Updated: Jul 9, 2018
American Spirit cigarettes are the source idea for a body of works aptly called American Spirit. The artworks are a kind of meditation on the name. The packaging features a Native man wearing headdress regalia and smoking a pipe. There is a variety of colorful labels - one for each cigarette flavor. The name and presentation of American Spirit appeals to me, but I have conflicting thoughts about it: The smoking Native image used commercially to sell cigarettes is part of this country’s history of appropriation of things Native. We want the imagery, but we don’t want the Natives. It’s another example of flat-out exploitation of Indians. I’m quite sure that res Indians are not receiving a commission from sales bearing the name and stereotype image of their people.
These art works ponder the use of language, and the powerful Native imagery. The medium includes kitchen cutting boards engraved with text, stainless steel, and human hair. In traditional thinking hair is to a person, what wings are for a bird. Hair symbolizes the agency to get to the next world. It has a strong presence and meaning, and I use it with this intent. The idea of ‘American Spirt’ in the present or past usage has a potent content despite how it might be used in the commercial context.
Where is the thing called American Spirit in America today? Perhaps it is smaller, more personal, and more quotidian than before? There is no longer a pretense of largess or exceptionalism in this country domestically, or what we export as policy or message. Those days are over. Jamieson Webster uses the term ‘aesthetics of disgust’ to sort through the face-to face encounter with reality and the feeling of hopeless indifference to human pursuit. Art has the potential to bring us back to a kind of self-examination that has been mediated out of us.