Part One: Primitive Accumulation




Chapter One


Civilization and Barbarism in the New World






Nowhere is the connection between the understanding of indigenous artworks, on the one hand, and the plunder and subjugation of their creators, on the other, more evident than in the event that most dramatically inaugurates capitalism as a global system: the discovery and conquest of the Americas. Since that event constitutes a point of transition between medieval and modern times, it is both backward- and forward-looking.[1]


Columbus conducted his first voyage of discovery the same year the Spaniards wrested Granada from the Moors and drove them and the unconverted Jews from their country. In his letters to Isabella and Ferdinand, he repeatedly refers to those events and presents his voyage as a further expression of the militantly Christian spirit that inspired them. The immigrant Genoese admiral set sail in an attempt to find a direct route across the Atlantic to the land of Cathay (China), as described by Marco Polo, so that he might convert its people to Roman Catholicism. He also wanted to acquire enough wealth to finance a military expedition to liberate Jerusalem, the location of the Holy Sepulcher, from the control of the Ottoman Turks, and thereby regain for Christendom its spiritual center. However, both the monarchs who paid for Columbus' voyages and the men under the Admiral's command were at best only distantly motivated by the idea of the religious conversion of the Chinese, or that of a Fifth Crusade against the Islamic enemy. They were driven in the first instance by avarice for gold as what Marx called "the universal equivalent," the fungible medium of exchange in which all other commodities express their value.


This avarice was not a simple matter of greed for material possessions. Such greed, after all, was quite familiar to the Middle Ages, in spite of the official Catholic condemnation of usury and cupidity. The new lust for gold, rather, involved recognition that the ability to participate in commodity exchange in the international market was beginning to supersede the inheritance of feudal titles and privileges as the key to status, power, and consumption. (In Spain, those titles and privileges themselves had, in effect, been put up for sale as the Crown established a new path of upward mobility by encouraging alliances by marriage between the families of wealthy merchants and those of the feudal aristocracy).[2] During the Middle Ages, people were in the habit of making a distinction that Aristotle had drawn much earlier between objects and conditions valued as means to ends beyond themselves, and objects and conditions valued for their own sake. Some things simply have no price. It was precisely this distinction that was now breaking down. The power of gold as the equivalent into which anything and everything is convertible became especially clear when its price was driven up in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries by the explosion of European trade with India and China via Byzantium and the Arab world, as an expanding volume of goods began to chase a limited supply of the precious metal. The Admiral's men coveted gold, not as one possible end among others, but as the increasingly indispensable key to all forms of wealth, power, even spiritual attainment. As Columbus noted:  “Genoese and Venetians, and all those people who have pearls, precious stones and other valuable things, carry them to the ends of the earth for trade and to convert them into gold. Gold is most excellent; with gold treasure is made, and he who possesses it, can do as he wishes in the world. It can even drive souls into paradise.”[3] The unprecedented significance of gold, therefore, lay in the fact that, with the growth of the world market, it began to serve as the representative of every conceivable object of desire, as the repository of abstract exchange-value on a truly universal scale.


For their part, the Spanish monarchs also recognized that gold was the privileged  path to the realization of all temporal and spiritual goals. Isabella and Ferdinand had only recently united the Crowns of Castille and Aragon with their marriage. They wanted to discover a supply of bullion capable of financing their drive to consolidate a unified, Spanish-Catholic state. And when the Hapsburg monarch, Charles V, ascended to the Spanish throne and was then elected Holy Roman Emperor, he had even greater need to find sources of gold in order to finance his attempt to create a Catholic imperium centered in Europe, but certainly not confined within its boundaries. Thanks to the Admiral and his successors, he found what he was looking for. But it is an irony of history that American gold would power the rise of, not a world empire, but a capitalist world economy, a global market and division of labor presided over by a multiplicity of more or less independent states. (The classical imperialism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries consists in the struggle of the core states among themselves for colonial possessions and spheres of influence rather than in the consolidation of a single world empire). The creation of global capitalism was not the intention of the Spanish Crown or the men whose voyages and military expeditions it financed. Yet the lust for gold of all concerned was an expression of that unlimited impulse to accumulate exchange-value that came to define the new capitalist mode of production.


Columbus may have discovered the New World, but he did not initiate the European encounter with indigenous American art, for he did not believe that the Taino Indians, who inhabited the Caribbean islands where he landed, had art or any other culture at all. He wrote in his journal that they all went naked as the day they were born. They seemed to lack laws as well as any conception of property. They had no religion, not even an idolatrous one. And their artifacts were not worth considering: “They brought skeins of spun cotton, parrots, darts, and other trifles which it would be wearisome to describe.”[4] These savage or innocent people ─ the Admiral described the Indians in both terms ─ lacked the social hierarchy and division of labor that he associated with civilization and its arts. Columbus was wrong in nearly every aspect of his description of the Tainos, but nowhere more glaringly than in his assessment of their material culture. The truth is that the Indians made powerfully expressive carved and painted representations of ancestral spirits, as well as those who stirred in the trees, the rain, the cassava plants, in all the forces and phenomena of nature, spirits the native people called zemis.[5]


Some of the most striking examples of this art to survive the conquest are statues of wood or stone, which are inlaid with pieces of shell that represent eyes and teeth, and many of which are surmounted by circular platters. On those platters, the owners of the statues would place a hallucinogenic snuff made from the crushed seeds of the piptadenia tree, which they would inhale through tubes of bone or wood also carved with images of the zemis. Following this procedure, the worshippers would begin to quiver and then fall into a visionary stupor in which they would communicate with the spirits embodied in the statues and paraphernalia. Like nearly all indigenous peoples of the Americas, from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, the Tainos sought direct experience of the world of invisible presences that they regarded as nothing more than the reverse side of the visible world, the side where genuine reality is located. Out of the desire for such experience, they created a compelling visionary art.


