Editors’ note: in using the term “environments ” [ambientaciones], Acha refers here not only to editorial, architectural, and industrial designs, but also to urban environments and moving images.
Non-Objectualist Theory and Practice in Latin America
First Latin American Conference on Non-Objectualist Art
Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín
The aim of this text is to analyze non-objectualisms in the framework of two concentric artistic realities: those of Latin America and the world. These two analyses will allow us to derive the foundations to, firstly, determine the postmodernist nature of non-objectualisms (which interest us, and which are the most radical), and then outline their possibilities in Latin America. Accordingly, we will proceed in four stages.
Firstly, we will conceptually position non-objectualisms within the struggle that gave rise to them: the ongoing dispute between advocates of “pure” art and those in favor of “applied” art who do not accept the label because of their belief that artistic or sensory “purity” does not exist. By framing non-objectualism within this controversy, we will establish what we understand it to mean in general terms, and identify its different categories. This will lead us to the designs, to the trends of creating environmental propositions, to the attempts to merge art and everyday life, and to the postmodernisms, among them non-objectualisms: in other words, to the different means of repudiating the “pure,” portable, marketable object of art.1 The first two of these anti-things rely on the Renaissance aesthetic, the third disregards it, and the fourth attacks it.
Secondly, we will insert non-objectualism into the Latin American artistic context, having first considered and described it realistically as it is today. In other words, we won’t assume it is a mere succession of exceptional works and of the geniuses who create them, as dictated by Western art history and instilled by family and public education. Instead, we will approach it as a process that involves us all, a sociocultural phenomenon that consists of the succession, combination, and coexistence of the three existing types of artistic production: crafts, arts, and design. Because these systems do not merely spring from differences between major and minor, “pure” and “applied” arts, as thus far has been mistakenly assumed. They are historical variants of a single sociocultural phenomenon, namely art. They belong to different periods or old (precapitalist) modes of artistic production, which persist today and coexist with newer ones, and they are extensions of the means of material production. In short, in our artistic reality, non-objectualisms are radical enemies of the mass media and of the most current, realist, and thus progressive forms of artistic expression.
Thirdly, we will ascertain the main characteristics underlying the postmodernist spirit of the non-objectualisms that interest us, insofar as they are anti mass media. At this point, their anti-narrative and anti-entertainment nature will become evident, given that they include boredom, the serial simultaneity of images, conceptualism, and radical expressionism among their strategies. Aside from attacking the Renaissance aesthetic, they also engage with time in the more human starkness of the here and now, freeing it from humanistic burdens.
Fourthly, we will deduce the problems and possibilities of postmodernist non-objectualisms. First of all, their advantages in general terms: a closer alignment with the theory-practice binomial through conceptualisms, which due to their somewhat cryptic nature can more easily adapt to political and countercultural protest in more repressed countries. Secondly and lastly, we will review the non-objectualist exhibition that is part of this colloquium, so as to draw conclusions from the actual practices of our non-objectual artists.
Humans have been making art for thousands of years, and in all this time it has always been useful or had practical applications, with the exception of the last four centuries of Renaissance aesthetics. Earlier, there was just one kind of art, which we would now call “applied art”—a term that had no meaning at the time, given the absence of purist aspirations. Crafts are intrinsically and unwittingly the producers of this art that puts its best efforts in the service of religion and that joins forces with technology, which is to say with practical uses. Even jewelry and adornments are useful as objects of self-signification and social prestige. Art was inherent to the courtly, religious, ornamental world. Popular and profane art existed, but it was not known as art.
By contrast, from the Renaissance to the twentieth century, we have seen the arduous quest of Western culture—read capitalism—to establish the concept of pure, free, autonomous art: the work of art as sole repository of the artistic realm. To be more precise, only the object-things produced by means of painting, sculpture, printmaking, and drawing were said to contain art in its purity. Anything else that involves artistic work was considered applied—and thus minor—art. Incidentally, as a result, artists became aware of their freedom and rejected any imposition from political, religious, and official institutions. But artistic purity remained no more than an aspiration, and the profane aims of art dissolved into intellectualism. These aims end up being similar to those of the functional purity of the object, which industry institutes in its own favor.
From 1950 onward, unexpectedly, we saw the spread of design—which brings together art and technology as its reason for being—throughout the world, and beheld other non-objectualisms: forms of expression that seek to merge art and the everyday life of ordinary people, environmental overtures, and [specialist] realisms, postmodernisms that attack the Renaissance aesthetic.2 There was a clear tendency to reject the pure, portable, marketable object, or in other words, a tendency toward non-objectualism, either to rejuvenate the Renaissance aesthetic or to strike the final blow.
