Department of Theatre and Film
Function is in the Eye of the Beholder: Aesthetics, Ethics, and Consumer Intent in the International Tourist Art Market
Cynthia Stroud is a doctoral student in the Department of Theatre and Film at Bowling Green State University. Her work has appeared in the ECCCS and Youth Theatre Journal. Her current research projects investigate the intersection of cognition, consciousness, and performance.
The scent is almost overwhelming: wood and earth and something so sweet it is almost cloying, but not quite. Above all it is alien, exotic, decadent. But there is also something familiar.
“But the darker pieces?”
“Evening sandalwood.” He is patient to a fault. His demeanor is practiced, controlled. His livelihood depends on it.
Sandalwood. I am momentarily taken by a long-ago sense-memory of patchouli and incense and the bass player with long, black curls and intensely blue eyes, before returning to the task at hand:
“What do you think?”
“You know that would cost a fortune at home, but you’re supposed to haggle, right?”
“OK, sure, yeah.”
I have obviously overpaid, because the transaction is over far too quickly. But even many years later, when I open the case the scent of sandalwood, much diffused but still detectable, greets me. I lift each piece from the satin and marvel at the skill of the carver: the impossibly looped curves atop the bishops, the intricate manes on each knight. But the greatest pleasure comes from the tiny pawns, each a perfect replica of the stupas that dot the landscape where I stopped to watch the faithful pray and leave tokens, but didn’t dare pray myself, unwilling to profane the sacred spaces with my uncertainty.
I do not play chess. But I do have a beautiful, hand-carved chess set purchased from a street bazaar in Kathmandu, Nepal. It is part of a large collection of what has variously been referred to as folk art, traditional art, craft, or handicraft by those who have visited my home: a Guatemalan doll-wreath, a Tibetan yak bone necklace, a Chinese painted scroll, a Nepali ink-block-and-batik fabric with a Mandala-motif. The fabric was originally intended for use as a tablecloth but was so beautifully made that I had it framed as a wall-sized piece. It always draws more interest than anything else in my home; however, its original function was certainly not purely aesthetic. It is lovely, but it is a tablecloth. Some of the pieces in my collection were purchased from street vendors and some in galleries, a few from importers in the U.S., but most in (or near, in the case of Tibet) the lands where they were produced.
Most of these pieces were created to meet the demands of the (primarily) international tourism industry. In “The Social Sources of Authenticity in Global Handicraft Markets,” Frederick Wherry explains that tourist arts “are bought by travelers visiting exotic locations or by individuals in search of objects that represent (from the consumer’s point of view) a particular ethnic group or a specific cultural tradition” (6). Tourist art also often carries a signification of a societal power imbalance. In his introduction to Ethnic and Tourist Arts, Nelson H. H. Graburn uses the term “tourist arts” to refer to art objects produced for external consumption by dominated peoples “[i]n stratified societies that consist of dominant and conquered strata” (4-5). Graburn explains that these art objects “have often been despised by connoisseurs as unimportant” but, in fact, they are “important in presenting to the outside world an ethnic image that must be maintained and projected as part of the all-important boundary-defining system” within the larger group (5). While tourist art serves a distinct economic function for the artisans who produce it, it also serves as a way for the artisans to construct, distribute, and promote a group identity with which they wish to be identified within their larger society.
The function of tourist art for its consumers is equally complex. Objects might be purchased for presentation as gifts, like the beautifully carved chopsticks my mother bought me on a business trip in China. Tourists may enjoy the knowledge (real or projected) that they are helping to maintain the cultural traditions and group cohesion of oppressed or dominated peoples through their purchases. Gender and women’s studies professor, Caren Kaplan, called this sort of impulse “feel-good capitalism and warm, fuzzy geopolitics” in reference to shopping at the retail chain, The Body Shop, which markets and promotes goods acquired through fair-trade with small farmers, traditional craftspeople, and rural cooperatives around the world (59). If I return to my chess set, it was only recently that I discovered the quick calculations I had done on the street all those years ago had been off, and I had paid far less than I actually thought. Doing the currency conversion in my head, I thought I was paying just under thirty dollars. While fact-checking for this paper, I discovered that one US dollar was worth 51.01 Nepalese rupees during the time I was travelling in 1995 (“Daily Exchange Rates”). I actually paid less than fifteen dollars for the set. According to the Nepal Living Standard Survey, the per capita income in 1995/96 was 7,690 rupees (cited in Bhatt and Sharma 26). The 700 rupees I paid for the chess set was more than a month’s earnings for the average Nepali. Had I calculated the price correctly at the time, I might have been less inclined to negotiate, despite the fact that this is a customary practice and labeled prices reflect the assumption that buyers will do so. On the same trip, I had been happy to pay full price for hand-made stationery, calendars, journals, and other paper products because I knew they were made by a women’s cooperative and the money was intended to help lift these women out of poverty. I suspect there is something to Caplan’s “feel-good capitalism and warm, fuzzy geopolitics.” And after all, the extraordinary skill of the carver and the great pleasure the chess set has brought me are surely worth more than fifteen dollars.
