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To Be of Use
Tevere MacFadyen
May, 2015

Artists of Earth and Sky, the temporary Plains Indians exhibition currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, is exquisite and deeply complicated.

Created in collaboration with the Musée du quai Branly in Paris and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, the show draws on the resources of those three institutions and many others to present an extraordinary survey of Native American artwork from pre-contact to the present day. With a few notable exceptions, primarily among the contemporary works included, nearly every object displayed serves some functional purpose. There are robes, shirts and dresses; shields and headdresses; pipes and pipe-stems; cradleboards, baskets and bowls. Even the beautiful and painstakingly detailed winter counts, rendered on entire deer or bison hides, are documentary records of historical events.

The exhibition’s curatorial point of view is explicit: that the makers of these objects were artists, and the objects themselves are artworks. This is refreshing in a way, as it confronts head-on the enduring shibboleth that traditional works made by Native Americans are craft, not art. But at the same time, by portraying the work as fine art and strenuously avoiding interpretation of the objects’ functional aspects it risks inadvertently diminishing what may be their makers’ highest achievement: creating things that are simultaneously utilitarian and very beautiful.

The label for a small, smooth wooden bowl reads: This early carving is an abstract depiction of the sacred beaver. The sleek, rounded form and long, flat tail identify the animal. When turned over, it served as a bowl. Through reduction and simplified representation, male carvers of the Woodlands and Plains tribes sought to capture the essential characteristics of their subjects. The finest among them, like this artist, demonstrated great skill in combining form and function.

This is undeniably true, but the text might as easily have read: This handsome, compact bowl is carved to depict the sacred beaver. The sleek, rounded form and long, flat tail identify the animal. Through reduction and simplified representation, male carvers of the Woodlands and Plains tribes sought to capture the essential characteristics of their subjects. The finest among them, like this artist, demonstrated great skill in combining form and function.

The emphasis is different, and emphasis matters. The object was made to be used.