LATIN AMERICAN ART IN A GLOBAL CONTEXT: REPORT ON SIN TITULO, 2006
by Anthony Torres
TEXT / Anthony Torres
Sin Título [untitled], the title of a symposium on Latin American art recently presented at the University of Texas, Austin, is significant in that it set the tone for a program of presentations and discussions aimed at disrupting, problematizing, and reformulating the notion of Latin American art.
The three-day symposium [April 27-29, 2006] coincided with the grand opening of the new Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art and its two inaugural exhibitions: America/Americas, a permanent installation of Latin American works from the United States, and New Now Next: The Contemporary Blanton, an exhibition of Latin American art in global dialogue. Both exhibitions investigate the impact of strains of European modernism on the work of artists from Latin America and the United States since the beginning of the twentieth century. As such, these exhibitions highlight little known or researched correspondences between artists who, working simultaneously throughout the Americas, responded to prevalent social and aesthetic issues.
The exhibitions function as museological interventions that speak to the symposium’s overriding themes. The Blantonâs re-opening program thus combined theory and practice to doubly reposition Latin American art÷in pan-American and international contexts.
Thirty-eight speakers were convened÷museum administrators, curators, critics, scholars, artists, and graduate students. They interacted through mixed formats — lectures, two-person conversations, and multi-speaker panels — in order to provide multiple perspectives on a range of considerations that, together, sought to address and reformulate the ideological construction that is Latin American art.
There are no Latin American wings or galleries at the Blanton. This decision manifests the institutionâs concern with integration, which requires its program to venture beyond the mere insertion of Latin American art into readymade American and European narratives. The Blantonâs new institutional model bets on traffic in the other direction. So did the conference, which made it clear that the positioning of Latin American art in a global context requires the redefinition of the art historical terms that are conventionally used in relation to the art of Latin America. Additionally, the Blantonâs new direction calls for a taxonomic shift away from geographic designations with ethnic overtones to emphasize the specificities of the artist, work, and time and place of execution.
While works by artists from Latin America are increasingly collected by major museums, this trend primarily impacts artists who have achieved notoriety on the international art circuit. In this context, a thorough interrogation of the systems of circulation, exchange, legitimization, and valuation of art is deemed both critical and necessary.
The Blanton’s renewed mission seeks to redefine the terms of engagement. Its institutional vision requires it to redefine systems of cultural valuation by recognizing artists who have significantly informed the recent art histories of their own countries. The museumâs programs aim to look at how these artists address issues internal to their own spheres of influence, on the bases of their own situated art practices.
Just as importantly, an interdisciplinary framework must be developed to discuss art made by Latin American artists. This framework should integrate curatorial, artistic, critical, art historical, and other academic modes of thinking in an effort to collapse disciplinary delineations in order to develop more sophisticated tools of analysis focused on the interrelationships between art practices, institutions, audiences, and histories.
For any of this to be possible, we must interrogate, and move away from, the prevalent focus on ethnic identity and geopolitical constructs that separate Latin America art from the art produced elsewhere in the world. We need to recognize the historical interdependence of Latin American, North American, and European artistic production÷however uneven÷and to form institutional partnerships that advance an inclusive redefinition of American art as Art of the Americas in a global cultural network.
This is crucial since discourses on Latin American art have, until now, relied predominantly on patterns formulated by the international art market. The failure of Latin American institutions to collect art by Latin American artists … may mean,ä said Paolo Herkenhoff, Director of the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, “that Latin American art is not going to be for Latin America.”
In the session Teaching Latin American Art, many of these issues were discussed by focusing on autobiography and life choices. This panel told the story of the recent emergence of a field of study which is merely forty years old, and still very much in development and open to redefinition.
