All Six Legs
Lucy Lippard (European-American)
Lucy Lippard examines the factors that make Native art partly invisible in her essay “All Six Legs.” Lippard is sensitive to the challenges of being a non-Native writing about Native art and wonders if Native perspectives are “even available to non-Indians?” (128) She points out something very crucial in Native art writing, that “non-Indian writers tend to depend on our own culturally approved taste, education, and background, which is rooted in Western civilization” (128), which, possibly unconsciously, promotes assimilation to the Western mainstream. She encourages Native writers to examine and question Western influences on their work.
The space between cultures is a liminal space — a threshold or, in Gerald McMaster’s Reservation X, “a socially ambiguous zone” (133) African, Asian, Latin, as well as Native American artists move around the long-entrenched Eurocentrism of the art world. Oscar Howe demonstrated this by creating new expressions of abstraction that drew upon his own tribe’s art history. “It is history, whether or not it’s written down by white people” (131) – Lippard pretty well nails it with that statement. Most tribes have predominantly oral cultures, and Native scholars have struggled for decades to have oral histories recognized as valid in academia. Tribes reflected upon the art they created, even if they did not write everything down.
Lippard brings up the reoccurring notion of the indigenous artist versus the artist who “happens to be indigenous” (131) (kill the Indian, save the artist, to paraphrase Captain Richard Pratt). I’ve long noticed how the artists who say that they are “artists who happen to be Native” tend to show in Native venues and speak to Native audiences quite a bit. Lippard observes that Fritz Scholder was a prime example of “a non-Indian Indian but was not adverse to reaping the rewards of Native affiliation” (139).
Agreeing with Mithlo that modernism (or post-modernism) and tribal traditions are not incompatible, Lippard writes, “…for many Native artists, tradition is not the antithesis of modernism, but its mulch” (131). Sometimes what passes for “traditional art” becomes so romanticized in non-Indian circles that some young artists break away from their traditional arts just to avoid the sentimentalization, commercialization, and trivialization of those arts.
Ghettoization is a concern among many different groups, not just Native Americans, and while some Native artists aspire to show in the global art world, Native art shows and venues still hold value. “[I]f a woman artist makes a big reputation under a male name or Native artists never mention their tribal affiliation, nothing is gained for the constituencies we care most about” (133). Artists should not have to hide who they are to make it in the mainstream.
"One of the most effective weapons against stereotypes," Lippard writes, "is recontextualization" (136). She agrees with Mithlo that stereotypes can be springboards for new communication; however, she also warns that, “Obsession with the cruelties and stupidities of the dominant culture—even as it remains meaningful as a warning—is related to what we in the feminist movement used to call ‘being ruled by the opposition,’ or forced into a position that’s reactive rather than proactive, cliché rather insight. At some point it may become more challenging to construct intricate criticisms of internal as well as external problems, fueled less by individualism then by collective energy” (136). Being simply reactionary is throwing away much of our power as artists. Native artists face the question of art world individualism and tribal collectivism, but “[o]ver the centuries, tribal traditions themselves have been flexible and open to change without damaging the core” (139, 142).
Although identity politics have detractors in the mainstream art world, identity remains an important, reoccurring theme. Lippard suggests that if identity is a central part of an artist’s work, it should be analyzed, not ignored. “The problem of too much attention being paid to Native identity and to little to art” (142) can be solved by bypassing romanticism and nostalgia and studying contemporary Native art in its indigenous art historical context.
As an aside, on the subject of liminality, Edward De Bono’s great and accessible book, I Am Right, You Are Wrong, demonstrates how the grammar of English language that hinges on anagrams (opposites) encourages artificial dichotomies.
Image: Act, Don't React, America Meredith, gouache on paper.