This essay was in response to a FaceBook post by Steven Rhude, who quotes Erin Morton, regarding the myth of folk art as autonomous:
“The connection between Lewis’s domestic environment as a material symbol of “art for art’s sake,” in the most conventional understanding of the phrase, also provided a way for writers such as Mcoy to recast late capitalist Nova Scotia’s crisis of the ordinary in the contemporary moment. This crisis saw many in the province cling to economic self- sufficiency as a dissipating social value despite the fact that the market had folded such individualized labour into the logic of increased industrialization and urbanization. In other words, rural residents such as Everett and Maud Lewis were just as embedded in the systems of late capitalism through their peddling of paintings as were their urban counterparts whose labour more easily falls into formal categories.”
— Erin Morton
My response is as follows:
Nelson Rockefeller was a big fan of Mexican muralists and through these painters he became aware of Mexican arte popular. He began to acquire these indigenous colloquial artworks and eventually amassed a 20,000 piece collection that currently resides at the San Antonio Museum of Art. His fascination in this area corresponded with his other agendas in collecting what was then called “Primitive Art.” When emerging Modernist canons were being criticized for being ahistorical, Rockefeller and others attempted to fabricate a synthetic history for them by associating Eurocentric Modernism with non-Western and folk art traditions. This was essentially a Colonialist appropriation of a cultural auspice in an effort to rationalize European transgressive art forms. The works were largely removed from their original cultural context and their style was “borrowed” while their cultural substance was essentially discarded. The stylistic relationship between the work of early Moderns and so-called Primitive Art was largely exaggerated.
Surrealists mounted exhibits where their works were mingled with Oceanic and African artworks thus trying to establish a non-existent affinity. For the Surrealists who were concerned with Freudianism and deviant psychological narratives, the “primitive” works seemed irrational and were used as a trope for insanity. This was highly problematic and reflected racist attitudes of existing Primitive Art museums that were instruments for dehumanization and justifying colonialism. These primitive anthropological museums displayed the artwork like wundercabinets showing the exotic and the weird without any effort to establish cultural context since they believed the works to be evidence of the utter lack of cultural sophistication of colonized peoples.
But in addition to his Modernist agendas and his ostensibly nominally sincere fascination with Mexican culture, Rockefeller also had economic agendas. At the time, Nelson was trying to engage the Mexican government to allow him to exploit the country’s oil reserves. That government wasn’t eager to let Rockefeller make off with the national patrimony. Nor were American capitalists and politicians inclined to view Mexico as a source of economic potential. Rockefeller thought collecting Mexican fine art as well as arte popular might be an effective mechanism for enhancing American awareness of Mexican culture and motivate political forces to assist him in establishing greater economic ties with the country.
This connection between the exploitation of Mexico’s artistic traditions and international commerce extended into the relatively recent era. When the NAFTA treaty was initially being proposed politicians on both sides of the border anticipated popular resistance to their agendas for trade policy. In an effort to mollify this political resistance The Splendors of Mexico exhibit was conceived.
This exhibition featured an unprecedented collection of Mexico’s historic masterworks from Precolumbian, Viceregal and Modernist periods. The exhibition was massive and was debuted at the San Antonio Museum of Art where it required the complete deinstallation of existing permanent exhibits and filled over eighteen galleries with hundreds of impressive pieces most of which had never before left the country and would not likely leave it again. The show travelled to major commercial centers like Los Angeles and Chicago and served the purpose for which it was conceived. It was a great PR stunt and allowed Mexican dignitaries and industry titans/oligarchs to meet with their American counterparts to work out lucrative commercial arrangements. Needless to say, labor interests were not particularly represented at these elite soirées that accompanied the exhibit’s various openings.
While working at SAMA during the period when the Rockefeller collection came to the museum, when the Splendors of Mexico exhibit was mounted and when a new Nelson Rockefeller Latin American wing was built to house the collection, I was able to witness first hand the two edged sword of this alleged cultural exchange. I had worked as a preparator installing the Splendors exhibit and saw how works were put at risk and some even irreparably damaged due to the inordinate haste required for their installation and deinstallation. This haste was necessitated by an exhibition schedule that was being dictated by political priorities rather than reasonable logistics that would have ordinarily dictated the safe handling of artworks. Olmec heads and three ton silver chandeliers are not the kinds of things that should be installed and deinstalled in a hurry.
