Pros and cons of cultural intervention

Is the indigenous craftsman in third-world countries helped or hindered by outside intervention, by the arrangement of foreign exhibitions, and by visits from teams of experts from other countries? The answer is twofold. There is both opportunity and danger.

But according to some of those involved with the exhibition and with Indian crafts in general, the pluses outweigh the minuses.

Rajeev Sethi, who put together the ``Golden Eye'' exhibition, notes that not one of the visiting designers and architects went to India with designs they handed to Indian craftsmen and commanded, ``OK. Now make.'' Each time, he says, there were dialogues, exchanges of views, and suggested alternative ways of doing things. It was a mutual learning experience.

Andrew Pekarik, director of New York's Asia Society galleries, stresses the importance of mutual respect. ``Traditional Asian craftsmen must always be treated respectfully as creative artists who themselves design what they make, not as mechanical executors of someone else's design,'' he says. ``Their own input is part of the joy and special character of what they produce, although in many cases they work in consultation with patrons who commission the objects.''

Looked at in historical terms, he explains, ``the problem is patronage. Many of the things that craftsmen have made in the past in their own societies are now more easily or cheaply obtained from commercial sources. It is no longer economical for someone to buy a brass pot from their local brassmaker when they can buy a mass-produced aluminum one.''

``It is the same in America,'' he continues. ``We have wonderful craftsmen who struggle to make a living because it is so hard to set up a system of patronage. So the real issue behind the Cooper-Hewitt exhibition is the attempt to find new international patronage for these Indian craftsmen, and I see no problem with that. Such a show exposes many people to the capabilities of these Indian craftsmen and also brings to the fore the problem of how we deal with the crafts in the modern world.''

Pramod Chandra, professor of Indian and South Indian art at Harvard University (who also helped arrange the Indian sculpture show at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.), says he welcomes the ``Golden Eye,'' ``because one of its purposes is to find new people to encourage and use the skills of Indian craftsmen. If the things they make are consumed all over the world, then the crafts will continue and flourish.''

Dr. Chandra sounds a note of caution, however. ``I do feel that it is sometimes dangerous for a traditional craft to become too dependent upon the tastes of people of other cultures. I cite the case of the Kashmir shawls which became so popular with the European market in the 19th century that the Indian weavers neglected their local market. When the fashion suddenly changed and shawls were no longer in style, the boom suddenly became bust and the weavers suffered. So I think we must beware of cu stomers who might quickly tire of what we make and also of the tides of fashion.

``I worry that in our quest for foreign markets we may not nurture the roots of our craft traditions that lie so deep in our culture,'' he adds. ``I hope we will not `overpromote' this time. I would like to see Indian craftsmen serve Indian customers first, then develop trade abroad.''

Joan Erdman, an anthropologist, scholar, and coordinator at the South Asia Center at the University of Chicago, also notes that ``a strictly external marketing idea could tend to dilute or destroy, not help.'' But she sees ``lots of interesting things'' already going on in India, such as the development of craft centers and craft cooperatives that give skilled workers new opportunities, a place to sell, and organizations through which they can continue to apprentice their sons and daughters and hand down their traditions.

Speaking of exhibitions like ``Golden Eye,'' she adds, ``I would hope that the long-term goal would be to find ways to develop trade in the craft specializations of India on a more regularized and long-term basis.''

Anthropologist Raymond Owens, chairman of the board of the Ethnic Arts Foundation and a lecturer for the Institute for Asian Studies in New York, cites several instances of successful and imaginative intervention, such as the 50 cooperatives in the Canadian Arctic that give livelihood to numerous Eskimo artists and craftsmen.

At the same time, he points out that ``the danger is always exploitation at the other end; somebody is going to have to look after the interests of the craftsmen. The whole thing has to do with quality control and successful ongoing linkage to markets and compensation commensurate with skills. If you can get craftsmen what their work is really worth, then everybody benefits.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.