Museum of Contemporary Native Arts

The First Wave…This Time Around

Abstract of a Manifestations Essay by Nancy Marie Mithlo

This essay argues that multiple and conflicting aesthetic standards for contemporary American Indian arts result in a de-legitimization of the field. Because artistic appraisals of the work (formal qualities, iconic meaning, centrality to contemporary arts dialogues) are largely unarticulated, confusion results in scholarly and market settings about their worth. Consequently, the essential infrastructures (publications, collections, professional training) necessary to build the field are compromised, leading to disenfranchisement for artists, galleries, museums and the academy.  If no Indian art can be identified as bad, then can no Indian art be good?

The author argues that appraisals of quality or excellence in American Indian art are largely construed on formal assessments alone, without consideration for the exercise of indigenous knowledge systems (IKS). Objects made and circulated in American Indian communities, urban and rural, are valued for the knowledge and memory they contain, not their decorative or utilitarian qualities alone.  Good Indian art is then art that successfully conveys the unique cultural experiences of indigenous life in the Americas.