I learned the mantra — Art is a product of the culture — from Prof. Clemens Sommer in my Art History course at UNC-Chapel Hill. It has always resonated for me. From my perspective as an economist, it has taken on a special meaning that I would like to share with you. Art is like any other product. To be created it must go through a process of production. That process requires some of the limited time, energy, skills, tools, equipment, materials and other resources that are available locally at the time. The primary use for those inputs is to provide the goods and services the population needs to take care of itself just to survive. Art comes along afterward.
For any individual to be able create art there has to be a Surplus. Surplus is the time, energy, resources and funds (TERF) you have left over after taking care of yourself and fulfilling any obligations and commitments that were taken on. Not only does the concept apply to individuals, the concept applies to a society as a whole as well.Some of the surplus TERF can be used to produce art. Notably, when the art is sold that increases income and adds to the surplus.Typically art is not part of current consumption. Consequently producing any art requires a surplus.
It is from that perspective that I would like to re-examine Prof. Sommer’s mantra with you in the context of what happened on the small, mountainous tropical 19 1/2 sq.mi. island in the Caribbean known as St. John. St. John, along with its larger sister islands, St. Thomas and St. Croix, were originally part the Danish West Indies. Today they are part of the US Virgin Islands. In earlier years, because of the nature of transportation and communication, St. John was quite isolated, especially when boats were under sail and there were no phones and no internet.
Evidence of art on St. John reaches back into prehistoric times. Art is etched in stone in Reef Bay as petroglyphs. They tell us of the existence and a little bit about a culture that existed at the time. Not only did these ancient artists have the creative imagination, skills and tools to create artwork, the culture also had to have the sufficient surplus time, energy, and resources to make this art possible. A St. John artist, David Ferguson, many, many, many years later copied the images of these petroglyphs and put them on a T-shirt, which I have gladly worn for many years. During the historic period, centuries later, St. John had a very important art form — St. John baskets. They were around long before paper and plastic bags. Baskets are typically thought of as functional items however, some baskets have reached level of high end art.
St. John was settled in 1717. The plantations functioned because of slavery. Without the forced labor of enslaved people from the African nations there would not have been plantations that grew and exported crops like sugar cane, cotton and other crops. Even during the period of slavery, an independent, self-sufficient free black community developed on St. John. Some formerly enslaved people purchased their freedom. Others were given it during the lifetime of their enslaver or after his death.
They settled by the bays around the island and on the mountain tops, places that were not suitable for a plantation. Notably, those black communities existed prior to emancipation. They made a contribution to the plantation culture and were able to help sustain themselves by providing fish, boats, transportation services and other things, including baskets.
Emancipation freed enslaved people in 1848. The plantations rapidly went into decline. Yet the black communities survived generation after generation for more than a century afterward. In 1930, 13 years after the US took over and all three islands became part of the US Virgin Islands, there were 755 residents on St. John. Almost all were descendants of enslaved persons.
St. John became noted for its baskets. Traditional St. John baskets are of two types — rib and frame baskets and wickerware. The rib/frame technique came over from central Europe along with the Moravians, who settled on St. John in the 1740s.
The Moravian Church on St. John at the Emmaus and Bethany missions catered to enslaved persons along with their other parishioners. An important part of the Moravian doctrine was to take care of all those who were less fortunate, that included those who were enslaved. The Moravians, in addition to benefiting from the ownership of those who were enslaved, also freed many. After emancipation some of those who had been given their freedom remained on-island. Some of them were rehired by the church. Along with their baskets the Moravians brought their religion and the so called “three-legged stool doctrine”. That doctrine was that everyone should take responsibility for and take care of themselves and others, worship God and practice a craft.
Locally available hoop vine was adapted to create beautiful and functional baskets. The wickerware technique, in which local wist vine is used, probably came from Africa along with those who were enslaved. These baskets were so beautiful that in addition to being sold locally and on the other islands were also sold in the States and in Europe in the 1930s and ’40s, even though the transportation and communications costs that existed at the time were substantial.
I lived on St. John for 18 years beginning in 1987. Recognizing the importance of these baskets I studied St. John basketry and met and became friends with Mr. Herman Prince, the Island’s premier basketmaker-teacher at the time. Mr. Prince and other St. John basketmakers produced Museum quality art. That is remarkable achievement in its own right. That accomplishment was acknowledged and carried a step further when Mr. Prince’s ‘St. John market basket’ was made part of the Smithsonian Cole-Ware Collection. Importantly, the unique contribution of St. John basketry goes well beyond that. Mr. Prince was part of the legacy of the independent self-sufficient black community that existed for over a century, even prior to emancipation.
St. John baskets played an important role in the island’s history and contributed to the well-being of St. Johnians over the years. In spite of the small island’s isolation and limited resources, especially in the earlier years, they found a market for the baskets off-island. Their sale contributed to the islander’s income and surplus, making it possible for them to make more and finer baskets. Basketry contributed to the community’s survival over generations. That alone is impressive. What is even more noteworthy is that over and above that, the independent self-sufficient black community created a culture that had enough surplus, imagination and skills to produce museum quality high-end art. The small isolated community deserves credit for its accomplishments. The St. John experience gives special meaning to Prof. Sommer’s mantra — “Art is a product of the culture.”
I felt at home on St. John and never expected to leave. (But that’s another story). I was accepted as a member of the community and developed lifelong friendships there.