Toward a New Artistic Problematic in Latin America
Museo de Arte Moderno (MAM), Mexico City
The main artistic problem in Latin America, in my view, is the non-formulation of concerns specific to us, those arising from our innermost third-world reality, which inherently implies mutation and transience. We therefore need a new Latin Americanist problematic that would accordingly be twofold: contest the developmentalist aesthetic governing our current practices and, at the same time, embrace the implications springing from the formulation of native ones. In other words, we need to formulate a new and realistic way of conceptualizing art that would help to channel the transformation of our third-world sensorium and also curtail the excesses and weaknesses of developmentalism.
The developmentalist aesthetic responds to problems whose solutions lead us to embrace high art and to practice it according to the standards of advanced countries and at their levels. To these questions, we therefore add those that we have not yet considered due to our backwardness vis-à-vis the countries that have already analyzed and, to a great extent, solved them. Under the influence of developmentalism—the eagerness to follow in the footsteps of rich countries—we will have to deal sooner or later with these problems ourselves.
As we know, the developmentalist aesthetic follows foreign models and essentially boils down to merely attaining the high art of other worlds and popularizing it in our own. It is an aesthetic that has already been designed and does not by any means either exhaust all of our artistic possibilities or broach all aspects of our sensorial activities—particularly if we accept what young artists in almost all countries are proposing, in which case, we would have to acknowledge that our current developmentalist trend aspires to a form of art that is already intensely disputed, a kind of art that is considered inadequate if not inappropriate for our time and its precocious forces, a kind of art that has proven spurious for a third world that is hungry for all manner of change.
The need for a social and cultural turnaround in our countries compels us to reflect on the extent to which we can and should chart a new course for art. This certainly does not mean coolly describing a new aesthetic for our artists to follow, but rather simply setting out the reasons that make one necessary. At most we would have to outline the bases that artists should act upon—or have already begun to act upon—in order to create a new, different aesthetic, one that encompasses our inquiries and practices, whose artistic nature is now acknowledged, and our other sensory actions and urges, of which we are unaware and that are not considered art.
The bases for an aesthetic of this kind are already latent, if not in progress in our reality. It is just a matter of discovering them, of determining their pros and cons, and then guiding them. The purpose of these preliminary and limited notes is in fact to identify and define these bases.
In Latin America there have always been two competing ways of conceptualizing art, and they can serve as starting points for reviewing our artistic possibilities and practices. One is the intellectualist perspective, which hews strictly to ontological-aesthetic and historical-artistic criteria to determine the course of high art or to reject it. The other is a subjectivist or psychological perspective that opts for an emotionalism that is opposed to ideas as the best and most effective guide for art, mistaking spontaneity and narcissism for freedom of opinion, which is in itself rational.
Both perspectives have always existed in the third world, as I said. They are pitted against each other. But they are at one in their belief in the existence of an essence that brings about artistic and human changes, which are usually slight. Despite the fact that both impel art down the wrong paths, away from our legitimate reality and our self-determination, they are nonetheless necessary insofar as they correct each other, particularly when they begin to interact with a sociological approach to artistic matters.
Artistic intellectualism advocates the predominance of the thinking man, conversant in the history and theory of art and thus skilled in the handling and expression of ideas. Historicism and essentialism—or ontologism—are its proclivities, however, and they turn ideas into artistic imperatives. With unbridled axiological fervor, it wants to establish what art is and, in the very next breath, to stipulate the kind of man and society that wish to produce or consume it. As a result, artistic activities become intellectual exercises that remain within the bounds of the problems of Western art history and theory—as if Latin American art were simply a lagging sequel to the art produced by advanced countries.
According to this approach to conceptualizing art, all artistic problems lie in merely approving either the expressions of high art that are already formalized elsewhere, or the trends that reject this kind of art. In the latter case, the intellectualists would confine themselves to arguments concerning the superstructure and the decline of both high art and objectual art, and simply imitate foreign actions or trends, given that they have no goals of their own and are not seeking sociological, third-world reasons and advantages based on the real fact of decline. For them, the need for a new aesthetic would be intellectual rather than experiential, a question of superficial imitation rather than of existentialism.
Nonetheless, they have achieved what they intended. Because, as it turns out, our best works of visual art, in Western terms, have been produced in the Latin American cities with the most intense circulation of ideas, thus fulfilling our developmentalist aspirations. But qualitatively speaking, these works were produced in the field of existing trends rather than the creation of new ones. There are even cases of significant innovation in works of art, without the development of new trends of international importance. Attaining mere aesthetic quality is one thing; creating a new trend is something else altogether.
