Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Dances with High-Heeled Sneakers

Great Lakes Girls by Teri Greeves
I had not planned to write a third installment on contemporary American Indian art, but today I came across something that made me change my mind.

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
The first item a visitor sees is a four-foot-tall tipi by Teri Greeves, 21st Century Traditional: Beaded Tipi.  Johnson dismisses it as something "misplaced from a gift shop" and as a "cheerfully saccharine expression of Indian culture today."  He does nort explain what is saccharine about it.  He says its connection to the rest of the exhibit is unclear.  Blogger America Meredith explains this for him:

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
He seems perplexed by other exhibits that mix the contemporary with the traditional.  He does not know what to make of a buffalo-horn spoon by Kevin Pourier that features geometric patterns similar to M.C. Escher's work -- which won an award at the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts show in 2008.  He writes:

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.

Not humor.

Not persistence.

Not adaptation.

Only tragedy.

Fortunately, Johnson is wrong.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Dances with Cubism

Spirit Warrior on Horse
I am tempted to not write anything about Anishinaabe artist Frank Big Bear. His images are dense enough, it seems. My attempt to describe, explain, or somehow narrate would just get lost -- and justly so -- in the energy and color of his work.

But this is my blog, so I should write at least a few things. His images interest me in their own right, but they interest me also because they probably go against what many people assume American Indian art to be. If I told most people that I was going to show them a painting called Spirit Warrior on Horse, I do not think they would expect a work of Indigenous Cubism.
The images of American Indians that most people in the United States are familiar with derive from three sources: the photography of Edward Curtis, the paintings and drawings of George Catlin, and Hollywood movies.

Bull Tongue
Curtis was not an American Indian, but he left a legacy of famous and influential images of American Indians. His stoic faces, sometimes proud, sometimes tragic, still dominate the popular visual imaginings of American Indians. They even influenced the work of American Indian artists, and Curtis's photographs can be found in the homes of American Indians today. 

Some native artists have followed Curtis's lead, while others have challenged his notions of the stone-faced Indian, trapped in the past. For instance, look at this portrait by Curtis of a man named Bull Tongue.

Contrast this with a portrait by Big Bear. [In an earlier version I incorrectly described the painting as a self-portrait.]

Autumn's Wind
Both images feature an American Indian man staring at the viewer. Neither smiles. Bull Tongue appears as he might have before the white Americans ever moved into his neighborhood. (Richard Throssel photographed him in his day-to-day clothes.) Big Bear represents his subject (Autumn, one of his daughters) with some similar ready-made signs of Indian-ness: the long hair, the bear-claw necklace, the piercing eyes. A question mark rises from her head, and one eyebrow is raised. Is she asking us, "What are you looking at?" Is she asking herself, "What am I doing here?"

Despite some superficial resemblance to Curtis's portraits, Big Bear's painting is dominated by his Cubist tendencies. Whereas Curtis's images can be considered elegiac, Big Bear's are energetic.  Every inch of canvas is filled with vivid colors, dynamic patterns, and images of birds, animals, and landscape. The face may be stoic, but the canvas, if it reflects the interior of the American Indian artist's mind, is alive with pleasure, anxiety, movement, and meaning.

Anishinaabe writer and theorist Gerald Vizenor wrote that Curtis's images seem like an attempt to record American Indians at the moment before they were conquered and colonized. But those black-and-white photographs also were an attempt to erase those people and cultures, according to Vizenor.  The images trap those people in the past and deny their presence in modern American society. The past they are trapped in is ultimately not their own but the imagined past of the dominant culture of the United States. Images such as Curtis's became popular souvenirs of American history and mythology. Vizenor described them as "a cultural concoction of bourgeois nostalgia and social sciences evidence."

Images such as Big Bear's refuse to be trapped in that nostalgia. They are alive in the present. An image such as Spirit Warrior on Horse remembers a past before conquest, but it is not trapped in that past. It embraces the styles of Cubism, introduced long after the Indian Wars had ended. American Indian artists continue to evolve and explore new expressions, just as they always have. Big Bear's work is a testimony to that.

And his work just looks so darned cool.

