KCAC Forum Magazine Summer 1992
HOW ETHNIC IS ETHNIC
by Stephen K. Smith
In today’s America, with its new supposed multi-cultural orientation, the concept of an ethnic art has taken on a new importance. The origins and heritage of Americans outside of the dominant white European culture, and the subcultures in which these “other”
Americans have been nurtured have become themes in art which the market has slowly begun to appreciate. This has brought a change to the face of the success full artist who is no longer exclusively a white male, sleeves rolled up and sweat on his brow, working from deep within the tradition of Western European art history.
Today’s artists may be African-Americans expressing the alienation of an enslaved and oppressed minority or a celebration of their own heritage or Native Americans drawing on their own rich artistic tradition. They may be Americans of Asian origin, Hispanics, and are frequently (although not of a differing ethnic background, but with a claim to their own subculture) women, with statements of feminist outrage, or, perhaps, merely a differing point of view. But all of these artists share something in common besides their break with the outmoded concept of the typical American artist. They all share, to one extent or another, the same patronage, the same market which has existed basically unchanged despite these new artists, the same market which subtly shapes all art produced within the context of the overall dominant culture.
Original fine art as an individually owned item remains, primarily, a luxury commodity, usually limited to the upper middle class and upper class purchaser. Galleries with access to these customers develop a feel for the demands of this market, and will tend, as any business which hopes to survive must, to seek out the art and artists which meet these demands. Museums with the ability to purchase and promote art also remain, for the most part, under the direct or indirect control of wealthy donors and, to a certain degree, subject to their tastes and sensibilities. Artists who seek success as it is measured in our culture, by monetary gain, must always be aware, at some level of consciousness, of these demands. The feedback of the market, the shaping of an artist’s direction through a simple inventory of what sells to pay the bills and what doesn’t, verifies this.
When white patrons and promoters become involved in the art education of these ethnic groups (as they did, for instance, in the early development of Native American art) this influence, this shaping of an ethnic artistic identity, becomes even more pervasive. Native American painting as it exists today is based on stylistic principles developed, not by Native American artists, but by well meaning but patronizing white sponsors like Edgar Hewett and Dorothy Dunn in New Mexico, and Susan Peters in Oklahoma. These white sponsors and educators (it was Dunn who founded the Studio at the Santa Fe Institute which determined the course of Indian art for decades) responded primarily to the influence of eastern collectors and anthropologists who defined the “authenticity” of Indian art. As long as the education of art professionals remains under the control of the dominant American culture, and as long as ethnic art continues to be produced primarily for a market outside the ethnic identity of the maker, it is inevitable that this art will reflect
as much, if not more, the ideas of this dominant culture as it does the origins of the artist.
Some artistic expression has, of course, broken with these influences. Specifically, the collective efforts of street trained artists in African-American and Hispanic ghettos in the production of monumental murals intended for the local residents, intended strictly as a communication between the ethnic artists and the people with whom they identify, are most probably the purest form of ethnic art being produced today. But, from this beginning, how and in what direction can this movement develop? Is there a way for this public to become a viable patron of these young artists, or will their efforts wither from lack of support? Only time can answer this question.
In the meantime, is it so inappropriate that there be a dual nature to the art produced by members of sub-cultures within the over-all dominant culture? The conflict between the need of professional artists to express a view of the world in which they exist and the also pressing need to succeed in their chosen profession by pleasing a market far different from, and in some cases diametrically opposed to, their own world view is representative of the conflict faced every day by all members of an oppressed nationality. We must always
remember when assessing the place of ethnic art in our culture that it is a product, not of a pure and isolated culture, but of a group of people in constant interaction and frequent conflict with a dominant and differing culture. It is entirely appropriate that this art should embody the contradictions which typify the contemporary American sensibility.
Native American at the Nelson
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art currently has a large group of Native American works of art on loan from Conception Abbey in northwest Missouri. Some of the more than 700 pieces from Indians of the northern plains are on display in the Native American gallery on the third floor, while others are exhibited from time to time along with other Native American collections.