The Colonial Efficacy of Casta Paintings

Katherine Morrison


How can we understand artworks as classification systems? Is art a valid object of study in information science? If we answer “yes” to the latter question, how do we examine the first question? Casta paintings in colonial New Spain present a robust opportunity to understand art’s classificatory and documentary powers. In order to evaluate the efficacy of casta paintings as a classification system, it is necessary analyze how these works, as objects of colonial visual culture, enacted subjugation on multiple levels. Complex networks of power produce every classification system. Colonial power, particularly in urban New Spain, was often performed in seemingly paradoxical manners. Casta paintings responded to colonial anxieties about miscegenation, but they also acknowledged the realities of racial amalgamations in colonial New Spain. Put simply, New Spain was simultaneously a jewel for the Spanish Empire and the heart of an evil, non-Christian Other. This context reveals the critical necessity of social classification systems for European colonial expansion. To evaluate the knowledge organization casta paintings produced for colonial powers, I will focus on those held in the Denver Art Museum’s (DAM) New World Department. The DAM’s holdings include a complete set of sixteen casta paintings by Francisco Clapera, along with individual works by Jose de Alcibar and unidentified artists. Recognizable signifiers in these paintings enacted social classification at several levels in colonial New Spain.1 For the methodology of this project, I follow Jonathan Furner’s approach to evaluating classification systems.2 Furner’s prompt for classification researchers to evaluate how classification systems represent identity begets evaluation classification systems’ ideological and material structures. In the case of casta paintings, it makes sense to appraise their functions of identity representation on the one hand, and their descriptive power and retrieval functions on the other hand.

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