From the Archives: Dangerously Close to Tourist Art

I have not posted as often as I’d like recently, even though I have several new posts working on, as I have been bogged down with project and publication deadlines (and a nasty bout of flu) – not complaining about anything, except for the latter. So instead of a new post, I am presenting another piece from my archives, a slightly edited  excerpt from the chapter on art and tourism in my doctoral dissertation, Between Nation and Market: Art and Society in 20th Century Jamaica (2011, Emory University), as it involves a subject that has been central to my practice as an art historian and cultural researcher. The chapter is based on research I conducted in the early to late 2000s and also presented when I served as visiting faculty at New York University (2003) and, subsequently, as Research Fellow at the Edna Manley College (2006-2009).  More such excerpts will follow, as well as,  in due time, new research on the subject. All rights reserved by the author (C)

While the popular, despite the ambivalence and contention that surround it, is generally recognized as the source of cultural truth and authenticity in Jamaican culture, tourism is seen as its negation. Phrases such as “this is dangerously close to tourist art” have been part and parcel of the critical discourse about Jamaican art, as if “tourist art” were some dreadful disease from which true Jamaican culture had to be quarantined. Much of what is discussed in this chapter is “airport art” and emphatically “for sale” and thus challenges my own prior assumptions about cultural authenticity, aesthetic value, the ideological role of art, and good taste – moralized judgments which are shared by many core players in the mainstream art world and which have caused tourist art not to be recognized as a part of modern Jamaican art production. Scholarly attention has been paid, recently, to early Caribbean tourist imagery (e.g. Thompson 2006), and there are now a few collectors of early Jamaican tourist art and imagery, aided by the eBay internet auction craze. While these vintage items have been consecrated as “Jamaicana” – an effect of their rarity and age – tourist art as such remains virtually unstudied, save for a few criticisms of its often racist and sexist content. There can be no credible analysis of the dynamics of the Jamaican art world without considering tourist art on its own merits, however, and for this purpose, preconceptions have to be put aside.

The term tourist art covers a wide range of possibilities, from cheap, mass-produced souvenir trinkets – much of which is now imported from East Asia or Haiti and only tenuously customized for the Jamaican market – to works that conform to the norms of mainstream art but are marketed to tourists, usually because the subject matter and formal characteristics match the expectations of that market. Somewhere in the middle are handmade but standardized items such as the Rasta-themed woodcarvings that are currently the most “typical” locally made tourist art. Not all of what I have listed here as tourist art would be defined as “art” by their makers, sellers or buyers but I regard them as such because they have, as Ruth Phillips and Christopher Steiner have argued, “all the communicative and signifying qualities of ‘legitimate’ or ‘authentic’ works of art” (1999, 15) and generally employ the same media and techniques.

Tourism is a quintessentially capitalist and, in postcolonies such as Jamaica, neo-colonial endeavor, of which tourist art has been an integral part. To quote Phillips and Steiner again: “The inscription of Western modes of commodity production has been one of the most important aspects of the global extension of Western colonial power. Moreover, the role of this process in transforming indigenous constructions of the object has intensified rather than diminished in many parts of the world since the formal demise of colonial rule” (1999, 4). I am therefore skeptical of the celebratory tone of some of the literature on tourism, cultural commodification and cultural agency (e.g. Appadurai 1986; Carcía Canclini 1995). Too often, it is implied that commodification is inherently empowering for all involved and that the global spread of capitalism into every aspect of human life is as desirable as it has been inevitable. I believe that the jury is still out on both counts. As Jamaica Kincaid has powerfully argued in A Small Place (1988), tourism and economic need make an unwholesome combination in poor postcolonial societies, especially those that were shaped by the experience of slavery, the ultimate form of human commodification. Tourism poses serious social and cultural challenges in such countries and any critical appraisal of tourist art must be regarded in that context.

