Until recently a kind of intellectual disdain existed among academicians and art museum curators toward some forms of American Indian art. The older traditions of prehistoric art from the high cultures of Central and South America were more seriously regarded than the historic tribal arts north of Mexico. For example, these prehistoric traditions were taught in art history graduate study programs and exhibited as objets d'art in leading art museums throughout this country. The historic tribal art traditions north of Mexico, however, were generally the province of anthropology graduate study programs and exhibited as "material culture" in natural history or anthropology museums. As a result, the Indian arts of the Northwest Coast, the Great Plains, the Southwest, etc., have been underexposed and often relegated to the "craft" side of an art-craft dichotomy.
"The Arts of the North American Indian" is an important attempt to better define tribal arts of North America, north of the Rio Grande. Although initially conceived as a catalogue to accompany a touring exhibition of Native American art, which never materialized, the book's 14 essays are in my opinion a more important and lasting event than the proposed exhibition. Forsaking the usual organizing principles of tribe or culture area or artifact type, the essays in this book address questions of "Meaning," "Tradition," "Aesthetics," "Quality," "Individuality," "Controversy" and "The Future" of this continent's historic tribal arts.
The book's editor, Edwin Wade, is curator of Indian art at the Philbrook Art Center in Tulsa, Okla., and he is largely responsible for the works of art shown in juxtaposition to the various essays.
Without question, these essays are written by some of the world's finest scholars (three are Europeans) currently active in Native American art history, and their essays here are both insightful and informative. Although one could suggest the names of other important scholars or even topical concerns, these scholars reflect a current and growing international interest in American Indian art history north of Mexico. Unfortunately, there are no Native American scholars, and there is only one woman among this book's contributors.
At least four of the articles focus on sociological aspects of modern Native American art, its patrons, the relevant museum and scholarly community, and the reservation communities from which it has emanated since 1885. It is particularly interesting to read of the human dimensions involved in the change from the production of traditional craft arts for native use to the creation of them for sale to non-Indians.
Wade's own discussion, for example, details the difficulties of Julian Martinez, the husband of Maria Martinez, the famous maker of blackware pottery at San Ildefonso Pueblo. His problems of self-worth, as a result of his wife's success, led to depression and alcoholism and were repeated many times over in the fragile social environments of the New Mexican Pueblos.
Similarly, John Warner's article describes the institutional origin of modern Plains and Southwest painting in the Indian artists' training programs of the 1920s and 1930s at the University of Oklahoma and the Santa Fe Indian High School, respectively.
Gerhart Hoffman's article is particularly useful when read in conjunction with Warner's essay. It attempts to place contemporary Indian painting since 1945, which grew out of the Oklahoma and Santa Fe Schools. Writing from Wurzburg, as a German art historian, his essay interprets this distinctively American art phenomenon in the context of the larger Modern and Post-Modern art traditions of Europe and the United States.
If there are any serious flaws to the scholarship found in this book, they relate in large part to the limited depth of meaning which has, to date, been reached in our understanding of historic native American tribal art. For example, none of these scholars is a native speaker of the language of the tribe or tribes whose art he or she studied. Consequently, while they are able to address and to answer many stylistic questions of the art's production, distribution, and function, philosophical questions of symbolic meaning are barely addressed at all. It is because we have such limited interest in art by Native American scholars and such a limited knowledge of native languages by non-Indian scholars such as these that our understanding of symbolic meaning is so shallow. So too with the dearth of women scholars. Much of the art we see is the work of Indian women artists and the reticence of these women to discuss their art with men is legendary. Oftentimes even the art worn by men is the product of women's weaving or quilling or beading.
Beyond these concerns, however, I cannot help but think that books such as this make an important contribution quite apart from their illustrations and admittedly limited scholarship by demonstrating to today's descendants of the various tribes the value of their artistic heritage and the importance for them in preserving and explaining it.
All too often the rhetoric of the political arena overwhelms the arts. "The Arts of the North American Indian" advances the goal of cultural understanding despite its flaws. May it also inspire a coming generation of Native American students to join in the many efforts to educate the rest of us to their art.