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The Dynamics of Change in Tourist Arts



The collection of art and artifacts is an almost universal accompaniment of contact between expanding metropolitan societies and small traditional societies. The contemporary situation of the collection of "primitive arts" and of the tourist demand for souvenirs is an extreme manifestation of this fact, extreme because of the imbalance in power and population between collecting publics and producing members of tribal societies.

Collecting stimulates the manufacture of replicas of traditional objects and the mass production of souvenirs which depart from traditional canons of taste, form, and mode of production. The economic consequences of the tourist trade vary from enrichment to impoverishment. Collecting not only affects artifacts, such as a range of organizational changes, the development of new cultural phenomena, such as "trade goods," the revival of ethnic identity, and the ethic of preserving the past in the face of modernity, are even more important.

Commercialization: Functional and Replica Arts

Initial collections, whether through military expropriation or peaceful exchange, resulted in the export of objects that were "ripped out" of their socio-cultural contexts. Some of these traditional objects may have been freely exchanged, as with Cook's voyages in Oceania, whereas other sacred or extremely valuable items were stolen or fought for, as in Central and South America, and parts of West Africa.

Functional items are still dearest to hearts of collectors and tourists alike. Items made for indigenous audiences are deemed more "authentic" than those made for the public. Items made for the latter, even if identical, are downgraded as "replicas," "fakes," and "souvenirs." Advertising and promotion of these arts, both in situ and in galleries and auctions of the metropoli reinforce this bias. For instance the mold blouses of the Kuna of Panama have been worn first and then sold, when the makers are tired of them; molas made specifically for sale are called molas tourists and are downgraded by natives and collectors alike.

Certain sacred items may never be copied for sale, as long as a culture is intact. For instance Central Australian Aborigines never sold churingas, because they were central to their belief system. Younger missionized Aborigines have no such compunctions.

The production of replicas at first adheres to aesthetic and technical standards indigenous to the producers. For this reason they may be sought by museums and sophisticated collectors. Such arts might be called "commercial fine arts". This process introduces a new category of "things made for sale," analogous to cash-crops versus subsistence foods, or to wage labor versus traditional obligations. Thus both production processes and artifacts may be freed from aesthetic, technical and taboo restrictions which remain applicable to sacred objects.

Even when the society producing the replicas remains intact, the social and economic consequences of this initial set of changes are significant. The sale of replicas may lead to dependence on monetary income, predisposing people to turn to cash agriculture and wage labor. Conversely, cash income is spent on items which have long-term ramifications: metal and manufactured tools on the productive system, clothing and decorative items on the aesthetic and prestige system, or alcohol and processed foods on health and nutrition.

For producers, commercial demand for replicas stimulates production; the role of artist or artisan may become full-time. Cash income makes these people relatively rich members of the community. Their status may rise if cash income or specialization are prestigious, or it may fall if such people are looked upon as more marginal opportunists, "traitors" to the integrity of their traditional society.

Increased production may exhaust local supplies of raw materials or destroy the ecology so that substitutes must be found. Modifications in technology or artistry produce more objects which were made previously only sporadically or for ritual occasions. As the division between functional arts and replicas grows, new people may be drawn into the artist or specialist role- people without proper training or traditional rights to the status, further loosening the integration of manufacture and the society.

Souvenir Arts and Crafts

Since World War II the demand for souvenir arts and crafts has grown as tourists and collectors increasingly visit previously isolated areas of the world. This buying public differs from the connoisseurs and museum agents described above. Unfamiliar with the traditional arts, these people only want something to remind them of superficial aspects of their experience and can only afford to buy small, easily portable objects. Mass tourist demand intensifies the trends noted above for commercial fine arts and introduces new factors.

In some cases tourist demand for souvenirs only requires slight modification of traditional items, e.g. The miniaturization of pottery or woodcarvings. In others great changes such as simplification, or the use of new materials are necessary; e.g. The modern Makonde woodcarvings of East Africa have no indigenous functions, are made of new materials, and bear practically no aesthetic and formal relationships to traditional Makonde art. Souvenir arts have little or no importance to the producing culture, except that they can be sold. Almost all the old aesthetic rules can be broken, while the social organization of production can change.

