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.Continue reading “Baskets: Unacknowledged Accomplishments”