I was introduced to Big Bear's work recently at the Native American Literature Symposium in Albuquerque, N.M. It is an annual gathering of people who study, teach, and/or create fiction, non-fiction, poetry, film, and art from Indian Country.  Big Bear's work was part of a presentation by Heid Erdrich, a terrific poet who has turned her talents to curating the work of American Indian artists.  You can see more artwork at the All My Relations Arts website. [A nice video about Big Bear can be seen here.]

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Dances with Pez Dispensers

Dreamcatchers.  Wolves on t-shirts.  Broad-shouldered men and women with their arms outstretched to the moon or a mountain or an eagle.

American Indian art, right?

Powwow purchases perhaps.  Or examples of things you can buy at souvenir stands along I-40 through New Mexico and Arizona.  Decorations for a dorm room, maybe.

Fortunately, contemporary American Indian art is so much more exciting and challenging and funny than that. 

For instance, look at a work by Todd Bordeaux.  This display is called Reservation Diabetes Dispensers.

Reservation Diabetes Dispensers
Three dispensers of Pez (now Rez) candies that were distributed for different holidays -- Halloween (the closest to the camera), Easter (a bunny) and Christmas (Santa Claus).

It looks rather low-brow and comical -- and it is.  But it is postmodern and serious at the same time.  It is what we might call Pop Art or Neo-Pop Art. 

Both types of art can simultaneously celebrate and criticize consumerism and advertising.  In this case, despite the serious message that is conveyed by Reservation Diabetes Dispensers, the viewer is immediately drawn to the familiarity of the form.  Their fond memories of collecting the dispensers shape their initial reaction to the piece.  I bet nearly everyone smiles and laughs when they first see it.  The humor here is simultaneously innocent and dark.

Bordeaux's work also is an example of appropriation, where an object has been recycled or revised by an artist.  The everyday object is divorced from its original context.  This makes the viewer see it in a new light.  The work alienates the viewer from everyday objects they have taken for granted.  And it also raises questions about the nature of art.  Is it art simply because someone says it is?

Pop Art also comments on the ways art has been turned into a commodity.  This is done frequently by taking an actual commodity -- a Pez dispenser in this case -- and using it to make art.  Candy dispensers?  Art?  It is all for sale. 

But I see Bordeaux's display also commenting on the way American Indian arts and crafts have become commodities.  You can find this same beadwork on keychains and clothing and other items -- oftentimes at those I-40 souvenir stands.  His items indicate the way American Indian culture is often marketed to non-native audiences.

It also indicates the way non-native cultural practices are marketed to American Indians.  In this case, it is the way poverty and the lack of healthy food choices on many American Indian reservations have resulted in high rates of diabetes.  Nationally, more than 16 percent of the American Indian and Alaska Native population has diabetes, which is about twice the average for the entire United States population.  The rate can be as high as 33 percent among American Indians in the southwestern United States.

Bordeaux's choice of Pez dispensers also suggests the impact of colonization.  The Easter Bunny and Santa Claus evoke Christianity.  The arrival of Christianity to American Indians coincided with the arrival of other things, such as European diseases, devastating wars, coerced boarding school educations that worked to erase native languages, cultures, and religions.  The third dispenser, the one in the foreground, probably was not chosen because Halloween is so popular on American reservations; it probably was chosen because of its scary skull and its suggestion of death.

That is a lot to say with three candy dispensers!

I was introduced to this piece this past weekend at the Native American Literature Symposium in Albuquerque, N.M.  It is an annual gathering of people who study, teach, and/or create fiction, non-fiction, poetry, film, and art from Indian Country.  Bordeaux's work was part of a presentation by Heid Erdrich, a terrific poet who has turned her talents to curating the work of American Indian artists.  You can see more artwork at the All My Relations Arts website.  I will write soon about some of the other artists she discussed.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

At the corner of Hollywood Boulevard & Death Drive

John Cusack was running for his life, and I was laughing.

Buildings very familiar to me were collapsing like giant, fainting robots.  Freeways and boulevards I drive on regularly were crumbling.  Finally, as Cusack and his family escaped in a plane, the entire city of Los Angeles fell into a crack in the Earth or slid into the Pacific Ocean. 

