PRINT December 1970

A New Wing at the Museum of the American Indian

WHAT MOST PEOPLE CONSIDER AMERICAN art is an art-come-lately in the history of this continent. Rising up and beyond it in a density of centuries is a wave of creation by the original men of this land, the American Indian. This name is typical of the warped view we have of them, for it is a misnaming on our part, their having nothing to do with the Indies and other attributes that we often place upon them. However, their art and thought (these go together) are open to us as human beings, if we can put aside the chauvinistic, self-superior attitudes that empire builders held towards the “savages” that they displaced, or attempted to destroy. It might be said that our adoption of an interest in things Indian is a signal that they are gone completely and that we are indulging in a sickening sentimentality over something that has vanished forever. But happily, this is not the case. The Indians survive, their art survives and in our spiritual crisis we turn to them with perhaps a desperate hope.

In New York City, far from the supposed centers of actual culture, the museums and galleries in the dead center of the city, is a place that quietly exists like a pueblo, a mesa or an island, at Broadway and 156th Street, The Museum of the American Indian. It is not unknown, but in comparison to the focal point for the floods of culture-hungry people at the Metropolitan Museum of Art it is a quiet and neighborly place. It goes about its business of presenting the art and culture of tribes we have all heard of in childhood or adult dreams: Hopi, Navajo, Apache, etc.

The following words are about a new hall of North American archeology. However, it would be misleading to speak of it alone. The museum is a unit. One room belongs to another. Here is one gigantic esthetic thrust added to the others. However overwhelming the first impact of the availability of items might be, it is one of delight. The joy is of art put into body ornaments, tools, weapons and charms. The separation of man from nature, outer or inner, is lacking in the flush of these geometries and imaginations put into substantial form. Here is, time after time, the visual and tactile objectification of inner realities confronting our eyes. Already in ancient times the Indians had mobile masks, art as ritual (games or play), with their creations to be worn as environments or mental manipulators in the face of harsh necessities. These were not pretenses for the superstitious or foolish, but sharp understandings of the close relationship that art has with everything. This was held in such high regard that there would be no need to talk of it as separate from living in reality. This applies to ancient archeological masterpieces of sculpture as well as present day silversmith work. The new addition to the permanent exhibitions includes not academic potsherds but works that cause adults and children to mentally do handsprings. A case containing stone pipes indicates carvings with the widest range of the understanding of the function of sculpture of all sizes. The amazing C. B. Moore Collection of Southeastern sculpture pulls you in and out of forms solid and open. The mound builders are represented strongly with large and small masterpieces in shell, stone and wood. In the last category is the superb wooden mask of the Spiro Mound in Oklahoma. It is a human face topped by antlers, with inlaid shell for eyes and mouth, and in its immensity carries us beyond its eleven inch height to an area that blends sky and earth. This is not a matter of poetry, but factual data relating to the shamanistic functioning of such a mask, to wearer and beholder both. There are no documents from the past for such verbal excursions, except for the experience of the masks and sculptures themselves, which far outweigh anything nouns might say. This is carried over into pottery, ritualistic or otherwise. It is felt and seen in the heads of axes and maces, beyond those forms we remember, into those which put contemporary sculpture to shame if comparisons are made. The closeness of a life of life and death, need and accomplishment, made the relationship of man to material things evident. And we are men. Thus, for us these revelations are still being made, tossing off the dust of time and the ashes of synthetic polluting environments against which our human spirit struggles.

M. Yang Mei