Anyone with talent or energy can produce souvenirs for tourists, providing they have access to materials, tools, and the market. These cash enterprises may alter family or more complex labor relationships to the procurement of materials, or design, execution, work, and sale of artifacts. The latter two occupations often become the most prestigious and rewarding, and may be undertaken by exploitative outsiders or by artisans who delegate the more menial task of production to low-status people or outsiders, as in the case of the Akamba woodcarvers of East Africa.

The economic impact of the souvenir industry can be important as much as it guarantees further monetarization of the native economy and its irreversible enmeshment in the world economic system. The economic rewards may speed the destruction of traditional roles and values and provide new role models for the younger generation of the acculturating minority society.

This scenario assumes a steady or constantly expanding market, but the vagaries of the tourist industry, of international travel, and of fads of taste in the consumer world, leave such people vulnerable to recession. A successful souvenir trade draws people who often give up their traditional subsistence occupations to become producers. As production rises or the demand falls, the market may become saturated, lowering the income derived by the producers.

A dramatic illustration is the situation of silver jewelry producers in Taxco, Mexico. The price of raw materials does not fall, therefore the profit margin is minimal or negative. As artisan families become poorer they try to devise methods of cheapening or speeding-up production, or of gaining advantage over their neighbor competitors. Minor innovations within the genre attract the attention of wholesalers, and are soon copied. Thus each family production unit becomes veiled in secrecy and suspicion, and the social fabric is threatened by constant accusations of the "stealing" of marketable ideas. Most families are unable to go back to their traditional occupations and seek, but rarely find, more lucrative livelihoods in the urban areas to which they have moved.

The pressure for cash income stimulates innovations in form, content, materials, and production methods. Recent studies show that innovation comes from both marginal and respected artisans. Only a small proportion of the souvenir arts and crafts usually associated with the peoples of the Third and Fourth Worlds stems directly from traditional arts. Many indigenous and minority peoples had already undergone considerable social and technological changes long before the advent of mass tourism led to increased demand for souvenirs. These initial changes, stemming from conquest and trade, have given rise to new products. Such innovations include Navaho blankets, Navaho and Pueblo silver jewelry, decorated gourds in Peru, new forms of beadwork in North America and in southern Africa, Kuna molas and other forms of clothing based on imported textiles elsewhere, and perhaps even free-standing totem poles as we know them. These "reintegrated arts" were never a central aspect of indigenous arts, yet external demands for them have stimulated the changes leading to replicas and eventually souvenirs. All of these forms are now available to collectors and tourists. Some have retained formal and aesthetic characteristics close to the originals while others, such as totem poles, are made of different materials (argillite or different woods), miniaturized or simplified in form.

New traditions tend not to evolve in the same way as older artistic traditions, although the forces of standardization, division of labor, competition, and innovation still apply. Canadian Eskimo soapstone sculptures and graphics are a post-World War II invention intended to support a population that had become integrated into the world economy through commercial trapping. Many Alaskan Eskimo ivory items have had a similar, though longer, history.

The need for income has generated a proliferation of new products aimed at all levels of the market, from museums and rich collectors to day-trip tourists. Similar tourist traditions have successfully grown up all over the world: the East African Akamba and Makonde wood carvings, soapstone sculptures in Zambia, ebony carving in Benin, Haida argillite carving on the Northwest Coast, storyboards in palau, bark painting in Northern Australia, engraved ivory carvings in the Chukchi Peninsula of the USSR, Ainu carved wooden bears in Hokkaido, Seri ironwood carving in Sonora, pottery figures of Ocumicho, Michoacan, Huichol yarn paintings, and amate painting in Guerrero, Mexico. In the latter case Stromberg (1982) has shown the fast pace of aesthetic innovation and its influence on other genres such as paper-cutting, ceramics and civic decoration.

