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Culture in the Marketplace: Gender, Art, and Value in the American Southwest

Culture in the Marketplace: Gender, Art, and Value in the American Southwest

by Molly H. Mullin

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In the early twentieth century, a group of elite East coast women turned to the American Southwest in search of an alternative to European-derived concepts of culture. In Culture in the Marketplace Molly H. Mullin provides a detailed narrative of the growing influence that this network of women had on the Native American art market—as well as the


In the early twentieth century, a group of elite East coast women turned to the American Southwest in search of an alternative to European-derived concepts of culture. In Culture in the Marketplace Molly H. Mullin provides a detailed narrative of the growing influence that this network of women had on the Native American art market—as well as the influence these activities had on them—in order to investigate the social construction of value and the history of American concepts of culture.
Drawing on fiction, memoirs, journalistic accounts, and extensive interviews with artists, collectors, and dealers, Mullin shows how anthropological notions of culture were used to valorize Indian art and create a Southwest Indian art market. By turning their attention to Indian affairs and art in Santa Fe, New Mexico, she argues, these women escaped the gender restrictions of their eastern communities and found ways of bridging public and private spheres of influence. Tourism, in turn, became a means of furthering this cultural colonization. Mullin traces the development of aesthetic worth as it was influenced not only by politics and profit but also by gender, class, and regional identities, revealing how notions of “culture” and “authenticity” are fundamentally social ones. She also shows how many of the institutions that the early patrons helped to establish continue to play an important role in the contemporary market for American Indian art.
This book will appeal to audiences in cultural anthropology, art history, American studies, women’s studies, and cultural history.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Mullin makes a real contribution by exploring the dynamics of identity and social relations on the one side and knowledge and consumption on the other in her case study of the affluent women who influenced the direction and caste of the Indian art market.”—Charles McGovern, National Museum of American History

“This excellent and interesting work contributes to the question of how discourses about ‘art’ and ‘art-making’ circulate broadly within society. With subtlety and care Mullin traces out how ‘Indian arts’ and the Southwest come to have distinctive meanings within the context of American culture and its historical situation. It is a model of what an anthropology that links political economy, gender, and interpretation can and should do.”—Fred Myers, coeditor of The Traffic in Culture: Refiguring Art and Anthropology

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Duke University Press
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Gender, Art, and Value in the American Southwest


Copyright © 2001 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-2618-2

Chapter One


Let's begin with a piece of property and a cute story about an eclipse, two women, and their hair. Since 1972, the property has been home to the School of American Research (SAR), in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, nestled in an exclusive residential neighborhood on the east side of Santa Fe. Despite the name, the SAR is not a school at all, but rather a place where scholars, the majority of them anthropologists, come to participate in seminars and write books in the serenity of the high desert, temporarily relieved from the demands of classrooms and faculty committees. For its sponsors, the SAR often serves, like the Santa Fe Opera or some of the local museums, as an entree to a powerful local elite and a means of establishing a certain kind of regional identity. It is also home to a renowned collection of Native American art, housed in carefully guarded, climate-controlled vaults and visited by art historians, art collectors, and Native artists. The SAR is a place where culture as a marker of class distinction and culture as "peoples of the world" unite.

When visitors arrive at the School for the first time, they usually receive a tour of thebuildings and grounds. The tour includes a brief history of the property, as well as an explanation of some of its more unusual features-the administration building, for example, styled after a Spanish mission church, the terraced gardens, and, in a small clearing in a shady grove, the grave of the property's former owners, Amelia Elizabeth White and her sister, Martha Root White.

By the time they reach the grave, visitors are apt to have been told a story about how the Whites came to buy the property. As the story goes, sometime in the early 1920s the White sisters, typically described as "two wealthy women from Manhattan who never married," were on a road trip across the country, aiming to reach California in time to observe a solar eclipse. In Santa Fe they stopped to have their hair done-described, in at least one version of the story, as "the feminine thing to do"-and they were so taken with the area that, on a whim, they purchased the property that Elizabeth White, great friend of anthropology and art, bequeathed a half century later to the School of American Research. Upon hearing this story, the audience is apt to chuckle and smile-at the thought, perhaps, of such a frivolous, personal, and feminine errand having such significant and public consequences.

