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  • From Aesthetics to Work:Displaying Indian Labor as Modernist Form in Mexico City and New York
  • Harper Montgomery (bio)

It may be difficult to image how René d’Harnoncourt’s (1901–1968) installation for “Indian Art for Modern Living” at the Museum of Modern Art in 1941 relates to the popular markets that captured the avant-gardes’ interest during the 1920s in Mexico City (Figs. 1 and 2).”1 Although both d’Harnoncourt’s installation and popular markets were presenting goods for sale, their distinct approaches suggest that the objects on offer were valued for very different reasons. Although in both settings handicrafts were presented as things meant to be worn on the body or used in the home, in the museum’s gallery d’Harnoncourt isolated his objects in order to emphasize the beauty of their unique forms,2 whereas Doctor Atl (1875–1964)3 shows us leather goods accumulated and amassed to emphasize abundance and prosperity in his photograph of the Mexican market. These contrasting approaches suggest the divergent concerns that motivated Atl and d’Harnoncourt to elevate the status of Indian crafts, the most important consequence of which was the articulation of at times conflicting beliefs about the value of Indian labor as, on the one hand, symbolic of a Revolutionary desire to value the creativity of the Mexican people and, on the other, of a method for incorporating markers of authenticity into objects meant to be bought by urban buyers in the industrialized United States.

Asking how modernism enabled such avant-garde figures as Atl and d’Harnoncourt to seize on artes populares as a means with which to isolate and make visible Indian labor as a commodity in and of itself enables us to examine how the increased valuation of artesania presented Mexicans as a class of makers [End Page 231]

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Fig 1.

Seminole textile and clothing designed by Fred A. Picard and produced by Crow and Seminole craftspeople in the exhibition “Indian Art of the United States,” organized by René D’Harnoncourt at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1941.

Courtesy of Photographic Archive. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

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Fig 2.

Photograph of “Escaparate del almacen de artefactor para charros ‘la palestina’, Mexico, D.F,” by Doctor Atl published in in Lasartes populares en México, 1922.

[End Page 232]

capable of incorporating creativity into the production of consumer products. And, how in designating such work as simultaneously both creation and product, Atl and d’Harnoncourt strove to satisfy the prevalent and oft articulated desire—in both Mexico and the United States—to preserve an intangible sense of authenticity in the face of industrialization. In so doing they address a key question for scholars of modernism: how and why have artists and intellectuals so often found themselves aiding and abetting the questionable process of creating culture that appears capable of resolving the contradictory desire to remain tied to a traditional past while progressing towards an industrial future?4

That these concerns—and the production and consumption of artes populares—were transnational in scope and theme and that they necessitated weighing the gains of the Revolution with the economic demands of the United States during the 1920s is no surprise. What is less expected, however, is the central role artes populares were cast in by avant-gardes and intellectuals as modernist objects somehow able to enlist Mexico into symbolizing the location of tradition and good taste, while the United States came to symbolize modernity and kitsch. That modernity and tradition have never been isolated nor opposed, and have always, on the contrary, enjoyed a symbiotic relationship—a relationship often expressed in modernist forms—is an argument Néstor García Canclini has proven and which I will elaborate on by examining the emergence of its transnational dimension through the dissemination of artes populares during the 1920s and 30s.5

The Modernism of Artesania

D’Harnoncourt’s elegant modernist-cum-consumerist display of Indian objects in New York was, in many ways, the end result of avant-gardes’ conflicted involvement with artes populares that began in Mexico City during...


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pp. 231-251
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