Brynna Elizabeth Tussey: Western Hegemony in Tourist Art Aesthetics

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Brynna Elizabeth Tussey is currently completing her MA in Latin American Studies at the University at Albany, SUNY after earning her BA in Art History at University of California, San Diego.  She works on developing an aesthetic system for the interpretation and evaluation of Pre-Columbian art, and will be conducting fieldwork throughout Latin America in the next few years.

Beginning in the Victorian era, art collectors began to have a fascination with so called primitive art and objects. The term primitive, in this case, applied to all societies that fall under the colonial gaze as being less developed, in a sort of paradigm between the untamed primitive and refined civilized. As Mark Antliff and Patricia Leighten put it, “(a)bove all we should think of the concept of the primitive as the product of the historical experience of the West and more specifically as an ideological construct of colonial conquest and exploitation”1. The examination of art from outside the Western sphere operates around a cycle that determines an art object’s authenticity, intention, value, and cultural significance.

Authenticity is rooted in the evaluation of indigenous or primitive art. The term authenticity literally means “of undisputed origin; genuine” which translates into the art world as a work that is not influenced by the Western world. Yet once an object has achieved the coveted status of authentic, it is no longer considered art. Rather, the work would be an artifact from a society or civilization, stripping authorship and credibility from the work.

In his article “African Art and Authenticity: A Text With a Shadow,” Kasfir discusses the cycle of authenticity and art, as well as the cultural appropriation of art outside Europe. The West, he asserts, has appropriated the other, by collecting African art as a hegemonic activity.2 By appropriating these works, the West is experiencing discovery of new objects and, in the process, developing an arbitrary canon to evaluate the art of these civilizations and to determine authenticity of the subject matter. These canons, developed by enthusiastic collectors, had no relation to the intention of a piece, the history of the culture that created it, or the physical location of creation. Instead the canon was developed to suit the interests and preference of the consumers. The result of this is an arbitrary set of principles and evaluations, under which artisans must adhere to create art objects that are profitable.

Otherness is a notion that Western aesthetics has capitalized on. The term refers to the foreignness of an object, its intention, or its social placement. Books such as The Empire Writes Back discuss this notion, detailing the ways in which Otherness in art has affected the West’s idea of itself and other cultures, both for the better and worse. 3 For example, when indigenous art intersects with the West, a cross-cultural interaction occurs where there are indigenous forms of production, such as traditional textiles, incorporating typically Western influences, such as an Escher pattern. Two problems arise from this – the market for these products, and the implications of these products culturally.

In an age of constant cultural interactions, how can one create “authentic” non-Western art? An artist would need to conform to the delineated ideals of the intended audience. Walter Benjamin wrote, “authentic art is produced in the context of the religious cult and in response to the demands of tradition.” 4 Benjamin is positing that in order for an object to be created as authentic, the object has to be based in some ritual, and thus serve a ritual purpose. In the Western world this could be an artifact used in the Church, such as a reliquary. The implications for a non-Western civilization, such as wood carvers in Oaxaca, would need to be steeped in the ritual history of Mexico and inherently exemplify “Mexican-ness.” The Western consumer purchasing only works that are perceived to be authentic, primitive, or indigenous creates a market for a specific type of production. In order for artisans outside the West to support their work, they must then limit their creation to fit within these pre-ordained confines created and perpetuated by Western observers, who do not necessarily have any idea of the history of the person from whom they purchase the works. Tourists are generally looking for a curious item to bring home from their travels to describe the cultural variety they have experienced. Yet by their participation, conscious or otherwise, tourists contribute to the cycle for artisans that prevent development and a reshaping of the aesthetic system outside the West.

(CREDIT: Authors own, purchased in Oaxaca 2012, artisan unknown)

Image: © Brynna Elizabeth Tussey 2012

The application of Western aesthetics in the cycle of evaluation for art objects in Mexico is not a recent issue. As early as 1955, Tatiana Proskouriakoff wrote that the murals at Bonampak were “best regarded as colored drawings.” 5 Proskouriakoff ‘s notion of Western aesthetics of shading and dimensionality, which she goes on to do, is inapplicable. Mayan art does not fall within the confines of Western aesthetics – it was not created for a Western audience. It would be, therefore, inaccurate to attempt to compare art from the two civilizations, as they require separate means of interpretation. The Western aesthetics model has become the standard for the production and evaluation of art outside the Western influence. Applying this methodological approach to Oaxacan wood carvers, it produces a similar result. In Oaxaca, woodcarvers adhere to a certain style formation of work that imitate the “authentic,” or successful style, rather than independently develop a new style for fear that would not be as marketable to the tourist who has a preconceived notion of “authentic Mexican art,” perpetuated by the West based on a few arbitrarily selected stylistic elements. Michael Chibnik6 unintentionally reinforces this model in his writings by identifying the artists who are more successful, and therefore more authentic, than others. By continually comparing artists, and elevating some over others, academics have continued to perpetuate the image of the true indigenous in stylistic relevance and authenticity.

To see how artisans interact with the market in Oaxaca, please watch this video of Igor Garcia, who is selling his woodcarvings to tourists on the beach. In it, a sale transaction occurs between Garcia and the tourists. He lays out his objects for them, and takes a bartered price for his work. The tourists inquire about his family and how he learned his trade.Cultural interactions and conquests have shaped Vodou from its roots in Africa, and continue to do so in Haiti (Thompson). Thompson writes that Vodou is “…one of the signal achievements of people of African descent in the western hemisphere: a vibrant, sophisticated synthesis of the traditional religions of Dagomey, Yorubaland, and Kongo with an infusion of Roman Catholicism.” 7 By picking up bits and pieces of each of the cultures it has interacted with to form an individual identity, Vodou is like a tumbleweed; it has persisted and grown new elements as ideas and influences have molded it.