The story is in some ways misleading. Although the Whites were not above conspicuously indulging their whims in an eccentric fashion afforded by a position of extraordinary privilege, their interest in Santa Fe developed out of Elizabeth White's long-term social, political, and intellectual commitments and was not altogether a spur-of-the moment indulgence. But accuracy aside, the story told about the two women is instructive about common perceptions of relationships between women and history. In an article concerning the history of anthropology in Santa Fe, historian George Stocking described the Whites and some of their acquaintances as "wealthy New England spinsters" (1982:9). Stocking's description, like the story of the Whites' purchase of the property, falls into a pattern of social memory in which what is most often considered worth knowing about women such as Elizabeth and Martha White is that they were wealthy, from the East, and never married-rather than, for example, that they graduated from Bryn Mawr at the turn of the century, participated in the women's suffrage movement, and developed interests in anthropology and American Indians before the First World War. Also often absent from the social memory is the information that the Whites were not just isolated, particularly eccentric "spinsters," but part of a network of highly educated women who, during the 1920s and 1930s, bought property in Northern New Mexico and became important patrons of Native American and Spanish Colonial art.

The story of the Whites' acquisition of the property charms its audiences in part because it seems so incongruous with the property's present purpose as a home for serious scholarship and a hallowed, awe-inspiring art collection. It also strikes people as funny because this is one of the more valuable pieces of real estate in the entire region. Women who never married, a road-trip with no serious purpose, a beauty salon, anthropology, priceless art, and extraordinarily valuable property-who imagines such categories ending up together? If, however, the story about the White sisters is a story about gender, class, a merging of public and private interests, the acquisition of property, and the social construction of value, there are ways in which these categories are not so incongruous after all and their connection to the School of American Research not at all coincidental.

By the time the Whites bought that hillside in Santa Fe in 1923, they had joined a movement among anthropologists, artists, and writers promoting new ways of thinking about culture and cultural difference. Thinking about cultures in the plural, rather than as something singular and European-centered, offered new sources of power and authority and new ways of evaluating commodities, including real estate. At a time when culture, in the singular, had become a valuable commodity sought after by many middle-class Americans, thinking of cultures in the plural offered a new means of distinction, a new identity.

Culture, Cultures, and the Nation

Toward the end of his ironically titled Europe and the People Without History (1982), Eric Wolf urged anthropologists to rethink the concept of culture in a way which might take into account continual change and the fragmentation of communities dispersed across time and space, as well as the complicated criss-crossing of global political and economic relationships. In contrast to a view of culture as a concept inevitably developed by scientists motivated purely by a search for truth and understanding, Wolf emphasized the historical connections between anthropological notions of culture and nationalist movements. "The culture concept came to the fore in a specific historical context," he noted, "during a period when some European nations were striving for dominance while others were striving for separate identities and independence. The demonstration that each struggling nation possessed a distinctive society, animated by its special spirit or culture, served to legitimate its aspirations to form a separate state of its own. The notion of separate and integral cultures corresponded to this political project" (387).

The concept of culture, Wolf suggests, is not an inevitable part of contemporary discourse, but has resulted from a history of struggles to redraw maps of identities and differences. Although Wolf wrote in the past tense, the assertion of nations and cultures has continued into the present, often involving more complicated dynamics than a drive for the political independence of nation-states. Moreover, "the notion of separate and integral cultures" did not arise all in one piece, displacing, or existing completely independently of, other notions of culture, such as that which assumes culture to be something of which an individual can have more or less, even something one can acquire for a price. But the concept of culture to which Wolf refers, a concept that assumes that all people belong to "a culture," each worthy in its own way, each internally coherent and unified, has been one that has been useful at various times to individuals, including anthropologists, who have not always entirely abandoned Eurocentric notions of culture as something that makes some people superior to others. Rather, these two different ways of thinking about culture have continued to coexist, however much they might seem to contradict one another, and however much the concept to which Wolf refers may have become predominant.

