Crafting Identity: Scholars and Museums


(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 Six: Indian Arts, Scholars, and Museums

Shlossberg gets very pedantic at the beginning of this chapter. He lays out his thesis and intends to make the point very clear. Yet he still ends up doing it within a story. See the quote below:

Too many American scholars, curators, and museum directors imagine that they have broken down cultural barriers, that they are acknowledging and honoring unexamined, endangered, and “noncapitalist” ways of life by presenting Indian tales. Ironically, by presenting Indian tales, these scholars and their institutions have accomplished just the opposite – they have sustained and perpetuated the cultural hierarchies and the elitist identity-cum-cultural politics in Mexico and the United States that have justified and moralized the exclusion and subordination of poor rural Mexican citizens in both countries. (Shlossberg, 182)

Shlossberg then goes on in the rest of the chapter to tell a “baroque” story. He tells the same story twice: as a screwball farce, and as an American tragedy.

The screwball farce is about a book called “Cordry’s Masks of Mexico.” Of questionable scholarship it managed to become the “authoritative” source of masks in the 1980s. Artesanos changed their masks to match it to sell what people wanted as “authentic”. Then the cultural specialists who fostered all the artists, “discovered” the fraud and protected the “authentic” artists again.

The tragedy is that these artists that were encouraged to make “Cordry” masks by the cultural elite of Mexico, were then blacklisted by the same elite, which took no responsibility for its part in the farce. And the result of the new, as of the old, view of the authentic, was that same exile and separation of the Indian, even as the same Indian was idealized.

I can’t help but stop at this point and make my own observation. Throughout many of the chapters in the book comments are made about how the market spoils the Indian and his art. Yet Shlossberg showed specifically in one chapter how being a good merchant and a good artist was essential to being a good artist. And in every example about the market as corrupting, the evidence in the book is opposite.  It is the elitist, the one that separates, that wants to keep the Indio separate and ideal, that denies the benefits of capitalism to the Indio. And it is when the Indio is allowed access to the benefits of the market that he loses his separation, and gets the chance to forge his own identity. For as the title of the book indicates,  it is the making of the crafts that crafts identity here, and who gets to craft that identity for the Indio? The Indio? The Mestizo? An interaction of both?


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