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Volume 50 / Humanities


Precolumbian Art, Folk Art, and Popular Art

FLORA S. CLANCY, Associate Professor of Art History, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque

STRADDLING THE TOPICAL SUBDIVISIONS of this bibliographic essay is an interesting perception that takes as its theme the continuity of form. Three works (items bi 89001639, bi 89001627, and bi 89001637) make an effort to understand certain indigenous art forms, such as ceramics or weaving, as continuous histories that were certainly strongly affected by the conquest, but not changed so much as to be discontinuous in their formal history or in all of their conceptual contexts and meanings. Given the recent work being done in ethnoarchaeology and ethnohistory, this theme is one that will become stronger as methods are developed for extracting information that is important to cultures on both sides of the conquest time line.


A common form of publication in the precolumbian field has been volumes of edited essays (item bi 89001621). Usually, the essays are engendered by a catalog for a collection or an exhibition (items bi 88002897, bi 89001587, bi 89001624, bi 89001591, bi 89001619, bi 89001592, and bi 89001589). Such books contain essays that present an overview of the subject of the catalog as well as descriptive or interpretative essays that use the subject of the catalog as illustrative of points being made. The value of this kind of production lies in its publication of works of art in private or small public collections (items bi 88002897, bi 89001587, and bi 89001624), and as a relatively quick and accessible medium for making known the interpretative ideas and perceptions of the contributors (items bi 88002897, bi 89001619, bi 89001592, and bi 89001621). The difficulty with this method of publication is that it presents a disjointed and specialized view of the field: few readers besides specialists enjoy the essays. The illustrated works of art are always more powerfully attractive, especially if the photographs are exceptional (items bi 89001587 and bi 89001624).

Ambitious histories of an area, culture, or style have not been forthcoming, but several have been reprinted (items bi 89001625, bi 89001590, bi 89001622, and bi 89001593) in seeming testimony that such projects may be undertaken in the future. Paul Gendrop's effort to understand Maya architectural style and chronology (item bi 89001616) may be a forerunner. It should also be mentioned here that Duccio Bonavia's Mural painting in ancient Peru (item bi 89001625) was reprinted in English rather than its original Spanish. The impulse for this seems to have come from a certain amount of frustration arising from the neglect of this important survey by English-speaking scholars and students.

Monographs, happily, have been appearing with a certain amount of regularity (items bi 89001610, bi 89001611, bi 89001612, bi 89001613, bi 89001614, bi 89001615, bi 89001626, bi 89001628, and bi 89001620). This form of work is the necessary basis for the more general histories mentioned above, and for more accurate interpretations of data. The ongoing series published by Editora del Sureste, Mexico (items bi 89001611, bi 89001612, bi 89001613, and bi 89001614), is a good example of this kind of basic work. Each monograph presents an overview of the legends, archaeology, and art history that have been important to the site in question and presents new interpretative material as well. Also exemplary is Mary Miller's monograph, The murals of Bonampak (item bi 89001620). It presents thorough groundwork that is not only necessary for her own interpretations of the murals, but also for any future work that may be done.


As was the case two years ago, the publications in this field have come mostly from Latin America. In the following annotated bibliography, only three are mentioned that were published in the US (items bi 89001631, bi 89001633, and bi 89001640). Although the bibliography is far from complete, it does signal a real difference in the subject of discourse between scholars from Latin America and from the US. It is my perception that this difference is a deep one, and as reviewer I feel timid about putting forward this part of the essay because as a foreigner, I have probably missed something essential in my readings.

Folk and popular arts are generally studied for their social, political, and economic meanings and implications (items bi 88002898, bi 88002894, bi 89001636, bi 89001623, and bi 89001657). This emphasis is signalled by the lack of illustrated works of art, or by a poor quality of reproduction which I take to mean a lack of interest in the objects themselves. This is not the usual indictment against the general state of Latin American publishing. This seems to have improved noticeably in the last two years. Several volumes (items bi 88002905, bi 89001645, bi 89001634, bi 89001646, bi 89001647, bi 89001648, bi 89001649, bi 89001650, bi 89001653, and bi 89001654) are descriptive, sometimes poetic (items bi 88002905, bi 89001645, and bi 89001648), and are usually nicely illustrated. They do not, however, analyze their subject matter, rather the effort is to display it in the manner of catalogs or compendiums. In these examples, there is often a perceived function of preservation. That is, the craft is being lost or so badly perverted by the inroads of modern life that the publication is a necessary and timely record (items bi 88002905, bi 89001646, bi 89001647, bi 89001648, bi 89001649, and bi 89001654). Interestingly enough, several volumes concentrate on indigenous architectural styles (items bi 88002894, bi 89001649, bi 89001623, and bi 89001654).

Both the analytic and commemorative efforts are at odds with inquiries that focus more closely on the work of art rather than on its behavioral or cultural context (items bi 89001631, bi 88002901, bi 89001633, bi 89001638, and bi 89001641). The art work as subject is more closely aligned with the ideals for subject matter held by scholars in the US (items bi 89001631, bi 89001633, and bi 89001640).

In general, the books published on the folk and popular arts reveal what I would consider conservative approaches that use craft traditions as vehicles for political or philosophical expression. In this way, many of the craft traditions are implicated as curiosities of indigenous energy that must be preserved as signs of national identity or as a resource that can be exploited for economic progress. Aesthetic concerns may be mentioned but not studied, and there have been few art critical or art historical analyses. There seems to be a basic, even paradoxical, division between what may be called the realists with their structural analyses and the compilers, with their poetic, nostalgic catalogs (exceptions are items bi 89001631, bi 88002901, bi 89001633, bi 89001651, bi 89001652, and bi 89001641; see below). Essentially, there have been few efforts to understand change in folk traditions. The compilers perceive change as the result of degradation caused by modern technical and economic systems. The analysts are not really concerned with the objects of craft or whether they change or do not change. Their concerns have to do with the object's context such as manufacturing processes and distribution or marketing structures.

One little book (item bi 89001651) was intriguing for its effort to treat the life and art of Peruvian folk artist Joaquín López Antay in a biographical form more commonly used for well-known European artists: especially, the author's efforts to show lines of artistic influence for and from the master and his analysis of the master's artistic growth and development. Usually folk artists are not afforded this kind of thought. If presented as individuals at all, they are usually seen in a poetic light, but not one that suggests that the unique history of their individual lives is important to understanding the history of art.

The exemplary study by Cecilia Moreno Aliste, La artesanía urbano marginal (item bi 89001652), represents an important effort to bring together aspects of the two approaches cited above: the analytic and the poetic. The author convincingly juxtaposes rigorous objective analysis with a strong, subjective view of her subject (the arpilleristas, unofficial craft groups in Santiago, Chile; see also item bi 89001658). The importance of her contribution lies in the way this juxtaposition is interwoven. Throughout the text, the strands of objectivity and subjectivity never lose their identity but are composed so that they contribute meaning and substance to each other. Moreno has orchestrated her content so that this reader, at least, felt that the political intent, the descriptive intent, and the poetic display of human, subjective involvement were equally valid and necessary aspects of a reality the author was trying to understand. This interweaving of different points of view is more usually associated with the writing of fiction, but Moreno has demonstrated its validity for scholarly prose.

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