I appreciate Northwest Coast art for many reasons. It is semi-abstract, which always captures my imagination. It has a historical and sociological aspect, so I can combine intellectual and aesthetic interests. It is the art of my home, although not of my culture. But, sometimes, I think that my main reason for buying Northwest Coast art is that it is one of the few modern forms that remains largely unaffected by scholasticism.
By “scholasticism,” I refer to the modern trend in many of the arts for artists to be more interested in theories or concepts than in craft or any general audience. It is a trend that has occupied most of the twentieth century, and continues to prevail in the 21st. I’ve seen it first hand in poetry and literature, and it seems equally prevalent in music, painting, and dance. It is the approach that Tom Wolfe slammed, outrageously and a little unfairly in architecture when he wrote From Bauhaus to Our House.
Under scholasticism, what matters is the theory behind it. Before anything else, what interests the artists of scholasticism is demonstrating that they can put the theory into practice. Their work tends to be crammed with obscure references and in-jokes, and their talk is usually more about the theory than the work itself. It creates a vicious circle, with artists losing audiences because of their obscure practices, then retreating into even obscurer theory in reaction to the lack of audience.
While exceptions exist, Northwest Coast art seems largely free of such attitude. Beginners may be told to read Bill Holm to understand the mysteries of formline, but nobody reacts when someone breaks the alleged rules, or strikes out in a new direction, as the Salish artists have in the last few decades. Similarly, while many artists have experimented with the forms of modern art, few seem to become obsessed with the theories behind the forms.
Why Northwest Coast art has been spared this obsession is probably complex. But it is not because the art is in any way primitive, any more than Celtic knotwork is primitive. Such forms can be dismissed as primitive or romantic only to those who have not bothered to learn about them.
Nor is it naive. Many Northwest Coast artists are just as prone to in-jokes as any mainstream artists, but the difference is that the jokes are an extra layer of meaning, not the only one, nor even the most important one most of the time.
Nor does the reason has anything to do with the rigidity of change, or even the marketplace. For the last century and a half, Northwest Coast artists have seized on new media whenever they have had the chance. Argillite, glass, aluminum, canvas – each of these has been eagerly adopted as soon as it became available. The same is true of tools, from steel engraving tools to power tools. And, as often as not, the artists have begun work with new media and tools with only a few denouncements from their peers, people, or clients.
If anything, this versatility may have helped Northwest Coast artists take scholastic art in their stride. Although scholasticism is all about breaks with the past – often, the nosier the better – few Northwest Coast artists seem to consider new media, tools, or techniques a radical departure. This attitude has become very apparent in the Bill Reid Gallery’s current Continuum show, in which the curators’ efforts to start a dialog about the differences between traditional and contemporary first nations art has met with very limited success. Almost all the artists in the show make clear that they don’t see such an opposition.
Another reason for the freedom from scholasticism may be that, unlike modern mainstream artists, Northwest Coast artists tend not feel deracinated. Their art is not only an expression of their cultures, but a statement that their cultures are alive and thriving. Even those who did not grow up in their cultures generally feel an urge to know more about their origins as their art develops, and, for many in their communities, the success of Northwest Coast art is an obvious source of pride. Rediscovering and proclaiming their cultures, perhaps, is more than enough of an agenda to be going on with.
Not only that, but Northwest Coast art has genuine popularity, both among the first nations cultures of the coast and a small segment of the general art-buying public.
Admittedly, this popularity is not an unalloyed good. I have heard artists complain about being limited in their subject matter because something too esoteric won’t sell. Some artists, too, are tempted by the tourist trade, and start producing cheap curios rather than art. In addition, the popularity of the art form ties too many artists to the gallery system, and allows a handful of gallery owners far too much influence on what the public sees.
However, this popularity still gives Northwest Coast artists a huge advantage over their mainstream counterparts. Unlike mainstream artists, Northwest Coast artists know their work is appreciated – sometimes for the wrong reason, sometimes condescendingly, but appreciated all the same. Much of the public art in British Columbia is from the first nations, and, internationally, probably only art from the American Southwest is more eager sought after. In their own cultures, art is increasingly wanted for potlatches and ceremonial purposes.
Unlike many mainstream artists, Northwest Coast artists – even the most reclusive ones – have a dialogue with their audiences. They may not always like what they hear or agree with it, but they can still count on a degree of interest that mainstream artists can hardly imagine. So long as that interest remains, I suspect, it is hard to imagine scholasticism ever getting much of a hold in Northwest Coast art.
Why disengage and retreat into the cloisters when you have people who want to talk about your art? After all, that is what most artists want, even those who are most deeply into scholasticism – an audience that engages their work.
I used to wonder why mainstream art events so rarely included first nations artists in Vancouver. The communities seem very separate, even though a few people like Andrew Dexel or Sonny Assu seem to cross between them. The answer, I now believe, is that the two communities are so different that communication is difficult. Their approaches, attitudes, and perspectives are so much opposed to one another that the surprising thing is not that some Northwest Coast artists are exploring the mainstream. The surprising thing is that any have managed to do so at all. But, apparently, Northwest Coast Arti is in such a healthy state that it can even absorb attitudes that are opposite to its core assumptions without any real difficulty.