When I was in grad school a decade ago, I was a teaching assistant for a course called Art and Music from 1945 to the Present. It was one of the better gigs on campus, if you ask me. For a few hours a week, I got to talk with undergrads about contemporary art and music and, in return, my university waived my tuition. A free masters degree in exchange for talking about The Beatles? Yes, please!
One of the assignments my students had every quarter was to go to a gallery and write about three pieces they saw there. This wasn’t all that easy for a bunch of kids who were taking this course to fulfill a fine arts requirement and didn’t have any sort of background in art criticism. In order to hep them along, I created a list of questions for them to ask themselves when they looked at art. Invariably, the question that got them thinking the most was “Would you hang this piece in your living room? Why or why not?”. It turns out there’s something very provocative about asking whether or not a person could live with a piece of art. It’s a more complex question than “Do you like it?” and it forces the observer to go deeper into their reactions than they otherwise would.
This question is always in my head when I see the work of my friend, artist Gregg Deal. I first met Gregg when he was ramping up a business doing photo-to-painting pieces and was using the mom-blogosphere to build a customer base. I actually have one of those pieces in my house now. I can live with it with joy because it’s an image of me and my son.
But Gregg has moved on from the photo-to-painting milieu and he’s now doing AMAZING work highlighting the position of Native Americans in the US today. Gregg is a member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe and when he speaks, he speaks as an Indigenous man. And let me tell you, his work – particularly his performance pice The Last American Indian on Earth – is an education and a damned uncomfortable one sometimes.
I love Gregg’s paintings because they encompass all the things I really enjoy in art. They have a post-Pop Art sensibility and I can always see shades of Koons, Warhol, Lichtenstein, and grafiti artists like Haring and Basquiat when I look at them. He also brings words into his pieces, which I love. Very reminiscent of Jenny Holzer. So he hits all my high points. Stuff I love. But his messages? I’m not strong enough to sit with the lessons he’s teaching about the parallel histories of Indigenous Americans and the European settlers who systematically oppressed and killed them. I want so very much to deny any culpability in that history, I want to say “But I’m descended from Eastern European Jews! It was the 20th century when we fled Russia!” or I want to hearken back to my Irish ancestor who crossed the Atlantic clutching a letter of recommendation from his employer only to be told that in America, no Irish need apply. But I can’t hide from the part of my lineage that goes back to the earliest Protestant settlers. My people were here. I bear an inherited guilt. Until I reconcile that, I can only appreciate Gregg’s work from afar. Getting too close is…well, too close.
I’m not the only only who finds myself sitting in shame when discussion of Native oppression comes up. Last night, the Daily Show aired a fantastic segment about the name of the Washington, DC NFL team and why it’s a racist relic that needs to be changed. Gregg was featured on a panel of Natives and he sat there telling some fantastic truths. Truths that the opposing panel of fans of the team – and its name – didn’t like. No, that’s too gentle a word. They HATED hearing from Native people. A lot. They felt threatened by Indigenous Americans, although the same message coming from white Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones didn’t bother them. But in the end, the Daily Show segment illuminated the absurdity, misguided stubbornness, and covert shame of people who refuse to see the humanity in a stereotype. What Gregg does with art, the Daily Show did with humor.
I’m so proud to say I know an artist like Gregg. I believe in the power of art to change the world and I believe Gregg’s art in particular is going to help do just that by chipping steadily away at racist conceptions and making people confront their own beliefs. It’s not comfortable and I may not be ready to hang it in my living room, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn from his art.