The complexities of the object’s function for the consumer do not stop with practical use and economic support of subjugated peoples, however. In working to tease out the difference between gallery art and tourist art, David L. Hume suggests that “For the art gallery, the formal and aesthetic qualities of the object are paramount. Tourist art and souvenirs, however, rest somewhere in between, in that it is the aesthetic and decorative quality of the object that attracts the tourist’s eye, while the object’s ability to refer to the experienced site and culture is of equal importance” (56). Therefore, tourist art serves a metonymic function, evoking the journey or event when the tourist returns home. However, I would argue that this metonymic function is a later consequence of the purchase and not the initial reason for the purchase. While I stood in a Caribbean handicraft market selecting a woven reed mat, I was not trying to choose the one which would best help me remember the hot sun and the cold rum punch that day. I was not trying to select the one which would best invoke the complete sensory overload of visiting a nude beach the day before. I was trying to decide which one I liked the best. In the moment of the consumer transaction, one buys tourist art because it is aesthetically pleasing. Even while practicing “feel-good capitalism and warm, fuzzy geopolitics,” the tourist has a choice between many objects, and presumably purchases the one(s) he or she likes best. Whatever function the object(s) may serve later, the primary function in operation at the point of purchase is probably an aesthetic one.
“Aesthetic function” was an idea addressed by Jan Mukařovský, a Czech theorist associated with the Prague Linguistic Circle. As Cynthia Baron and Sharon Marie Carnicke note in their book Reframing Screen Performance, “The Prague Linguistic Circle (1926-48) was a loose association of Czech, Russian, German, and British scholars with an interest in linguistics, aesthetics, dramatic art, film, literature, ethnography, and musicology” (90). In Mark E. Suino’s afterword to Aesthetic Function, Norm and Value as Social Facts by Mukařovský, Suino strives to explain Mukařovský’s use of the term “aesthetic function.” Suino states:
If the aesthetic function dominates the other functions it isolates an event or object from their extra-aesthetic surroundings, focuses the perceiver’s attention on them, and (at least potentially) gives pleasure to the perceiver. In effect dominance of the aesthetic function is, for Mukařovský, synonymous with the definition of art. (97)
In Mukařovský’s terms, the consumer who is concerned primarily with aesthetic function would be purchasing an art object. The term “tourist art” becomes irrelevant at the moment of selection and purchase, because the aesthetic function dominates, potentially giving pleasure to the perceiver.
This line of thinking about aesthetic function is furthered in Michael L. Quinn’s The Semiotic Stage. Quinn notes: In the first place, there is no longer in Mukařovský’s theory any purely aesthetic distinction between art and non-art. The function of a sign may change through time, so that an artistic artifact may come to be valued for other non-aesthetic functions. The aesthetic function may pertain to any kind of object or activity, and may exist in either a dominant or subordinate role. (26)
If Mukařovský’s theory does not make “any purely aesthetic distinction between art and non-art,” and “an artistic artifact may come to be valued for other non-aesthetic functions,” this begs the question of whether the reverse is also possible. Can an object which is valued for, say practical function, come to be valued as an artistic artifact? This is certainly the case with pre-Columbian pottery, for example, which was created for practical use, but later became so prized by collectors that a thriving black market appeared through which it could be smuggled.
Where does this leave craft and other works not traditionally defined as “art”? It would appear that Mukařovský, at least, would allow them all under the same tent, as long as the aesthetic function was dominant for a given culture, society, and/or individual. There is already no “purely aesthetic distinction between art and non-art.” The artisan who created my jade chopsticks and the tiny jade swans used as chopstick stands was clearly hoping to sell them to tourists, but when I chose to display them in a shadowbox with several other examples of chopsticks from the same region of China, some of jade, some of porcelain, and some of bone, along with ink-and-paper works from other nearby artists, they lost all practical function and became purely aesthetic objects. Much like my late mother-in-law’s hand-painted china, for which I modified a glass-front bookcase to include custom lighting, I simply found the chopsticks too delicate for everyday use and too beautiful to hide in a cabinet or drawer.