At this point, there was a clash between “pure” art and “applied” art. Process or action took precedence over the predetermined product. And process meant inserting artistic experiences into each human work or action. This gave rise to the need for a process-based, relational notion of artistic structure: that which arises between the material structure of any human product and the meaningful structure that the consumer produces. Pure art became like a kind of speculative theory without practical possibilities, proclaiming its purity in vain. At best, the work of art was an object in which sensitive relations prevail, with the “happy ending” of art being the pleasurable experience of these relations. In short, art ceased to be an end in itself and instead became a medium for both political and countercultural concerns. It was then that non-objectualisms made their entrance with their “anti-things,” which paradoxically followed in the wake of an object: Duchamp’s readymade.
There is actually no such thing that is “purely artistic,” either as relation or essence. There has never been a purely artistic, scientific, or technological object. Every human product reflects the mind, the sensibility, and the basic needs of its maker. As such, structures of different kinds coexist within each product and it is immaterial whether the artistic structure or a different structure prevails over the others. We often turn to the reductionism of the specific, which is never fully known, and which we usually identify with an imagined uniqueness of the object. Because the object does not exist artistically until it is consumed by somebody. The specific thing about art (about the art species) lies in the realm of sensory perception, which is naturally common to all the arts. If uniqueness does exist, it must be variable insofar as it forms part of the object-subject relationship, or in other words, part of the artistic structure as such. It is understandable that in pre-photographic times the act of manually producing images of visible reality, and of fixing them in the form of an object, should have been considered art. But with the advent of mechanical means of producing images (photography, film, and television), we now know that manual means such as drawing, printmaking, and painting are essentially technological processes of communication, and as such often have artistic applications or derivatives.
Capitalism was largely behind the dual game of promoting the pure art of geometrism on the one hand, and the applied art of design on the other. After all, it is crucial for capitalism to turn every product into a commodity and to replace individual manual labor with industrial-mechanical, waged labor in order to produce surplus value. Technology thus focused on developing mechanical processes that displaced crafts, and as a result, artisans lost social status and were proletarianized. Artistic crafts were, in turn, replaced by high art. Artists came from the middle social strata and owned their products and means of production, as artisans had in the past. And then artists began to be displaced by designers from industry in general, and from mass art or the cultural industry. By this means, capitalism materialized what it had not even remotely imagined: it turned art into productive, waged labor, hence turning the work of art into a product of capital and a commodity. Today, mass-media information and audiovisual and iconic-verbal entertainment create and satisfy the spurious, mass artistic needs of contemporary man, while design seeks to turn industrial commodities into works of art. Along the way, modern utensils merged with geometrist sculptures. In short, in the hands of the industrialists, art became good business and an efficient instrument for the control of the mind and the senses.
New iconic technologies appeared along with design, and in some cases developed into new arts (photography, film, television). Design does not produce objects. It consists of conception and management processes, which is to say processes that are non-objectualist, even if they are at the service of the object (generally the industrial object). Graphic and industrial design, architectural and urban design, account for almost all production of objects. There are also another two types of design that currently exist and are not yet recognized as such, in relation to information and entertainment: the iconic-verbal design of publications and the audiovisual designs of film and television, both linked to the mass media. It is clear that all these types of design are based on the Renaissance aesthetic, that they are a further division of industrial labor, and that they take art into the everyday lives of demographic majorities.
Under the influence of design and in compliance with the spirit of our time, the importance of manual labor in the visual arts declined, and the intellectual, conceptual work of the artist was overrated. Spatial realism emerged—by contagion from urban and architectural design, and in solidarity with environmental concerns—with works such as Jesús Soto’s Penetrables, walk-in sculptures, light environments, and so on. These non-objectualisms maintained the Renaissance period and focused on the hitherto neglected relationship between humans and their environment.
Others who sought to merge art and everyday life, driven by a somewhat nihilistic and solipsistic pan-aestheticism, also turned to non-objectualism. These non-objectualists were not thinking of inserting art into everyday life, as Friedrich Schiller and Herbert Read dreamed—they claimed that the world abounds with spontaneous art, and that we have to learn to notice and enjoy it. Their exaltation of spontaneous cultural production is of interest to us here, insofar as we can find it in the poverty belts of major Latin American cities, as forms of behavior, “resignifications,” scales of values, customs, and other non-objectualisms. Taken as a whole, this popular creation can become a cultural alternative that will, in the long term, influence the course of the mass media.
