Posted by: mkl325 | April 22, 2013

William Spratling and Communism – Presenting my thesis topic

Next week I have to present my thesis topic to the Art History department. I am not particularly skilled at speaking in public so this whole event is a little nerve-wracking. Regardless, I am excited to get some feedback on my topic before I delve heavily into the writing process. Here is the work-in-progress of the overview of this topic that I am presenting next week.

william-spratling-slide1

The working title of my dissertation is Politics and the Artist Community: The Role of Communism in William Spratling’s Revitalization of Taxco, Mexico.

I began my research with a look at patronage and the arts. Patronage is an essential aspect of the art world; it is the way in which an artist and their art are supported and a way in which art is introduced into a larger society. There is, however, a danger that the desires of the patron can overtake the view of the artist, thereby distorting the artist’s vision. This danger is especially prevalent in a capitalist society, such as the United States of America, and can become a force that disrupts art communities, through an establishment of ideals forced upon the artists. One particular example of this distortion occurred in the 1920s in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Dixie Bohemia by John Shelton Reed - the greatest resource for information on the members of "The New Orleans Renaissance".

Dixie Bohemia by John Shelton Reed – the greatest resource for information on the members of “The New Orleans Renaissance”.

In the 1920s, the French Quarter of New Orleans was a bohemian center of the American South, a time known as the “New Orleans Renaissance”. An architect professor and illustrator, William Spratling, along with his roommate, the author William Faulkner, helped to lead a group of artists and writers include the community in the preservation of the French Quarter.

Drawing of William Faulkner by William Spratling

Drawing of William Faulkner by William Spratling

Spratling and Faulkner's book of the members of their community

Spratling and Faulkner’s book of the members of their community

However, as the group became more popular, more prominent people in New Orleans society began to move into the French Quarter, changing the dynamic of the community. Although the new wealthy inhabitants of the French Quarter planned to become a part of the bohemian community established there, they ultimately destroyed that very same community by using their influence to pass restrictions on the behavior and practices of the current residents of the area.

Advertisement for the Arts and Crafts Club of New Orleans

Advertisement for the Arts and Crafts Club of New Orleans

Why were the wealthier members of New Orleans able to take over the community so easily? Quite simply, New Orleans is a city within a Capitalist nation. Capitalism is a social and economic system where private persons control capital assets, such as property. This system unfortunately leads to the wealthy having greater political influence, which made it easier for the high society members of New Orleans to eject the members of the “New Orleans Renaissance”.

As a result, between 1926 and 1928, several key figures in the New Orleans Renaissance traveled to Mexico, including William Spratling, becoming part of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo’s social and artistic circle.

Sketch by William Spratling. You can see many of Diego Rivera's paintings represented.

Sketch by William Spratling. You can see many of Diego Rivera’s paintings represented.

William Spratling and Frida Kahlo

William Spratling and Frida Kahlo

Rivera and Kahlo were both members of the Mexican Communist Party and were well known for their beliefs, beliefs that were popular throughout the country and that many Mexico artists, in particular, shared.

Communism is a revolutionary, socialist movement aimed at creating a classless, moneyless and stateless social order structured upon common ownership of the means of production, as well as a social, political and economic ideology that aims at the establishment of this social order.

In 1928, Spratling permanently moved to Taxco, Mexico and by 1931 he started work as a jewelry designer, determined to revive the town’s historic silver industry.

The town of Taxco de Alarcon, Mexico

The town of Taxco de Alarcon, Mexico

mexico_map

After his interactions with the Mexican Communist Party, he found that the community reacted differently than they did in New Orleans. Again he focused on the historic preservation of the culture, and as a foreigner to Mexico, he relied on the people of Taxco to influence his designs.

Spratling and his assistants at his studio

Spratling and his assistants at his studio

He consistently and vigorously employed the people of Taxco as his assistants and was very conscious to use silver mined only in the area. These two aspects went were in accordance with the Communist ideals of the city, for example, it was much cheaper for jewelry designers to buy silver items in pawn shops and melt them down than to have new silver mined but having the silver mined meant more jobs and community involvement in his work.

Bracelet by William Spratling

Bracelet by William Spratling

Butterfly Brooch by William Spratling

Butterfly Brooch by William Spratling

Brooch by William Spratling

Brooch by William Spratling

Silver and Amethyst Jaguar Brooch by William Spratling

Silver and Amethyst Jaguar Brooch by William Spratling

I have been able to find a decent amount of primary source material including William Spratling’s autobiography and his book “Little Mexico” on the town of Taxco itself. I am currently waiting on the letter collections of William Spratling and two members of the “New Orleans Renaissance”, Caroline Wogan Durieux and Natalie Scott, both of whom relocated to Taxco and participated in Spratling’s community. These papers are important for they show the change in political viewpoints of the members of the “New Orleans Renaissance” as well as descriptions of the change in community from New Orleans to Taxco and the artistic influence there.

Caroline Wogan Durieux

Caroline Wogan Durieux

This particular community revitalization was an incredible success, and is in fact still known for it’s silver smithing and jewelry. This sustained success leaves me to believe that the Communist nature of the country encouraged this success, where as the Capitalist nature of the United States prevented the continuation of the New Orleans Renaissance. I believe that William Spratling’s community revitalizations are great examples of how the political identity of a country encourages or hinders the sustainability of art communities.

Memorial at William Spratling's home in Taxco

Memorial at William Spratling’s home in Taxco

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