Many Native American artists are multi-talented and there is a common distinction between two dimensional art (flat, or wall art), and three dimensional art objects. While two dimensional, representational depictions are distinguished by traditional and non-traditional aesthetic styles, the genre as a whole is non-traditional in that paper and commercial paints were not readily available to Native American artists until the later part of the nineteenth century. The idea of art as a commercial enterprise was foreign to the culture prior to first generation modernists; in fact, Native American languages have no term for the word "art".
Prior to the modern era, paints and dyes were extracted from organic materials (and sometimes still are), and painting was a medium for recording an event or telling a story, providing a sign to travelers, or an intent to draw the attention of a higher being. Objects were painted and decorated, but the element of design was functional or utilitarian, often with religious motive. The artists of the tribes of the Great Plains, for example, left their paper trail for centuries on rocks, cave walls, and buffalo robes or other animal skins. This was the recording of history. After contact with the white man the Native American artists, often by necessity, began to use paper from the ledger books that traders used for record keeping, thus the term "ledger" art. This aesthetic style of recording events, stories, and ceremonies has evolved with the implementation of different mediums in graphics and paintings.
The drawings were characteristic of the style that had persisted for centuries and culminated with the end of the proto-modern era of the Native American art movement. It was at the end of this era and the beginning of the Modernistic era of the Native American art movement that Dorothy Dunn was teaching at the Santa Fe school. During her tenure she encouraged her students to continue the traditions of their predecessors in the "flat", and what was commonly referred to as "primitive" art style. Here one can cite Dunn's unique concept of primitive, and even more so her concept of primitive art. Setting aside use of the term "primitive" in reference to art, this brings to attention the ambiguity in use of the term "representational", which as a qualifier for the term "art" means that a painting adequately reflects the reality it is meant to depict. As a function of objectivity in aesthetics, representation connotes a likeness or resemblance so that what is depicted is easily recognized by most viewers as a reflection of something from the real world. This may seem to imply that what is representational could exclude certain groups of viewers, or at least prescribe that the term "representational" cannot maintain a function relative to cultural groups. However, as Dorothy Dunn implied when citing Linton's statement - "insistence upon accurate naturalistic representation seems childish to the primitive artist who, although he admires technical skill, feels that it is being expended for trivial ends in an amplification of the obvious", the term "representational" in regard to art may be relative to a cultural group. The art of a culture that may appear as "childlike", or even abstract, may indeed be representational within that culture.
Thus, the terms "representational", or even "realism", may persist as a category and function of objectivity in aesthetics, but in regard to a viewer or group of viewers its relational aspect may be indistinguishable from the absolute sense of "primitive" as Dunn described it. For Dunn, "primitive" was not a description of a certain type of culture, but described individuals and objects indigenous to every culture. The primitive subject was that gifted individual, or "seer", who was able to discern the primitive objects relevant to their culture. Objects were also primitives, and represented the signs, icons, or symbols of a culture. Thus, for Dunn, primitive art was the one to one relationship between the seer and the perceived set of primitive objects of their culture. Primitive was not a certain type of culture, but a certain set of variables occurring in every culture, and primitive art was an event that portrayed the values, or what was of importance in that culture.
Religious motive and art. stress the fundamental qualities of the object or power. Religious motive and art It is concerned with the inner functions and meanings rather than the superficial appearance of nature, and it sets forth the essential aspects of a subject
stress the fundamental qualities of the object or power. It is concerned with the inner functions and meanings rather than the superficial appearance of nature, and it sets forth the essential aspects of a subject
Collectors and traders of Native American art since 1977. Began an internet presense in 1998 at www.amerindianarts.com and swithched to www.amerindianarts.us in 2003
Copyright 2006, Chet Staley-Amerindian Arts