What is Art?

Kwakiutl transformation mask. Source: Aldona Jonaitis 1991: pp. 42, 43.

When I think of art the Kwakiutl come to mind. The Kwakiutl had no word for art but art was everywhere, in all aspects of their lives. Every utilitarian object was a work of art, whether it was a grizzly bear or otter bowl, a whale spoon, or a heron fishhook. There was a seamless dialogue between natural elements, animals, utilitarian objects, dreams, and their complex mythology. Fire-lit dances inside the long houses of Fort Rupert with dancing bees, bears, and eagles would have been my idea of great performance art. Octopus hats with moving tentacles, giant bird bill masks opening to the beat of the drums, transformation masks which opened with strings to show one creature morphing into another—these objects, sacred or just plain fun, were used on many occasions. Whale and bear spoke to otter and raven and entered the vision quest and then everyday life. Totem poles and button blankets, it doesn’t get any better. Beuys was trying to reconnect to this world of the animal powers when he spoke to a coyote and a dead hare. With our mass extinctions, artists would do well to rethink of goings on at Fort Rupert, Alert Bay, and Hope Island. I would prefer the generosity of the potlatch to another art fair.

Contributor

Ann McCoy

ANN McCOY is a visual artist who teaches in the Yale School of Drama. She is the winner of a Prix de Rome, a D.A.A.D. Berliner Kunstler Award, and others. Her work is included in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Hirshorn Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and others. Currently she is working on a fairy tale she has written. It will be projected on the front of the Pfaueninsel Castle in Berlin. She worked with Dr. C. A. Meier, Jung’s heir, in Zurich, and has studied alchemy for 35 years.

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