American Indian Art Enjoys a Revival

By Layng, Anthony | USA TODAY, March 2011 | Go to article overview

American Indian Art Enjoys a Revival


Layng, Anthony, USA TODAY


NUMEROUS ARTISTS throughout Indian country are using their creative talents to augment their income or support themselves as professionals. The buying public's current demand for Indian art and the long-standing paucity of employment opportunities on reservations has encouraged many residents to develop their artistic abilities. In nearly every sizable Indian community, one can count on finding at least a few individuals who are proficient producers of first-rate quality art. This renaissance of Native American art is phenomenal. Although Native Americans have created art for many hundreds of years, and there is an ongoing tradition of producing arts and crafts for tourists, the present profusion and superior quality make today's Indian art extraordinary.

Numerous non-Indian Americans, Europeans, and even Japanese seem fascinated by Indian aesthetics. In spite of this popular appreciation, most enthusiasts of Indian art know very little about how Native Americans presently live. It seems that, for most, interests concentrate solely on the things that Indians make (and, as often as not, only on the things they used to make).

Although Indians reside in all metropolitan areas in North America, the vast majority of other Americans are not well acquainted with Indian individuals, families, or communities. Perhaps this is because the usual sources of information about Native Americans are museum displays, historical photographs, and popular novels rather than visits to these homes. Even the regular patrons of Indian casinos seldom leave with any additional knowledge or insights about life on a reservation and, since it is so widely assumed that "real" Indian culture is now a thing of the past, many Americans sincerely believe that there no longer is much there worth learning about.

Even some who are quite knowledgeable concerning contemporary Indian art may be surprisingly uninformed about Indian people and their present way of life. Those who are familiar with ancient Indian traditions and customs frequently know very little about present day-to-day activities on reservations. Such knowledge gaps have important implications regarding our ability to understand and appreciate fully modern Indian art.

As important as are the cultural and historical roots of any artist, neither the artist nor the art is completely understandable unless we also know the social and cultural milieu of the artist. For instance, what economic or political concerns permeate the artist's environment? Illustrating the relevance of such a question is the fact that much of the art being produced by Indians today is quite self-consciously political, in that it makes a pointed statement about the specific tribal affiliation of the artist or reflects the artist's generalized Indian identity. It often does so by symbolizing idealized qualities that are, presumably, shared by most Native Americans. For example, those knowledgeable about this art are very familiar with its thematic emphasis on Indian spirituality and ethnic pride.

Discerning individuals who cherish Indian artifacts and art should become better informed about the people and cultures that create these products since what a society produces (literature, architecture, tools, art, etc.) can be comprehended totally only when we are knowledgeable about that society's traditions, values, and lifestyle. This especially is true when we consider artwork. Even professional art critics, if they judge a work independently of the artist's cultural environment, are likely to make naive assumptions and come to misleading conclusions about its significance. Whether we are considering pre-Columbian Indian artifacts, art produced during limes when Indians were fighting to retain their independence from whites, or the sculpture and paintings of today's professional Indian artists, expanding our knowledge about Native American cultures, past and present, helps us to appreciate both the artists and their art.

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