Beauty, Purpose, and Preservation

by James McGirk


Contemporary art can be strange and frightening for the uninitiated. Before developers gutted Brooklyn’s historic Domino Sugar Factory (they’re converting it into multimillion-dollar condos), artist Kara Walker came in and installed a 70-foot-tall sugar sphinx with a slave woman’s head and her genitals prominently displayed. Walker, who is black, was making a fairly obvious reference to the sugar industry’s grim legacy of slavery, but she’s also concerned with the production of culture—how images and ideas flit around and mutate—and this enormous and enormously vulgar thing sent reverberations through the ostensibly sophisticated New York art scene.

Families of raccoons sniped lumps of sugar from the statue; tourists posed with its naughty bits, making obscene gestures. Writers published a flood of essays criticizing those pictures and attempting to shame the tourists, and still more writers unleashed a counterflow of essays accusing the first wave of essay writers of not understanding Walkers’ work, and so on. Chaos, in other words, but chaos contained and modulated by the weird, striking object Walker made. Chaos that suddenly illuminated the weird relationship between sex and slavery in the American subconscious.

That’s the idea, anyway. Or at least I think it is. It’s meant to be slippery.

Contemporary art doesn’t answer questions; it asks questions, and reacts to the artistic forms and ideas that preceded it. A friend of mine describes the art world as rhizomatic, with ideas and identities branching off of a mainline of history and competing for attention and money—the art-world equivalent of nutrients.

Once art was thought to be a special category of thing, with transcendent qualities, but not anymore. Now art’s power comes from eschewing any pretense of there being a mission. Art tries to be a container for unnamable ideas and fluctuating states of being.

But Native American art is a little bit different. While it, too, is concerned with perfecting forms, Native American art[1] has a sense of mission: Because so much Indian culture was annihilated, any art created is special. It’s a step toward rebuilding a culture that has been destroyed. In practice, this means that Indian artists are venerated (the Cherokee, for example, celebrate some of their artists as “National Treasures”), but it makes Indian art very hard to criticize or teach.

You might say that Indian artists are often caught between preserving the past and participating in the future. For decades, the art program at Bacone College in Muskogee, Oklahoma, has been at the heart of this dilemma.

Art for art’s sake—we’ll call it “Fine Art”—is a Western invention. Before European contact, there was no such thing as what Oxford History of Art’s Northern Native American Art defines as works that function as autonomous entities, intended to be experienced independent of ceremony and community.” Instead, all aesthetic objects had a function: They might be used for religious rituals or record keeping or storage. As demand for traditional art by non-Natives began to grow, and Indians had opportunities to learn Western techniques, indigenous fine art came into being. In other words, Indian artists began to make work that, according to Oxford, specifically addressed “viewers outside of their culture.”

This cross-pollination of culture has been going on since contact with Europeans began. One of the earliest recorded examples was reported by the Viceroy of Mexico, Conquistador Francisco Vásquez Coronado, who, in 1540, dragooned a couple of Native artisans, commanding that “a cloth”—canvas—be “painted for me with animals they know in that country.” Later, French Jesuits also commissioned pictures to be used for conversion.

The way that we, as a culture, learn to read images is as much of a language as the one we speak. “Plains were perhaps the only region of North America where historical narrative had long been part of the indigenous artistic tradition,” says the Oxford History of Art. Plains Indians would paint their histories on buffalo hides. After the Red River War in 1874, many Plains Indians were imprisoned in Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida, and they began spending their time drawing scenes of traditional Indian life to sell to tourists who would come gawk at them.

The Plains Indians would use leaves of old accounting books for paper and what little watercolor and ink their jailor Richard Henry Pratt (who would later found the Carlisle Indian School) could muster up. The images they made were flat, decorative, and heavily influenced by traditional Plains styles. Western audiences could recognize what was happening in the pictures, however, and began to collect them.

The flat style began to lodge in people’s minds as what Indian art should look like. And Natives who wanted to become artists began to learn to emulate the flat, ledger-art style. For example, the Kiowa Five—Stephen Mopope, Jack Hokeah, Monroe Tsatoke, Spencer Asah, and James Auchiah—expanded on the cartoon-like forms of ledger art to create a “flat, decorative style… featuring patterned movement across the picture plane, and an idealized view of the Native American past” (Oxford).

The Kiowa Five were painters and competitive dancers who received European-influenced training from a Choctaw nun, Sister Mary Olivia Taylor, at their school in Anadarko, Oklahoma. Later, they worked under the direction of Professor Oscar Jacobson from the University of Oklahoma, who took some of their work to the International Folk Art Congress in Prague in
1929 for exhibition. Because of that, the entire world now had an idea of what Indian art “should” look like.