Jacqueline Barnitz, Professor of Modern Latin American Art at the University of Texas at Austin, told an evolutionary tale of exposure to Latin America through travel and friends, which led to her interest in Latin American art. This also led to the realization that this field of study was for the most part inexistent, as were images, texts, archives, and exhibitions. The knowledge of Latin American art was extremely limited in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s. This yielded the recognition that artistic production from Latin America needed to be brought to bear on the discipline of art history. It needed to be considered by those writing the histories of art. Born of ignorance, stereotypes regarding Latin American art needed to be broken. Particularly critical to the comprehension and teaching of such a vast and varied field was a focus on artistic trajectories.
In a presentation on the same panel, Valerie Fraser, Professor of Art History and Theory, University of Essex — which has the best collection and archive of Latin American art and literature in Europe — related a different story, probed by the question: “Why such tremendous resource of Latin American art in Essex?” She replied “Why not? There is no monopoly of any subject area, anywhere.” The University was founded in 1964 when the Vice Chancellor, who had been a ãHispanist,ä decided that Latin American Studies would be integral to the curriculum at Essex. Additionally, Essex had a keen interest in cultural studies, as indicated by its hiring of scholars and theorists such as Jean Franco and Ernesto Laclau.
Professor Fraser further stated that the curriculum on Latin American art was developed from within the university. It was never viewed as exotic, but as ãa subject like any other subject.ä In teaching that subject, context was emphasized as central to the investigation of the formation of the artists and their art. In addition, mobility — the movement of objects, images, and discourses, which are embodied in collections and archives and are integral to research, curriculum development, and education programs — reflects the diversity of exposure and influences that have been (and continue to be) processed subjectively by many individuals in diverse arenas.
On the same panel, Andrea Giunta, a Professor of Art History at the Universidad de Buenos Aires, presented a qualitatively different personal perspective, inflected by her studies under the dictatorship in Argentina. During this period, the art historical curriculum was limited to pre-nineteenth century movements, pre-conquest art, colonial art, and Argentinian art. Her education was conditioned by a lack of access to intellectual resources and of exposure to contemporary discourse, images, art magazines, and contemporary art in general. It was only after 1987, with the loosening of internal constraints in Argentina, that there began to be a greater openness and interest in contemporary art. The lasting effects of such cultural repression created the need to formulate a new research methodology. Such a reformulation was, however, equally forestalled by a lack of information, intercultural dialogues, and institutional funding to underwrite research.
As she insightfully stated, “Latin American art did not just happen in Latin America, but in other places.” The crucial contribution of her presentation is her focus on the development of a global perspective and on the study of wider networks of exchange, communication between artists, and intercultural dialogue. This is essential to the development of theoretical maps that account for material practices and symbolic relationships. Critical for Professor Giunta is the recognition that Latin American art is less an established field than a historically informed, artificially constructed concept in constant negation and negotiation. It is a field of inquiry that should seek to tackle issues, pose questions, and interrogate institutional politics, curatorial perspectives, and the roles of exhibitions in particular cultural contexts.
Another area of inquiry was loosely framed by the question Art and Politics: Can Artists Really Change the World? This platform introduced a surprising range of positions, and an interesting mixture of ideas. In the first session, a dialogue between Gabriel Perez-Barreiro, Curator of Latin American Art at the Blanton Museum of Art, and Brazilian artist Waltercio Caldas, initially seemed like a highly romantic articulation of the role of art which, if it spoke to politics, advocated a Platonic, quasi utopian vision of art that opposed it to ãculture.ä It seemed that this sensibility did not stray too far from “art for art’s sake.” In describing the tension between art and culture, each term was always deployed in the singular, as a unified subject category. In Caldasâ characterization, “Culture has been developing a knowledge about art, and art has been ignoring that culture.” According to Caldas, “The work of art does not belong to culture, it belongs to a flux of art· Art belongs to a system of art that has no system. Art is Art.” In fact, it seems that if there is a politics of art for Caldas, it is a politics of extreme subjectivity, a politics of pleasure based in processes of art making and viewing. The role of art is not to change the world, but to foster imagination: “The artist has to think about the role of the imagination in change.”
