Sunday, February 27, 2011

Native American, Is it Art or is it Ethnography?

I have been asked to comment on an article that appeared in The New York Times earlier this month “Honoring Art; Honoring Artists by Judith H. Dobrzynski" . More specifically on a statement made in the article by Dan L. Monroe, executive director of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem Mass, "Recognizing that Native American Art was made individuals, not tribes, and labeling it accordingly, is a practice long overdue. Continuing to follow past practices perpetuates a set of ideas, values and historical practices laden with racism, ethnocentrism and tragic and destructive government policies."

My first reaction to the statement, and the article, was a great audible, Hoorah! Finally somebody was looking at the artists who created the art. The British Museum in London has long had an excellent collection of Native American Art but it has been shown as ethnography. It is lumped in with the Art of the Americas. The Keeper (curator) of the department, Jonathan King, is a great expert in Native American Art but his rise to the head of the department made him Keeper of the Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, an ethnographic designation lumping all native peoples in one pot. Looking at the BM collection we have often lamented the fact that it seemed no effort had been made on the labels to identify the makers or often not the tribe even if they are known.

Ethnology, according to Wikipedia comes from the “Greek, ‘ethnos'’ meaning ‘people, nation, race’ It is a branch of anthropology that compares and analyzes the origins, distribution, technology, religion, language, and social structure of the ethnic, racial, and/or national divisions of humanity.”

There is nothing wrong with that. In my opinion, Mr. Monroe has taken the ethnographic approach that has been used by many institutions to the extreme in the second part of his statement. The ethnographic approach can lead to the downgrading of Native Peoples and was probably used as such. It is however, in and of itself not the case, but there is so much more. There is no question that further identifying the work as the product of an individual raises it to a higher level.

When I visit a museum, and am interested in what I am looking at, I want to learn more. One is not totally satisfied with a label on a painting that says just, “Italian Renaissance”. Many questions are brought to mind. Who could have painted such a beautiful portrait, who is the sitter, where were they, and, maybe, can I see more by this artist? Additionally, if so little is known can we consider the work as at all important? If we know that the name of the artist is Leonardo da Vinci it gives us context into which we can slot other information. Leonardo is an artist from the late fifteenth, early 16th century, Michelangelo is a contemporary, we can slot artists in before and after, all this helps to understand what we are looking at.

This is, of course, true for all art. In this part of the world a well-known name is Naranjo. This identification alone can be helpful because we know that most by that name are from Santa Clara pueblo and many of them are great potters. Just seeing the name brings the medium and tribe to mind. It contributes to the enjoyment and more importantly the understanding of the object we are looking at. If you are a collector you also know that from Santa Fe it is only a short distance to Santa Clara where you can meet other members of the Naranjo family and maybe even make an acquisition.

The response by an artist to a question asked often in the Native American art world and the Anglo art world, as well, might help to express my bottom line on this issue. In an oral history interview in 2002 under the auspices of the Archives of American Art Joyce Marquess Carey, a quilt maker and educator, replied to a question, “… That old argument has been going on for so long about is it craft or is it art. And I think, well, ‘a rose by any other name,’ you know. What’s the difference? It’s all in the mind of the describer”. Craft being considered more an aspect of ethnography and the study of peoples, by designating it as art we lift the work to a higher level, one that has to be considered in a different light. The name of the artist is the final accolade we can give to the work. We have added another important dimension to our total picture of what we are looking at, learning about and hopefully enjoying.

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