In the 1930s, Indian Country became home to two art schools. In New Mexico, a teacher named Dorothy Dunn was assigned to the San Juan Boarding School at the Northern Navajo Agency. She’d seen an early show of Indian painting at the Field Museum in Chicago and was influenced by the idea that Native Americans had an innate talent for creating art. She began teaching her students how to use materials and emphasized the flat, heavily outlined style she’d seen before. Dunn considered the flat style so important that she deliberately left out techniques like color theory and the rules of perspective, which might have urged students to veer away from what she considered the traditional style of Native American painting.

By 1932, Dunn’s half-day classes had become a small self-contained school, The Studio School at the Santa Fe Indian School—which would eventually become, in 1962, the Santa Fe Art Institute.

The second school was created in Oklahoma. According to Lumhee Holot-Tee: The Art and Life of Acee Blue Eagle by Tamara Liegerot Elder, Bacone College’s art program began when a Choctaw professor named Mary Stone McClendon—also known as Ataloa—befriended Acee Blue Eagle, a talented young student working as an illustrator for the Bacone Indian school newspaper.

Inspired by his abilities, Ataloa began a two-pronged approach to Indian art: She created the Ataloa Lodge in 1932, a small museum that is still on the Bacone campus, to assemble a foundation of art history. “The public has taken for granted that the trinkets and beads they see made by Indians for the white man were Indian art,” she said during the dedication. “Many of the beautiful things created by Indians have been taken far away, to museums in the East where Indians rarely see them. We want to bring many of those things here, and to other Indian schools, where Indians may see them and be inspired by them.”

Ataloa also began an art department at the school, bringing her former student Acee Blue Eagle in as the program’s first director. Like The Studio at the Santa Fe Indian School, Blue Eagle emphasized the flat style created by the ledger artists and popularized by the Kiowa Five. But unlike Dunn, he was an artist first and foremost, and just as intrigued with all the elongated, streamlined modern designs he saw going up in Tulsa as he was with “traditional” Indian painting. His own work was a fusion of the two styles and this outlook worked its way into his curriculum.

Elder describes the program: “This department supported an appreciation of traditional Indian art forms including a study of Indian tribal motifs, styles, and techniques. Later this program expanded to involve new perspectives using the traditional frames of reference and maintaining the high standards of existing art.”

The flat style of painting had essentially been institutionalized by the time Blue Eagle stepped down as director in 1938 and passed the torch to Woodrow Wilson Crumbo. By then, an entire generation of Indian artists had been trained to create in this style, instead of emulating the Old Masters the way a painter in New York or San Francisco might have been doing. These Indian artists were making work in response to the institutionalization of “Native art” and taking their subject matter (typically mythologies, legends, and ceremonies) from it. This style, particularly when it contained decorative flourishes like the ones Blue Eagle took from Art Deco, became known as The Bacone School, or traditional Native American painting.

Art historians talk about discourse—the idea that a piece of art is in dialogue with other works and is created from an archive of previously “spoken” works. The discourse between Indian artists, particularly within Oklahoma, was contained with the narrow framework of the Bacone School and was splintering off of the rest of the art world, particularly as works of Indian art were being exhibited as “Indian Art,” rather than just art—which meant that to succeed as a Native American artist, an artist had to emulate styles that were recognizably Indian to outside curators.

At the time, juried competitions were probably the most important way to be discovered as an artist.[2] Of course, the problem with competitions is that while they’re very good at recognizing the best of a form that already exists, they’re terrible at something new.

The Philbrook Museum of Art used to sponsor one of the most important annual competitions, the Annual National Indian Painting Competition. In 1958, jurors rejected a Cubist-influenced piece by Oscar Howe, saying it was “not in the traditional style.” In response, Howe sent Philbrook a manifesto, which radically redefined what traditional Indian art was:

Who ever said that my paintings are not in the traditional Indian style has poor knowledge of Indian art indeed. There is much more to Indian Art than pretty, stylized pictures. There was also power and strength and individualism (emotional and intellectual insight) in the old Indian paintings. Every bit in my paintings is a true, studied fact of Indian paintings. Are we to be held back forever with one phase of Indian painting, with no right for individualism, dictated to as the Indian has always been, put on reservations and treated like a child, and only the White Man knows what is best for him? Now, even in Art, “You little child do what we think is best for you, nothing different.” Well, I am not going to stand for it. Indian Art can compete with any Art in the world, but not as a suppressed Art.[3]

Indian artists began to see the Bacone School as stale and trite—some unkindly referred to it as “Bambi Style”—and many turned from it and began experimenting with Western techniques like surrealism or abstract expressionism. But it was still hard to imagine Indian fine art without the flat style.

