Theses Doctoral

Diplomatic Aesthetics: Globalization and Contemporary Native Art

Watson, Mark James

This dissertation examines contemporary Native American art after postmodernism. It argues that this art can best be understood as an agent within the global indigenous rights movement. Employing an object-based methodology, it shows that three particularly important works by the artists Jimmie Durham, James Luna, and Alan Michelson recover histories and strategies of Native cultural diplomacy as a means of challenging cultural erasure and political domination. I suggest this can be understood as a Native rights version of what Hal Foster calls the "archival impulse" in contemporary art after postmodernism. Diplomatic in effect, this Native art engages international viewers in an argument about justice, challenging a largely non-native audience to recognize the ethical legitimacy of Native empowerment and the contemporary relevance of indigenous political and cultural models. These models, which I put in dialogue with the indigenist philosophy of Taiaiake Alfred, the recent writings of art critics like Foster, and interviews with each of the artists, are presented as alternative models for all peoples. Against what Alfred calls the "culture war" of contemporary globalization--which aims to extinguish indigenous cultural frameworks once and for all--this art establishes a "regime of respect" among peoples with different visions for their respective futures. In so doing, it asserts balance and solidarity against the explosion of inequity within both the contemporary art world and the neoimperial lifeworlds of globalization.

I organize my research into four chapters. The first chapter unpacks the uncertain place of Native art within postmodern and globalization discourse developed largely without reference to indigenous rights. It proposes an alternative framework of indigenist "diplomatic aesthetics" for understanding the way contemporary Native art globalizes indigenous ideals of international relations. The subsequent chapters examine three twenty-first century artworks, each of which recovers a diplomatic model and cultural framework specific from the history of the artist's tribe. These are cases studies of diplomatic aesthetics. My close analysis of specific art works, their multiple historical and cultural imbrications, and their global context and agency is meant to counter the limited engagement with specific art works in existing context-driven scholarship. It also counters the postmodern framing of Native art, which problematically emphasizes "identity" and "representation" over the politics of sovereignty, indigenous intellectual paradigms, or the global agency of Native art and ideas.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Hutchinson, Elizabeth West
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 2, 2014