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A Giant Step Forward At The Met

ghost danceWhen I visited The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky at the Metropolitan Museum on Saturday afternoon, I was prepared to be delighted–and I was, in more ways than one.

The Nelson-Atkins Museum, which co-curated the show with the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris, had primed me for how beautiful it was going to be, sending along the catalogue as evidence when the show opened in Kansas City last fall. At the Met, the exhibit lived up to my great expectations.

So many of these objects are stunningly beautiful.

But from the very first one in the Met’s installation, I noticed that something was different about this exhibit. For what I think is the first time in the museum’s history, the Met has labeled these works as by artists, rather that using what has become tradition in most art museum for Native American works–merely identifying the tribe from which the object comes.

ghost dance labelSo when you see the “ghost dance dress” at the top of this post, you will see in the label I have posted below that it was made by “Southern Arapaho artists” in Oklahoma. No, we do not know their names, but identifying the piece as by artists acknowledges it as a work of art, rather than an enthographic piece.

You may recall that I wrote a Page One Arts & Leisure section article about this for The New York Times in 2011, when the Denver Art Museum was leading the way.

The nut paragraph said:

Art museums have collected American Indian objects for decades, but, like natural history and anthropology museums, they have tended to treat them as ethnographic pieces, illustrative of a culture. Wall labels have generally steered clear even of the “anonymous” designation commonly used for Western artworks of unknown authorship and in cases where Indian artists left signature marks — as Chilkat weavers of the Pacific Northwest long have, for example — this evidence has often been ignored.

Later, the article read:

“Recognizing that Native American art was made by individuals, not tribes, and labeling it accordingly, is a practice that is long overdue,” said Dan L. Monroe, executive director of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., which has a large Indian collection and has made some attempts to identify individual artists since the mid-1990s.

MetNAPermAnd, explaining how Bill Holm, a pioneer in trying to identify the hand that created many anonymous Native American works was thinking about the problem:

Just as the creator of an altarpiece in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence is called the “Saint Cecilia Master,” the maker of a 19th-century Haida chief’s beautifully carved chair in the Field Museum in Chicago is the “Master of the Chicago Settee.”

In my 2011 article, I reported that many museums were not updating their collections to reflect this new trend because it costs a lot to make and install new labels. So, on Saturday, I went downstairs at the Met to see what was happening in its Native American galleries.

No change: In the case of wonderful items I show at right, five carry tribe labels–Arakara, Crow, Yangton, Teton and Brule Sioux. Only the tobacco bag is attributed to an artist, Joyce Growing Thunder Fogarty–and that is because it’s modern, dating to 1977, and we actually know the name of the maker.

And that, as I wrote, maybe a matter of costs.

MetNAPermLabelStill, I was so pleased with the Plains exhibit and the new labeling that when I ran into a friend that day at the Met, I told her about it. Her immediate response, which she walked back after I explained my enthusiasm for the change, was “political correctness.”

I don’t agree. I often call out political correctness when I see it (cf. the last two paragraphs here). To me, this is about recognizing something as an object worthy of being in an art museum, as an individual object of artistry by an artist or artisan, and not as a representation of a culture, just as Dan Monroe said above.

Here are links to my previous posts on this subject, herehere and here.

I know some people do not think that Native American utilitarian objects, such as the ghost dance dress or a shirt are art–largely because they are utilitarian. I do not want this post to start that argument again–no one will profit from restating positions that have been stated so many times before, to no avail. Let’s agree to disagree.

Photo Credits:  © Judith H. Dobrzynski



  1. Traditionalist says

    Perhaps your friend has a point–making a fuss over linguistic technicalities on Native American artifacts labels does seem politically correct, because the very same sort of succinct, cultural labelling is standard for the arms and armor, antiquities, and other collections of anonymously created works at the Met, without anyone perceiving a cultural slight. Mandating the word “artist” on the label for every unsigned object in the museum is just cumbersome, and unnecessary, in my opinion. Isn’t the display of the piece in the Metropolitan Museum enough? The designation “artist” or “Master” is in fact misleading, as it reflects our own Western individualism and secularism rather than the actual role and assumptions the artisan had within his own Non-Western culture.

    • “Anonymous” would suit the situation (and me) as well for Native American objects. One point not in this post, but in my 2011 article, is that some collectors of Indian objects (like Heye) didn’t bother to even try to find out who made them. They were collected as ethnographic pieces, in bulk. Furthermore, we do try to identify the hand in Greek and Roman antiquities.

  2. You write: “. . . as an individual object of artistry by an artist or artisan. . . .” I found the “artist or artisan” a little confusing. Are you treating the two as synonyms, or do they mean different things in your view. Most dictionaries define the latter term as meaning, for example, “a person skilled in making a product by hand” [key word: “product”], “a skilled workman; craftsman,” “a person skilled in an applied art; a craftsperson,” and ” a skilled worker who practices some trade or handicraft.” (The examples come from the online ‘Free Dictionary,’ which gathers together definitions and much else from various dictionaries.)

    Please clarify.

    Louis Torres, Co-Editor, Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts)

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