Bettelheim's Caribbean Espiritismo Altars

Essay by LMPreader1University, Bachelor'sA+, November 2007

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Espiritismo, or Spiritism, originated in the Caribbean (mainly in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Dominican Republic and Martinique) in the late 1800’s as a reply to the rigidity of the Catholic Church, which in the Ten Years War (1868-78) favored Spain rather than the Cuban freedom fighters. As a whole, Spiritism thus appealed to the Creole “petite bourgeoisie” after its introduction by Frenchman Allan Kardec. Kardec’s book, The Book of Spirits (1857), illustrates the core beliefs of Spiritism and became available in Cuba and Puerto Rico by the 1860’s. Individual production of altars (the “art” of Spiritism) began in homes shortly after, creating emphasis on figurines that “help” to accomplish a particular type of work (i.e. keeping peace in a home), as well as containers of water, which conduct communication between the spirit world and the world of the living. These altars are typically not considered art, though through this article Bettelheim argues against this stereotype.

Bettelheim argues that a prejudice against “kitsch” exists. Kitsch refers to, unspecifically, “low” art, or art typically assembled from found objects, often mass-produced, in no aesthetically pleasing way. “Kitsch steals motifs and materials at random, regardless of the original ascription of the sources” (Bettelheim 312). Some art historians believe that kitsch does not belong in the category of art because it often costs less to make and appraises for little or nothing (compared to the prices of “high” European art). Also, people of color and women produce kitsch art, which goes against the accepted “standard” of the white, European, male artist. As Bettelheim points out in her article, under these standards (or more correctly, stereotypes) Caribbean Espiritismo altars qualify as kitsch, and not as “high” art.

The most common objects found on these Espiritismo altars are “water-filled glasses, a small statue of a Congo,