Art That's Not for Sale
Testimonios de Latinoamérica, 20 de septiembre, 1978
Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes
It is all the time harder to go to simply see an exhibition. One enters a museum or gallery and soon, one has to ask oneself if what is being shown is art, why so many innovations, what is art? Is it possible to call people "artists" if they don’t use oils or pencil, or make prints or sculptures? To what do we owe the fact that objects have been replaced by signs, and works by performances.
The aesthetic of the fine arts that all of us have been taught is certainly a moth-eaten one. It is not a matter of learning a new aesthetic, either, because no single aesthetic has replaced the old one. The use of nontraditional materials, methods that until recently have been ignored, and changing ideas about art’s role in society require a new type of spectator for contemporary art. No longer even a spectator, but rather a participant. Someone who intervenes in the creation of a work, completes the artist’s proposition, discusses it, and finds more pleasure in assuming a questioning, critical attitude than in mere contemplation,
Another characteristic of current art practices is the search for alternative channels for the diffusion of the works. In some cases, the intention is to reach a public that has been excluded from the commercial circuit for economic or cultural reasons; in others, it is to evade censorship. Increasingly, artists conceive their work to be shown in labor unions, in universities, or in the street. This type of distribution generally keeps the price of the works low and opens new possibilities in the structure of their language, in their social engagement (absent in commercial art), and in the artist-to-public exchange. The development of this new, alternative current during the last decade has modified the cultural panorama of Latin America. The critic or historian who takes into account only what is happening in galleries and museums, and/or what is covered by mainstream news media will only have a partial image. A large part of what is most creative today is to be found in popular venues and political movements. Art of this type has been assembled into an exhibition by the Beau Geste Press/Libro Acción Libre (Free Action Book) so that the Mexican public can encounter endeavors that lack broad diffusion and are not found on the elite circuits. The fact that the National Institute of Fine Arts is supporting the exhibition and that the Carrillo Gil Museum has agreed to display it will tell us something that museums of all continents are already recognizing: that art of today includes, along with painting and sculpture, other kinds of visual messages and experiences that also represent the symbolic activity of contemporary societies.
Nevertheless, almost all of these works that have evaded the galleries have been made without concern for the market and, one could say, in opposition to museums—at least against those invented by the bourgeoisie to conserve works that have been consecrated by them. If a museum is receptive to this new art, it is because it is in the process of transforming, because the dissident power of these new endeavors has disturbed its serenity. And it will have to change much more to accommodate art whose substance is increasingly less physical and more social, that emerges not from what is sculpted or painted in the intimacy of a studio, but instead from the transformation of the structures of communication itself.
The terms “media art” and “Conceptual art” have been used in relation to similar exhibitions. Other denominations are circulating as well, but we are concerned with these two because greater attention has been given to them, and they are perhaps the most pertinent.
The power of the mass media has provoked various kinds of responses from artists. The Pop movement, which has echoes in this exhibition, began in the previous decade when artists, first in the United States and later in Latin America, appropriated images and techniques from commercial advertising and comic strips to make works that bridged the gulf between an elite audience and the mass public. The subsequent absorption of these works into the very system of circulation and distribution that they were partly meant to critique, the fact that their audacities ended up making the symbols of “mass culture” elite, made other artists decide to experiment instead with the media’s potential for multiple reproduction (for example, prints made by a photocopier) or to intervene directly in the media. Mail art and video art began with the publication of blank spaces in newspapers, which disturbed readers’ passive relationships to an established system of information. It needs to be pointed out that Pop continues to be used in these experiments, and that no one tactic can be taken as the recipe for making alternative and popular art. In the end, most of the new works possess an identifiable, individual facture and, despite their authors’ best efforts, rarely break free of the art world. As to their effectiveness, we note that they can all be expropriated (or neutralized) by the dominant powers as long as the differences between social classes persist. The somewhat hermetic character of many alternative experiments makes familiarity with the codes now current among the European and North American vanguards all but indispensable, and signals the distances that still have to be overcome to surmount the divisions of taste that mirror cultural divisions between countries and classes.
If these works incite the spectator to ask what art is, it is because, to the extent that they encourage questioning, they result in a self-reflexive investigation through which the artist attempts to find out what an aesthetic act is and how to communicate it. Of the two tendencies in Conceptual art—one presents works as ideas, the other attempts to rethink the idea of art through the work—the second seems to be more pertinent to the revision that Latin American aesthetics needs: a critique of language in tandem with a critique of society. We can’t conceive of a different kind of society if we continue to perceive and represent the present day with the blueprint that engendered it.
It is interesting that the questions of what a work of art is and what it can communicate overlap each other. The tired polemics about form and content that concluded with the acknowledgment that the two are inseparable have been displaced by concerns about the connections between the work and communication. Today, artists have also come to understand that what is being said is necessarily linked to how it is said, to whom it is said, and surely where it is said, which is why the themes of censorship, the veiled, the virtual, the fragmented, and the ironic are the protagonists of this exhibition. Therefore, it isn’t only a matter of concepts, but also the place that artistic practice occupies in history.
Finally, it should be underscored that a global reassessment of the artistic process—art’s production, distribution, and consumption—leads us to rethink the relation between art and politics and between art and popular culture. The demonstrated application of the media and conceptualism in Latin American art should allow us to understand that experimentation is not counter to sociopolitical interests. This show is resounding evidence that certain polemics (realism vs. abstraction, commitment vs. play) have lost their relevance and that social liberties could/should march together with liberties of the imagination.
The pending questions resemble the babblings of a new language; they will become part of social praxis and—like artists forced into ambiguous complicity by having to choose between free experiment and participation in the market for their subsistence, between what there is to say and what can be said—will be resolved in coherent practices with the changes and regressions in the capitalist system of Latin America. For this it is necessary that a reconsideration of art be nourished in the social sciences and in political discussions. Art of alternative communications should be more than a whisper among artists; it should find a place within popular movements and should be able to represent those who fight to abolish structures that marginalize not only artists, but all workers.