Lastly came non-objectualisms that adopted challenging attitudes and a postmodernist or anti-Renaissance spirit in order to establish themselves as “anti-designs.” These are the very conceptualisms, body actions, videos, multiple projections, environments, and readymades that have brought us together for this symposium.
The Artistic Reality of Latin America
We believe there is a pressing need to develop the concept of artistic reality as an effective tool for any study of art today. Such a concept requires a sociohistorical view of reality and broadens the idea of art, which has been limited by art history to a mere succession of works and of geniuses. It broadens it by encompassing the idea of art as a sociocultural phenomenon, with crafts, arts, and design as its systems of production, each with its own forms of distribution and consumption as vital extensions of its production. There is nothing new or arbitrary about our interest in the three systems of artistic production. We have become accustomed to scholars addressing only traditional high art, but there is no shortage of studies on the individual existence of these systems: it is irrelevant if they are described as mass media instead of design, and popular art instead of crafts. In reality, we are simply proposing these three systems as integral parts of the one artistic reality, in order to study them together within the Latin American context.
The three above-mentioned systems are historical variants. Firstly, because crafts date back to remote, precapitalist (or pre-bourgeois) times, they link art and technology, they are are produced by hand and custom-made, they comply with traditional and cosmological rules, and they are intuitive and eminently empirical. Secondly, because designs spread among us after 1950, as the products and tools of a monopoly-based, transnational capitalism. They also merge art and technology—in this case machinist technology—and they do so rationally, as another technical division of industrial labor. Thirdly, because so-called high art is older than design and much younger than the high art of Europe, the continent in which it was created by a rising, commercial capitalism and from where we imported it. High art is barely 130 years old in Latin America (1850–1980), and for the first seventy of these (1850–1920), it was confined to the most segregated, epigonal academicism. Over the thirty years that followed (1920–1950), high art began a quest for our own collective identity, and when it seemed as if it was finally on the verge of mastering it and completing the path to artistic independence, we were invaded by design, including mass media, and the chains of our cultural dependence were pulled tighter in other parts. We then had to rethink our artistic independence and resume its conquest.
Given that our artistic reality involves all of us, we must ensure that its protagonist is the set of sensorial relations between us as members of society—or better still, our different social classes—and the reality around us. After all, this set of relations, which can also be called collective aesthetic subjectivity, is the source and the purpose of the systems described above. That is the crux of the concept of artistic reality, a reality that is also linked to social languages, originators of new artistic expressions and of the perceptive changes that characterize contemporary man. Because the arts are essentially sensorial applications of social languages or of technologies (language was not created to produce literature, it existed before it). Also, given that craft existed before art, and art existed before design, their succession in time will become the diachronic axis of our artistic reality, while their coexistence and mixing will embody its synchronic side.
The idea of uniting the three systems into a single reality or phenomenon is not an attempt to place them on the same level, nullifying their mutual differences along with their succession, mixing, and coexistence. We are after all dealing with three modes of artistic production from different historical and economic stages, which have always involved clashes between upper-class and popular forms of expression. Not only are some crafts, arts, and designs upper class or popular by nature, also many crafts, arts, and designs have both upper-class and popular versions. In addition, some upper-class forms become popular over time, disappear with the class (or group) of people who created them, or are replaced by other, more prestigious forms. Thus, artisans were replaced by artists, and now designers replace artists. So the class struggle takes place at both the synchronic and the diachronic levels in the artistic reality of Latin America, and we should accordingly note the dominated arts and dominant arts at all times.
To put it in different terms, slightly off our subject, we advocate situating our artistic reality within the process of the economic and social, political, and cultural formations of each Latin American country. After situating the succession, mixing, and coexistence of the three different modes of artistic production—crafts, arts and designs—we can ascertain the simple tasks and the social processes of their production, distribution, and consumption. In other words, we will look at how the development of the forces of production, distribution, and consumption—and their social relations—brought about changes in the products or producers, distributors, and consumers. In the case of Latin America, the only one of these changes to gain international importance was Mexican muralism. Nonetheless, we must recognize the importance, to us, of the changes in consumption that affect the Latin American people in particular, with regard to the evolution of their sensibility in the course of history.
We are not aiming for a heterodox or unique concept of artistic reality. In other words, it does not require a clean slate. We value the work that has been done by our historians so far, from the perspective of the Western history of art that they practiced. They have given us their studies of the artistic strengths of many works from our past. We just want to provide solid, realistic foundations for these formalist results. Nevertheless, in general terms, we aim to establish a Latin American socio-history of our art or of our artistic reality, to replace the Western history of our art that we have been using. If it is to be our socio-history of our art, we must redefine art in accordance with our collective or popular interests.