When I curated the museum’s permanent exhibit of Oceanic art, I created the first “primitive” database collection management system for the museum. This set a precedent for other collections and it became my responsibility to database and document the Rockefeller Folk Art collection. I was transferred to the registrar’s office and did most of the data entry for this 20,000 piece collection. This provided an excellent opportunity to examine each piece in detail and enhanced my own connoisseurship of this arte popular material. This knowledge would later prove to be invaluable when I began to more deeply study both Mexican fine art and contemporary American Chicano art.
But I also saw how a museum having a folk art collection could be problematic for its optic. For years, the museum tended to rest on this folk art laurel and the Rockefeller name. Along with the folk art, it installed what proved to be a highly static Viceregal gallery in the new wing. They installed a token Precolumbian gallery featuring works of dubious provenance but the Mexican government essentially turned a blind eye to this due to the museum’s willingness to be complicit in the Mexican government’s NAFTA agenda. The museum also borrowed and collected a handful of Mexican Modernist and contemporary works but failed to make a serious financial commitment in this area and the prices for this work rose out of reach while the museum’s curator and trustees sat on their hands for three decades. An important window of opportunity closed due to a complacency that set in because the museum was self impressed with its enviable arte popular collection and its prestigious Rockefeller affiliation.
Perhaps even more problematic was how anglo museum trustees tended to perceive Mexican art through a Primitivist optic. They loved their folk art because it reminded them of their tourist trips to Mexico where they could pick up cheap chackas as souvenirs. It also allowed them to perceive Mexican culture as quaint and reinforced their tendency to see Mexico as a land of peasants frozen in time. These older wealthy anglos tended to feel nostalgic when looking at arte popular and it confirmed their conviction of their own inherent superiority. They liked their Mexicans managed and defanged, comfortably exotic but benign.
During this period, San Antonio became an epicenter of Chicano culture and this art was by no means defanged. It tended to have an overt political agenda as well as a more confrontational aesthetic that combined Mestizaje arte popular with more Modernist and Postmodernist aesthetics. Despite its narrative correlation with works in both the folk art and Modernist art galleries, it was neither fish nor fowl. It was too exotic and transgressive for formalist Modernist tastes and perceived as threatening for its political content. This work was neither comfortable nor benign. It was dismissed by the Modernist and Contemporary art faction among trustees for being too “Primitive” and lacking aesthetic sophistication or prestige. It was dismissed by the folk art board faction for being too confrontational, too Modern and uncomfortably politically relevant.
Hence, despite the fact that San Antonio was becoming an epicenter for important Chicano art production, and despite the fact that this represented an opportunity for the museum to compete in the Contemporary art arena by bringing something innovative and less derivative to the aesthetic table, the museum continued to largely shy away from this important contemporary art movement. Needless to say, this quite overt marginalization was noted by the local Chicano community and only served to confirm their suspicions that the museum sought to appropriate Mexican culture on its own terms and liked their Mexican art so long as it wasn’t accompanied by the agency of actual living breathing Mestizos. When local Chicanos would complain about their exclusion from the museum’s exhibits and decision making process, trustees would point the their illustrious Rockefeller wing and its folk art collection for political prophylaxis from this criticism. Essentially the trustees’ case was that they weren’t racists because they had committed to keeping Mexican culture “Primitive” and exotic, rather than present and relevant.
Understandably, the Chicanos weren’t buying it and they still aren’t. But neither is the museum committing to buying Chicano art in any meaningful way. They keep hiring Contemporary art curators from abroad who have little interest in it and who bring their East Coast aesthetic optics and priorities with them. Hence, Chicano art remains stuck in an exhibit Barrio even when it is given the occasional token showing. The museum has had a golden opportunity to corner the market on the best of this still affordable artwork and make an important contribution to scholarship and establishing the canon in this area. Yet another generation of trustees sits on their hands as yet another opportunity is squandered and the folk art collection remains their excuse to do this.