The Indian Craze: Primitivism, Modernism, and Transculturation in American Art, 1890-1915

By Mazow, Leo G. | The Art Bulletin, March 2013 | Go to article overview

The Indian Craze: Primitivism, Modernism, and Transculturation in American Art, 1890-1915


Mazow, Leo G., The Art Bulletin


ELIZABETH HUTCHINSON The Indian Craze: Primitivism, Modernism, and Transculturation in American Art, 1890-1915 Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2009. 277 pp.; 8 color ills., 80 b/w. $89.95; $24.95 paper

In 1918 the American critic Van Wyck Brooks called for the recuperation of a "usable past," a repository of home-grown history, biography, and literature, by means of which contemporary writers might forge new cultural foundations.1 Early twentiethcentury American art and cultural history is indeed rife with calls for historical reexamination that might ease the often vexed embrace of modern life. In The Indian Craze, Elizabeth Hutchinson shows that Native American art and handicrafts and their makers were foremost among those groups and cultural phenomena reduced to tools for accommodating social change - what we might call "usables." From about 1895 through 1920, in their home decorations, department stores, art criticism, and in government-sponsored boarding schools for Native Americans, European Americans looked to Native baskets, bowls, and rugs in much the same way practitioners on both sides of the Atlantic looked to objects created within the contemporary Arts and Crafts movement: as symbols of a solidity, purity, spirituality, and integrity missing from everyday life in Progressive Era- urban America. And Natives themselves, as Hutchinson observes, often pated in the "craze," as they sold their and in some instances reclaimed and profited from the mythologies bestowed on them by Anglo collectors.

Hutchinson's first chapter examines the vogue for the "Indian corner," a fixture in middle-class homes consisting of the masks, textiles, baskets, and other handicrafts of numerous tribes; once "cornered," these items came to stand for a monolithic Indian type. Possessors of Indian corners tended to see them as antidotes to modern industrialized life, granting a sense of control in a culture of advanced capitalism and urban estrangement - and, of course, making a tidy unity of the many expressions of a darker-skinned Other. The author makes an analogy between homogenizing and domesticating indigenous art and taming the Indians themselves; in decontextualizing and aestheticizing Native handicrafts, these ambitious decoration schemes tell us less about Indians than they do about Mrs. Leland Stanford, Phoebe Apperson Hearst, and the rising tide of professional collectors (female American philanthropists of the period gravitated to Native American art as tokens of a lost cause they could champion as a reform crusade). It mattered little that some vendors used dyes and other tricks to produce an Indian "effect" with selected materials. As long as they were able to assign the Native American to the realm of the archaic and the preindustrial, the possessors would be able to clear their congested psyches. Native art was one commodity within a culture of commodities, and retailers such as Wanamaker's (which at one point even showcased Indians producing handicrafts in its stores) made the Indian corner a template for therapeutic consumption.

Part of the strength of The Indian Craze is that where other stuthes have seen the Native embrace of European styles and the meeting of market demand as despoiling factors, and thus largely unworthy of study, Hutchinson understands that assimilation and deculturation are central to the history and historicizing of indigenous American art.2 She makes clear the irony that, for their makers and champions, early twentieth-century Native handicrafts - the very stuff Clement Greenberg would have considered kitsch - came to embody an abstract purity that would later characterize New York school modernism of the Cold War era. In this way The Indian Craze nicely complements and serves as a prequel to Bill Anthes's important book Native Moderns.3

Hutchinson's second chapter examines the catalyst provided to handicrafts in the so-called Native Industries Curriculum, promoted by Estelle Reel, superintendent of the Indian schools, from 1900 to 1910. …

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