22 March 2011

Meta-Criticism: Responding to the Response to the Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains at the Brooklyn Museum, Part One

New York is arguably the center of the art world, and the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibit, Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains puts Native art, both historic and contemporary, in crosshairs of mainstream art writers. That it received so much attention from art writers is a coup for curators Nancy Rosoff and Susan Kennedy Zeller. However, the quality of much of the writing leaves something to be desired.

Johnson, Ken. “Plains Indian Culture, as Seen Through the Ingenuity of the Tepee.” New York Times. 14 March 2011.

I’ll begin with Ken Johnson’s New York Times review of Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains, as it stands out as the most flippant and dismissive. He approves, albeit condescendingly, of the historical works but disregards the “kitschy pieces” by living artists.

Johnson’s critique opens with, “You know there’s trouble when the first object you encounter in a museum exhibition looks as if it had been misplaced from the gift shop.” The art piece to which Johnson refers is 21st Century Traditional: Beaded Tipi, a miniature tipi by Teri Greeves (Kiowa-Comanche-Italian), which he describes as “cartoonish” and “cheerfully saccharine.” Art is subjective and certainly he has no obligation to like the piece, but if it’s a true critique, the description should be accurate. The tipi, commissioned by the museum of the show, stands 46” tall and is made of brain-tanned deer hide, various seed and bugle beads, silver, pearls, raw diamonds, copper, cotton, rope, pine, poplar, and bubinga, a tropical African hardwood (Rosoff and Zeller 35). Kitsch refers to work that is cheap and mass-produced; this is a labor-intensive handmade piece with precious and semi-precious materials.

The beaded imagery is celestial (sun, morning star, and moon), zoomorphic (three buffalo), and various Native figures – faceless adults and children, a drum circle with microphone, and dancers. Nothing particularly screams “saccharine” — the palette is bold with the only pastel color being sky blue. Perhaps the imagery of adults holding or walking with children is too sweet? That’s a sad state of human affairs is that is the culprit. Otherwise, the “fault” must lie in the diminutive size of the piece. The art world is rife with size queens.

Johnson writes about the tipi, “the object has a relationship to the historic material that is perplexing at best.” 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. Greeves’ art statements are included in the labels and wall text; however, none of the art writers referred to these texts.

Johnson is disappointed that he believes the show “speaks down to its audience, assuming a low level of sophistication,” but frankly that’s not an inappropriate assumption—very unfortunately non-Natives tend to not have extensive knowledge of Native culture, as Johnson illustrates when he switches his spelling to “tepee” and simultaneously points out that Lyle Heavy Runner (Blackfeet not “Blackfoot” as Johnson writes) created a tipi with a “sacred design…handed down for generations” but describes it as looking “as if it had been borrowed from a roadside souvenir stand.” Which one is it? Apparently Johnson has only encountered tipis at roadside tourist traps and refuses to make the conceptual leap that tipis (and by extension Indians) have an existence independent of tourism and kitsch in the 21st century.

Húŋkpapȟa Lakota Butch Thunder Hawk’s Horse Head Effigy Stick is described by Johnson as resembling “a war club, with a horse-head-shaped business end.” The writer has never heard of the Horse Dance and doesn’t know that when a beloved horse dies, its owner will make or commission a wooden sculpture in the likeness of that horse to carry in ceremonial dances. Fair enough. But if I went to a museum and wasn’t familiar about art form, personally, I would opt to not publicly parade my ignorance; I would either read up or ask questions, but that would require the desire actually to learn about the art form in question.

Johnson suggests that the Native American Church material deserves its own exhibition, because he has never heard of the 2002 traveling exhibit Symbols of Faith and Belief: Art of the Native American Church with a superb catalog. Perhaps Google was down that day?

The gift shop with tipi-related products is repugnant to Johnson in light of “the tragic, still painful history evoked” by the exhibit. These reflect some of the “rules” about Indians that firmly implanted into the mainstream American psyche:

  • Indians are historic.
  • Indians are tragic. 
  • Indians are dead.
“The Plains Indian culture that gave rise to these kinds of objects,” Johnson insists “was practically destroyed by the United States government’s campaign to clear land for settlement by white people over a century ago.” But it wasn’t destroyed. The artists Kevin Pourier, Butch Thunder Hawk, Teri Greeves, Lyle Heavy Runner, and others are explicitly spelling this fact out through their art—Plains culture and Plains Indians is alive in the 21st century. These artists still have a relationship to their spirituality, their land, and their people, as well the buffalo, deer, and horse that have been so integral to Plains culture. It is an important message, which was lost on a man wearing his “selective-attention goggles,” but hopefully will not be lost on other museumgoers.

Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains, Brooklyn Museum website


Noah G. Hoffman said...

Thanks for this well informed and much needed response. The impact of indigenous art and culture on modern art has barely been acknowledged. The "Ab Ex" show at MoMA almost forgot that in 1941 it mounted "Indian Art in the United States" which was attended by probably all the major NY School painters. Pollock was inspired by Navajo sand painters and now we have evidence that Rothko was attending Hopi ceremonies as early as 1938.
Noah G. Hoffman
Mark Rothko Southwest History Project

ahalenia said...

Thanks Noah! Twig Johnson of the Montclair Museum has made great strides in bringing awareness to Native art's influence on modern artists. Good luck with your research on Rothko.

ahalenia said...

Curator Nancy Rosoff just about wrote her views about this critique on the Brooklyn Museum's blog: "A Response to NYT’s “Plains Indian Culture, as Seen Through the Ingenuity of the Tepee".

Scott Andrews said...

Thanks for your insights. I quoted and linked your blog in my thoughts on the review, which wound up being my third consecutive entry on American Indian art:

ahalenia said...

Scott Andrews' other reviews are of Frank BigBear (White Earth Ojibwe) and Todd Bordeaux (Sicangu Lakota). Good stuff!

Anonymous said...

Excited to say just witnessed a work by a Wampanoag artist at PAAM (Provincetown Ass. and Museum)that not only shows that the Indian artist is alive and producing but is expanding the limitations of the art world as we know it. " the King of Cape Cod"
is unusual and seminal for it belies John Molyneux premise in "Art vs War" for the artist uses art as his weapon in his tribe's conflict with the state.