Jimmie Durham

The Bishop’s Moose and the Pinkerton Men (1989)

166_1989_The Cathedral of St John the Divine_JD03

Energetic intellectual inquiry and wickedly humorous satire characterize Durham’s conceptual art work.

Of the Exit Art show, Durham says:

I wanted to do this show specifically for the New York art system, but I didn’t want it to be exclusively about the New York art system: I wanted to try to get their attention to the fact that you could do something directly to them that wasn’t directly about them. I [also] wanted to talk about the history of Manhattan as a symbol and history as a metaphor.

Patient and ever gracious Durham loves to talk: over the course of our interview he riffs on the role of art in contemporary US society, notions of history and linear time, the Cherokee belief in the interconnectedness and Turtle as God.

In his own words

Dolores Brandon (DB): To what extent do you think the art world is stuck on you [and other Native American artists] as artifact, you as novelty, you as exotica?

Jimmie Durham (JD): I think it’s fairly absolutely stuck. I am a Cherokee artist – I am not just an artist, and I am not just a Cherokee. I am a Cherokee artist functioning in the New York art world and other places. So, I look at that and I say, society’s image that has been built up about artists and about art, is very similar to society’s image of Indians. Art is put on a pedestal, art is kept out of the world, it’s kept from functioning while everyone pretends to love it. We as Indians are kept out of the world, kept from functioning, kept from being free members of humanity while we are put on a pedestal, and everyone pretends to have sympathy with us. It’s all part of a social construct that happens. When we can poke at it, it’s an important thing because those [notions] are operative in society, are operative in the discourse, the narrative that runs this big old machine.

DB: Western art can be so self-referential. How are you subverting that?
JD: It’s a piece of foolishness that comes from the market economy that treats art as commodity. They can say how Lichtenstein is like or not like someone from the generation before. And if Lichtenstein was doing something that wasn’t referential within the art system, he wouldn’t have become Lichtenstein, or Rauschenberg, or Pollack, or any of those guys in that long history up to Jeff Koons – the current star for the next fifteen minutes. The work has to refer to other art fairly exclusively.

Again, it’s a way of keeping art on a pedestal, pretending it has importance within this silly definition of what is on the pedestal, as a way of keeping it from functioning in society. But there are some very necessary functions for art, and they’re not mysterious, not something unknowable. There’s no reason why art should be so compartmentalized that it cannot refer to everything else that’s going on in the world.

I think there are very many [functions for art] if we put them under a broad category of communication, and if we don’t think of communication as messages only. The visual arts have functions that are investigative and ceremonial. We as artists should be investigators, not message givers, but communicators with our investigations and with our ceremonies.

DB: So basically, you are still making ceremonial objects [in the traditional sense], but the ceremony’s taken out of the local community and into the world and it functions as an object of meditation on these concerns.

JD: Yeah, that’s accurate I think.

DB: The Exit Art show includes not only an exhibit of your paintings and sculpture but also a performance work based on your book, The Bishop’s Moose and the Pinkerton Men. The performance piece is very satiric, very funny.
JD: I like to address history as an idea; that means addressing the concept of history, and the concept of time as linear progression in a certain kind of way. We think that there’s a past, a present, and a future. And everybody thinks that, and everybody operates that way. In fact there’s only the past, that’s all there is. As soon as you’ve said it – it’s gone. We hope there is a future. We think the next second will happen, but we have no guarantees. All we have is the past, we live in the past. Strange bunch of business.

DB: You project far into the future with this work. Manhattan is grossly changed: is it a wasteland?
JD: It is a wasteland, at one point it totally sinks into the sky, but it becomes a wasteland by easy extrapolation. It’s that way now, and it’s been that way historically – so many atrocities here on this island throughout its history, throughout its Dutch and English and American history. And the viciousness that’s going on now, now that David Dinkins is the Mayor, the first black mayor in history. I’m sure there’s a conspiracy going on, a bunch of businessmen getting together to figure out how to make Dinkins look foolish this afternoon. I’ll bet they’re meeting in the Century Club or in somebody’s office to figure that out. And their purpose is not on behalf of Manhattan – the purpose of so much of what goes on in Manhattan has not been for the people of Manhattan.

I’m satirical about it because I don’t want it to be true. But I want to show it could be true, it’s probably going to be true, it may not be true, but that it has been true, and to do some satire on the fact that things do pass away. At the end of The Bishop’s Moose and the Pinkerton Men we’re already in the year 3056; white people and white culture have passed away. Well, if things go as they have always gone – that will happen sooner or later. Roman culture is not there, who are those people? When you look at history everybody disappears sooner or later.

