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WORDS: Art as Change Agent (Indigenous Art vs. Western Art)

Updated: Feb 28, 2019

IMAGE: "Corn Teeth" by Terry Jones

This week’s topic is “Art as Change Agent.” Although there are many artists out there who have had great influences over why or how I make art, there is one literary “artist” who has had the most profound affect on me. This word artist is Walter Benjamin (1892-1940). Mr. Benjamin was a German philosopher and essayist. In one of my colloquium classes, we were introduced to his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” After reading this essay, how I viewed art was changed forever.

Prior to reading Benjamin’s essay, a guest lecturer showed the class examples of “art.” I was taken aback because almost all of the art being shown was almost exclusively from Western Europe. I sat there questioning what was going on in the rest of world. Why did it appear that Europe had the stronghold on art? I walked out of the lecture puzzled and a little bit angry. The following week, we were assigned to read Benjamin’s essay and then everything started to make sense. In “Mechanical Age,” Benjamin explored how the unique value of authentic art was based in ritual. This art object was based at a specific time and place and in essence it had “cult” value. This all changed in the age of mechanical reproduction. Reproductions of art objects could now be taken out of their original place and they could travel anywhere in the world. This shift from cult value to exhibition value changed the context of art objects.

I come from an Indigenous culture in western New York State. After the reading, I started to apply Benjamin’s ideas to Indigenous art. It is my understanding that my culture only recently (as compared to Western Europe) started making objects for their exhibition value. Prior to that time, most objects created by my people had functional value. Even to this day, there are objects like wooden lacrosse sticks and turtle rattles that still maintain their cult value. However, these objects could be a treasure trove for today’s art collectors and gallery owners. It would be difficult for me to look at these items for their exhibition value under glass in a museum or gallery.

How does Benjamin’s ideas apply to my art; namely film? Film and video are a relatively new art form for my people. Sure, we have been watching television programs and movies for decades. Today, in the age reality TV, nothing is sacred. Anything and everything can be captured on film and video and the exhibition value of these media are unlimited and extreme. Are my people ready to indulge in this media with the content specifically targeted at us? It might have interest to the outside world but to us, our ceremonies and ways of life are private. As an emerging filmmaker, if I divulge too much, my work can be considered exploitive. If I indulge too little, my art may be considered too bland. For me, my work has to walk that fine line between Benjamin’s definition of cult and exhibition values.

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