Friday, March 11, 2005

Clash of cultures

Note: I sent the following brief reflections on an obscure and different culture war a few days ago to an online list devoted to the discusstion and study of rock art. An artist had written the list that he and some fellow artists were thinking of doing some public art in a canyon in Mexico where there was some Native American rock art, as a tribute to these earlier Americans. This set off a firestorm of criticism and, indeed, abuse, of the artist and his project. Vandalism and cultural insensitivity were themes.

To the list:
I noticed at the time of the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban, that the actual Buddhists I know were less troubled by it than most other people. One, a western Buddhist, suggested to me that what was going on here--besides the ongoing political stuff--was an offense to the belief system (or as he put it, the religion) of cultured secular westerners. He, being one of those, may have had a worthy insight. As a semi-cultured semi-secular westerner, I certainly found his view plausible.

I think this discussion is interesting. On the whole, the substantive reasons given to our naive would-be rock-artist for abstaining from his project are perfectly reasonable. He might paint over some real rock art, not noticing it. His stuff might attract graffiti. He might be breaking Mexican law. Etc. However, the attribution of grave offense to the beliefs of people long dead is perhaps a bit of a projection, similar to the one I mentioned above. Likewise to the sensibilities of the local people of that part of Mexico today. Maybe it would be best for critics of this project to just be straightforward and say "don't paint in our cathedral", instead of "don't paint in _their_ cathedral".

Twenty five or so years ago I knew a guy in El Paso who would go out in the desert and create his own rock art. He did this for religious reasons. He said he had some Native American ancestry--not as a justification of his right to do this, but as a partial explanation of why he did it. In my hiking in the desert I myself later found two of his artworks, one a small painting in a rock shelter at the north end of the Franklins and one a petroglyph out near Mt. Riley. God knows how many are out there, waiting to confuse the unwary. His style was utterly unlike any ancient indigenous southwest rock art, and derivatively resembled some modern Pueblo pottery painting, as best I can recall. Anyway, no one will ever mistake it for the real thing. Even if it could be so mistaken, I am not sure what the harm would have been, frankly. Indeed, if his stuff survives in the desert long enough, it will inevitably (like the mid-19th century stagecoach stop graffiti at Hueco Tanks), receive official cultural recognition and protection.

My suggestion is of a practical nature: I think the artist should try to get official permission from the Mexican government for his group to do their project. I doing so, the existing rock art will be protected, if only because his group members will grow in maturity (or possibly grow old and die) before emerging from the legal thicket with a permiso--and in the process they will all enlarge their understanding of another culture. And, equally desirable, none of them will end up in jail.


--Jim McCulloch

1 comment:

Just Asking said...

Was the guy in the desert George Bird?