The priest, Ramon Pane, described the statues and their use in a document Columbus commissioned, a report that deserves to be called the first ethnographic treatise of the New World and that is still indispensable to archaeologists working on the lost Taino culture ─ lost, that is, as the Taino people were decimated by massacres, forced labor in the goldfields, disease, and generally cruel treatment.[6] Yet neither Father Pane nor his employer recognized the statues' significance as art.  Hernan Cortes and his soldiers were the first Europeans to engage seriously with native American artworks, and this was first of all because they were able to recognize them as artworks, since they were created, not by the low-technology, stateless and classless tribes of the Caribbean, but by the sophisticated civilization that existed in Mexico.[7] Still, when the conquistadors arrived on the coast of Veracruz in 1519, they were Columbus's true representatives. They brought with them both the backward-looking Catholic evangelism and the forward-looking desire to accumulate exchange-value that had already inspired his voyages. These disparate orientations jointly defined the hermeneutic framework within which the Spanish invaders interpreted the material creations of the Mexica and other Indians who inhabited the city states of the Valley of Mexico and were known collectively as the Aztecs.




The Aztec civilization was ruled by the Mexica king, or tlatoani, who wielded his power from the remarkable metropolis of Technoctitlan, which the Mexica people had created from virtually nothing on a swampy island in Lake Texcoco. The Mexicas were the most recent wave of nomadic hunters and gatherers to arrive in the Valley of Mexico from the deserts of the north, but, in less than two centuries, they managed to create an empire more extensive than any of their predecessors, and this in a region that already had a three-thousand-year history of sophisticated urban development. Like its Mesoamerican forerunners, the Mexica state arose in much the same way that states originally developed in Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, and China. A centralized political apparatus congealed in the process of building and administering public works that were beyond the capacities of simple villages, but necessary to the success of agricultural production in a difficult environment. As historians have demonstrated, Karl Wittfogel's famous thesis of the "hydraulic" origins of the state, elaborated in his book, Oriental Despotism, is false as a universal theory of early state-formation. But it happens to be true of the rise of the Aztec state, which began by harnessing the forces of Lake Texcoco with the creation of irrigation systems. In any event, as in the ancient civilizations of the Old World, the emergence of the Mexica state went hand-in-hand with the development of class divisions. The king, who was the personal incarnation of state power, occupied the apex of a class hierarchy comprised by a nobility of warriors and priests at the top, a stratum of merchants and skilled artisans in the middle, and a heterogeneous grouping of commoners, including freeborn farmers, serfs, and slaves, at the bottom.[8]


In capitalism, at least in its core countries, the extraction of surplus value is masked by the apparently equitable exchange of labor for a wage. However, as in all class societies prior to capitalism, the mechanisms through which the Mexica upper classes siphoned off an economic surplus from the labor of the direct producers were perfectly transparent. Serfs, who were bound to the land of the nobles, had to surrender a portion of their crops to their lords. Slaves, of course, were owned by their masters, and worked as domestic servants in aristocratic homes and as porters in merchants’ caravans. Finally, the freeborn farmers were required to pay taxes directly to the king, yet they, at least, preserved a remnant of the egalitarian social framework that had undoubtedly characterized the Mexicas’ past as hunters and gatherers. They belonged to the calpultin, kinship groups that held land in common over which they distributed farming rights to individual families in accordance with need. Exploitative class divisions and centralized state power surely arose on the foundation of this more ancient communalism, a communalism that they largely, though not wholly, supplanted.


By the time Cortes landed in Veracruz, the Mexica state had become the center of an empire that extracted economic surpluses, not only from its own direct producers, but from those of conquered states as well. It had extended its domination by force of arms throughout the Valley of Mexico, reaching as far as the Atlantic and Pacific shores as well as the Guatemala highlands. Huge quantities of food, cotton clothing, and feathers, greenstone, and other luxury goods flowed into Technoctitlan as tribute from the conquered territories. It was from the population of the subjugated states that Cortes would raise the military forces necessary to destroy the imperial capital. However, although the Aztec empire served as an enormous conduit for the redistribution of material resources, the justification the Mexica nobility gave for its expansionism through wars of conquest did not center on the extraction of booty. It was rooted instead in a creation myth that connected human existence to the life of the gods by way of the most fundamental cycles of cosmology.


According to the version of the myth recorded in the Franciscan missionary Sahagun's post-conquest, General History of the Things of New Spain, there were four cosmic epochs prior to the current one. Each was presided over by its own sun, each included human beings who subsisted on foods less perfect than maize, and each was ended by a different natural cataclysm. The fifth epoch is the final one. It too will come to an end ─ by earthquakes this time ─ and no others will follow. It began when the gods assembled at the sacred city of Teotihuacan and built a sacrificial fire in its center.[9] Two of the

gods volunteered to leap into the blaze. At first the wealthy and haughty Tecuciztecal attempted the jump, but lost courage as he neared the flames. But the impoverished and sickly god, Nanahuatzin, had no trouble leaping into the fire, at which point he was purified and ascended into the sky as the new sun. In his shame, Tecuciztecal now followed Nanahuatizin's example and was transformed into the moon. Neither sun nor moon were able to move, however, until all of the remaining gods allowed themselves to be slain by their appointed executioner, Ecatl, the wind. The epoch of the Fifth Sun and the human beings who dwell in it would never have occurred had the gods not sacrificed themselves in this manner. The Aztecs drew what seemed to be the inescapable conclusion: human beings must discharge the debt they owe the gods by relinquishing their own hearts and blood on sacrificial altars. In particular, the sun, upon whom all living things depend, needs human sustenance if it is to defeat the uncanny star-demons who pursue it during its night-time journey through the underworld, and so to rise again at dawn. The primary purpose of war is to capture the warriors who will act as the sacrificial victims necessary to stave off the final sunset, at least for a while longer. In The Accursed Share, George Bataille interprets Aztec sacrifice as a form of pure sumptuary expenditure, an assertively glorious destruction of resources that takes place beyond the utilitarian context of material survival.[10] But he is wrong about this. From the Aztec point of view, sacrifice served to renew the sun's diurnal cycle. It was, therefore, even more necessary for reproducing the material conditions of life than the hydraulic systems that made agricultural labor possible.