DB: The words violence and savagery have been used by some art critics to characterize a point of view you express in your work?

JD: Yes, in regard to my performances: quite often. People accuse me of scaring the audience, of frightening the audience and of having too much violence. I always fear that because I never intend to frighten the audience and always assume – always a bad assumption – that the audience will not be frightened because they’re not being attacked, they’re just the spectators: they know it’s an art performance, so why would they be frightened?

But very often people are [frightened]. I think it’s because they’re seeing an Indian performance and assume something different. Just like seeing Indian art, people see it differently. They put blinders on and very often won’t look at the work very carefully because they already have the idea that it is Indian art.

With this performance I had a cast of black people who were dressed like savages and they were acting very belligerent toward me – not toward the audience. But quite a few people in the audience got upset and very, very many people came up to me afterwards to ask if I was okay, to see if I really had been beaten up by one of my black crew members. No one asked him if he was okay.

DB: Was there a particular reason why you selected black people to support you in the BISHOP’S MOOSE performance
JD: I like the idea of just mixing it up a little bit, that my Indian crew would not be Indians. These are all silly ways of thinking anyway. There’s no such thing as Indians, obviously. There are Cherokee, there are Apache, there are Navaho, Cree – whatever. We say black people, but if you go anywhere in the U.S. and you look at their culture, their way of dress, their way of speaking – you will find a black person from Detroit is [culturally] different from one in rural Arkansas. Then if you go to Africa, you see that it’s not a continent of black people, it’s a continent of Shona, Shosa, Nigerians etc. So, it’s such a foolish way of describing humanity, so incorrect; it has no reality to it. There is of course a cultural reality in this dominant culture about blacks and Indians that’s all too real.

DB: Thinking of another piece in this show – The Word is God – that was a joke?


JD: That’s a joke on art history, because when you read books, or memoirs there are always stories like that; now the stories have become such a cliché. And the specific feel and language to the story is also such a cliché that you can write any story. To explain the [performance] piece a little bit: here’s this big penis, that’s just drawn with a pencil. [The audience] – you – have to make a social agreement with me that it even looks like a penis with wagon wheels coming out of the balls, but shooting from itis the opening line from the Book of John in the New Testament in the Bible: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” It’s not my culture, but I can’t make any sense out of that. Maybe it makes mystical sense to a Christian, but to me I can’t see mystical sense: it looks like just this crazy arrogance. What is this Word in the beginning? And, what was the beginning; the beginning of what? And why was it a Word? Why not a turtle, or a rock? I say a turtle was with God, I like that better.

DB: Why do you work in so many different media?

JD: It’s a question I think finally of culture, once again: in my culture we don’t separate things, we just don’t do it, we try always to connect things. So I’ve been a serious poet all my adult life: I was publishing poems long before I was selling sculpture. And I knew to call myself a poet before I knew to call myself an artist. And I’ve gotten poetry awards. I published a book of poetry that’s gotten good critical attention and I’m trying to get another book together to give to the publisher now. I write essays, I write fiction, I just finished a film script. And I was taught to think of myself as a person who did whatever I wanted to do, and whatever I saw to do, and to use whatever gifts, whatever feelings, whatever insights or whatever outsights I might have.

In this culture everyone is taught to have a discipline: I was once turned down for an NEA grant because I showed them slides of both painting and sculpture, and their response was that I wasn’t a serious artist because I couldn’t concentrate on painting or sculpture. When in fact as a functioning artist in the gallery sense, I’m a conceptual artist who happens to paint, and who happens to be a sculptor.

I used to write political tracts, that I also work very hard at, and I’m a brilliant fisherman and that’s just as much a definition of myself: I’m a pretty good blacksmith, I’m really good with horses, and that’s as much my definition as any of the other things I might do. I’m good with animals, and that’s why I’m good with horses, and I used to work as a cowboy when I was younger, and I know how to treat a horse as an animal, and cowboys don’t. They’re out to break a horse; they see a horse basically as a cowboy tool to be used, and to be broken in before it can be used. But I can make horses do all sorts of amazing funny tricks just like a dog. You don’t need a saddle, you don’t need a bridle, you just need to talk to a horse, see his ability, be friends with him and he’ll do amazing things for you that they’ll never do for a cowboy.

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