which display items that would have been found on the Plains before contact with Europeans: "Lavishly decorated war outfits and weapons, women’s dresses, saddles, storage bags, baby carriers, children’s toys, sporting goods and much more attest to a wonderfully soulful and inventive artistic vitality." Meanwhile, the contemporary exhibits puzzle him.
|21st Century Traditional: Beaded Tipi|
Sorry, the relationship is painfully obvious and the title even underlines the point. The figures are all Plains Indians in 21st century dress—some Kiowa, some intertribal—and the piece shows that songs, dances, familial relations have maintained continuity over the centuries, as have Plains peoples relationships to celestial forces, despite changing technology, as exemplified by the microphone. Miniature tipis have an historical antecedent as young girl’s toys, but in the 20th century, they have increasingly been commissioned by museums. Just as the tipi is portable, the miniature tipi is a portable expression of Plains culture. The piece is upbeat, but that is part of the message: Kiowa people are alive and have much to celebrate.
If Greeves' small tipi bothers him, what does he think of her beaded, high-heel Converse sneakers? I think they are simultaneously beautiful and hilarious.
|Buffalo-horn spoon by Kevin Pourier|
The display suggests that there is no important difference between the old and the new. But how can that be so? The Plains Indian culture that gave rise to these kinds of objects was practically destroyed by the United States government’s campaign to clear land for settlement by white people over a century ago.
Blending the old with the new does NOT suggest there is no important difference between them. There can be quite important distinctions between them that a more sensitive and informed viewer can see. But Johnson gives himself away when he says he expects only tragedy to be displayed. When he says those Plains cultures were "practically destroyed," it seems he really means "destroyed." He does not understand it when he sees their persistence and their adaptation. It seems that for him the modern and the traditional cannot connect -- but if they cannot, how is there any survival? If they cannot, how is there any continuity?
Those Plains cultures survived the attempts to destroy them. And Plains artists have incorporated their 21st century lives into their art work, which shows important signs of connection with the art work of their ancestors -- and this is an important point -- JUST AS THE ARTISTS DO IN WHATEVER CULTURE KEN JOHNSON BELONGS TO.
Johnson seems to be one of those critics/viewers who insist on a notion of "cultural purity" that they would never require of their own traditions or communities.
Johnson seems guilty of what I wrote about in my previous posting: trying to trap American Indians into a past and refusing them a living presence in today's United States. He wants to respect the "still painful history," but that history isn't his. It is as if he wants to say he knows American Indian history better than the American Indian artists whose work he reviews.
His fascination with the historical items in the museum exhibit suggests he possesses a "bourgeois nostalgia" for American Indians, which is the term given it by Gerald Vizenor. It would seem the only role available to the American Indian is as a tragic character in what Vizenor also calls "the pageantry and portraiture of dominance." Although Johnson laments the violence committed against those Plains cultures, he seems invested in tragedy being the only narrative allowed for them.
Fortunately, Johnson is wrong.