Now the demand for human sacrifice was not an invention of the Mexica aristocracy, whose warriors, by the way, also ran the risk of being captured and sacrificed by their enemies. The idea that gods and people are linked in an interdependent cycle of life and death was deeply rooted in the urban cultures of ancient Mesoamerica. There is even archaeological evidence of human sacrifice in archaic village settlements that go back as far as 6000 B.C. Some scholars speculate that these early agriculturalists developed the practice in order to nourish the spirit of maize with human food so that it might be reborn from the dead seed, in recognition of the existence of a sort of divine-human ecology.[11] Still, the Mexicas seem to have taken the practice to the most extreme limits of expression. The Spanish chronicles, for example, report that 20,000 victims were sacrificed at the dedication of the Main Temple of Technochtitlan alone. Yet for all their justified reputation among their Indian contemporaries as ruthless and bloodthirsty warmongers, the Mexicas also appear to have been conflicted about their sacrificial obsession. That conflict concerns the meaning Aztec art had for its own society.


As outsiders who had only recently shed what they now regarded as the uncouth ways of their nomadic past, the Mexica aristocrats were never fully convinced of their right to rule the civilized Valley of Mexico. In order to establish their political legitimacy, they married into what remained of the Toltec aristocracy who had once presided over the brilliant culture that flourished in the city state of Tula. A central Mexica myth accounts for the destruction of the Toltec civilization as the event that paved the way for the Mexicas' rise to legitimate power. According to the myth, the god Quetzalcoatl, the celestial feathered serpent, was sent down from heaven to lead human beings from the path of impious actions to that of spiritual purity. He was transformed into a priest who came to power in the city of Tula, where he initiated a golden age of piety and culture. He taught all the arts to the Toltecs. As the version recorded in Sahagun's compendium puts it: “and the Toltecs, his vassals, were highly skilled. Nothing that they did was difficult for them. They cut green stone, and they cast gold, and they made other works of the craftsman and the feather worker. Very skilled were they. These started and proceeded from Quetzalcoatl, all craft works and wisdom.”[12]


The god in his incarnate form as a priest also introduced a series of fundamental religious reforms into Toltec society, including study of the sacred calendar, new penitential practices such as bathing at midnight, and, above all, prohibition of human sacrifice. From that time forward, only birds and butterflies were acceptable victims. People continued to discharge the debt they owed the gods, but only by means of the mild practice of drawing blood from their own bodies. However, the god Tezcatlipoca, patron of sorcery, the power of the ruling class, and the discord of war, was threatened by the prohibition of human sacrifice. When a period of sloth followed upon the zeal of the initial religious reforms, the dark god saw a chance to do in his enemy. In the guise of three sorcerers, he employed his magical powers and cunning to bring Quetzalcoatl to ruin. First he used his enchanted obsidian mirror to show the priest his own body as a misshapen and ugly thing. Then he got him drunk on the fermented beverage, pulque. Finally, he enticed him to commit incest with his sister. Quetzalcoatl was forced to leave Tula in disgrace, and the Toltec culture collapsed. The god traveled east until he finally reached the Atlantic Ocean. Here the accounts diverge. According to one story, upon casting himself into a fire, his heart ascended to the sky where it was transformed into the morning star. But according to another account, he set off on the open sea on board a raft of serpents. The second story became the foundation for the widespread prophesy of the god's eventual return. It was said that he would come back from the east in a year with the calendrical designation 1 Reed, in order to reclaim his throne and institute the utopian age of art and piety once again.


For the members of the Mexica ruling class, the myth of Quetzalcoatl began to justify their own rise to power in the Valley of Mexico by accounting for the end of the Toltec state. But in order to legitimize themselves as the cultivated heirs of Toltec civilization, they recognized that they had to do more than supply this explanation. They went on to sponsor a flowering of the visual arts in an attempt to equal and even surpass the Toltec precedent. Two facts of linguistic usage indicate that this was indeed the primary purpose of artistic activity in the eyes of the Mexicas: the highest praise that an artist could receive was that he or she worked like a Toltec, and the Nahuatl (Aztec) word for artist was toltecatl.[13]


In any event, the ruling class brought accomplished artists from many parts of the empire into Tehnochtitlan. Along with native craft workers, they were organized into guilds. In the workshops maintained by those guilds, a distinctively Aztec style of visual representation eventually developed with the support of generous commissions. The artists, both immigrant and native, produced countless monuments, stone and wooden sculptures, painted books, turquoise mosaics, gold and silver castings, ceramics, and featherwork, all in an attempt to put the Mexica’ barbarian past as uncultivated nomads behind them. This attempt at political legitimacy also reached into the iconography of the artworks. The monuments in particular were elaborately carved with glyphs and symbols proclaiming the supposed ethnic and religious foundations of Mexica power. In addition, the sheer size of the monuments, as well as their generally horrific appearance, was intended to terrify conquered populations into submission.