Wolf's own rethinking of the culture concept has encouraged a consideration of how individuals and groups have used language and ideas to gain and maintain power in social relationships (Wolf 1999). How was the concept of culture used to gain and maintain power in early twentieth-century America? At the turn of the century, American intellectuals did not need the concept of culture to help legitimate the formation of a separate state; their concerns with culture were instead part of an ongoing process of constructing a more positive, confident national identity. The nation's relationship to "culture" was considered by many to be a particularly vexing problem.

In the early twentieth century, struggling to rehabilitate the nation's identity, American cultural nationalists cast about for new ways of thinking about culture as they attempted to reposition themselves on their map of the world and to redraw the boundaries between themselves and others. In this period, the anthropological notion of separate and integral cultures appeared, to many intellectuals at least, to allow for more than one center of the world, including wherever it was that they positioned themselves. To use another metaphor, seeing everyone as belonging to a valid culture allowed people-those who concerned themselves with such things, that is-to rewrite the rules of a game they felt they had been losing. At the same time, they did not entirely forsake the idea that culture was something that could be acquired and encouraged ("cultivated"), and either sense of the term-as a way of identifying groups of people all over the world, or as a matter of elite knowledge and sensibility within a group-allowed for important distinctions of authenticity and value.

In the basement of the library of the School of American Research, I browsed one afternoon among books that once belonged to the White sisters' father, Horace White. Among volumes of translated Greek and Roman histories, I happened upon an especially striking illustration of connections between American nationalism and ideas about "culture" and "cultures." The Anthropology volume of the Science-History of the Universe, published in 1909-just before Elizabeth and Martha White became seriously interested in the Southwest-was part of a compact ten-volume set designed for a popular audience, with other volumes devoted to such topics as chemistry and physics. The volume on anthropology begins with the admission that "no other science deals with a field so ill-defined" and refers to the motto of the Anthropology Department of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, "Man and His Works," as a reliable indication of the discipline's vagueness. Vagueness notwithstanding, the volume proceeds to provide concise summaries of anthropology's various subdivisions, including somatology, ethnology, ethnography, and culture history ("under the latter we must rank Prehistoric Archaeology, perhaps the most popular subdivision of the field") (Rolt-Wheeler 1909:ix).

After chapters devoted to "Man's Place in Nature" (which includes an illustrated facial comparison of a "Female Hottentot and Female Gorilla"), anthropometry (with its numerous applications to criminology), and prehistoric archaeology, Francis Rolt-Wheeler claims that all these topics come together in the final chapter, "The Development of Culture." This chapter, significantly, makes a stridently nationalist plea for the study of the "culture of the United States"-the importance of which is stressed with the claim that "the New World ... will, when she reaches a full strength, give to Man a Culture different from any that has gone before" (97).

Rolt-Wheeler concedes, however, that the importance of American Culture unfortunately has yet to be widely recognized and, as explanation, proposes that the lack of recognition is due

to the fact that the prophets of that spirit have not yet appeared; that the poets, artists, architects, sculptors, dramatists and scholars, are still in the lotus-dream of European ascendency. The engineer, the mechanician, the inventor, the industrial monarch, the railroad king, and the Great Khan of trade, are more in keeping with the growing American spirit, and hence arises the anomaly of those men's names being upon people's lips who seem to have naught else but wealth to recommend them as the cause of fame. (97)

But, it is argued, "it would be unjust to American culture" to assume that the importance granted to the pursuit of wealth is motivated only by greed. Instead, Rolt-Wheeler proposes in an even more imperialist tone that perhaps "these men" (the engineers, mechanicians, etc.) have only rightly discerned "that the masters of the world in the future will be Americans and that the resources of the world should be under their hands." "America," the volume concludes, "is yet a child, but men are beginning to see that her ideals are not borrowed and that her Culture is her own" (98). I have no knowledge that Elizabeth or Martha White ever read this book, though they did read others that I examine in this study. In many ways, including its pitch to an audience interested in a succinct summary of academic knowledge, it was not typical of the books in their own or their father's libraries. Regardless, the sensibility reflected in this book was one to which the Whites and their associates would appeal, while advocating a shift of emphasis from Culture to cultures.