Bacone College, meanwhile, remained at the center of the Indian art world for decades, particularly as it began to offer the top floor of the McCombs Hall Art Building as a residence for incoming art program directors. A series of famous artist alumni moved in, such as Woody Crumbo (1947–1957), W. Richard West Sr. (1947–1970), and Ruthie Blalock Jones (1979–2009). They used the classrooms as studios when the students weren’t there.

The art program blossomed in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, but as industry left the town of Muskogee, the college lost funding, and students gravitated to state schools and the financial aid they offered, the program went into gentle decline.

Creative destruction is essential to art, and essential for a century-and-then-some-old educational institution to survive. But it’s hard not to feel a sense of loss. Buildings absorb the personality of their inhabitants. Imagine the forensic evidence piling up if you don’t believe the superstition: years’ worth of footfalls and scuffs on the floors, enthusiastic modifications and derelictions of duty, scrapes, spills, and rehabilitations. It’s no wonder the students swear the campus is haunted.

The Bacone School looks traditional to a 21st-century observer, but it began as an insurrection, a way to absorb the broader art culture and still retain an Indian sensibility. Those bucolic scenes of Native American life are more than just fantasies or depictions of celebrations and rituals past, these are almost entirely artificial memories, disconnected from the millennia of visual culture that preceded it and give testimony to what has been lost. This wasn’t Bambi; this was evidence of cultural genocide. As striking as Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, once you know the context.

When Art Program Director Tony Tiger joined the program five years ago, he decided to forgo custom and declined to convert the top floor of the McCombs Hall into his personal living quarters. But there is still an undeniable intimacy in the halls. Tiger doesn’t live on the premises, but during the winter, when Muskogee is flooded with golden light, he commandeers one of the walls of his largest classroom, and his students watch leviathan canvases slowly form layer by layer beside their gesture drawings and crosshatched samples.[4] Next semester, Tiger will inaugurate a new building for Bacone’s art program: an enormous space in a reclaimed Walmart.

There are three artists teaching in the art program now. They’re Native Americans, but they’ve all received postgraduate education beyond Indian Country, and, to varying degrees, their work addresses the art that lies beyond the Native American discourse.

Troy Jackson teaches sculpture and fundamentals of art. His own work draws from the European master painters like Goya and renaissance sculpture. His work is realistic and finely balanced and full of motion and uses European techniques, but addresses issues of hybrid identity and depicts figures from his life living in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.

Tony Tiger’s panels are intricately layered and are gradually incorporating symbols and patterns from both Native life and the broader American culture.

My wife, Amy McGirk, who teaches painting and art appreciation, makes work that has almost nothing to do with her identity as a Cherokee, instead drawing on imagery from the gothic subcultures of sunshine states and geometric abstraction.

Postmodern work is about asking questions, and the three professors have been trying to introduce contemporary art into the curriculum. They screened the eyeball slicing scene in Un Chien Andalou and some of Kara Walker’s intensely graphic and disturbing shadow figures. Students wrote manifestos, and, in the annual art show, the sculpture class presented its first conceptual piece: A student commandeered a corner of the gallery and recreated a grisly car accident, echoing J.G. Ballard’s depiction of automobile accident eroticism in Crash. Given that the new facility is an appropriated Walmart, perhaps the budding young artists will learn to perfect a postmodern style.

The challenge for contemporary art is to find ways of embracing the chaos and confusion of life and translating it into something sublime. Some wonder if it’s even possible any more. The great nurseries of contemporary art—New York, London, Berlin, and Paris—have all been hollowed out as the marketplace has driven up rent and turned the art world into another financial market. This is a tragedy, but an opportunity as well.

To create transcendent work, an artist must be able to find the periphery. In Oklahoma, the layers of society are easy to distinguish. There’s enough distance from the rest of civilization that you can make out the contours of modern life. There’s space to build a studio, there’s quiet, yet enough civilization to feel it keening for your attention, your information, and the contents of your pocketbook.

The elements are here. Perhaps the next great art movement will rise from the prairie.


1.  Thanks to the 1990 American Indian Arts and Crafts Act, the label “Native American” actually carries federal protections. It’s potentially criminal to call a piece of art that wasn’t created by a card-carrying member of a tribe “Native.”

2. Competitions like the annual Southwest Indian Art Fair or the Cherokee Art Market continue to be extremely important for Native Artists.

3.  Oscar Howe, “Letter to Philbrook Indian Art Annuals Jurors,” as quoted by Jeanne Snodgrass King in The Preeminence of Oscar Howe. Via the Archives and Special Collections blog at the University of South Dakota.

4.  No nudes, though; Bacone won’t allow live nude models on campus._

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 22, November 15, 2014.