What is Art? Existential Reflections through Symbolic Acts of Conquest, By Danielle MillerTweet
This question might be chalked up to nothing more than pseudo-intellectual fodder for critics or art “experts” to speculate on. The definition for art becomes subjective when one considers the ways communities are represented and therefore affected by visuals that are later presented as “art”. Why should marginalized communities be at the mercy of a colonizer simply because they slap the label of “art” on their acts of conquest?
One of the many examples we see of this is with the ongoing appropriation of the War Bonnet. Often times that appropriation works two fold when hyper sexualization of Native women is incorporated with the War bonnet. The depictions continue despite how much people are educated on the significance of the war bonnet, or the high statistics of violence Native women face, or the scary reality of thousands of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Many also love to partake in the skull and head dress imagery which renders all Native people extinct.
Whenever Natives attempt to speak out against harmful representations a go-to defense is always “Its beautiful! Its art!”
As someone who has taken art classes centered on the philosophy of questioning what defines art I find that excuse to be a cop out. Are we really going to trivialize art in such a matter that we reduce it to perpetuating marginalization for the sake of aesthetics? Every art movement has had a method to its madness even when it came to creating art for the sake of doing so.
The Dada art movement is highly known for its shock value. I don’t even believe its fair to draw parallels to art movements because cultural appropriation is often a selfish marketable act centered around profit. While art movements were revolved around a larger purpose with other factors and context involved, to equate the two is ahistorical. The Dada movement has even been described as a systematic provocation against the bourgeoisie. It would be a stretch to describe appropriation with the same motives. Unless perhaps we were to call appropriation for what it is, when it’s not out of “good intentioned” ignorance it’s often an act of provocation towards the marginalized, an assertion of privilege. Appropriation has been used as a tool of provocation towards the bourgeoisie such as when colonizers dressed up as Indians during the Boston Tea Party. However, who can we say the privileged are provoking now? The ones harmed by these acts are the marginalized. Appropriation is not noble or thought provoking; it is not changing power dynamics but maintaining it, with the stigmas and marginalization it perpetuates.
When reflecting the larger dynamics of the art world of course one could say that it is often one that caters to the oppressor. In many cases marginalized artist remained unknown during their lifetime only for their art to gain fame after their passing. Much like history books, art history is often dictated by gatekeepers of the art world who ultimately determine what art is profound enough to memorialize. So it is ironic that the privileged see it as a safe haven excuse for cultural imperialism.
Representation within the art world is another issue that Natives face. Nancy Mithlo spoke about this in her book Our Indian-Princess Subverting Stereotype and the binaries that are created when it comes to Native Identity. As a Native artist one might feel pressured to produce “Native” art. It makes sense for Natives to delve in their cultural identities, but it is not fair that their creativity is bound by those expectations.
Ultimately when analyzing dynamics of exclusion that marginalized groups face, it’s even more offensive to see privileged individuals or outsiders to appropriate culture and justify that conquest under the veil of “art”. An outsider does not get to dictate culture and claim authenticity, so I don’t see how they expect to do the same with cultural symbols for the sake of art.
It has been said that signs and symbols rule the world so the constant need to demean cultural symbols and replace with colonial symbols really alludes to the power systems our society upholds and the ways its perpetuated. The symbolic mimicking of historical conquest contributes to the normalization of colonial hierarchies that go unchallenged by the status quo because its what’s presented as our absolute reality through all mediums.
Another contradiction to the art argument is the way people will use it to trivialize the concerns of those speaking out against cultural imperialism. “Its just art, get over it”. If its really “Just art” then doesn’t that simplify every act of art throughout history? Art is how some people communicate their emotions to the world. Art fuels revolutions, and some art replicates emotions to the point that it cannot be verbalized. So with that I say that art is not just to sit there and “look pretty” as you believe. For Natives who are constantly marginalized because of all the false representations perpetuated by the mainstream, we can tell you that imagery matters and does control the perceptions that people have of you.
For those who still doubt the major implications Art and symbolism can have, I’ll leave you with the most troubling recent art piece which was brought to my attention. A street artist from Spain named Pejac created this piece of a suicidal Native. I don’t know anything about the artist other than the fact he is from Spain. Even if he is Indigenous, I find it offensive that he chose to depict plains Native, due to the fact they are so often stereotyped and romanticized. But to make things worse he chose to center the work on suicide. For those who don’t know there has been an epidemic of suicide. Pine Ridge had to call a state of emergency. Could the artist have been trying to make a statement on that? Highly unlikely, but if that were the case this was definitely not the best way to go about it. Perhaps as outsiders it’s not your place to dictate discourse on these issues. I am disgusted with the comments ranging from praise to pity. I don’t see Native people benefitting from this in any way. Its amazing how so many are quick to exploit Native issues and likeness while Natives somehow continue to remain invisible. Think twice about how imagery can harm others before you are so quick to defend it in the name of Art.