Thursday, January 15, 2009

Culture Vulture

37. Culture Vulture

I first encountered this phrase “Culture Vulture” in a conversation with Duane Slick, a Native American artist from New Mexico who uses a lot of text in his work. We were talking about Tony Hillerman and the success he’s had writing novels about Navajo policemen. It brought up questions about cultural rights and creative profit. When, indeed, are we as artists (of any race) being parasites and when are we being enslaved or coerced by the marketplace?
The American Southwest has such a powerful culture, blended of Native American, Latino and “Wild West” elements that it saturates its local markets. For potters, the Carolinas have a similar cultural dominance with Jugtown and “old-timey” themes dominating. I first encountered this phenomenon at a private, special interest Fair near Phoenix. The group studies medieval European culture and I happen to make pots strongly influenced by English, German and Italian pottery. “White boy” pots, if you will.
The people walking past my booth were confused by my pots. Almost literally a “what is it?” attitude prevailed among these people who, though actively studying the Middle Ages did not recognize the pottery forms of that period and were confused by their dissimilarity to local (Southwestern) pottery.
My question to myself was, “could I sell non-Southwestern pots to Southwesterners?” On a crude level this is a matter of selling “white” pots to “white” people who don’t even know that there is a “white” cultural history in ceramics. Dominated by cultural influences from the Orient and Native America, many students of ceramics suffer from the same problem. When Japanese wood-fire is the height of “cool” how uncool is 16th century German saltware?
Does globalization entitle us to an equal share in all cultures and an equal market in all venues? Rarely are we learning our profession from our parents and rarely are our cultural horizons limited to our regional tastes, but regional stereotypes and ethnic chauvinisms still apply. And so, what is the solution? How do we learn from culture without being seen as stealing from it? And how do we balance a cold-eyed realism about what will sell with our idealism about the objects we should be making?
Initially, it’s important to understand our own ignorance and its dangers. I used to decorate some pieces with fanciful Japanese calligraphy. People would ask what the characters meant. I would answer, “Oh nothing, I was just having fun with the brush.” Until it occurred to me that the characters might actually have meanings and those meanings might be rude or inappropriate. I stopped, except for a little stamp with the carefully researched Kanji for dragon.
Then too, if you think of yourself as a citizen of the world, entitled to all the benefits of globalization, live that way. Truly blend your diverse influences until you have created a new whole particularly reflective of you. Choose your sales venues to match this, as well. And finally, consider the inadequacies of our individual cultures. Few of us live in monolithic local cultures capable of supporting us emotionally and financially. All our cultures “leak” to some extent, letting bits of the outside world in and influencing that outside world subtly. Anyone who focuses exclusively and narrowly on a single cultural aesthetic, whether that of their youth or some distant social group, may simply be answering their own calling, however mad it may seem to outsiders. It is not for us to either condemn or praise such a narrow effort. Perhaps it is enough just to admire good pots without a fetishistic focus on the circumstances surrounding their creation. It may well be more important to understand the many ways in which our own choices are being influenced by outside forces we consider too lightly.

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