This was the opening of Roland Emmerich's 2012, and I was watching the apocalypse with delight.  For some reason, it was great fun to see things I was familiar with get trashed.  Apocaslapstick.

I love apocalyptic films, movies that show the end of civilization, that destroy man's monuments in a beautiful spectacle.  So, when I saw trailers for Battle: Los Angeles, I knew I had to see the movie.  The City of Angels was going to take in the shorts again!

It's not that I hate Los Angeles.  It's just that I love any movie about the apocalypse.  The apocalypter the better.  But my desire to see LA's latest flogging made me think about how often this happens.  Is there any city that has imagined its own destruction more often?

In 2012, natural disasters destroyed it.  In The Day After Tomorrow (2004), tornados tore the town a new one.  Earthquake (1974) and Volcano (1997) sort of explain themselves.  In films such as Battle: Los Angeles, aliens did it, as they did in the 1953 version of War of the Worlds

But this masochistic mayhem was going on in novels before it hit the big screen.  For instance, in The Flutter of an Eyelid from 1933, Myron Brinig has Southern California slide off into the ocean after an earthquake.  In that book, that fate somehow seems like a justified punishment for the vain and dissolute characters he depicted living there.

More famously, Nathaniel West's The Day of the Locust (1939) includes someone creating an epic painting called "The Burning of Los Angeles" and the novel ends with an extended description of a riot destroying parts of the town and sweeping away West's characters.

Why would a city that includes Hollywood, also known as The Dream Factory, be so fascinated with these nightmare scenarios?

The city brings the nation cinema and television filled with beauty and sex and dreams of perfection.  Perhaps there is some psychic need to balance that with death and dismemberment.

It might make sense from a Freudian perspective.  Sigmund Freud speculated that humans possessed something called "the death drive."  This was like the flip-side of his thoughts on "Eros," which was related to the biological instinct for procreation and the pleasurable experiences of living.

He was trying to understand why people's behavior often contradicted his notion of "the pleasure principle."  People were often times attracted to things that were scary to them or even had threatened their existence.  For instance, soldiers back from World War I kept reliving their traumatic experiences, rather than repressing them or avoiding them.

For Freud, dreams and the unconscious worked toward wish fulfillment.  So he had a hard time understanding an unconscious or compulsive attraction to fear or pain.  Why would people keep imagining their own deaths?

Kind of like Los Angeles does.  Mike Davis, in The Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, counts more than 150 short stories, novels, and films that imagine the city's destruction.

One possible motivation for repeatedly imagining a deadly or traumatic event is the desire to overcome it, to rewrite the story.  Los Angeles has lived through many traumas -- mud slides, earthquakes, wildfires, riots, Charlie Sheen.  It is a city founded upon trauma: the Spanish dispossession of its indigenous inhabitants, and their double dispossession by the arrival of the United States.  In most of the stories and films, the city survives.  We could see the destructive narratives as the city working out its traumatic experiences in symbolic terms.

In some instances, the city's death has been imagined by artists who were angry at Los Angeles.  Brinig was from Montana and didn't like Southern California during his brief stay.  Imagining it sliding into the ocean might have been his way of saying, "This is what you degenerates deserve."  Or he might have been imagining its disappearance so he would never be able to return.

West was probably bitter that he had not found wealth and fame as a writer in Hollywood.  So The Day of the Locust becomes a kind of revenge fantasy.

Sodom and Gomorrah
This "mysterious masochistic trend," to borrow Freud's description of the death drive, could be as simple as a love-hate relationship.  Sure, Los Angeles has sunny skies and warm weather just about every day of the year.  But we also have oppressive smog on some days, ubiquitous, ugly strip malls, oceans of concrete -- and did I mention Charlie Sheen?  We have beautiful men and women, but we also have botox zombies and the insufferably shallow.  We have every culture in the world rubbing shoulders, but we spend so much time trapped in our cars that we never get to meet each other.  So perhaps it is no wonder that we sometimes want the whole frackin' thing to fall into the sea.  I am sure even some of the folks in Sodom and Gomorrah were relieved to see the fire and brimstone headed their way -- "Anything to get out of this traffic!"

Or imagining our own immolation may be driven by guilt.  Look at what we have done to paradise.