Even for cultural nationalists without the imperial ambitions expressed in the Science-History of the Universe, the relationship between American national identity and culture was fraught with a number of difficulties, including the country's status as a former colony. As the passage quoted above suggests, at the turn of the century the United States was widely perceived as a once poor, now nouveau-riche relative of Europe. In order to imagine the national identity more positively, American intellectuals struggled to assert the possibility of an "American culture." As Russell Lynes noted at mid-century, "through the story of the history of our taste has run a constant theme-if America is to be great, America must have culture" (1954:7). But how, American cultural nationalists wondered, could they articulate an American national identity with cultural forms (art, literature, music) derived from Europe? In a study of nationalism and the arts in twentieth-century America, Charles Alexander argues that "the vision of a genuinely native, nationally representative expression was the single most significant feature of American cultural commentary in the years after 1900 and up to the Second World War" (1980:xii).

In addition to fretting about whether "American culture" was forever condemned to derivative status, many American intellectuals feared that the very concept of culture was being corrupted by its popularity among middle-class consumers. In a society filled with individuals determined to improve their social and economic status, culture was being marketed as something that anyone could acquire-for the price of admission, a book, or a series of lectures. The Science-History of the Universe was part of this phenomenon. In 1919, Waldo Frank struggled to retain the validity of the idea of culture and protested against the commercial exploitation of the concept in what he called the "Land of the Pioneers." Frank offered a summary of the history of Americans' relationship to "culture":

"Culture," which the American had been forced to leave behind in Europe, became a commodity to be won back with wealth: a badge of place and prestige: finally a sort of bait for the catching of less wary fish. The bald truth of this attitude comes out in such institutions as the "Five Foot Book Shelf" first suggested, I believe, by President Emeritus Charles E. Eliot of Harvard, and later exploited by enterprising publishers. Upon this little shelf, in essential and abbreviated form, the busy American finds "culture." Theodore Roosevelt is the author of a similar thesaurus. And today, numerous societies make fortunes advertising in the daily prints how the individual may achieve "culture" at the cost of ten cents a week, by subscribing to a list of "the best of the world's knowledge." (25-26)

Frank joined a number of his contemporaries in putting culture in quotation marks. In Sinclair Lewis's novels of the 1920s, culture is similarly problematized. In his 1929 novel Dodsworth, Lewis, echoing Thorstein Veblens' turn-of-the-century analysis of the women of the American nouveaux riches, suggested that the problem of "culture" was connected to the gendered division of labor in the bourgeois household. Bourgeois women, excluded from industrial production and more direct avenues to power, channeled their ambitions into the acquisition and display of "so-called culture." Dodsworth tells the story of the midlife crisis and marital failure of a successful automobile manufacturer, Sam Dodsworth. Dodsworth's manipulative wife, Fran, is an ardent social climber who, frustrated and bored after two decades of devotion to provincial domesticity, tasteful consumption, and philanthropic causes, leads him on a frantic tour of the capitals of Western Europe. In one exchange between the couple, Sam asks Fran what it is she expects to find in Europe. "'A lot of culture?'" he asks, and she replies, "'No! "Culture!" I loathe the word, I loathe the people who use it! I certainly do not intend to collect the names of a lot of painters-and soups-and come back and air them'" (31). But Lewis depicts Fran Dodsworth's disdain for "culture" as merely a ploy to hide her own affectations, and she ends up too concerned about finding the "right" people and avoiding the standard tourist routines to enjoy even the art galleries and museums of Paris: "Fran had read enough about art; she glanced over the studio magazines monthly, and she knew every gallery on Fifth Avenue. But, to her, painting, like all 'culture,' was interesting only as it adorned her socially" (119). People were eager to buy status in whatever way they could, Lewis suggests, and many were willing to sell it to them under the label of "culture." Those with a little more knowledge of elite tastes knew enough to disavow any interest in such status-seeking, but they still might not convince anyone of their authenticity.


Excerpted from CULTURE IN THE MARKETPLACE by MOLLY MULLIN Copyright © 2001 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Molly Mullin is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Albion College.

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