It might be easy to view this position as an idealist individualism far removed from the counter-hegemonic practices of artists who comment upon and confront forms of social and cultural domination: work with an overt or accessible political message aimed at the transformation of consciousness as a vehicle for social change, at incitement to political action, or at the creation of solidarity based on political identification.
A dialogue between Cecilia Brunson and Josefina Guilsasti took place under the aegis of the session entitled Artists Run Initiatives. The speakers discussed the cultural aftermath of the Pinochet dictatorship. This ãcultural dictatorshipä adopted various guises of self-censorship and lasted into the 1990s, stunting imagination and artistsâ work through a curatorial monopoly that was reluctant to embrace different types of art practice, and showed only a narrow spectrum of politically engaged art. Cecilia Brunson posed the question, ãWhat do we do with production that refers to other artistic interrogations that are just as relevant as political art?ä to which she responded,
let’s give a voice to the censored talent of different ideas and open the ideas up to an international audience. Let’s not forget that diversity, difference of opinion, and divergent artistic proposals are a good thing for a country that is working hard for transformation into a democratic nation. If we continue to restrict the art scene disproportionately to visual statements of liberal political orthodoxy, we would be closing the door to a broader array of concepts of daily existence relevant to a maturing democracy.
Here, politics seems to be defined more inclusively as an intervention where art functions as a form of resistance by affirming humanity, however nebulously defined, in an otherwise repressive and alienating world where people are separated from each other, and from themselves by processes of social reification.
In the session entitled Art and Politics: Can Artists Really Change the World? Part II, New York artist Luis Camnitzer affirmed that the separation of art from politics was unrealistic. In contemporary life, he stated, “finance, politics, and everyday behavior seem to flow so seamlessly together that the isolation and separation of one single field would seriously maim this exquisite tapestry.” Making, viewing, and interpretation are multifold and integral; the separation of art from society amounts to a fragmentation that artificially isolates form from content in the art object. In discussions of political art, such fragmentation often relegates politics to legible content, which infantilizes the audience by assuming that it can only read a pre-digested massage that can be ãunderstood not by individuals but by a statistical profile based on stereotyping.ä Formâs pandering to the art market is displaced by contentâs pandering to a cause. In many cases, this amounts to a rough and declarative caricature since the message is primarily grasped by “those who already agree with the statement and politically speaking nothing is gained.” Camnitzer posits that political art needs to be transformed into an ethical framework for the redistribution of ill-acquired power among the disenfranchised, with a focus on political efficacy, and the articulation and dissemination of ethical values. “Politics here is that strategy. Art is a tool to implement that strategy. So, if I am doing good art, I am politically implementing my ethics.”
Most of the discussions suggested the need to focus on how contemporary artists deploy formal means as personal, aesthetic, and social strategies. The conference also pointed to the need to address the connections between art practices, exhibitions, and the complex social structures that widely inform them.
We must connect art works and exhibitions to histories of cultural contact and conflict. In turn, these histories are collectively negotiated, and conditioned by race, class, and gender. Exhibitions need to be experienced and examined as vehicles that empower — or negate — our ability to discern artistsâ engagements with a range of art historical, social, and ideological discourses. Exhibitions should also mediate artists’ reflections on these discourses and practices through artistic representation. Diversity, and the worksâ formal hybridity should be viewed as means and foundations to develop intercultural experimental scholarship whose inclusiveness thoroughly redefines nomenclatures and reconfigures a hemispheric American art. Engagement with Latin American art and exhibitions thus needs to focus on the contextual analysis and assessment of a complex range of art practices and to challenge the simplistic notion of cultural difference as an abstract aesthetic category. This focus should also entail the initiation of intra-cultural communication by excavating the trans-historical, cultural, and ideological dimensions of art works and exhibitions.
This essay first appeared in Art Papers, July/August 2006