The reason for the phenomenon is clear and eminently developmentalist: in a cultural constellation such as the Western one to which we belong, it is impossible for third-world artists to respond to the new, advanced social situations currently emerging as a result of sophisticated industrialization, economic prosperity, and the mass media; these are situations that will eventually appear in the rest of the world, together with the art that will respond to them as they develop. The fact that there are Latin American cities with a high cultural level does not alter the mechanism by which artistic trends are created, although it does improve the process of artistic quality.
As might be imagined, it is not a question of jettisoning intellectualism, but rather of ridding it of its flaws and channeling it appropriately. The goal is not to banish ideas or knowledge. On the contrary we should embrace both, as valuable and indispensable tools for studying the infrastructural, psychosocial, and sensory mutations of our third-world reality, a task that requires us to move more freely beyond the history and theory of art, both of which are generally confined to matters pertaining to the superstructure of art.
The reverse is true of our artistic subjectivism, which stifles all intellectual curiosity, leaving art at the mercy of our emotional irrationalism. Although this subjectivist perspective has not produced our best artistic works according to the scale of values of the West, it did advance the idea of a Latin American—or national—“being” with a collective identity based either on indigenism (nativism) or on our cultural or racial hybridization. As such, it sparked the need to operate outside Western high art and produced the works that are most contrary to European and North American tastes and dictates.
We cannot negate the importance of the forces driving this view of art. They push us to embark upon the untrodden paths of art. But they will get us nowhere because they are not accompanied by ideas. The failings of subjectivism are also known: archaeologism verges on anachronism; nationalism takes on xenophobic overtones; popularism is cloaked in paternalism and demagogy with the pretext of acting with socialist sentiments. Subjectivism elevates pre-Hispanic art as a mandatory source of inspiration for high art, or glorifies folklore as its replacement. The alternative at which it arrives is distributionism: to produce high art for the people, or to popularize existing art in its name.
Although we have moved well beyond the empire of rabid nationalism—perpetrator of all those terrible mistakes—artistic subjectivism remains alive, and we must rid it of its simplistic aspects. Because the art produced in a world like our own third world, which is characterized by constant, sudden changes, cannot be reduced to a mere opposition between the art of our past and that of our demographic majorities—just as its problems cannot be solved by the refusal to budge based on a belief in a full-fledged collective identity, fixed and immutable as both a receptor and an engine of art. Seeing as how both approaches are ineffective on their own, it would make sense to consider joining them in a mutually corrective fusion. But this would not suffice, because it fails to focus squarely on the mechanics of our current mutations. They therefore need something to keep them together until they attain interdependence and, at the same time, direct them toward the psychosocial, sensitive consequences of these mutations. And the only thing that can fulfill this role is a uniquely third-world, sociological perspective. This solution is by no means a new one. It is in the air we breathe, and artists everywhere are practicing it: they begin with sociological material, and the aesthetic result is a by-product. Art is a social product after all, and if the reverse was true in the past, it was due to the social and cultural calm of the times.
Once we add a sociological angle to our artistic problem, we will have to position our aesthetic expressions within the framework of the heterogeneous societies that are subject to constant, radical change at the mental and sensorial levels due to the effects of the technological revolution. The ecological changes triggered by mass media and objects—the handling of which is influenced by the cultural imperialism imposed on us by developed countries—have increased the diversity of our social, cultural, and artistic situations, which range from the feudal to the industrial, from illiteracy to mass culture.
In a situation such as this one, which is so turbulent and transitory with regard to our sensorial activities and our minds, we can no longer entertain the idea of a single, fixed, artistic solution—or continue to hierarchically divide the various expressions of our sensorium. The best solution would therefore be to promote aesthetic pluralism, which simply means to bestow a “legal” personality upon the myriad expressions that are a de facto part of any community, so that they can be mixed without predefined hierarchical criteria.
The problems will increase and change as different artistic endeavors become part of the free dynamics of supply and demand—of the poorly understood mechanisms of production and consumption, flow and intermediaries—that the artistic phenomenon has in each sector of the community. We will have to face the problem of the need for high art, the importance of which depends on the influence of minorities within a community, in particular the cultural minority, which is the only sector that can prevent art from losing its subversive value, from becoming a weapon of repression and obedient to foreign and developmentalist dictates. The cultural minority is the only user of high art, because the majority, by its nature, can only benefit through that use. We will also have to face the problem of the shortcomings of high art and its attempts to be a form of expression that is equal to that of the mass media in terms of scope of action and artistic potential. Because only thus will high art be able to counteract the effects of the mass media on our senses and our minds—which would mean it would cease to be “high.”
There will be other problems just as worthy of solving, such as that of approaching our sensorial activities, an aspect of which includes our habitual likes and dislikes, which are the products of our education and ecology as well as of the mass media. The solution to this problem will resemble the “pedagogy of the oppressed” that Paulo Freire proposed. The new artistic problematic will thus be characterized by its sociological range.