 The project of justifying imperial rule by means of the creation of art was rent by a basic contradiction, however. The god-priest from whom the artistic culture of the paradigmatic Toltecs flowed also prohibited human sacrifice. Moreover, Tezcatlipoca, the enemy who laid him to ruin, was the patron god of war and ruling-class power. The myth of Quetzalcoatl thus registered a contradiction between the creative activity involved in producing works of art and the destruction unleashed by class society, especially through its drive for military expansion. The antithetical relationship of these two forces must have been particularly apparent to the peoples of urban Mesaoamerica. They must have noticed, for example, that the painstaking work involved in cutting and carving stone with obsidian blade ─ sometimes taking as long as the time needed to carry and give birth to a child ─ contrasted sharply with the devastation invading warriors could visit on enemy villages and even cities, in little more than an instant. And yet the Mexica rulers sponsored the creation of artworks in an attempt to establish their right to dominate the Valley of Mexico by force of arms, and to maintain the cult of human sacrifice such military domination entailed. How was it possible for the Mexicas to serve both Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca?


“There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”[14] Walter Benjamin wrote those words as the fascist imperium was marching triumphantly through Europe. They direct our attention to a disturbing entanglement of the violence and exploitation of class society with the cultural achievements made possible by its economic surplus and specialized division of labor, an entanglement that has not yet been superceded. What is the utopian age projected in the myth of Quetzalcoatl but one in which that connection is dissolved? What is it but a time when the works of culture are freed from their bloodstained ties with barbarism? Like Benjamin's words, these formulations concern, not the supposed barbarism of hunters and gatherers ─ which is only the imperious judgment with which the lords of the earth condemn a more egalitarian past ─ , but the genuine barbarism that has so far existed in the heart of civilization itself.


There is an exquisitely carved greenstone box that belonged to Montecuhzoma II and that is now in the Museum fur Àlkerkunde and Vorgeschichte in Hamburg, a particularly excellent example of the art that flourished under the Aztecs. Its lid bears the image of Quetzalcoatl as the celestial feathered serpent descending to earth. On one side of the box, the god is also represented as a bearded elder dressed in a jaguar skin, holding a spear thrower in one hand and a priest's bag in the other. He is identified by the glyph for 1 Reed, the prophesied date of his return. The opposite side of the box is carved with a relief of Montechuzoma himself in the act of drawing sacrificial blood from his ear. Here the Aztec king appears to be the true disciple of the god who prohibits all but such forms of auto-sacrifice. But that appearance is false, in spite of Montechzoma's genuine fascination with the reformer of Tula. He could only dread the prophesied return of Quetzalcoatl, who represented a far different principle than the one on which the Aztec empire rested. He knew that the god's appearance would mean disaster for Technoctitlan and its rulers. In the year 1 Reed, Cortes and his men landed at Veracruz. They came from the east.[15]






Of course, Cortes was to prove by his actions that he was not at all the mild deity from whom art and tranquil spirituality proceeded. But Montechuzoma's suspicion that the conquistador might be the exiled god or his representative, come at last to reclaim the reed mat that served as the Aztec throne, paralyzed his ability to act decisively against the invaders. According to the Aztec chronicles compiled after the conquest, the king fell into a deep depression when he first heard about the Spaniard's arrival. He sent his messengers to Cortes with the regalia of four gods and instructed them to dress him in the costume of Quetzalcoatl while laying the other three outfits at his feet. When Cortes finally entered Technoctitlan, Montechuzoma greeted him with the following words:

“This was foretold by the kings who governed your city, and now it has taken place. You have come back to us; you have come down from the sky. Rest now, and take possession of your royal houses.”[16] The Aztec king simply relinquished the power that had passed into his hands from the Toltec civilization to the one who appeared to be its legitimate heir.


Cortes did not have to think twice about how to use the power that had been given to him so unexpectedly. In his second letter to Charles V, he writes,  “I spoke one day with Montechuzoma and told him that Your Highness had need of gold for certain works you had ordered to be done.” He asked Montechuzoma to collect tribute from the nobles who owed him their fealty. What follows in the letter is the first significant description

by a European of what he clearly regards as works of indigenous American art. It is a passage worth quoting at length:


And so it was done, and all the chiefs to whom he sent gave very fully of all that was asked of them, both in jewelry and in ingots and gold and silver sheets, and other things which they had.


When all was melted down that could be, Your Majesty's fifth came to more than 32,400 pesos de oro, exclusive of the gold and silver jewelry, and the featherwork and precious stones and many other valuable things which I designated for Your Holy Majesty and set aside; all of which might be worth a hundred thousand ducats or more. All these, in addition to their intrinsic worth, are so marvelous that considering their novelty and strangeness they are priceless; nor can it be believed that any of the princes of this world, of whom we know, possess any things of such high quality.


And lest Your Highness should think all this is an invention, let me say that all things of which Montechuzoma has ever heard, both on land and in the sea, they have modeled, very realistically, either in gold and silver or in jewels or feathers, and with such perfection that they seem almost real. He gave many of these for Your Highness, without counting other things which I drew for him and which he had made in gold, such as holy images, crucifixes, medallions, ornaments, necklaces and many other things. Of the silver Your Highness received a hundred or so marks, which I had the natives make into plates, both large and small, and bowls and cups and spoons which they fashioned as skillfully as we could make them understand.


He also gave me a dozen blowpipes, such as he uses, whose perfection I am likewise unable to describe to Your Highness, for they were all painted in the finest paints and perfect colors, in which were depicted all manner of small birds and animals and trees and flowers and several other things.


