Myths That Shape Art

Given the hurly-burly of American culture, it seems easy to assume that American Indians remain a small, silent, and culturally irrelevant minority. In fact, native American art and writing are flourishing - as Home Forum sets out to show in its pages for this week. Today's essay discusses American Indian art's struggle for identity and its creators' endeavors to explore the larger world without losing their uniquely Indian values.

Tuesday's page offers poetry and a piece of sculpture.

On Wednesday we offer reprints from two Indian authors. We also publish paintings by another artist who uses Indian themes to illuminate the human condition.

On Thursday we talk with two Native American writers.

American Indians have never been artistically silent. But their voices and their visual images are now reaching out to the wider American culture. They are becoming a more important element in the broader American panorama.

INDIAN art is in the final stages of a longstanding struggle for identity. Central to this matter of identity are the conflicting feelings artists have regarding adherence to tribal values, as distinct from the values of non-Indians.

Although it is popular to envision traditional Indians in a perpetual stalemate with Western culture, there are, in fact, many ways in which non-Indian and Indian artistic ideals have been reconciled. Where there is real conflict in the native experience of non-Indian ideals, however, Indian artists have had to make some difficult decisions about their conceptions of reality and art, and their attitudes toward themselves and their tribal cultures.

Central to the conflicts of Indian art in our times is the ongoing effort toward a definition of exactly what imagery is really Indian, and who has the right to produce that imagery, and how critics should evaluate the miasma of images that result from the impact on Indians of non-Indian aesthetic mannerisms. This cultural standoff, however, should not be seen as a polemic between Indians and non-Indians. In reality, the conflict is not clearly divided between ethnic groups. In fact, it has far less to do with ethnicity than it has to do with the contest between various progressive and conservative artistic attitudes irrespective of race.

What makes the whole matter of tradition and modernization such a distressing conflict in the native arts is the way numerous contradictions and tensions tend to produce nagging and unresolved questions for artists, critics, art historians, and art collectors about the ultimate value of Indian art.

The life of any artist balances upon several creative axes, but two of these apparently direct much of the energy of contemporary painters and sculptors, whether Indian or not. If what artists see and feel fits comfortably within the common cultural context, then they are very likely to use conventional materials and styles in their work. But if artists see the world in terms of a vision or an emotion that is remote from their traditions and their societies, then they inevitably invent new styles and search for new materials that make it possible for them to realize their uncommon and highly individuated visions as works of art.

This process seems to be the expressive imperative of all 20th-century societies: Anglo-American, African, Oceanic, Hispanic, and others. The American Indian artist also lives in a dynamic and transitional culture, and Indians have necessarily responded to the same expressive imperatives. In other words, the Indian artists face exactly the same challenges as does an artist of any other ethnic background. With this recognition of Indian art as an intrinsic part of the international art mentality of the 20th century, it is possible to ignore the bias of those who insist that there is such a thing as a fixed and singular ``Indian art.'' The images and feeling of any kind of art are the sole province of the artist, and no ethnic or nationalist mandate can long divert painters from whatever they determine to be the vision inherent in their lives. This devotion to a personal vision was the driving force in the life and work of one of the most important and influential Indian artists, the Caddo-Kiowa painter T.C. Cannon.

Born in Lawton, Oklahoma in 1946, Cannon took two years of postgraduate training at the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a school founded in 1962 in an effort to direct the artistic development of talented native artists from all over the United States.

Cannon was quickly recognized as probably the most accomplished as well as the most influential native artist of his generation. His impact continues to be felt by successive generations of Indian painters, although his own career was tragically brief. T.C. Cannon died in an automobile accident in May 1978, when he was 32 years old.

Three years before his death, when we became friends, he told me: ``I dream of a great breadth of Indian art that ranges through the whole region of our past, present, and future ... something that doesn't lack the ultimate power that we possess. From the poisons and passions of technology arises a great force with which we must deal as present-day painters. We are not prophets - we are merely potters, painters, and sculptors dealing with and living in the latter 20th century!''

Cannon was exceptionally sophisticated and articulate, and we often talked about his aims and ideals. ``Today I really don't think there is such a thing as `an Indian painting.' There are so many modes that people are working in that it seems beside the point to call a painting Indian just because the artist is an Indian. People don't call a work by Picasso a Spanish painting; they call it a Picasso. After all, Picasso spent most of his life in France anyway. Does that make him a Spanish painter or a French painter? I say it makes him Picasso! People always paint artists into racial corners, and then they criticize them for exploiting their race. It's nonsense!''

Another student and teacher of the Institute of American Indian Art was Fritz Scholder. Taking up from T.C. Cannon's radical reformation of Indian imagery, Scholder quickly became a storm center in the long, hot battle between cultural conservatives and progressives. Scholder outlived Cannon, and his assimilation of Cannon's imagery became a veritable beacon for countless young Indians, most of whom never set foot in New Mexico, where the center of controversy, the Institute of American Indian Art, was located.

Remarkably, Scholder's work found its way into the art market at the very moment when misguided Indian militants were demonstrating in front of Southwestern galleries against what they perceived as Scholder's ``grotesque and shameful'' depiction of Indians - a reaction, it should be pointed out, almost identical to that of the European demonstrators at the turn of the century who cried out against the debasement of academic art by Kandinsky, Picasso, and Matisse. The Scholder confrontations quickly became a political campaign: non-Indian liberals saw the reaction of these unsophisticated Indians, who knew nothing about art, as a vindication of their own populist aesthetics - a conservatism that insisted that paintings like Scholder's, Cannon's, and those of another uncommonly talented Apache artist named Delmar Boni were not respectfully or truly ``Indian.''

Unfortunately, it soon became politically expedient in the American heartland to dismiss Scholder, in particular, for the shoddiest reason of all: allegedly, but unsubstantiatedly, because he is ``not really an Indian.''

Modernist Indian painters of the Southwest have had less tumultuous careers than those of other regions, probably because personal identity and tribal membership is less ambiguous in the Southwest. The Navajo Indians have produced a remarkable number of major artists, and have also given them considerable encouragement. Among these artists, R.C. Gorman is doubtless the most celebrated. Gorman shows strong Mexican influences, probably the result of his being awarded a Navajo Tribal Scholarship to study art at Mexico City College, where he became familiar with, and impressed by, the works of Orozco, Siqueiros, and Rivera.

From the vantage of the late 1980s, it is painfully clear that despite commercial success in the insular and Indianist West and even in some of the trendy galleries of major cities, large museums and mainstream art critics have largely ignored Indian art. There is, for instance, not a single fine arts museum of great significance that currently has a single ``Indian'' painting or sculpture on permanent exhibition.

As a consequence, most Indian artists who have had some degree of recognition are now trying to get out of the field of ``Indian art'' as quickly and quietly as possible. What we are seeing today is the death of the Indian painter and the birth of the painter who happens to be an Indian.

When society recognizes a work of art as being ``interesting'' because it is by a minority person, the condescension is palpable. The ethnicity of the early decades of Indian art is no longer a valid basis for creating art.

As T.C. Cannon told me more than a decade ago: ``I have something to say about experience that comes out of being an Indian, but it is also a lot bigger than just my race. It's got to do with my own mythology, the one I make up myself. That personal mythology is what I want to express in my painting.''

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