An unbiased look at our artistic reality reveals the predominance of precapitalist upper-class art—that is, the art of the pre-Hispanic and colonial world—in terms of both quantity and quality. Then, in the Republic, there is irrefutable evidence of the popular music, of African and indigenous roots, that has triumphed around the world. Its quality is much higher than that of meager, dependent Latin American highbrow music. Artistic crafts—the only independent form of our arts—with their cosmological visions, are also flourishing. We can safely say that our sacred art has always achieved greater things. We still do not understand profane art. For better or for worse, we are still immersed in the worlds of myth. Lastly, we need to consider the non-objectualisms that are now arising from the new urban popular culture of the poverty belts.
Given this overview of our artistic reality, we have to acknowledge that postmodernist non-objectualism and anti-design make up the most progressive stances in today’s art, and also are the most favorable to our artistic independence. And these non-objectualisms are already practiced by many of our artists.
Incidentally, it is no misfortune that postmodernist non-objectualisms can only reach minorities, and only progressive minorities at that, which are an even smaller group. Because in prerevolutionary times (or times before major changes), the radicalization of artistic, scientific, technological, and political minorities is always a good policy. Popularization is important in post-revolutionary times, when major changes are consolidated. Minorities, and even individuals, can still propose, become agents of change, and work for the benefit of majorities. Moreover, we are talking about ephemeral manifestations in response to specific situations that will arise. Because we should bear in mind that art is a historical product. Post-modernist non-objectualisms will disappear or be transfigured. But their reason for being is to make us aware of the evils of the mass media and of the goodness of the ephemeral, which is life and the process of change.
The Postmodernist Spirit
By postmodernist we mean the counter-humanism that now operates in cultural production in general, and in some non-objectualisms in particular. The postmodernist spirit thus subverts the ideals of the Renaissance and its aesthetic, which are identified with the idea of man—always abstract, ideal man—as “the measure of all things,” and which spread the modern ideas of space and time, art and reality, bound up with the fetishization of the object and its now-antiquated subjectivist and objectivist idealisms.
There is an inherent anti-illusionism in non-objectualisms that not only forces them to renounce the representation of visible reality, but also conditions all presentations of reality, so as to produce the greatest conceptual effects. Whenever representations or figures are used, they deny the importance of the representation (or of whatever is iconized) and become established in conceptual iconic realities.
The use of the starkest and most concrete realities of space and matter, movement and time, light and color, is another of the goals of postmodernism. Because anti-illusionism is anti-formalist by nature, and as such, non-objectualisms renounce presenting realities in terms of their forms. They renounce this in order to highlight the human actions and concepts of the reality that is presented, referred to, or signified. Art therefore takes a stance on the mechanisms of knowledge, it questions them, and it challenges the relationship between perception and language. The need to move toward more concrete realities in order to grasp their conceptual and ideological effects means transcending mimesis as an artistic motive and result. Then realism takes the helm of artistic transformations. But it is a realism that does not address the materic or objectual aspects, but rather the social practices that objectify counter-Renaissance artistic actions and concepts.
If we go a little deeper into postmodernism, we will find the exaltation of simultaneity as a component of reality, the importance of which has been overlooked. This exaltation of simultaneity implies denying that processes are linear (a mere relationship of cause and effect), and it is also a consequence of conceiving time as a reality that is cyclical (round) and multifocal like space.3
In practical terms, simultaneity allows non-objectualisms to take an anti-narrative and anti-entertainment stance, given that narrative and entertainment are the usual, persuasive strategies of the Renaissance aesthetic and therefore of the mass media. The anti-narrative stance, with its simultaneities and its information rarefaction, is precisely what helps non-objectualist works to be open or pansemic, by force of tedium.