There is such a plethora of unusual and masterful artworks that Cortes cannot find the words to capture them:


Most Powerful Lord, in order to give an account to Your Royal Excellency of the magnificence, the strange and marvelous things of this great city of Technoctitlan, I would need much time and many expert narrators. I cannot describe but one hundredth part of all the things which could be mentioned, but as best I can, I will describe some of those I have seen which, although badly described, will, I know, be so remarkable as not to believed, for we who saw them with our own eyes could not grasp them with our understanding.[17]


In this passage, Cortes uses the art of the Aztecs to solve a legitimacy problem of his own. He had initially been chosen by the governor of Cuba, Diego Velazquez, to lead an expedition to Mexico, but Velazquez then changed his mind. Cortes set sail anyway, renounced allegiance to the governor, and claimed that he was under the direct authority of the Spanish Crown as its captain general of the new settlement of Veracruz. In his letter, he tries to convince Charles V to accept that claim, along with the political and economic authority it entails, by demonstrating that he has discovered a civilization similar to the one Columbus had first set out to find, a civilization capable of generating far more wealth than the simple tribes of the Caribbean with their disappointingly unproductive goldfields. Thus, for Cortes, the primary significance of the Aztec artworks lies in their ability to legitimize his political position in the land he is about to conquer, and they possess that ability because of the role they are capable of playing in the process of accumulating bullion.


Cortes demonstrates this role graphically when he melts most of the artworks down and assesses their market value in terms of the quantity of undifferentiated metal that results. He and his men would repeat this act time and again both during the conquest and after, until they had turned nearly all Aztec works in gold, and silver as well,  into featureless ingots. The natives were astonished by the behavior of the Spaniards. They had no unified money economy themselves, and although they possessed local currencies such as cacao and cotton textiles, gold was not one of them. The Aztecs did reserve gold as a luxury material for the use of the priests and warriors of the upper class, but did not deem it as precious as greenstone or quetzal feathers.[18]


Most importantly, for the Indians, the wealth embodied in artworks had a concrete functional meaning: it communicated religious and historical ideas and experiences and supported traditional status hierarchies. It helped to define the proper place of human beings in the social and spiritual realms. From the native point of view, the frenzied quest of the Spaniards for the metallic repository of abstract exchange-value was detached from any meaningful human purpose. It could, therefore, only appear bestial. This is how one of the Aztec chroniclers describes the behavior of Cortes and his men when presented en route to Technoctitlan with gifts from Montechuzoma: “They picked up the gold and fingered it like monkeys; they seemed to be transported by joy, as if their hearts were illumined and made new. The truth is that they longed and lusted for gold. Their bodies swelled with greed, and their hunger was ravenous; they hungered like pigs for that gold.”[19]


Such bestial behavior excludes the Spaniards from the realm of civilized humanity: “They snatched at the golden ensigns, waved them from side to side and examined every inch of them. They were like one who speaks a barbarous tongue: everything they said was in a barbarous tongue.” True, this passage was written with the wisdom of hindsight. It appears in Sahagun's compendium, which consists in materials gathered in the 1550s. By that time, nearly all Aztec works in gold had already found their way into the melting pot, and the process of primitive accumulation was forced to turn to other, more intensely barbarous methods. Now it was necessary to generate gold and silver by means of the forced labor of the Indians. In the words of Marx, the period of “the extirpation, enslavement, and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population” had begun.[20]


Still, in his letter, Cortes also appears to adopt an orientation to the Aztec artworks that transcends their status as future bullion and, by implication, their makers’ status as future slaves and servile laborers attached to encomienda (quasi-feudal estates). Even while he is reducing most of the treasure to ingots, he sets aside representative samples to send to Charles V. Undoubtedly, the primary purpose of the collection is to serve as evidence of the truthfulness of his account of the Aztec world. Cortes is clearly worried that the monarch might think he is lying when he writes that he has discovered a great civilization: “lest Your Highness should think all this is an invention.” But something more seems involved in his description of the collection of works spared the melting pot. Above and beyond their monetary value, he regards the Aztec objects as priceless. That is, he does not believe that their worth can be calculated in terms of exchange-value. If we had no knowledge of the events that are about to transpire, we might be tempted to regard Cortes’ attitude as one of humility in the presence of elevated human accomplishments that no European could have imagined. He appears to recognize both that he has encountered a society which he cannot fully understand, and that the visual culture of that society deserves admiration.


Unfortunately, this recognition is fleeting and without consequence. To begin with, no sooner does Cortes register the uniqueness of Aztec art than he subsumes it under categories of European aesthetic evaluation. He praises the artworks for being realistic representations of natural objects, such as trees, small animals, and birds. When he writes his letter, the Italian Renaissance is already more than a century old and is beginning to influence the art of countries to the north of Italy. However, it is doubtful that Cortes is judging the Aztec objects from the vantage point of the geometry-based naturalism of Renaissance perspective. His aesthetic framework probably derives, rather, from the less systematic naturalism of late mediaeval art. Some Aztec artworks, especially small stone carvings and metal castings of animals, do indeed fit more or less comfortably within that framework. But what falls outside of it is the far greater number of works ─ above all, the monuments, statues, and painted books ─ that communicate the complex Aztec vision of the cosmos and the place of animals, plants, gods, and human beings within it. Precisely those works involve iconographic conventions and patterns of formal arrangement that the Spaniards were not in a position to understand, and which they often indeed found grotesque. By viewing Aztec art through the filter of European naturalism, Cortes makes it intelligible to both himself and Charles V, but at the cost of filtering out its uniquely Aztec character.