"Assimilated art," where minority peoples use the traditions of the western world - rectangular paintings, commercial paints and brushes - often stems from emulation of or education by the dominant society, as with Australian Aborigine water colors or Plains and Southwest American Indian paintings. These may become commercialized as souvenirs, or ethnic fine arts, but they also may become reintegrated as meaningful features of the assimilated culture.

"Popular arts" are made for and enjoyed by modern minority cultures and may have little relationship to the "great tradition," e.g. whistles, dolls, fireworks, and masks in urban and rural Mexico, and in over fifty ethnic enclaves in Los Angeles, or the arts of the urban areas of independent nations of Sub-Saharan Africa. Though made primarily for local consumption, they are also bought as souvenirs by outsiders.

The Cultural Context of Contemporary Non-Western Arts

The external demand for arts and artifacts by collectors and tourists alike is part of a larger set of processes impinging on Third and Fourth World peoples who are being drawn into the modern world system.

The sale of art is part of the larger context of the "sale of ethnicity." MacCannell (1976) writes that tourism is a ritual and ethnicity is a major attraction for tourists and collectors. Souvenirs, in the form of memories, photographs, and local artifacts, must conform in appearance, performance and production to expected stereotypes. This may lead to an "inside-outside" dichotomy. Indigenous societies can maintain some of their own values and regulate the performances and objects to which the outsiders have access - a particularly good example is the Kuna of Panama. In other cases, tourism penetrates and upsets everyday life, as with Alaskan Eskimos. Touristic arts and performances are encouraged by the institutions of the world system who benefit from them (the Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii; the Ainu Village of Noboribetsu, Hokkaido; TIMland, and Ancient City near Bangkok), for these are major attractions maintaining tourist volume. These strive for a balanced regulation of tourist impact. There is always the danger, however, that people come to believe that the aspects of their culture presented to the tourists are their "real heritage". The secularization and commercialization of ethnic distinctiveness may break down institutions and cultural values. This abandonment of internal social regulations leads to the marginalization of the minority group, working occasionally as the poorest paid day laborers in the national society.

However, when minority groups are situated in more egalitarian or wealthier nations, the demand for, artifacts and souvenirs can have positive consequences. It demonstrates to the minority culture that something of theirs is distinctive enough to be admired, demanded, and sold to the world are large. Rather than becoming mere laborers with menial economic opportunities they are often encouraged to produce goods which would have been otherwise discontinued. This process, along with education, generates new pride in threatened identities and undermined traditions. A new consciousness arises which may lead to a reinvestment of time and effort in dying handicrafts or new social organizations and cultural pride may be generated by the external interests in a praise for new forms of commercial arts (as with the Canadian Inuit and their new cooperative organizations).

Along with tourism, the value of "preservation" or "museumification" is spreading. Tourists and collectors alike wish parts of the world to be preserved as pockets within modernity, and governments have created national parks, local museums, and "unspoiled" towns and villages. While this massive process may conflict with the desire for modernization and social mobility of the indigenous peoples, it also reinforces self-conscious trends of ethnic pride and revival movements. The Gogodala of Papua New Guinea rebuilt a traditional men's house with government aid and revived artistic traditions and rituals banned 40 years before by zealous missionaries; in Palau traditional bai meeting houses are being rebuilt with U.S. government funds. In both cases people felt these institutions would strengthen local culture, but they have become tourist attractions and centers for the collection of and trade in replica and souvenir arts.

Museumification and preservation stem from a modern historical consciousness, a realization of the negative aspects of the fast-changing, contemporary world, and a nostalgia for simpler and purer ways of life. Ironically local leaders and indigenous institutions have joined forces with the most "modern" world forces to strengthen aspects of their cultures. In fact they are undergoing a fundamental cultural assimilation in joining the superficial pluralism of the modern world by accepting its underlying attitude.

We, as people concerned about the destruction of rich ways of life, are in the ambivalent position of using and spreading our very powerful ideology to bring about a change but not a halt to the assimilationist processes which are engulfing minority peoples all over the world. In a sense we are trying to avoid nineteenth century industrial imperatives by instilling instead a middle class worldview of the late twentieth century.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.