Crafting Identity: A day at the fair

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(Note: I’ve posted comments and summaries of the texts of several books that I have had in my Master’s in Communications degree. This isn’t one of them, though it is by one the professors I have had for said degree. But it is the book I have most enjoyed reading from that academic background. I am sharing my own perspective on the book, and doubtless have missed much of the scholarly point and may even have misunderstood some of it. For the scholarly among you, I apologize for that. For the rest of you, I encourage you to read more deeply than you usually do with my “scholarly” reviews. This one is more fun, and more worth it.)

Chapter 1: Judgment Days I: Indian Tales at the Concurso Artesanal in Uruapan

Once we get into chapter one, the book is quite readable – especially for an academic subject. The beginning descriptions of the annual artisans fair have quite a bit of color for an objective piece. It is describing an actual event, so it tells it in more of a story format than other works.

The whole first chapter is a profile of a day in 2004 – at the Concurso Artenasal in Uruapan, Mexico. Shlossberg gives us an inside look into the judging process, which is usually a closed affair. All the artists from miles around submit objects to be judged in the competition, and when the judging starts, the door is barred, and only the judges are allowed inside.

Except Shlossberg, who had asked to be present to observe. No one had said yes. No one had said no. He just waited inside, out in the open, as it began. Several others were asked to leave and escorted out. Shlossberg was ready to leave if asked, but no one did. They bolted the door and he was inside.

His description of the judging process, and what the judges were actually judging for, is interesting. The best works were the ones deemed to be least touched by commercialism, the ones most traditional. But exactly what that was, the Mestizo judges knew better than the indigenous artists themselves. Something that the judges gave top prize to, the artists might come by later and point out what they saw as numerous flaws, but indigenous opinions of indigenous work didn’t matter.

Shlossberg also described what in the financial field would be called “insider trading” by the judges. For the judges were often also dealers, procurers, and collectors, who got access at cut rate prices to items that otherwise the market would have paid the artists much more for.

One judge, Victor Toledo, explains the attitude of many of the judges when he said:

Mestizo art is directed at pleasing other mestizos, but indigenous make art to please God or their gods. It is communitarian art that is made exclusively for and by the community. It has origins in ritual and it is made to please the greater being.  (Shlossberg, 27)

The judges award the artists whose works most closely resemble the social niche they expect them to fill. The role defines, and to a degree ostracizes them, from the rest of society. They can have this special place, this special honor, if they also accept this special distance.

This ultimately led Shlossberg to this conclusion, which he intends to support throughout the rest of the book —  The social purpose of judging the art:

We are your social betters. You will respect our social judgments and you will submit to them … and you will do it meekly and quietly, because that is your place in society. Stripped of its niceties, this is also the cultural logic and the social order that the judging ritual imagines, sanctifies, and presumes to reproduce. (Shlossberg, 22).

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