One thing I said in my editorial Quality and Control: How Native Artists Have Failed to Criticize Each Other, that bothered me after seeing it posted multiple times was, “The vacant work of some Native art is so lacking I’ve felt ashamed for staying quiet.” The heart of the sentence is true, but the word ‘vacant’ felt disingenuous to who I am, because no work is truly vacant of expression. The truth is that some ‘bad art,’ or work that I know I shouldn’t defend, based on my personal aesthetic, or artistic integrity, can be brilliant, and full, and more willful and guileless than anything else, and seeing the value in that is probably the biggest reason I wanted a Master’s of Fine Arts from the Institute of American Indian Arts: so that I could look at any one thing and see the dynamism in it—writing is a lot about that.
I can defend bad art that’s simply produced for consumers—that it’s the artist declaring, “I’ll be that” for the masses, which will consume her how they wish anyway. It could even be subversive, to give people what they want, while retiring in her Jacuzzi in the evenings, drinking champagne after pandering—because there is something substantive in performance.
There’s something subversive in working against the idea of ‘authenticity,’ and that we aren’t all liars who do what we have to. It could be there is no such thing as ‘real,’ borrowing from the theories regarding performativity. The idea that interiority could be something natural, individual, and not formed from our external world, which hits us time and time again, like a hammer, via the mass media, the patriarchy, institutions, the limitations and negations we’re given from 0-up, that could be the true master of our wills, and even rebellion, or ‘authenticity,’ it could simply be a reaction to it all—no different than ‘selling out,’ or admitting, there’s nothing wrong with reproduction when nothing can truly be reproduced, not exactly.
I love Lifetime movies, and they’re horrible, but artistically I could make the case they’re feminist camp, or, that it’s the one channel exhibiting women’s narratives, realistic or not. It’s in the same vein that I could defend Native films I don’t like, that seem to pander. I could argue the work is an ‘assertion,’ or ‘taking back the lens,’ and I’d probably do it to justify watching and enjoying it, while, artistically, I wouldn’t admit to liking it in public. I could defend the memes, joking at serious issues like Native substance abuse, because it’s a real problem and we own our experiences and truth, ultimately. And, if we can’t laugh at our misery, the world doesn’t seem fair.
So, sure, bad art can be good if someone is smart enough to dig around in theory books, or rhetorically form whatever they need in order to enjoy it in good conscience. One could even argue we shouldn’t have a conscience in art, period. Art is a loose term here (in terms of spectrum), coming from a woman who thinks Teen Mom OG is art. I mean, it takes mastery to cultivate a teen mom’s experience into something sweet like candy, and to turn these women into reality stars, where their lives are often, literally, framed in pastel—they somehow make their lives palatable and attractive. I’d defend the art of it, even if it is morally reprehensible and irresponsible (I could even make the argument for its morality).
The very things I criticized in my earlier editorial I had at one point decided were worth defending. There was a point in my life where the listicles at Indian Country Today were somewhat affirming, because there’s a grain of truth to some forms of this essentialism—stereotypes exist, etc. The lists like, 20 Signs She May Be ‘Too Rez’ For You, Bro, are no doubt problematic politically, but they’re redeemable for someone who simply enjoys lists and identifies with it (the article deals with a few positive stereotypes). My issue is with the craft, and the idea that people need easy access to culture, humor, art, the news, everything, but what are the stakes in creating content that negotiates the room for real content? There are humorists who could probably stand more light, who deal with stereotypes, but make them human, or write with some level of innovation, or originality, or earnestness—and who can make cutting remarks, or create a mirror for indigenous people to laugh at themselves, and I think that’s simply more worthwhile. It’s preference, which is always debatable.
As far as other work that seems reductive, and tends to disregard the question of “How are women being represented, written, or talked about?” I stand by my criticism of it. I’m always a downer, truly, and when I see anything that reduces Native women down to something barely redeemable or human, I think about the men who enjoy it and wonder if they’ve done worse. Women in my community have taken their own lives, and we can only speculate as to why, but since I was a girl I had the suspicion it was the willful neglect and ignorance people took with us as beings. I’m too serious, and I think too much, and I see the worst in everything, but those things are gifts I’m awarded for (yeah, I’m audacious about it, too)—I won’t apologize for thinking of those women when I see the men who mistreated them perpetuating degrading work, and laughing, and probably sleeping better at night for it. I’ll continue to be suspicious of men who enjoy it a little too much, and the men who make it. We aren’t props, and you don’t need to pander to us, either. Whenever the internal change comes, where there’s a paradigm shift in their hearts and they actually consider appreciating the women’s dynamic, I’ll be there to support it.
Someone’s bad art can be good, and, I appreciated seeing Native readers’ chops when it comes to defending the work I was critical of (and still am). I mean, when I saw readers talk about issues like commerce in Native art, or how artistic integrity isn’t exactly an applicable ideology for some Native communities, it was profoundly engaging to see people have conversations about Native work that moves beyond calling criticism simply ‘lateral violence,’ where people were actually disagreeing and willing to be wrong—those conversations are invaluable to me, and I appreciate them—especially when they vary. It’s a type of uplifting we rarely see—where people can use their experiences, degrees, artwork, and teachings to really talk to one another about what we care and don’t care for.
Terese Marie Mailhot is Saturday Editor at The Rumpus. Her book “Heart Berries: A Memoir” is forthcoming with Counterpoint Press and Doubleday Canada. She is a Tecumseh Postdoctoral Fellow at Purdue University.