We wrestle with questions of high- and low- art, of folk art and traditional art, of art vs. craft, but perhaps Mukařovský’s notion of aesthetic function can provide us with a way of thinking about this issue which might avoid some of the traps of exclusion perpetuated by the artistic establishment throughout much of its history: exclusion of the work of women, minorities, non-Western artists, etc.1 In fact, it seems that some recent scholarship on tourist art is beginning to move in this direction already, and that the fine art establishment has been taking note. In his 2009 article, David L. Hume reports:
The recent recognition of souvenired objects within museum collections and the increasing inclusion of tourist art in fine art galleries suggest one or two things. On the one hand, it suggests that the repetitive production entailed in the making of souvenirs and the need to overcome conditions of poverty does not necessarily result in a reduction of aesthetic standards. On the other hand, it may equally suggest that fine art galleries have begun to embrace the artistic commodities of tourism as genuine works of art on the basis that they are creative expressions a people and place. (69)
The stigma attached to objects which are made with an economic interest in mind is falling away with the new awareness of the complexity of the cultural and aesthetic expression of those objects. I suspect that there is another reason for the embrace of tourist art that has little to do with art and much to do with commerce. As galleries have discovered the economic function served by embracing this large and lucrative market, art historians and critics have been compelled to take a closer look at the aesthetic features of what had once been dismissed as kitsch.
Given this new embrace of tourist art, is there still a distinction to be made between “art” and the “souvenir industry”? The line between the two seems much clearer the further the object veers into the realm of the aforementioned kitsch: I am immediately reminded of the shop I visited in Kathmandu, selling intricately embroidered “Hard Rock Café Kathmandu” t-shirts, although no such restaurant existed there. These t-shirts were clearly souvenirs for tourists: they were mass produced by machine and made to order, with a number of designs on display from which one might choose. But even here, I find myself asking, which function is dominant for me? With their elaborate and colorful embroidery, if dominance of the aesthetic function is synonymous with the definition of art, are these shirts more functional as a wearable item of clothing, or do I simply find them beautiful?
1 See Roszika Parker’s and Griselda Pollock’s Old Mistresses: Women, Art, and Ideology for an example of a discussion of the ways in which the conventional classification of art into major and minor genres, such as fine and applied arts, have devalued women’s art. See Shelly Errington’s The Death of Authentic Primitive Art and Other Tales of Progress for a discussion of the ways in which artifacts made by third- and fourth-world women, created from soft materials have often been labeled as craft and sold anonymously, while artifacts made by third- and fourth-world men, created from the traditional materials of European art, such as paint and canvas, have often been labeled as art an sold with the artists’ names attached.
Baron, Cynthia and Sharon Marie Carnicke. Reframing Screen Performance. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan Press, 2008. Print.
Bhatt, Shiv Raj and Puspa Sharma. “Trade Liberalisation and Poverty: The Case of Nepal.” Trade Insight. 2.3 (2006): 24-26. Web. 10 Jan. 2010.
“Daily Exchange Rates for Many Currencies 1995-2006.” Old.Swivel.com. Swivel, 2007. Web. 10 Jan. 2010.
Errington, Shelly. The Death of Authentic Primitive Art and Other Tales of Progress. Berkeley, CA: U of California Press, 1998. Print.
Hume, David L. “The Development of Tourist Art and Souvenirs—the Arc of the Boomerang: from Hunting, Fighting and Ceremony to Tourist Souvenir.” International Journal of Tourism Research. 11 (2009): 55-70. EJC. Web. 5 Mar. 2010.
Kaplan, Caren. “A World Without Boundaries: The Body Shop’s Trans/National Geographics.” Social Text. 43 (1995): 45-66.
Parker, Roszika, and Griselda Pollock. Old Mistresses: Women, Art, and Ideology. New York: Pantheon, 1981. Print.
Quinn, Michael L. The Semiotic Stage: Prague School Theatre Theory. New York: P. Lang, 1995. Print.
Suino, Mark E. Afterword. Aesthetic Function, Norm and Value as Social Facts. By Jan Mukařovský. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan Press, 1970. 97-102. Print.
Wherry, Frederick. “The Social Sources of Authenticity in Global Handicraft Markets: Evidence from Northern Thailand.” Journal of Consumer Culture. 6.1 (2006): 5-32. EJC. Web. 5 Mar. 2010.