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My Native Art: Regarding Obligations and Social Pressures


Native Art and Social Pressure

A few years back, a friend of mine proposed that native artists have a responsibility to give back to the art. His belief was that our cultural art form was not ours to begin with. He argued that it belongs to our ancestors. He insisted that we are borrowing the art, so we need to repay. His idea for repayment was specific: we should donate our native art for public places.

I took a position against his proposal almost immediately, with opinions of my own:

  • The artwork created using traditional art form(s) is the product of the individual. An artist owns his own work.
  • Native artists have few limitations or obligations.
  • There are no overlords
  • Artists already “pay back” in many ways.

An Artist Owns His Own Work

Using my own artwork as an example, I said that my ideas originate in my own mind. My finished works belong to me because I created them. My friend persisted with his argument that the art form came from our ancestors, so I don’t own my work.

I recognize that our art comes from generations before. But even long ago, great artists got paid for their work. In effect, a transaction was necessary to complete proper ownership. A ceremony then increased the value and it put that art in clan ownership. The implication is that ownership transferred from the artist.

I can copyright my artwork if I need to protect it from unauthorized reproduction. An individual may claim ownership of his or her art as property.

Clans assert intellectual property ownership of specific designs, clan crests. Clans own communal artwork such as totems and house screens, because they paid for it. The purchased work originated with the artist, even if he worked from a description.

On many levels, art is property. It is the property of the artist until a transfer of ownership.

Native Artists Have Few Limitations or Obligations

As a native artist, I enjoy a lot of freedom. I learned our traditional formline style but I can be as creative as I wish. I am free to create with formline, color, and materials in ways that might surprise our ancestors.

This wasn’t always the case. There was a period when native artists were trying to revive the old art forms. There was pressure to stick to the more traditional art style. Because of an interruption in the apprenticeship system, there were fewer skilled artists. It was important to regain what we were in danger of losing.

Today there are many artists who have mastered the traditional art forms and the art style. Cultural centers, university classes, and individual apprentices ensure the perpetuation of our art.

There is less pressure to work within strict prescribed rules. Yet, it is almost a given that we need to learn the older techniques and style first. After that, we have a choice to work within an older style, or to personalize and innovate.

Because of the revival of our art forms, innovation allows our art to evolve. Except for that era of cultural interruption, our art has always been evolving. It is a living, ever-changing tradition. How exciting!

I’m always influenced by what has gone before. It’s important for me to acknowledge those roots. I’m influenced by past and present artists. But I’m careful not to “steal” someone’s work. I must also respect clan property. With those considerations, I have few limitations.

There are No Overlords

No one keeps track of whether an artist is “following the rules.” No one dictates whether we do something for free or not. For that matter, no one decides where the direction our art(s) are heading. There are no overlords. How stymied we would be if there were!

As an artist, I practice cultural awareness and respect. I do enjoy artistic freedom. Sometimes I work in a more traditional style, other times I bend and break the “rules.” Some people prefer one over the other. But there’s no one telling me what I can’t or shouldn’t be doing. I follow my cultural conscience and also my intuition.

Every artist contributes something, some in big ways, some in small ways. We all contribute to (but don’t control) the process of evolution. Artists in the public have more influence than one who only makes art for personal pleasure.

Other things that influence the direction of art are those that create standards. These could be jurors who put in the public’s mind art that they deem to be excellent. It could be grant programs that do the same. Collectors, galleries, and curators’ ideas about quality or value contribute to external standards. But no gatekeeper enforces standards upon artists. We do that ourselves.

Artists Already “Pay Back”

To be honest, it bothered me that my friend insisted that I should be donating work to the public. I try to make a small income from my art, and I don’t have all the time in the world. If I kept track of the hours that I put into a single piece, I’m sure I’d pay myself minimum wage.

Artists tend to be generous. We are eager to help and teach. I, and many other artists, donate art to organizations for fund raisers. Sometimes I’m asked to create¬†a clan design for no charge.

We’re all part of this wonderful evolutionary process. We all get to play a part in it. It’s not something that indebts us, it’s something that enriches us. It’s a gift!

I experience both internal and external pressure as a native artist. Some are imposed, others are self-imposed. In both cases, I begin must question the legitimacy. I need to maintain a sense of integrity as I continue to create.


Posted in Opinion, Tlingit Art