The sort of tourist art that is produced and sold in Jamaica is by its very nature a transcultural form, which is highly consumer-driven and made primarily for metropolitan Western audiences. This distinguishes the tourist art world from the mainstream and popular art worlds, which are more internally negotiated. Nelson Graburn, one of the pioneering scholars on the subject, has written about the “hybrid” tourist arts:

While acknowledging that the patron or consumer places constraints on all producers of art, the difference between the situation of the “hybrid” arts and the stereotypic functional arts of the prior anthropological analyses is that the artists dependent on the cross-cultural market are rarely socialized into the symbolic and aesthetic system of the consumers who support them. […] The rules of the game lie outside of their society, at least until structural assimilation has drawn them into the metropolitan art school and gallery circuits. Thus these artists live in a minefield of rules that they overstep at their peril (1999, 347).

Most of the rules of the tourist art game hinge on the notions of cultural authenticity that shape tourism and exist in uneasy tension with those that shape postcolonial societies.

Graburn has argued that “it is the tourists who are most concerned with authenticity” although they are “doomed to failure because tourist attractions were created just for them” (1999, 351). How much authenticity a tourist expects and receives, however, varies, depending on the background and intentions of the tourist and the nature of what is visited. The desire for authenticity is not a major factor in the most “industrialized” forms of tourism, such as theme parks, where most visitors knowingly participate in the supplied fictions. At the other extreme are the “tourist-connoisseurs,” who are usually highly educated and travel individually rather than as participants in packaged arrangements. These “knowing” tourists, who are often in denial about being tourists, want to experience the “genuine” local culture but their expectations often derive from notions about non-Western cultural self-sufficiency that do not measure up to reality. In-between are the “average tourists,” who want what is best described as “authenticity lite,” a selective semblance of authenticity that distinguishes their destination as a place worth visiting but does not make any unpleasant demands on their vacation, for instance by confronting them with poverty or environmental degradation.

Dean MacCannell (1976) has introduced the term “staged authenticity” to describe what is typically offered in tourism. He identified six degrees of staging, in an elaboration of Erving Goffman’s (1986) model of the front and back regions in performance, which juxtaposed the fully staged with the behind-the-scenes. MacCannell’s first stage equals Goffman’s front region, which has no pretensions to being anything but staged. The remaining five stages move from front regions that are made to look like back regions, to selectively accessible back regions that still contain staged elements, ending with the actual back region, which usually remains inaccessible for tourists or is not even recognized as “authentic” because it does not match preconceptions about what that particular back region should be like.

Staged authenticity is a crucial factor in tourist art but MacCannell’s model does not explain how notions of authenticity are negotiated between the tourists and the “natives.” Sally Price told the story of a Saramaka carver who had difficulty convincing his buyers that his work was essentially decorative rather than symbolic, a misconception which is also reflected in much of the scholarship on the subject. She went on:

[The artist] purchased Muntslags’ dictionary of Maroon motifs […], even though he could not understand it because he had never learned to read. He then used its illustrations as models for the motifs in his carvings, and simply showed the book to his customers so they could look up the meaning of their purchases. Through this self-service technique, the man’s life became more tranquil, his profits picked up considerably, the tourists boarded their planes in better spirits, and the myth of a pervasive iconography in the arts of the Maroons circumvented a potentially troubling setback (1989, 118).

This story brings to mind Selden Rodman’s description, in his book The Caribbean, of a painted sign at the entrance of the Zion Revivalist artist Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds’ yard:

King of Wood.
No Weapon That Is Formed Against Thee Shall Prosper.
Whatever You Do Be Careful – Kapo.
Kapo’s snow-cones: Cool off here.
Works of Kapo in Primitive Art: Buy Jamaica.
Brown rice 9c. fag 4. Small sardines.
See the Afro-American Self-Taught Artist (1968, 12).

