Richard Shiff’s “The Necessity of Jimmie Durham’s Jokes”, Lisa


Richard Shiff’s “The Necessity of Jimmie Durham’s Jokes”,Lisa Corrin’s “Mining the Museum” and “I’ve Always wantedto be an American Indian” by James Luna share similarities in theissues and concerns they address. The three works address issues andconcerns relating to the relationship between cultural identity andart colonial dominance in art and art ownership and historicalauthenticity.


The relationship between cultural identity and art – the threeartists make it clear that when people analyze a piece of art, theyare interested in learning about its origin. Many people want to findout, for instance where an artifact came from, and if the individualsassociated with the artifact are the main creators of it.

For instance, Shiff demonstrates how many Indians living in Americahave had their works cancelled because they could not identifythemselves as Indian. Shiff uses the illustration of “Durham isCherokee” to argue that when exhibiting art in New York, anindividual ought to have certification to truly demonstrate that thework is Indian (Schiff 75). The objective is to relate the art withIndian cultural identity.

Likewise, Corrin (1) in her analysis of museums makes it clear thatone of the many ideological apparatus fundamental to museum practicesis cultural identity. She further notes that most of the works foundin museum have a cultural heritage, meaning that they identify with aspecific population.

Luna on the other hand, uses a photographic essay to ensure thatpeople understand what it means to be an Indian American. In theessay, he highlights the different things that happen in an “Indiansociety” in the process associating his essay to an Indian cultureidentity.

Colonial dominance in art – the artists argue that although it isimportant to link art with a specific culture, as in the pointdiscussed above, such cultural identity has often resulted in someform of colonial domination. Colonial domination in art becomespossible through laws, which restrict others from showcasing theirart.

Shiff makes this clear by demonstrating how the “Indian Arts andCrafts Act of 1990” spells out art, which can “be represented asUnited States Indian Products” (Shiff 74). Shiff is concerned thatsuch a law, which arguably aims at ensuring authenticity in art,excludes those who are truly Indian from exhibiting their work. Thelaw protects “its citizens” those considered to be Indian in theprocess excluding those who cannot provide membership proof to theirIndian tribe. As such, work considered to be authentically Indian,depends on whether the artist is considered an authentic Indian.Shiff questions the fate of Indians who cannot authenticate theirtribe, but are indeed Native Indian Americans. He concludes that artthus becomes a form of ideological colonization. Art is acceptedbased on the idea that it has been proved to originate from anIndian.

Corrin (2) addresses the issue of colonial dominance in art byexpressing concern over the language and practices used by museums.For instance, by museums continuing to use “dilemma labels” theyexpose and discourage the tendency to exoticize different societieswith the objective of upholding colonist domination” (Corrin 2). Inaddition, museums continue to exhibit works, which found their wayinto the collection via colonial officers. While museums may continueto present such work as historical artifacts, the question over howsuch works gain entry into the museum highlights a form of colonialdomination. This is because the museum continues to use and exhibitworks that are not really theirs, on the mere fact that they arehistorical works.

Luna satirically addresses people that desire to be American Indian.He guides the reader through La Jolla reservation, where one is ableto learn about the racist, economic as well as politicalsubordination of the natives, which are factors linked to colonialdomination.

Art ownership and historical authenticity – this issue is mainlyaddressed by Shiff and Corrin. The artists question the approachesused in determining the owner of a work of art, and in determining ifartwork is original.

Shiff addresses the issue of how art has emerged as anentrepreneurial business. For instance, he notes that since theIndian art market is yet to become saturated, and the demand forIndian art progresses to be on the rise, a profit intention motivatesentrepreneurs to introduce the issue of inauthentic goods (Shiff 74).The goods may not be inauthentic, but are categorized in that mannerto protect a few sources of artwork. This has resulted in laws likethe “Indian Arts and Crafts Act”, which determines AmericanIndian products. Such laws ensure that only a few people whose workis considered “Indian” because they are able to providemembership of belonging to an Indian tribe sells in the U.S. Indianart market. Shiff is thus concerned that the methods used inauthenticating art are flawed. His argument is that work cannot beconsidered authentic based on its tribal origins. Such a basis alsoraises concerns as to who really own authentic work.

Corrin (4) notes that there are many contradictions between artpresentation and its context. She is concerned that museum practicestend to silence the voices of some, while others are heard. Asmuseums continue to use historical artwork, mostly brought in bycolonial officers, issues of ownership arise. This is alreadyapparent owing to “pressures by native populations (for museums) toreturn their cultural heritage” (Corrin 1). Corrin is alsoconcerned that hierarchies are used in determining what art, period,and style is high or low. Such an approach does not trulyauthenticate art to its history. Instead, it is an approach thatseems to give more precedence to some cultures, while others are not.

Luna does not address the issue of art ownership and historicalauthenticity in the same way as Shiff and Corrin. However, he doesprovide important images, which show the historic origin of Indians.By using the photographs, Luna aims at portraying the actual outlookof the life of Indians and where they come from. He aims atquestioning those who attribute themselves or desire to be referredas American Indians, if they really know what it means to beconnected to Indian heritage. He presents a genuine starting point,which can be used in addressing people as American Indian.


Luna’s strategy is most interesting. While Shiff and Corrin presenta lot of informative information on important issues and concernsrelating to artwork, Luna’s strategy is straightforward. He useswriting as well as photographs, making his presentation aphotographic essay. This is an effective approach, because it makesit possible for the reader to not only have an imagined view of whatis addressed, but is able to see what Luna is talking about owing tothe photographs used.

Works Cited

Corrin, Lisa G. Mining the Museum: Artists Look at Museums,Museums Look at Themselves. (n.d): 1-22.

Luna, James. I’ve Always Wanted to be an American Indian. ArtJournal (1992): 18-27.

Shiff, Richard. The Necessity of Jimmie Durham’s Jokes. ArtJournal (1992): 74-80.