The subjection of Aztec art to standards of European aesthetic evaluation has a more ominous corollary in the order Cortes gives to the native artisans to replicate holy images, crucifixes, medallions, even dinnerware on the basis of his drawings of Western models. His purpose in relating this event is to demonstrate in yet another fashion the skillful craftsmanship that has developed under the Aztec division of labor. Given time, the local artisans are fully capable of mastering the craft techniques and visual idioms of their guests from across the ocean. Once again, this seems to entail the recognition of a high level of human accomplishment. But what we see here is also the beginning of the substitution of European culture for the indigenous one. In the years ahead, that substitution would become a primary instrument of colonial subjugation. In this respect, primitive accumulation of capital occurred quite differently in America than in Europe. Both before and during the conquest of the New World, thousands of Spanish peasants were forcibly removed from the land so that the economically progressive stratum of the nobility might use it to graze sheep for the international market in wool. But such dispossession took place at the hands of an established ruling class and within the context of language forms, religious observances, family structures, modes of visual representation, in short, an entire culture shared with the peasantry. In the New World, the conquerors needed to solidify their dominant position in a society that already had a ruling class of its own, and whose population far outnumbered the aspirant rulers. In this case, primitive accumulation in the mines and on the agricultural estates could take place only if the cultural resources capable of sustaining indigenous worldviews, identities, and social practices ─ and therefore the likelihood of organized rebellion ─ were obliterated.


The Aztec visual arts were an especially important target in this process. Consider, for example, one of the few painted books to survive the conquest and its colonial aftermath, the so-called Codex Fejarvary-Mayer. The codex is a set of fifteen divinatory almanacs, the first of which unifies all the others. The basic design of the initial almanac consists in a Maltese cross with a square in the center. Each of the four arms of the cross represents one of the cardinal directions. Each is painted in a different color and contains its own configuration of elements, consisting in a tree with a bird perched on top, flanked by two deities. In the eastern quadrant, which is at the top of the image, the sun is rising. In the western quadrant, located at the bottom, it assumes the appearance of a death's head, as is fitting for its night-time journey through the underworld. Northern and southern quadrants are positioned on the right and left respectively. The remaining square represents the center of the cosmos and is occupied by Xiuhteculhtli, the ancient god of fire and the hearth. He is armed with spears and is in the act of receiving four streams of sacrificial blood. The streams originate, not in the cardinal sectors defined by the arms of the Maltese cross, but in four inter-cardinal sectors, each of which contains its own plants and birds. The total pattern comprised by the eight sectors is itself divided into twenty segments, each of which is marked with the glyph for one of the day-names of the sacred calendar: Alligator, Jaguar, Deer, Flower, Reed, and so on. Each of these segments in turned is marked with thirteen circles, giving a total 260-day count proceeding in a counterclockwise direction, the tonalpohualli or sacred year. In the form of a mandala-like visual image, the painting presents an integrated conception of space and time which the archaeo-astronomer, Anthony Aveni, has not hesitated to compare with Einstein's general relativity equations.[21]


The almanac was used in the following way.[22] When a child was born, her parents might consult the diviner who possessed the book. He would proceed by locating the position of the infant's birthday on the painting displayed on the opening page. This would allow him to discern the cluster of forces ─ including gods, directions, colors, plants, and birds ─ that would influence her character as well as the fundamental direction of her life. On the basis of this reading, and related readings by the diviner in the other fourteen almanacs, her parents would engage in the specific child-rearing practices and ritual observances necessary to ensure an auspicious future. The birth of a child, however, was not the only occasion when the diviner might be called upon to consult the painting on the first page of the codex. He might also turn to it when asked to determine the best day for planting a crop, holding a marriage ceremony, or crowning a king, and the rituals and other observances required by each event. This means that the almanac performed three related functions: it made visible a unified conception of the world in its spatial and temporal dimensions; it helped to determine the basic identity of each member of Aztec society by influencing the way in which she was raised as well as what was expected of her by others; and it specified and structured the social practices necessary to marriage, politics, even reproduction of the material conditions of life.


The Codex Fejarvary-Mejer, then, was more than a collection of paintings destined to be viewed contemplatively one day in the Liverpool Museum where it now resides. It was part of an integrated mode of individual and social existence, a self-generated form of life that could only function as an obstacle in the path of the juggernaut of nascent capital. For the especially brutal forms of slavery and semi-dependent servitude involved in primitive accumulation in the New World were hardly compatible with the autonomous production of worldviews, identities, and social practices by clients, diviners, and their almanacs. It is therefore not surprising that, in their need to maintain the conditions of a relentlessly comprehensive domination in a potentially hostile environment, the Spaniards burned nearly all the painted books of divination as well as those concerning cosmology, genealogy, and mythic and secular history. And it is also no wonder that they did not stop there. Twenty-five years after the conquest, almost no Aztec art remained publicly visible. What survived were objects buried in the rubble of devastated cities and those hidden by the Indians from the view of their conquerors.


At this point, the second dimension of the hermeneutic framework through which Europeans first interpreted indigenous American art becomes relevant. The Spaniards destroyed the art of the Aztecs in the service of the global capitalism they were in the process of helping to create, but they did so in the name of the mediaeval Catholicism much of Europe was about to leave behind. What could be more evident than the fact that the devil, the enemy of humankind, had devised the statues, monuments, and painted books of the Indians in order to lead them away from knowledge of God and into the torment of eternal damnation? In annihilating the visual culture of the Aztecs, the Spaniards were uprooting idolatry and thereby preparing the way for the salvation of souls. Cortes began this evangelical work as soon as he had been welcomed into Technoctitlan by Montechuzoma. As he writes to Charles V in his second letter:


The most important of these idols, and the ones in whom they have the most faith, I had taken from their places and thrown down the steps; and I had those chapels where they were cleaned, for they were full of the blood of sacrifices; and I had images of Our Lady and of other saints put there, which caused Montechuzoma and the other natives some sorrow. I made them understand through the interpreters how deceived they were in placing their trust in those idols which they had made with their hands from unclean things. They must know that there was only one God, Lord of all things, who had created heaven and earth and all else and who made all of us; and he was without beginning or end, and they must adore and worship only Him, not any other creature or thing. And I told them all I knew about this to dissuade them from their idolatry and bring them to the knowledge of God our Savior.[23]