This somewhat bizarre combination of invocations of divine protection with grandiose self-acclamations and expressions of popular wisdom and entrepreneurship was no doubt recorded because of its picturesque appeal but also reflected Kapo’s awareness of how he was labeled in the scholarly and promotional literature. While the phrase “buy Jamaica” should probably have read as “buy Jamaican,” it may also allude to the efforts that were then spearheaded by Edward Seaga to market Kapo as the defining Jamaican artist.[1] Rodman actually called Kapo “Mr Jamaica” (11) elsewhere in his chapter on Jamaica.

Both examples illustrate that externally imposed labels and interpretations, accurate or not, can be adopted as marketing strategies by those whose work it seeks to describe. The “rules of the game” may be articulated elsewhere but this does not prevent local producers and vendors from participating actively and even cunningly in the “authenticity games” that drive the tourist art market. More generally, these two examples illustrate that tourist art cannot be exclusively understood in terms of the externally vectored producer-intermediary-consumer dynamics to which Graburn and MacCannell have paid most attention.

Some Caribbean tourist art, such as basketry and calabash carving, is rooted in older traditions of utilitarian and decorative art, which were adapted to tourist market demands, often merely by adding images and inscriptions that identify them with the destination they represent. As has also been observed elsewhere (e.g. Ettawageshik 1999), tourism has contributed to the preservation of traditional arts that would otherwise have disappeared when they were replaced with modern products. Most Caribbean tourist art is of recent vintage, however, and was developed primarily for the tourist market. Among those are the “Rasta carvings” that appeared in Jamaica in the 1970s and spread throughout the region and beyond, to other “island destinations” such as Hawaii. Many of these carvings represent dreadlocksed and bearded males, who are often smoking ganja or playing drums, although couples are also common. They derive their sense of authenticity from their association with Rastafari, as the defining part of Jamaican culture, and many are made by Rastafarians. Although Jamaica has a history of popular woodcarving, the Rasta carvings are not based on preexisting forms. As we have seen, Rastafari makes extensive use of visual symbols, such as the Ethiopian colors, the image of Haile Selassie I and the Lion of Judah, and ritual and symbolic objects, such as the chalice, the tam and the walking staff – items which also enter the tourist market – but it does not call for the representation of Rastas engaged in “typical” activities. Most tourist carvings are therefore, quite simply, what they are: new transcultural commodities that emerged from the dialogue between the culture and economic needs of the popular masses and the expectations of the tourist market.

While cultural purists may question the legitimacy of the touristic Rasta carvings, the only Jamaican tourist art that can rightly be described as inauthentic are the mass-produced imported items and the colorful and pricey faux-naïf paintings that are mainly produced by white expatriates. The latter are quite popular in the upper end of the tourist market and the fact that those artists’ foreign origin is usually acknowledged does not seem to negatively affect their sales, probably because the work matches some buyers’ preconceptions about “authentic” Caribbean art better than the work of many native artists – a good illustration of the contradictory appeal of staged authenticity.

The Rasta carvings are highly standardized and often poorly made, which contrasts with the requirements of originality and métier that are conventionally applied to fine art. Christopher Steiner (1999) has rightly cautioned that tourist art should be judged on its own terms, as a particular type of cultural commodity. In tourist art, Steiner has argued, repetition is a necessity, since that is how its legitimacy is established, as a characteristic product of the culture it is supposed to represent. This is, in fact, something tourist art and the routinized offshoots of cultural nationalist art that dominate the domestic Jamaican art market have in common. Not surprisingly, the decoration of local commercial buildings and middle class homes often includes items that qualify as tourist art, which are bought from the same sources where tourists buy and such items frequently serve as gifts for other Jamaicans or overseas friends. These are often the cheapest, most generic “North Coast” carvings but they convey a usable, easily recognizable and affordable sense of Jamaicanness to “non-art” Jamaican audiences. Locally, these tourist art forms thus fulfill a function similar to nationalist art, without having its “high art” status or price tag.


[1] There have also been regular “Buy Jamaican” campaigns in post-independence Jamaica, in efforts to reduce the local preference for imported goods that have locally manufactured equivalents.


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