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The Value of Aesthetics

The Value of Aesthetics
Oaxacan Woodcarvers in Global Economies of Culture

An ethnographic study of the economic and cultural impact of aesthetics, focusing on an internationally renowned workshop where Oaxacan woodcarvings, or alebrijes, are highly profitable.

Series: Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Endowment in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture

September 2019
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208 pages | 6 x 9 | 11 color photos, 1 b&w map |

Unlike many other handicrafts in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, which have long cultural and historical trajectories, Oaxacan woodcarving began in the second half of the twentieth century and has always been done for the commercial market. In The Value of Aesthetics, Alanna Cant explores how one family’s workshop in the village of San Martín Tilcajete has become the most critically and economically successful, surpassing those of neighbors who use similar materials and techniques. The dominance of this family is tied to their ability to produce a new aesthetic that appeals to three key “economies of culture”: the tourist market for souvenirs, the national market for traditional Mexican artesanías, and the international market for indigenous art.

Offering a new analytical model by which anthropologists can approach visual aesthetics and conceptualize the power of artworks as socially active objects, The Value of Aesthetics shows how aesthetic practices produce and redefine social and political relationships. By investigating the links between aesthetics and issues of production, authorship, ownership, and identity, Cant shows aesthetic change to be a process that ultimately repackages everyday life into commodified objects in Oaxaca.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. The Alluring Thing Itself
  • Chapter 2. Aesthetics of Work in Woodcarving
  • Chapter 3. Authorship and Its Consequences
  • Chapter 4. Artesanías into Ethnic Art
  • Chapter 5. The Art of Indigeneity
  • Chapter 6. The Allure of Art and Intellectual Property
  • Conclusion: At the End of the Aura
  • Appendix: A Note on Names
  • References
  • Index

Alanna Cant
Cambridge, United Kingdom

A social anthropologist, Cant is a research associate at the University of Kent and holds a doctorate from the London School of Economics. In addition to her work with artisans, she has conducted research on contemporary Catholicism and the restoration of a sixteenth-century Dominican monastery in rural Oaxaca. She has studied and worked in anthropology in Canada, Germany, Norway, and the United Kingdom, and her findings have appeared in the volume Critical Craft: Technology, Globalization, and Capitalism as well as Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology, Visual Anthropology, and The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute.


“[Cant] sheds light on the effects of globalization by delving into the specific case of the wood carving market in San Martín Tilcajete, Oaxaca.”
Mid Atlantic Review of Latin American Studies

“Cant’s book is a welcome addition to a rich field of study, and it will take its place alongside the many volumes that preceded it. Readers in anthropology, Latin American studies, and art as well as art history, economics, and tourism will find much to recommend in The Value of Aesthetics. Cant’s style is accessible for readers at a variety of levels, from the beginner just learning about Oaxaca and craft production to the seasoned scholar engaged in the critical analysis of the role and meaning of ethnic crafts in a globalizing market system.”
American Ethnologist

“This adeptly argued book brings a fresh theoretical orientation to the discussion of Oaxacan crafts, opening it up to the wider material culture scholarship.”
W. Warner Wood, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, author of Made in Mexico: Zapotec Weavers and the Global Ethnic Art Market

“A fascinating, careful ethnography with lucid discussions of relevant theories of anthropology and aesthetics.”
Michael Chibnik, University of Iowa, author of Crafting Tradition: The Making and Marketing of Oaxacan Wood Carvings


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