A recent piece in the New York Times described a large collection of “modern” and American Indian art being donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The headline is telling: “Native American Treasures Head to the Met, This Time as American Art.”
Alvin Josephy talking in my ear again: “Indians don’t have biography or history; they have anthropology and archeology.” To that we can add “art.”
|Peter Rindisbacher Circa 1822
Alvin scoured the country for art by and related to Indians, finding, for the first Indian book he edited, The American Heritage Book of Indians, the earliest European depictions of Native Americans. He wrote a book about Peter Rindisbacher, the European artist who introduced the world to Plains Indians in the early 1800s with drawings and paintings that were taken back to Europe by Hudson’s Bay people, engraved and sold across the continent. In 500 Nations, Josephy easily mixed the art of John White, George Catlin, and other early Europeans who drew and painted Indians with ancient Mayan and Mississippian art objects and photos and artwork of contemporary Indians.
I digress. If we remember anything of “Indian Art” from schools and popular culture, it is probably the totems and masks of the Kwaikutl and related Pacific Northwest tribes. Or the basketry and clay of Indians from the Southwest. But, in our own minds, we—and certainly most American textbooks and museums—are more likely to consider it the stuff of religion and function, artifacts and everyday living tools, rather than art. As Randy Kennedy points out in the Times piece, it is most often found “in the galleries for the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas.”
I wonder if Alvin and Betty ever met Charles and Valerie Diker, who are making the donation to the Met? According to Kennedy, they “live in an apartment brimful of Native American pieces and American modernist painting just a few blocks from the museum, the Met’s curatorial decision is nothing less than a groundbreaking affirmation of the way they have thought about their collection for more than 40 years.”
|20th century New Mexican Tewa potters
Maria and Julian Martinez
“We always felt that what we were collecting was American art,” Mr. Diker said in a recent interview with the couple in their apartment. “And we always felt very strongly that it should be shown in that context.”
What a revelation! Indians make art, and they have for thousands of years, and Indian art, like that of European cave painters, the Impressionists, and Pablo Picasso, is art. In this case, it falls into the stream of American Art collected by a couple who always saw it as such, and are allowing the most famous American art museum to make the case for it.
And here is the rest of the Diker story: