Are Museums Accidentally Supporting Stereotypes about Native Americans?

Think of all the famous museums in the United States? Which ones come to mind? I would guess your list includes any of the Smithsonian Museums, the National Gallery of Art in D.C., the American Museum of Natural History in NYC, or the National Museum of American History in D.C. However, when you think of the exhibits in the museums, what do think of? Pieces by artists such as da Vinci or Renoir would probably come to mind. Rarely would people think of works by Native American artists. This is due to a lack of awareness and education about Native American art—schools simply do not offer materials or examples of this type of art. Thus, the problem arises that people grow up without a realization of the importance of Native American art. Without Native American art, we can never tell the whole story of American art simply because Native American culture is apart of American history.

I attended a lecture last week that discussed this problem, specifically in terms of how museums handle native art. Surprisingly, most museums do in fact have collections of native art; however, rarely are they displayed to the public. If a Native American art collection is shown, it is usually exhibited in an ethnographic way, lumped together with African ‘tribal’ art. This tribal art idea arose through the colonization of American—it implies that this type of art is primitive or inferior to that of Western civilizations. Furthermore, one could almost bet that the Native American art collection only includes art up until the mid-20th century, which supports the stereotypical view that Native Americans are no longer here. These Native American collections (if displayed) are usually found in the back of the museum, sending a statement that those collections are less important and supporting the stereotype of Native Americans.


With additional research about this issue, I found an interesting article that talked about how the way museums display Native American art can be demeaning. For example, at the American Museum of Natural History, Native American art can be found right next to the dinosaur exhibit. This display placement sends a message that these people are from an uncivilized, natural world; when in fact, evidence found by archaeologists (such as Cohokia artifacts) shows that Native Americans had their own civilization, society, and technology—they were not uncivilized or savage. Furthermore, these exhibit usually have 3-D depiction of a Native American scene (a diorama). These dioramas support the belittling stereotypes about Native Americans and takes away from the value and history of the art by guessing about how that culture lived.


Therefore, the root of the problems facing Native American art comes from the way it is presented in schools and museums. Museums are being ethnographic by only displaying native art from prior to the 20th century while schools teach little about Native American art and history. Thus, both institutions create a population with little appreciation for such an important part of our history. Only with better education and awareness about Native American art can our society learn about the complete American past.


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Decolonization of Indigenous Art: Challenges in the museum

Since the Age of exploration and discovery, western civilizations have extended their political and  economical influence to the rest of the less-developed world through colonization. The technologic progresses during the industrial revolution further accelerated the speed of colonization and facilitated the implantation of western power in the colonies. With no doubt, the western dominance in the colonies’ politics and economy also encroached the culture and art of indigenous people. A great many natives under colonization gave up their traditional ways of living and crafts-making and embraced the western counterparts.


World Colony Map circa 1750

In the contemporary society where diversity and multiculture are advocated, decolonization in political field is on the way. Many countries in Africa and Asia became independent during the mid twentieth century. However, the decolonization of indigenous art encounters with loads of challenges, because the cultural stereotypes deeply imprinted prevent people from respecting and appreciating them. The native American art is just the case, as shown more evidently in the Brooklyn museum.


Inlayed Pipe Bowl with Two Faces, Sioux, early 19th century

Their works of art are rarely exhibited. Among the total twenty long-term exhibitions in the Brooklyn museum, only two are relavant to native Americans, which are Life, Death, and Transformation in the Americas and Small Wonders from the American Collections.

Even there are only two, their works of art are not in independent sections. Life, Death, and Transformation in the Americas focus more on Maya and Aztec, with a smaller portion on native Americans, while Small Wonders from the American Collections focus more on European settlers. The mixed display of native American arts with other art forms admittedly helps the visitors to compare for the stylistic and symbolic similarities and differences, but it also invariably lessens their attention to native American arts.


Kachina Doll (Anahoho), Zuni Pueblo, late 19th century

The location is another challenge. The two exhibitions are located in the fifth floor, while in the four floors below there are African, Asian, Egyptian, European and modern arts. Usually visitors start from the first floor, so the exhibitions there are commonly the most popular. Similarly, the fewest visitors will go to fifth floor. Even they do, they are likely very tired and will only skim the exhibits instead of looking closely.


A contemporary native sculpture by Rose Bean Simpson

Last but not least, the contemporary arts of native Americans are missing. There is not even one piece of them in the Contemporary Art Galleries and in American Identities: A New Look, Modern Life. The indigenous arts did not disappear in modern world. On the contrary, they are thriving in rich forms, such as ceramics, paintings, sculptures and hides. Also, the contemporary native American arts are indispensable, because only with them can we find out the continuity on forms and styles through history. There is no reason to be excluded.

There could be a solution to the challenges in museum. Like Paul Chaat Smith, to be a curator or to establish a museum as a native American may help spread and preserve native American arts. But still it is a long way.




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Paul Chaat Smith:

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Exhibiting the Colonized: Modern America’s Erasure of Contemporary Native American Art

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Native American art? If you’re anything like the majority of non-Native Americans, a vague jumble of pottery, baskets, and blankets probably sums up all you know about Native art. But what about prints, photographs, paintings, and all the other forms contemporary art can take? Native artists have been creating incredible, inventive contemporary art for decades, but most Americans have no clue.

Here’s a piece of contemporary art you’ve probably never seen before: “Animals out of Darkness,” a 1961 print made by Inuit artist Kenojuak Ashevak and displayed in “Decolonizing the Exhibition,” a show of modern Inuit art hosted by the Frances Lehman Loeb Gallery at Vassar College.

The reasons for this knowledge gap, said the artists, collectors, and curators on the panel Decolonizing the Exhibition: Four Perspectives on Indigenous Visual Culture in the Museum Space, are numerous. First off, very few museums exhibit contemporary Native art. Some own contemporary pieces but never let them out of storage, while others display only decades-old examples of “traditional crafts” that are often viewed from an ethnographic perspective—that is, not as works of art, but rather artifacts that provide information about the life ways of Native peoples.

For example, a look through the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website revealed a single gallery containing the “art of Native North America,” part of a larger collection entitled “Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas.” The most recent pieces in that gallery are “1970s-era tobacco bags.” By contrast, the American Wing has 73 galleries, while the Modern and Contemporary Art collection hosts over 12,000 works by a wide range of international artists dating from 1900 to the present. Although it would have been impossible to look through the combined 29,000 pieces in these two collections, the fact that the gallery of Native art is separate from both the American and the modern collections suggests that few to none of the works in the two latter collections are by Native artists.

The gallery of Native North American “artifacts” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In addition to this museum conundrum, the panelists pointed out that Native Art is rarely studied or discussed in academia. Sarah Sense, a Native artist with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art, said that she had never taken a course in Native art and had rarely seen any examples of it during her time in art school. Similarly, Pilar Jefferson, an art history major at Vassar, said that she had never discussed Native art in the classroom.

This erasure of contemporary Native artists has a range of negative consequences. By only exhibiting works that are generally over a century old, museums reinforce the Eurocentric narrative that Native Americans all died off or simply vanished after the arrival of European settlers. And by displaying Native art as ethnographic artifacts or traditional handicrafts, museums negate Native artists’ creativity and ability to respond to the modern world.

“Red Raven, Red Raven,” a screen print made by Tom Greyeyes, a contemporary Navajo artist, in response to Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Tonto in the recent film adaptation of “The Lone Ranger.” This is one of many examples of Native artists critiquing the portrayal of Native Americans in popular media.

From both the panel and the exhibition of contemporary Inuit art in the Loeb Gallery, it quickly became clear that contemporary Native art is not only real but thriving, addressing everything from the incorporation of modern technology into traditional life ways to the portrayal of Native Americans in the media. Contemporary Native American pieces are not crafts or artifacts; they’re works of art.


To see more contemporary Native American art, check out the following links:

Tom Greyeyes’ blog

Sarah Sense’s website

The Museum of Contemporary Native Arts



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The Metropolitan Museum of Art website

Decolonizing the Exhibition: Contemporary Inuit Prints and Drawings from the Edward J. Guarino Collection

Sarah Sense Weaving Water

Pitaloosie Saila Strange Ladies, 2006

Vassar College’s Art History program has been known for its progressive contemporary art programs, but for this experiment interdisciplinary efforts were called for. In fact, the Art department was not the one to call for this experiment – the Native American Studies department did the majority of the preparatory work under Professor McGlennen. It took two years, but the class, Decolonizing the Exhibition, was a huge success; pulling from the Art History department many of its students. In its novelty the exhibition held a panel for students inside and outside the class to hear from the forces that put the exhibition together. One panelist was McGlennen herself; another, Edward Guarino, a collector of Indigenous art and friend of Vassar; third, a student: Pilar Jefferson; and lastly, Sarah Sense, a Native American artist.

All four panelists explained the goals of the course as related to the art/museum world, as well as the education world. The panelists expressed their concerns that they had never learned about the contemporary Native American art movement in their Art History educations and when they came into contact with Indigenous art in the museum it tended to focus on older generations in an anthropological manner.

The way this exhibition was executed – through the Native American Studies department instead of the Art department – allowed for a new approach to contemporary Indigenous art installation. Jefferson and McGlennen both explained the limitations and challenges of such an exhibition, especially in a museum, where traditionally Indigenous art is displayed in an anthropological manner, stopping right around the 20th century – as if Indigenous art died out, as if Indigenous people died out. This tradition of displaying only older generations of Indigenous art and artifacts in art museums reinforces the colonialist view that Indigenous people died out when the Europeans came.

McGlennen and her students stressed this problem in their working on the exhibition, in hopes that they could destroy this traditional view of Indigenous art. They picked contemporary art because it was so rare in the art museum and it exemplifies the struggles that Indigenous people encounter, sometimes the same problems as older generations, often compounded with new problems. They also expressed interest in being as true to the artists in their wall labels as possible because none of the students were Indigenous themselves. They began each label with a quote from an Indigenous person, always conscious of their job as allies.

The most important theme in this exhibition was the idea of “the story.” It seemed to all four panelists that Indigenous art sought to tell, express, or continue a story. Sense and McGlennen, both Native American, agreed with this idea; Sense many times told a story herself in hopes to explain her art to the students. McGlennen stressed, though, that the exhibition’s purpose was not to simply display the art in a non-anthropological way, but to help display the art without adding America into the story. Even if America affected the story, the story was never about America.

The Penitente Brotherhood and Images of Death

Last Tuesday, Professor Carlo Severi gave a lecture regarding a cult of Christianity (the Penitente Brotherhood) that developed in certain areas of the United States (New Mexico and Colorado).  Since the Penitentes are a rather secretive group, Severi had to draw information on them from images and the conditions from which they arose.  At the heart of his talk, he wanted to convey the necessity of the images and traditions developed within a culture.  It was not enough that the images he presented merely be observed as empirically demonstrable facts; rather, he sought to show that the conditions of the culture in which they arose were such that they had to.

One of the major factors leading to its creation was the interaction of Christian civilizations with Native Americans.  The lecturer noted their relationship was often contentious, resulting in fighting and killing.  One particular image – that of a Native American attacking an image of Jesus – became particularly salient.  The violence and persistence associated with these attacks were given a central role in cultic practice, to the point that a new saint, Dona Sebastiana, was created.  This unique figure is always depicted as a skeletal woman, often wielding a bow and arrow.  Even more interesting is the ritual associated with her in which an effigy of her with bow and arrow in posed to fire arrows at actual members of the cult who represent Jesus.

Dona Sebastiana

Dona Sebastiana

Beyond these visual differences, Severi went on to mention for theological differences between the Penitente Brotherhood and more mainstream Catholicism.  All of the images he provided during his lecture were very morbid in nature.  Dona Sebastiana for one was obviously a reminder of mortality, but beyond her, the Penitente Brotherhood practiced self-flagellation and simulated crucifixion.  One image that stuck with me in particular was that of the flagellation of Christ.  While this was by no means an unusual theme in Catholic imagery in general, the Penitente’s version was particularly graphic, the back of Christ being so abused as to reveal His spine and ribcage.  This paired with the symbolic attack on Christ by Dona Sebastiana mentioned above constitute a view of Christianity in which death seems to triumph over Christ rather than the other way around.

Kneeling Death Figure

Kneeling Death Figure

With this in mind, I felt Severi’s argument for the images necessity to be compelling.  Given the social climate in which attacks from Native Americas were a frightening threat and the relationship Catholic theology already had with death, the incorporation of new death images and attitudes seems at least a natural progression, if not a necessary one.



Weigle, Marta.  “Ghostly Flagellants and Doña Sebastiana: Two Legends of the Penitente Brotherhood”. Western Folklore , Vol. 36, No. 2 (Apr., 1977), p 136

Further Reading

Weigle, Marta.  “Ghostly Flagellants and Doña Sebastiana: Two Legends of the Penitente Brotherhood”. Western Folklore , Vol. 36, No. 2 (Apr., 1977), p 135-147

Dona Sebastiana: A Window into the Past

While Frederick R. Barnard coined the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words,” it was mostly likely Aby Warbury whose ideas lead to the creation of that phrase. After moving to Italy to learn about art, Aby Warbury (a German boy) quickly realized that art was more than just an image for aesthetic appeal. Rather, art was created to illustrate the memories of past societies. In other words, Warbury believed that art represents a window into past societies.

In a presentation given by Italian anthropologist, Carlos Severi, I learned about the affects that the arrival of the Spanish had on the indigenous people in New Mexico. Not only did the Spaniards impose their social and political systems, they slowly forced the native people to convert to Catholicism. Franciscan priests lived in the indigenous villages, teaching the natives about Spanish Catholicism. Over time, these native people began to forget their own religion and started to accept this new religion. However, by 1828, the Franciscan clergy left these villages and returned to Spain—leaving the indigenous people with a new religion that they didn’t fully understand and an old religion that they had forgotten.


Without priests to guide them, the indigenous people started to piece together a new religion: a mixture of Spanish Christianity and their old religion. This new religion, now known as the Penitente Brotherhood, was much darker than Christianity and focused on death rather than on redemption and light. Sacrifice, flagellation, and reenactments of Jesus crucifixion were all elements of Penitente Brotherhood. However, at the forefront of this new religion was Dona Sebastiana, the angel of death. Donna Sebastiana is usually depicted as a skeleton with long brown hair riding in a cart carrying arrows. Every year, she would ‘shoot’ one villager with an arrow, which meant that that villager was chosen to give up his life for his religion (in other words, he would become a martyr). It is believed that Dona Sebastiana is derived from the Christian Saint, St. Sebastian who died after being shot by arrows. This shows how the indigenous people were attempting to recreate the religion left by the Franciscans; however, because the Franciscans left before the indigenous people had fully understood and knew the religion, these dark modifications arose from the piecing together of the two religions.


This dark, death orientated religion arose only after the Franciscans left the Native Americans to make sense of an unfamiliar religion. Without guidance, these people pieced together what they remembered from their native religion and what they had been taught by the Spanish. While the rituals and figures of this religion are hard to understand, the context of the time period and the events leading up to development of the religion help us see into the memory of the indigenous people of the time. This idea, then, goes hand in hand with Aby Warburg beliefs on art. By analyzing and contextualizing images like Dona Sebastiana, we have a picture of what these indigenous societies were like back in the 1800s. Images of Dona Sebastiana act as a window into the thoughts and beliefs of the indigenous people.


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Rituals of the Mysterious Penitente Brotherhood

This week, I got to attend a lecture by Professor Carlo Severi on Doña Sebastiana, a worshipped symbol of death in the Catholic cult called the Penitente Brotherhood. The Penitente Brotherhood, made up of Spanish-Americans, began in New Mexico. The presence of Doña Sebastiana is not the only interesting tradition that arose in this isolated community; the Brotherhood practiced self-flagellation in the belief that they should experience Christ’s suffering.

I was interested in looking farther into the ritualistic practices of the Penitente Brotherhood. Historical records have helped researchers today learn about the Brotherhood. The work of Charles Lummis proved invaluable in painting a picture of the Brotherhood’s rituals when he had the opportunity to watch and photograph a crucifixion in 1888[1].

The ritual involved recreating the Passion of Christ. According to Lummis, he waited for the Holy Week, when he knew the crucifixion and other ritualistic acts of self-flagellation would occur. Lummis had to be persistent to obtain permission to photograph and attend the ritual, since condemnation of their practices had led the Penitentes to be very secretive. What he saw, included a procession where men whipped themselves, and one man even wore a pack of cactus with thorns that dug into his back. Lummis’s description of the crucifixion itself demonstrated how fully the participants believed in their rituals. Thomson writes, “As they tightened the ropes, the man on the cross ‘sobbed like a child,’ Lummis reported, not because of the pain but because he was ashamed that they were not using nails instead”[2].


One of Lummis’s photographs.

The Penitente Brotherhood is still active today, although they don’t do self-flagellation anymore. However, they are still very secretive in their practices. One ritual that an outsider was allowed to attend involved extinguishing thirteen candles and then praying in the darkness, to symbolize Jesus dying[3]. The Penitentes have also permitted onlookers for their procession on Good Friday, the exact events of which vary in each Penitentes community. Other than these practices, it must also be noted that charity and sacrifice are important values for members of the Brotherhood[4].


Rituals of the Penitente brotherhood today.


Understanding the rituals of the Penitente Brotherhood today is valuable in understanding a current cultural group, and also in understanding their rituals and reasons behind those rituals in the past. In archaeology, this technique of using behavior of a culture today to understand a similar or ancestral people is called analogy. Talking to the descendants of a group are invaluable, especially when dealing with the ethics of studying a culture. As interesting as the rituals of the Penitente Brotherhood are, they also represent real people’s culture and have to be respected in the past and present.

[1] Mark Thomson, “Encounter with the Penitentes”, in American Character: The Curious Life of Charles Fletcher Lummis and the Rediscovery of the Southwest (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2001), Accessed 11/10/13

[2] IBID.

[3] Ruben E. Archuleta, “Los Penitentes del Valle”, Colorado Central Magazine, Accessed 11/10/13,

[4] IBID.

A Picture Worth a Thousand Words

While to many the idiom, “a picture is worth a thousand words” is nothing more than an overused cliché, to some this phrase could not prove to be more accurate.

When Spanish settlers first arrived in Mexico, it became their mission to convert the natives of common day Mexico. The Spanish people forced the natives to assimilate themselves to the Spaniard’s language and religion and almost immediately upon settling, the conquistadors began outlawing parts of the Native culture. Most significant was the shift in religion that began to take place. The change started slowly, but eventually, the Native’s no longer knew how to practice their own religion. As Carlo Severi, an Italian anthropologist, discussed in his presentation, as the number of Franciscans began to dwindle, a new religion was born. Essentially, this new religion was based upon one image—an image of Dona Sebastiana.


Dona Sebastiana

Dona Sebastiana

The picture of Dona Sebastiana, arrow in hand, came to represent this new religion. It has been said that she was the angel of death and she picked who would next serve as priest by shooting an arrow at them. Thus, people sacrificed their lives for their religion. By merely looking at the image of Dona Sebastiana, one can understand just how much these Natives yearned for Christianity—they looked to the image of Dona Sebastiana because without it, they felt that God had abandoned them. For the Natives, the image represented much more than an simple picture.

Few people have studied the versatility of art in a more in depth manner than Aby Warburg. Warburg, a German art historian and theorist, believes that images serve far more than aesthetic purposes. He believed that art is a means of communication, a way of uniting communities and representing ideologies.

Aby Warburg

Aby Warburg

In his final years of life, Warburg became increasingly enthralled with the concept of memory and how images can actually construct the memory of an entire society.
He believed that one image may come to represent everything in which a culture is based.

Flag Raising at Iwo Jima

Flag Raising at Iwo Jima

I could not agree more with Aby Warburg. In my opinion, the quality of an image has nothing do with its aesthetic beauty. Rather, the most important aspect is the subject matter and the story the image represents. My favorite photograph, the flag raising at Iwo Jima, has come to represent the United State’s main goal: freedom and justice for all. It captures a memory in American history that will never be forgotten. A memory that Americans can look at in times of tribulation, which will give them strength to carry on. While aesthetically it may not be the most beautiful photograph, there is no denying that its power of unification is worth a thousand words.

