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WLNG
March 29, 2006

Between The Covers


The title Two Essays: Chief & Greed couldn't be more appropriate. Signaling with four plain words literary mode, subject matter and theme, and using the ampersand to link the two main nouns, thus almost equating them, the well-known anthropologist and archaeologist, Dr. Edmund Carpenter puts forth in his latest book, a provocative, impassioned and sobering account of the history of American Indian artifacts and the founding of the Museum of the American Indian that should be essential reading.

Though professionals involved in archival research will surely be fascinated by what Carpenter has to say, the essays should appeal to anyone interested in museums, biography, and reading about chicanery in the world of art collecting.

Carpenter's simple, declarative sentences and personal interjections clearly promote understanding of the value of Indian and Eskimo art. And how wonderful that this remarkable scholar can hardly restrain his outrage at the venal, power-hungry collectors profiled here who violated the trust inherent in their work and in the mission statements of the institutions they represented. Carpenter's concluding words are practical but subtly directive. Commenting on identities blacked out he says, "The dead can't sue for libel. The living can. Where appropriate, their names have been deleted in the manner of the Freedom of Information Act."

The main focus in "Chief" is the eccentric millionaire George Heye (1874-1957), an arrogant, 6' 4" pleasure-loving, cigar-smoking bully who enjoyed throwing his ample weight around. Of the official view that Heye devoted his life and fortune to "saving a vanishing legacy," Carpenter coolly remarks, "That's a stretch." As he points out, Heye's true passion was not finding or possessing but making a "great killing." Though his Golden Rule for field collectors was "buy only old, no tourist material," even if made by Indians for Indians, he himself sometimes could not tell the difference between fakes and souvenirs, and authentic discoveries. That he hired over the years at MAI an impressive staff of young mavericks who would go on to fame in anthropology, archaeology and ethnography, is almost beside the point.

Heye ruled his roosts like a tyrant, his eye always on the bargain acquisition. Still, his antics, some of them criminal, pale in comparison with the machinations of those who followed him — museum directors, collectors, trustees, dealers, so-called art experts — those ostensibly committed to safeguard what they received but who "for their own ends and egos" falsified records, sold off what was not theirs to sell, and got away with it, while MAI went bankrupt.

A much-published specialist in many fields, Carpenter, who lives in Amagan-sett, brings to his quirky essays confidence and frankness that reflect years of love and hard work exploring new ways of looking at cultures and at the interactions of art, history, and media (Marshall McLuhan was a University of Toronto colleague and friend, Margaret Mead a close confidante for several months). The medium here is part of the message: those expecting the two essays to follow a linear structure will find instead text alternating with photos and drawings: Carpenter would remind readers of the treasures that the greedy and powerful — and often ignorant — secretly sold off or traded away. A particularly fascinating section of the book recounts the influence of the Surrealists who found in American Indian art "visual puns" that influenced and reinforced their own creations. They "celebrated tribal art and taught the West to recognize masterpieces."

This is an unusual and impressive book. "I offer no explanation," Carpenter on occasion says of interpretations decreed by others about myths said to lie behind the construction of certain artifacts, particularly masks. But what finally distinguishes Chief and Greed is not just the author's scrupulous regard of evidence but for ethics: "There are two kinds of professionals: those with honor . . . & those without." A reader never questions where Edmund Carpenter belongs or why. What an admirable and rare quality to have inform research.

Two Essays: Chief & Greed by Edmund Carpenter. Persimmon Press, 191 pp. inc. notes, biblio, illus.

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