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Practising aesthetics: artisanal production and politics in a woodcarving village in Oaxaca, Mexico

Cant, Alanna (2012) Practising aesthetics: artisanal production and politics in a woodcarving village in Oaxaca, Mexico. PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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The cultural tourism industry, on which the economy of the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca depends, is focused primarily on the promotion of the pre-Hispanic and colonial histories of the region, as well as the “traditional” lifeways of its contemporary population. Key sites within this tourism industry are the many craft villages that dot the countryside, where tourists can encounter and consume apparently traditional crafts made in small family workshops. Despite touristic and state-driven nationalistic discourses that frame craftwork as the materialisation of long standing cultural traditions, Oaxacan woodcarvings, sometimes known as “alebrijes,” are of recent invention and have rapidly become the economic mainstay of the field site, San Martín Tilcajete. While previous research has investigated the political economy and cultural politics of Oaxacan craft production, this thesis engages with important debates surrounding materiality, aesthetics and the production of art. Through ethnographic data from fieldwork with artisans in San Martín Tilcajete, I argue throughout the thesis that “aesthetics” can be understood anthropologically as an ongoing practice in which a variety of actors are engaged. The chapters address questions that fall within three general themes: (1) artisans’ aesthetic practice, including questions of how production is experienced aesthetically and conceptualisations of authorship, style and skill; (2) how different actors’ aesthetic sensibilities produce and reproduce the woodcarvings as a genre; and (3) the political consequences of these aesthetic practices for issues of competition, community politics, belonging and emergent understandings of aesthetic ownership, framed in terms of intellectual property. In making these arguments, the thesis also charts the nature of contemporary artisanal work from the micro-level of household workshops, to international experiences of artisans in the ethnic art markets in the United States, and to large-scale issues of the globalisation of culture.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2012 Alanna Cant
Library of Congress subject classification: G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation > GN Anthropology
Sets: Departments > Anthropology
Supervisor: Engelke, Matthew

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