So, do you hear that Hollywood?  We've been a bad, bad city and deserve to be punished.  But next time, do it in 3D.

(Please see the comments for a postscript about the recent Japanese earthquake and tsunami.)

Friday, March 4, 2011

Union-busting at the Tall & Fat Store

In Back to School, Rodney Dangerfield's character is a successful businessman who owns a chain of clothing stores: Thorton Melon's Tall & Fat.  It seems political cartoonists shop there for some of their characters, especially for two recent cartoons about the confrontation between labor unions and the Republican efforts to curb or eliminate their collective bargaining rights.

Nate Beeler's cartoon in The Washington Examiner expressed an anti-union stance, with particular reference to the state employee unions that have been targeted by some state governments.  In it he evokes two long-standing conventions of political cartoons to make his point: The height of a human figure suggests the power of the group it represents, and corpulence suggests wealth, greed, and corruption.

Some of the most famous and perhaps oldest examples of these conventions can be found in the work of Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist in the 1800s.  He is perhaps best known for his 'toons attacking Boss Tweed, the corrupt and wealthy political organizer in New York City in the years immediately following the Civil War.  In the example here, we see Nast using both the height and girth conventions.

Tweed's height and the policeman's lack of it suggest a power differential, suggest that Tweed has the ability to avoid prosecution despite his vast embezzlement schemes.  His vast waistline reflects the truth about him -- he possessed a rather large belly -- but it also  represents his "hunger" for money and power.

Nast's depiction of Boss Tweed -- especially the enormous belly -- became iconic for corruption and greed.

In Beeler's cartoon, we can see those conventions again.  His image suggests that the public employee's union is powerful and is lording that power over the humble, smaller taxpayer revealed in the second panel.  The union member's waistline evokes the large salaries, cushy pensions, and "Cadillac" health plans some public employee union members allegedly possess -- especially those in Wisconsin. 

I assume Beeler intends the irony of the plus-sized union member calling someone else a "fat cat."  He may be suggesting that the public sector employees are disingenuously claiming to defend workers against abuse by private sector employers, despite the fact that they do not work for "fat cats," but instead work for the government (directly) and the taxpayers (indirectly).

I realize that Beeler may be doing the bidding of his uberconservative employers at the Examiner, but his cartoon gets the dynamics of the situation wrong in a couple of ways.

Public sector unions DO protect workers from being exploited -- but not by the taxpayers.  The taxpayers (who, ironically, include the state workers) provide the money for the salaries, but they are not the "boss."  The taxpayers do not negotiate pay and benefits.  The taxpayers do not hire, fire, and suspend.  The taxpayers do not control break times and sick days and working conditions, etc.  Those things are done by government officials, managers, school principals, and school district superintendents.

It is true that the public sector employee unions can be powerful politically.  They can bring a lot of voters to the polls, and they can help finance election campaigns.  But if the public sector unions are so powerful in this instance, why have the Democratic state senators in Wisconsin gone into hiding to stall the bill that would strip the union of its collective bargaining rights?  Why have unions been unable to stop similar efforts in Ohio?

As for the union member's belt size?  The average salary for public school teachers in Wisconsin is about $46,000.  The starting salary for teachers there is about $25,000.  Getting fat on that starting salary would take some time, wouldn't it?

The average salary for public workers in general in Wisconsin is about $50,000, which is about $1,800 more than the average salary for private-sector workers in the state.  That is about a 4 percent difference.

In Beeler's cartoon, the angry union member looks more than 4 percent larger than the taxpayer.

Beeler's perspective seems off to me in more ways than one.

Another element Beeler gets wrong?  The fat cats his union member refers to are missing.  They would be the Koch Brothers, the billionaires with large investments in Wisconsin and who were large financial contributors to Gov. Scott Walker's election campaign.  If Beeler's union member is wrong about "fat-cat employers" wanting to exploit workers, then why are the Koch Brothers so interested in Walker's showdown with Democrats and union supporters?

The "fat cat" missing from Beeler's cartoon is present in Nick Anderson's cartoon in The Houston Chronicle.  There we can again see the conventions of height = power and girth = greed, but the union members are on the short side this time.