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From the Aztecs to the Americans

Open up Google and type in “Doña Sebastiana” and peruse through the images that you get. It’s probably something like this:

Doña Sebastiana

Professor Carlo Severi’s lecture on the connection between art and social memory focused heavily on the relationship between christianity in Mexico and the depiction of Doña Sebastiana. The art and portrayal of Doña Sebastiana is fascinating as it brings about the question of the importance of death in Mexican Christianity. Christianity has traditionally focused on life and rebirth, such as the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Looking at Doña Sebastiana (or Santa Muerte as she is referred to sometimes) gives a completely different impression.

Anthropologically, this is an engrossing topic. To the Aztecs and the Mayans that occupied modern-day Mexico, death was a large part of religion and culture. Human sacrifices were not uncommon and both peoples prayed to their respective gods of death. The Aztecs’ death god was named Mictlantecuhtli, who ruled over all of the dead and was one of the more prominent gods in Aztec religion. The Maya believed in multiple death gods, all of which fell into two basic types: Hunhau and Uacmitun Ahau.

Mictlantecuhtli looked like this:

Aztec god of death, Mictlantecuhtli

Seems somewhat familiar? He looks almost like Doña Sebastiana! What is so amazing about this is that this is evidence of cross-cultural traditions with respect to the Christian Mexicans and the Aztecs. This reveals how their ancestors, the Aztecs, actually influenced the Mexicans of today. When Christianity infiltrated Mexico and South America in the 17th century, the Aztec and Maya people were supposedly wiped out. With them, most of their traditions were thought to have disintegrated too.

Yet here is proof that the Aztecs did in fact leave their mark on society today. This is where the importance can be placed on social memory – the cultural emphasis placed on death transcended through every following generation and managed to influence the portrayal of Christianity in Mexico.

Now, the cult of Santa Muerte has reached the United States. Through migration and immigration, the belief in Doña Sebastiana has managed to spread across nations, past the United States/Mexican border and into America. Its influence has also extended to non-Latinos, specifically in Louisiana and Northern California.

Just like history has shown us, cultures and traditions carry on through time and location. The social memory of Doña Sebastiana, passed down for generations is a prime example of this, and Professor Severi’s talk on this was stimulating, captivating, and thought provoking.



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Art as a Memory of a Society

The Spanish conquest of common day Mexico altered the lives of the indigenous people immensely. Not only was the land changed, their social and political systems tested and altered, their way of live and religion were violently altered. Italian anthropologist’s, Carol Severi, study of this revealed the new religion that emerged from the situation the indigenous were thrust into. Christianity was delivered to the natives and their old religion was thrown out; but when the priests who taught Christianity left generations later, the natives had to adapt to a religion that used to be taught to them, and they created a blended religion, a mix of the new and old. Interesting enough, this was expressed through their art.  Dona Sebastiana was adapted, a version close enough to Saint Sebastian, but with enough differences to show the blend of old and new and creation of a new symbol. This art tells a great deal about the society.

Image of Dona Sebastiana

Image of Dona Sebastiana

As Severi brushed on in lecture, this relates to Aby Warburg and his study of art, mainly, his assertion that art serves more than visual pleasure. Warburg believes that art constructs the memory of a society, that art serves as a social memory as a society can choose what it what to presents to the rest of the world. This is a completely different spin on the view of art then I have ever heard of, but it is simply logical.  Art is a type of expression. People want to express parts of their lives that mean a lot to them, why else would one spend hours and a countless amount of effort constructing it if it wasn’t important.

Struggles, triumphs, changes, traditions, leaders, commoners, monuments, terror, love and so many more parts of a society are expressed through art as these are the important parts of this society, the parts they want the rest of the world to know.  Take Paris, a majority of the art associated with it is the Eiffel Tower. Because it represents the city and thats what its known for. Art from many societies express their leaders, as they hold much importance and influence the society greatly.

Photo of Paris, with Eiffel Tower front and center

Photo of Paris, with Eiffel Tower front and center

Art is a form of expression that others can’t change. Sure, there will be art where its non monumental to a society. However, much art holds that emphasis over a society. More than that, images are necessary to exercise a certain kind of thought, thoughts that the societies hold and express and share with the world through art.


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