An Indigenous/Non-Indigenous or Western/Non-Western Art Dichotomy?

As I've mentioned here and here, this summer I'm working at Ketchikan's Totem Heritage Center, one of the best places in the world to see old, original totem poles. They say that being a tour guide is all about saying the same things to different people every day, although after a while they sometimes seem to be the same people every day. One of my coworkers even said that tour guides are like people with Alzheimer's and OCD at the same time. In any case, the visitors who come to the Center often ask the same sorts of questions, and though I'm always happy to answer them, there is one theme of questions and comments in particular that always catches my attention. The theme is making comparisons.

Comparisons can be a great thing; they're a great tool in the analytical belt of a historian, social scientist, or any thinker in general. On the other hand, it's very interesting to see in different situations how certain comparisons tend to be made much more often than others. At the Totem Heritage Center, comparisons are made daily between the totem poles visitors see and other "indigenous" or even ancient art. People most often seem to bring up Polynesian artforms - the moai of Easter Island or the art of the Maori and Aborigines. Most often the latter comparisons are made by New Zealanders and Australians, which of course makes sense. Then there are people from the U.S. and Canada who may compare some of our art to the styles of Natives in their own area, often the U.S. Southwest. Again, this makes a lot of sense, just as I compared the totem poles I grew up with in Ketchikan to the art of the cathedral I found in Strasbourg (see this post). You make comparisons with what you're familiar with.

At the same time, however, there are also a lot of comments about how the poles remind people of ancient Egypt, or sometimes ancient Mexico. Ultimately, the point I'm driving at most concerns the comparisons that are never made - and those are comparisons with European, "Western" art. If people really tend to make comparisons between what they see and what they're familiar with, then why have I never heard a comment on how Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian art compares to Euro-American or East Asian art when the vast majority of visitors to the museum are European, European-American, and East Asian? Though they have very different purposes, (totem poles being decidedly non-religious in nature), I still think totems compare well to European cathedrals. In addition, I think drawing connections between clan crests and heraldry or between formline style and cubism is relatively easy and even natural to do, but it seems I'm the only one who brings up the similarities. Visitors will agree with me, but they won't think it up themselves.

Now, please don't take me too seriously on this post. It is absolutely not my intent to criticize the visitors at a museum: It's my pleasure to answer every question that's asked, and I'm genuinely curious to discover what people know and don't know when coming to the museum, and what they wonder about. Still, part of me wonders whether their exists a sort of dichotomy in people's minds between "indigenous" art and the rest, or between "Western" art and the rest. Making comparisons is great, but shouldn't they extend between all peoples, societies and cultures? There's nothing that inherently separates the European, "Western" art tradition from art in the rest of the world, and there's nothing inherently static about indigenous tradition, despite what some may think. All of humanity has its interconnections and similarities, and all those comparisons should be explored.

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