The Mexicas also had a policy of removing statues of the gods from the cities they conquered. But they housed those statues in an important temple of foreign deities in Technoctitlan. Moreover, they required each conquered city to maintain a cult of Huitzilopochtli, the patron god of the Mexicas, in its main temple. Yet they permitted his statue to stand alongside that of the city's own patron deity. In this way, the imperial expansion of the Mexicas took the form of a synthesis of conquered and conquering cultures. At one point Montechuzoma suggested that Cortes place the images of the Holy Mother and saints alongside the statues of the Mexica gods, but, of course, the Spaniard could not accept such syncretism. His God was a jealous one. Nothing short of the annihilation of the visual culture of the Indians could satisfy Him.


It was probably this iconoclastic passion that set off the chain of events that was to result in the total destruction of the imperial capital. After securing Montechuzoma's allegiance, Cortes left Technoctitlan in the hands of his lieutenant, Pedro de Alvarado, in order to meet an army of 1000 soldiers that the governor of Cuba had sent to retrieve the renegades. While Cortes was away, Alvarado and his men were invited to attend a festival in honor of Huitzilopochtli in the patio of the Main Temple, a celebration involving an elaborately decorated statue of the god made from a paste of ground chicalote seeds. In the words of the Aztec chronicler, just as the young warriors who were participating in the fiesta reached the most beautiful point in their Dance of the Serpents, “the Spaniards were seized with an urge to kill the celebrants.”[24]


They sealed the entrances and passageways of the patio, rushed at the dancers with their swords drawn, and slaughtered them, in the process severing their heads and limbs. Meanwhile, Cortes had been able to win over the armed expedition sent to retrieve him and his men. But, when he returned to Technoctitlan, he found its people on the verge of rebellion. They soon broke with Montechumzoma and his policy of appeasement and rose up in arms, killing hundreds of Spaniards and driving the rest from their city in what the conquistadors were to call the “night of sorrow.” Cortes was able to regroup his remaining forces and to raise a massive army from the cities and villages that had been subjugated by the Mexicas. With the combined Spanish and Indian troops, he laid siege to the imperial capital in May of 1521, cutting off its supply of food and fresh water. After eighty days, the Mexica defenses collapsed. As Cortes advanced into the center of the city, he destroyed every building in his path, while using the rubble to fill in the canals. When he was through, perhaps as many as 200,000 Mexicas were dead. The conquistadors tortured survivors to get them to reveal the location of gold and threw many of those who had nothing to say to hungry dogs. They celebrated their victory by feasting on pigs and wine that they brought in from Cuba by ship. The city of Technoctitlan, which Cortes himself had called “the most beautiful thing in the world,” was now a pile of ruins. In the center of those ruins, the Spaniards built a cathedral.





In 1790, repair work on the cathedral foundations inadvertently uncovered three monuments: the now-famous Calendar Stone, the Stone of Tizoc, and a statue of Coatlicue. The colossal statue ─ it is three-and-a-half meters in height ─ is an arresting image of the inextricable confluence of birth and death that so fascinated the peoples of Mesoamerica. It represents the great earth goddess, font of all life, who was decapitated by her envious children when she gave birth miraculously to Huitzilopochtli, fully grown and armed. From the neck of the statue, instead of blood, two serpents emerge to confront one another in striking position: they jointly constitute the goddess' face. Over her partially visible breasts, she wears a necklace of human hearts and hands with a skull for a pendant. Instead of fabric, her skirt consists of interwoven serpents. The priests who uncovered the three monuments left the essentially glyphic, and therefore opaque, Calendar Stone and Stone of Tizoc above ground, but they reburied Coatlicue. In 1823, William Bullock, a jeweler from Liverpool, received permission to dig up the statue in order to make a plaster cast for an exhibition of Aztec art he was financing for the Egyptian Hall in Picadilly. While the largely middle-class London audience was marveling at a replica of this astonishing monument from a lost culture, impoverished Mexican peasants were placing garlands of flowers on the original. Three centuries after the destruction of Tenochtitlan, Coatlicue had to be buried once again to prevent her from fostering a return to idolatry.[25]


We do not know whether the final decision of the priests to rebury the statue was motivated by a fear of the possibility that it would inspire indigenous rebellions. There was certainly reason for such fear. In the past, more than one Indian community had committed acts of resistance by rallying around symbols preserved from the time before the conquest. In 1550, for example, as Cortes was consolidating his power and property as Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca, a title he had been granted by Charles V, the Zapotecs rose in rebellion. They claimed that Quetzalcoatl, the real one this time, had fulfilled the ancient prophecy at last and returned to lead them out of the slavery imposed by the Spaniards.[26] Still, this does not necessarily mean that the statue of the goddess was reburied out of fear of new acts of resistance. Not all priests wished to see the Indians tightly chained by their overseers. Beginning with the famous Bartolome de las Casas, some clerics assumed the role of defending Mexico's indigenous population against the depredations of the colonial administrators, slaveholders, and encomienderos. Whatever their intentions, however, the clerical opponents of idolatry could not help but contribute to the subjugation of the native peoples. For, in the name of the one true revealed religion, they tried to divest the Indians of the instruments by means of which they shaped their own social and spiritual reality, and this could only abandon them to the world made by their oppressors. The statue of Coatlicue transcended the colonial culture shared by brutal overseers and sympathetic priests alike. Insofar as it was the potential vehicle for an independent understanding and practical enactment of cosmos, self, and society, it was deeply subversive, even as late as 1823.


The struggle against idolatry in the New World was difficult and ultimately inconclusive, however. In Technoctitlan's temple of foreign deities and in Montechuzoma's suggestion that Cortes allow Catholic and indigenous images to coexist, we have already seen examples of the Aztecs' syncretic approach to the deities of other cultures. The native people adapted this approach to the more difficult conditions of colonization by concealing their own gods and goddesses within images sanctioned by the Church. The most famous example of colonial syncretism gave Mexico its patron saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe.[27]


In 1531, only a decade after the destruction of Technoctitlan, an Indian, Juan Diego, was passing by the hill of Tepeyac. There he had a vision of a Madonna with skin as dark as his own. When the Church officials ridiculed his report of the incident, he returned to the site of the apparition. The Madonna appeared again and spoke to him in Nahuatl. She told him to gather flowers from a nearby rose bush that was blooming out of season and wrap them in his cloak. He followed her instructions and, when the cloak was unfurled, found that it bore an image of the Holy Mother surrounded by a glorious sun-ray aureole. As the story goes, the Archbishop was so impressed by the miraculous image that he had Mexico's greatest cathedral built on the spot where Diego had experienced his visions. (What is supposed to be the original image can still be seen in the cathedral). What makes this story an illustration of the Indians' syncretic approach is not simply the fact that the Virgin was dark-skinned or that she spoke in the native tongue. More importantly, the hill of Tepeyac where the apparition occurred had been dedicated by the Aztecs to the mother goddess, Tonantzin.


For the clerics and other Catholic authorities, the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe was merely one example of a persisting problem. Beginning with Cortes, the Spaniards substituted Christian images for indigenous ones. But how could they be sure that the natives were not using the new images as mere surrogates for those the Spaniards destroyed, so that they were continuing to worship their own deities in the guise of Christian representations? This was known as the problem of “idols behind the altar.” It raised in a new, colonial context a question that had already been debated in mediaeval Europe: how are images of the saints and the persons of the Trinity different from objects of idolatrous worship? But instead of remaining in the New World in order to examine the implications of this question for the European reception of indigenous art, let us pursue the inquiry at another site of the primitive accumulation of capital.


[1] See Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Harper & Row, 1984). Todorov discusses, in very illuminationg fashion, the dual backward and forward looking orientation of the Discovery and Conquest, as well as the status of gold as universal equivalent. However he does not connect either theme with the rise of world capitalism.


[2] J.H. Elliott, Imperial Spain, 1469-1716 (New York: Mentor, 1966), 113-114.


[3] Columbus quoted in Anthony Pagden, European Encounters with the New World (Yale University Press: New Haven & London, 1993), 19.


[4] Columbus quoted in Todorov, Conquest of America, 35.


[5] Jacques Kerchache, ed., L'Art des sculpteurs tainos: Chefs-d'oeuvre des Grandes Antilles precolombiennes (Paris: Musee du Petit Palais, Paris-Musees, 1994).


[6] Actually, Pane's original report was lost as well, but excerpts were preserved by the Milanese humanist, Peter Martyr in De orbe novo decades (1530).


[7] The Tainos were organized in a loose federation of chiefdoms and were divided into two major status groups, but they had no centralized state or social classes properly so called. See Irving Rouse, The Tainos (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1992), 9-13.


[8] See the discussion of class structure in Esther Pasztory, Aztec Art (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1983), 65-69; and in Richard F. Townsend, The Aztecs (London: Thames and Hudson, 1992), 51-65.


[9] The version of the myth in Sahagun is reproduced from this point in Roberta H. Markman and Peter T. Markman, The Flayed God: The Mesoamerican Mythological Tradition: Sacred Texts and Images from Pre-Columbian Mexico and Central America (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), 120-25.


[10] Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy, vol. 1, Consumption, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Zone Books, 1988), 45-61.


[11] For example, Markman and Markman, The Flayed God.


[12] Ibid, 353.


[13] Pasztory, Aztec Art, 91.


[14] Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn, (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 256.


[15] There is now a controversy in the scholarly literature concerning whether or not Montechuzoma saw Cortes as Quetzalcoatl, or whether that interpretation was projected back into the original events by later Aztec chroniclers. It is not necessary to take a definitive position on this issue here. Whatever the case may be, the myth of Quetzalcoatl enabled the indigenous people to make sense of the arrival of the Spaniards and ensuing events in terms of the interpretative resources of their own tradition. That is what is relevant to the present discussion.


[16] In Miguel Leon-Portilla, ed., The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico (Boston: Beacon Press, 1962), 64.


[17] Hernan Cortes, Letters From Mexico, trans. Anthony Pagden (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1986), 99-102. I have corrected Cortes’ versions of the Nahuatl names.


[18] Pasztory, Aztec Art, 77.


[19] Leon-Portilla, The Broken Spears, 51.


[20] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1, The Process of Capitalist Production, trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (New York: International Publishers, 1967), 703.


[21] Anthony F. Aveni, “Pre-Columbian Images of Time,” in The Ancient Americas: Art from Sacred Landscapes, ed. Richard F. Townsend (Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1992), 53.


[22] Elizabeth Hill Booth, “Pictorial Codices of Ancient Mexico,” in The Ancient Americas, 199-204.


[23] Cortes, pp. 105-106.


[24] Leon-Portilla, The Broken Spears, 74.


[25] See Ester Pasztory, Aztec Art, 140.


[26] Burr Cartwright Brundage, The Fifth Sun: Aztec Gods, Aztec World, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979), 118-119.


[27] See David Carrasco, Religions of Mesoamerica (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990), 135-138.