As Gene Youngblood tells us, by assuming that every process or event is linear, we assume that it is a chain that breaks at its weakest link, and that all its components are predictable on the basis of seeing a few.4 Postmodernism, he says, prefers the concept of the alloy, in which the properties of the whole are unpredictable and different to those of its parts, irrespective of whether they are taken separately or together. There is clearly an extensive artistic use of the simultaneity of images and actions, spaces and materials, that merges with the succession and the changes of these same elements. This “synergetic” or “synesthetic” combination of elements now generates new ways of perceiving and conceptualizing reality.5
Lastly, postmodernism breaks free of humanist anthropocentrism and acts with an eye on the concrete, relational aspects of “things-time-space,” of the collective and the individual as a form of generative and social self-criticism.6
Turning to postminimalism, we find a series of artistic criteria that validates the more coherent forms of expressionism and conceptualism, following the geometrist and minimalist euphoria of the mid-sixties.7 Eva Hesse and Sol Lewitt were the best exponents. Here the most violent expressionism meets the most rigorous and conceptualist serial geometrism. The object is reformulated so that painting and sculpture merge with anti-formalist violence, emphasizing the epistemological (or conceptual) and ontological (actions) aspects. It is, in a sense, a kind of return to individual subjectivity, in which actions and concepts are often steeped in an orientalism that counterbalances Western materialism. It may be another primitivism of contemporary art, which seeks to elevate the magical-religious aspects of ritual, often combining it with existentialism—an updated existentialism that can nevertheless easily fall prey to unwitting idealism. Be that as it may, postmodernist non-objectualisms can tend toward the most radical expressionism or the most cryptic conceptualism.
The postmodernist denials and postminimalist objectives mentioned so far are the immediate, social, and external causes of the non-objectualisms we are dealing with here.
They are social insofar as they stem from design, which forced traditional visual arts to change course as a result of its technological nature, and which ultimately arises from the mode of material production—a mode that also operates through the analytical and internal reasons of art. Because internal causes linked to the inescapable questioning of art by its progressive producers operate behind the external causes.
These internal causes—if they do in fact exist—would prove that artistic change does not necessarily have its own, private, social, political, and economic causes, given that the succession of artistic changes may have a common, preexisting cause of a social nature. In this way, changes would occur with little external intervention. We are supposedly talking about changes that share the same nature, even if they take different forms, and that we are referring to the relative independence of art.
These analytical reasons, originally proposed by the Italian art critic Filiberto Menna, still motivate artists to question art and to bring about one artistic change after another.8 On the one hand, analytical reason comes down to the fact that art has become self-reflexive, or in other words, that the discourse of art has become the work of art. In other words, it is a matter of trying to find “the object that names itself” and the “identity of signs with themselves” so as to subvert the accepted ideas of art.9 Accordingly, analytical reasons revolve around the following relationships, which are very closely linked to knowledge: reality and image, words and things, identity and context. On the other hand, the successive changes range from the tableau-object and collage in Cubism, to the painting-object, the Dada readymade, and the conceptualists who abolished sensitive media and replaced them with rational (or verbal) media that directly effect sensibility or, in other words, that have sensitive ends. And the readymade is just a step away from bodily actions and video.
This text only addresses general characteristics, but we should bear in mind the importance of the difference between various kinds of postmodernism, insofar as they avoid the perils of monolithism and thus prove the effectiveness and soundness of postmodernism (few movements withstand internal differences). We should also bear in mind that while a readymade simply involves choosing an object, environments organize materials, and land art and arte povera transform them. All of these non-objectualisms respond to questions of space but they also reinforce the conceptualism that later permeated all arts, which was a revolutionary step in art. Namely, the eradication of materially perceptible media in the work of art, in favor of intellectual or conceptual media, always with sensory artistic aims.
Meanwhile, bodily actions and videos focus on the chain of successions, that is, on questions of time. And time is new to visual artists, who have spent so many centuries absorbed in spatial illusions. Bodily actions peel back time through actions, gesticulation, and gestures that do not seek to represent, to present, or to express. Instead their information is rarefied in order to bring about tedium, which will take us into the raw real-time present.
Even so, the most important aspect of postmodernist non-objectualisms is the fact that it destroys our Renaissance and humanist legacy and induces us to see and value the world in a more realistic and human manner.
Editors’ note: In the original transcript of Juan Acha’s talk, “realismos espacialistas” [spacialist realisms] appears as “especialista” [special], but this is likely an editorial error; in other texts on the matter, he refers to the re-encounter with space as a real experience against illusionistic space. We have taken the decision to “correct” the text in this translated version.
Richard Palmer, “Toward a Postmodern Hermeneutics of Performance,” in Performance in Postmodern Culture, eds. Michel Benamou and Charles Carañello (Milwaukee: Center for Twentieth Century Studies, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 1977).
Gene Youngblood, Expanded Cinema (New York: Dutton, 1970).
Richard Schechner, “The End of Humanism,” Performing Arts Journal 4, no. 1/2, The American Imagination: A Decade of Contemplation (May 1979): 9–22.
Robert Pincus-Mitten, Postminimalism (New York: Out of London Press, 1977).
Filiberto Menna, La opción analítica en el arte moderno: figuras e íconos (Barcelona: Gustavo Gili D.L., 1977).