Image: © Pierrot Barra, Vodou Thing 2012

Image: © Pierrot Barra, Vodou Thing 2012

The exotic nature that associated with Vodou has become the primary interest in tourism to Haiti. Tourists hold a unique societal role, where they go to explore themselves outside the West; in a non-Western society, they seek to do this through the observation and participation with the “Other.” Thus it has become marketable since the 1940s to reproduce Vodou because of its exotic appeal to the wealthy Western tourist. It seems foreign, mysterious, and exciting to the Western tourists who seek themselves in the “Other-ness” of Haitian Vodou. 8 The awareness of this within Haitian society has prompted Haitians to “… in effect, perform imitations of the tourists mimesis of themselves. The tourist can mistake this acting for revelation of the natives real, colorful selves, which serve as a mirror for the subjects search for the self.” 9

In many ways, the tourist effect in the art market has been a positive for Haiti. Western money does make a tangible difference in the lifestyle of the average person. Adjusting production to fill the needs of the market is an effect of capitalism; the ability to adjust to that need and fulfill it is imperative to economic survival. Yet with the introduction of the tourist interest in Vodou art objects, Western tourists have undermined the established professional artist system that was in place to create artisans from the peasant class. The idea of what is termed art is a complicated structure – the primary takeaway is that in the Western world, art is a product of the elite. Therefore to come into a society like Haiti, which has a significant history of colonial oppression and government system that can be best compared to feudalism, and develop a new art aesthetic system is a social challenge. While it does empower a few, those that is does empower tend to be those who already practice Vodou for the tourist and, therefore, have access to capital. Rather, the art market in Haiti empowers those who already have power and agency over the tourist, which continues to perpetuate the economic struggle in Haitian society. This is a continuation of social colonialism. Since a market exists for these products, it can be assumed that tourists are not interested in true art objects from outside the West; they are interested in the production of works that appeal to Western aesthetics and adhere to Western conventions of art, albeit in a new physical formation. The reality of the tourists’ interest completes a cycle that does not permit for artistic development and growth in non-Western societies. It continues to impress that the West is the zenith of artistic achievement, that art from outside the West is a pale imitation, and that traditional modes of production outside the West, in order to be considered significant or lucrative, must be articulated with the “safe”patterns or imagery. It removes both the tradition for authentic art, and the potential growth within this work.

The alternative to this method is to employ a Marxist approach to the production of art objects. In this framework, art objects would be created with the intention of perpetuating a classless society- a process of equalizing citizens. Marx’s original conception of art “…is by implication free of any social purpose, an object of contemplation or enjoyment, perhaps in line with Kant’s definition of disinterested aesthetic experience”. 10 Later in his writings, Marx also asserted that “…any and all products of culture are dependent on the socially organized ‘base’ of material production.” 11 I bring in these quotes not to argue about the role of art in the production of culture, because that is a fixed and uncontrollable variable. Rather, I am arguing that art history can shift to accept that the production of these objects as a natural effect that adheres to the demands of the tourist market and create a more balanced manner of aesthetically judging these works. Instead of creating a system of subgrouping elements into art, artifact, and commodity, art historians need to shift to a method of observing art as a product of a culture that transcends class limitations and socio-economics.

“Art for the sake of art” cannot be produced in areas with such poverty. Objects that are developed are done in way that appeals to the buyer and profit go from hand to mouth. The continued application of Western Aesthetics outside the Western sphere perpetuates colonialism and reinforces a geopolitical power structure. Approaching the production of an aesthetic system that follows a non-capitalist model would be particularly effective in areas of high poverty such as Haiti, which has been compared to a semi-feudal state. Objects that would be typically consigned to the label of commodity would be elevated to art; this title appoints a greater value and historical significance to objects in a capitalist market. A greater revenue possibility would lead to an increase in interest of art production that is truly reflective of a society or culture, rather than commoditized “otherness” that Western tourists seek.

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Please contribute to the discussion below.


  1. Antiff, Mark and Patricia Leighten. “Primitive” Critical Terms for Art History Second Edition. Robert S. Nelson and Richard Shiff. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 2003, pp. 217-233
  2. Kasfir, Sydney Littlefield. “African Art and Authenticity: A Text with a Shadow”. African Arts, Vol 25, No 2 (April 1992) 40-53., p. 42
  3. Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. The Empire Writes Back second edition. Routledge, London 2002, p. 155
  4. Coe, Michael D., “Art and Illusion among the Classic Maya”. Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University Vol. 64, (2005): 52-62., p. 53
  5. Ibid, Coe p. 53
  6. Chibnik, Michael. “Oaxacan Wood Carvings in the World of Fine Art: Aesthetic Judgments of a Tourist Craft” Journal of Anthropological Research, 62:4:2006, pp. 491-512
  7. Thompson, Robert Farris. Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy. Chapter Three: The Rara of the Universe: Voudun Religion and Art in Haiti. Random House, New York 1983. 163-191, p. 163
  8. Richman, Karen. E. “Innocent Imitations?” Authenticity and Mimesis in Haitian Voudou Art, Tourism, and Anthropology. Ethnohistory, Spring 2008 55(2): 203-227.
  9. Ibid, Richman, p. 209
  10. Werckmeister, O.K. “Marx on Ideology and Art” New Literary History, Vol. 4 No. 3, Ideology and Literature (Spring 1973) 501-519, p. 505
  11. Ibid, Werckmeister, p. 505

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