Quality and Control: How Native Artists Have Failed to Criticize Each Other
“Just as water, gas, and electricity are brought into our houses from far off to satisfy our needs in response to a minimal effort, so we shall be supplied with visual or auditory images, which will appear and disappear at a simple movement of the hand, hardly more than a sign.” Paul Valéry, ‘The Conquest of Ubiquity’, 1928.
What’s familiar and nostalgic can be dangerous to a people already treated as relics or tokens. As a Native author, or artist, I feel some responsibility in saying we should be more publicly discerning with each other’s work.
I cringe when I see articles like “Ten Types of Rez Moms,” or when I run across yet another Native male comedy troupe, which uses women like props, if we’re represented at all. I’ve done the work of justifying bad Native art for long enough, because who wants to be caught criticizing another fellow Native artist publicly? It’s practically forbidden; better we keep to criticizing the millions of non-Natives appropriating our work than to engage in the equally taxing effort of questioning ourselves.
The vacant work of some Native art is so lacking I’ve felt ashamed for staying quiet. I mean, do we need more Photoshopped images of old photos of unnamed Native men in regalia within some contemporary setting. Do we really need another piece of work juxtaposing the ‘traditional’ against the contemporary? It’s enough to leave me asking who we’re doing this for. Somehow this work never gets old, and continues being novel, relevant, overexposed and under criticized.
The listicles, my god, the lists reducing Native people, or ‘rez life’—it seems to be what Big Bang Theoryis for people who pride themselves on being nerds, a bunch of familiar things to no avail, with no real message or remark—it’s a thoughtless waste that goes viral, infecting the very nature of our social media interactions. We become less substantive the more garbage floods our eyes, leaving us unable to discern ‘good’ from ‘bad,’ and, yeah, I know that good art is subjective, and I’m familiar with the commodification of art, and aesthetic, but there’s literally nothing that could convince me to buy into these familiar, boring, limited efforts, from what seems like people who could genuinely do better.
What made me consider the exact danger in supporting bad art, bad comedy, or bad writing, is when Donnelly Rose Eaglestick was mauled by dogs on her rez—I thought, How much did I contribute or perpetuate the trope of the rez dog: lovable, a symbol of country life, or poverty, or the way in which we regard or disregard the animals in our world, in comparison to the white majority. Has refusing to engage with the truth contributed to the disarray and chaos within our communities?
It’s as if we’re so desperate for representation that we latch onto what we can get, like that line by Sherman Alexie, “The only thing more pathetic than Indians on TV is Indians watching Indians on TV.”
I shudder to think of how all this has helped white people mine us for material to produce an even more reductive image for mass markets. When I look at literature, theory, activism, and discourse—it seems to often engage in the same type of shenanigans, where ubiquity takes precedence over what’s substantive. Slogans like, “We’re Still Here,” which, granted is beautiful, has been perpetuated without a clear message, beyond one that simply says, “Not all of us died.” I mean, maybe something more interesting could be, “You people are still here? Well, this is awkward.”
Resilience has become a word so overused it has lost its potency, along with ‘resist,’ and, ‘decolonization,’ and I don’t blame our most formidable activists and authors as much as I blame the people who latched onto a movement without a message or intention to elevate the discourse, and push us into new thought and action. I’m no different. I’ve done my share of perpetuating bad work, bad art, without much thought to the repercussions, but I have no problem changing my opinions to form better ones and I think we need more of that right now.
It is a type of cultural reproduction we engage in, and I think of Walter Benjamin when I say this, that the desire for ubiquity in our work—its ability to be shared, liked and seen—has become more valuable to our artists and great minds than the art itself, and what’s happened is that every poignant thing we do is only as valuable as its ability to become a conference or a catchphrase—and it’s lowered the quality of our work. It’s made us so digestible we’ve digested ourselves, and we keep regurgitating the same things, images, ideas, and to what end?
I think it’s time that we start talking about quality, and control, and what part we’re playing as consumers, supporters, and ‘arbiters’ of Native art. It feels like we all have to get along when the stakes are so high, and so many are attacking things we hold dear.
This is only the tip of an iceberg knocking within me concerning ubiquity and representation within Native art, but it’s a start. I’ve been disturbed lately at the lack of representation Native women have in the mainstream Native and non-Native media. Yesterday I was clicking around, and regretfully watched a comedy skit by Native men that garnered thousands of likes, where one of the jokes is a Benny Hill-esque scene where the only woman in the skit is one being ‘snagged.’ I thought, Jesus. I tried to convince myself to have a sense of humor, but video after video it didn’t get better—just more reductive and less inclusive. So I acquiesced to the aching and pressing need I have to say, “This is stupid.” I’ve never known the art of avoidance. Salish women don’t do that, and it’s Western ideology and construct that seems to have us playing nice with one another instead of calling bull and having the tough conversations that will inevitably make us better.
Terese Marie Mailhot is from Seabird Island. Her work has been featured in Carve Magazine and Yellow Medicine Review. She is Saturday Editor at The Rumpus and she’s a proud IAIA graduate.