On Art, Artists, Latin America, and Other Utopias

[ Art ]

On Art, Artists, Latin America, and Other Utopias

By Luis Camnitzer

Edited by Rachel Weiss

The first collection of writings in English by the acclaimed Uruguayan artist and curator whose work, after years of marginalization, has achieved international recognition, including exhibition in the Whitney Biennial and Documenta 11.

2009

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6 x 9 | 272 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-71976-7

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Artist, educator, curator, and critic Luis Camnitzer has been writing about contemporary art ever since he left his native Uruguay in 1964 for a fellowship in New York City. As a transplant from the "periphery" to the "center," Camnitzer has had to confront fundamental questions about making art in the Americas, asking himself and others: What is "Latin American art"? How does it relate (if it does) to art created in the centers of New York and Europe? What is the role of the artist in exile? Writing about issues of such personal, cultural, and indeed political import has long been an integral part of Camnitzer's artistic project, a way of developing an idiosyncratic art history in which to work out his own place in the picture.

This volume gathers Camnitzer's most thought-provoking essays—"texts written to make something happen," in the words of volume editor Rachel Weiss. They elaborate themes that appear persistently throughout Camnitzer's work: art world systems versus an art of commitment; artistic genealogies and how they are consecrated; and, most insistently, the possibilities for artistic agency. The theme of "translation" informs the texts in the first part of the book, with Camnitzer asking such questions as "What is Latin America, and who asks the question? Who is the artist, there and here?" The texts in the second section are more historically than geographically oriented, exploring little-known moments, works, and events that compose the legacy that Camnitzer draws on and offers to his readers.

  • Foreword by Rachel Weiss
  • Part I: On and Against Translation
    • Introduction
    • 1. Contemporary Colonial Art (1969)
    • 2. The Sixties (1998)
    • 3. Exile (1983)
    • 4. Political Pop (1998)
    • 5. Access to the Mainstream (1987)
    • 6. Wonder Bread and Spanglish Art (1989)
    • 7. Cultural Identities Before and After the Exit of Bureau-Communism (1991)
    • 8. Art and Politics: The Aesthetics of Resistance (1994)
    • 9. The Artist's Role and Image in Latin America (2004)
    • 10. Out of Geography and Into the Moiré Pattern (1996)
    • 11. The Reconstruction of Salami (2003)
    • 12. Printmaking: A Colony of the Arts (1999)
    • 13. My Museums (1995)
    • 14. The Forgotten Individual (1996)
    • 15. Free-trade Diaspora (2003)
  • Part II: Other Histories
    • Introduction
    • 16. Pedro Figari (1991)
    • 17. Resoftenings and Softenings in Uruguayan Art (1991)
    • 18. An Ode to Aquatint (2003)
    • 19. Revisiting Tautology (2006)
    • 20. The Museo Latinoamericano and MICLA (1992)
    • 21. Flying in Weightlessness (2004)
    • 22. Brazil in New York (2001)
    • 23. The Keeper of the Lens (2005)
    • 24. The Two Versions of Santa Anna's Leg and the Ethics of Public Art (1995)
    • 25. The Biennial of Utopias (1999)
    • 26. Introduction to the Symposium "Art as Education/Education as Art" (2007)
  • Index

The essays in this section are organized around a general theme of translation. This stems, on the most literal level, from the experience of exile but also informs or underlies many of the processes by which art and culture are created and validated, and through which they circulate in the world. In each act of reception there is a kind of translation, and Camnitzer's attentiveness to the many dimensions of that interaction form a through-line in these texts.

"Contemporary Colonial Art" (1969) opens many of the themes that will preoccupy Camnitzer for the next four decades. These include the fundamental problem of how local histories are written according to the criteria and measures of the center, in the process naturalizing those measures and criteria as universal. Closely related to that syndrome is the problem of self-colonization, through which the colonized mind carries with it the imagined metropolis and superimposes its plenty onto the local deficits—living according to "somebody else's truths," experiencing, even if vicariously, "experiences [he] never had." This process of transculturation creates artificial needs and, as Camnitzer emphasizes, leaves authentic needs—such as a functioning culture—unmet. This idea of building a new culture, unburdened by the many distortions of colonialism and imperialism, is an urgent motivating force and ideal that drives much of Camnitzer's writing.

In this vein, while much postcolonial cultural theory in the 1980s tended to emphasize ideas like mestizaje, anthropophagy, and "hybridity," valorizing the ways in which subaltern cultures might take on the attributes of dominant culture in order to rework them for their own, often subversive, purpose, Camnitzer's perhaps more candid appraisal of the dynamic looks first at how class tends to correlate to the autoingestion of the "international" and at some of the psychological dynamics involved.

Camnitzer's intense discomfort with the commodity role of art, and with the absurdities of replicating it in contexts that do not even have a functioning commodities market, leads him to speculate about possible remedies in Latin America. Here, citing the Uruguayan urban guerrilla group Tupamaros as a model, he identifies a general, cultural-literacy, approach that he refers to as "perceptual alphabetization," along with a more directly politicized idea of culture's role in society.

It is worth noting that in June 1968, the Uruguayan president, Jorge Pacheco, declared a state of emergency and repealed all constitutional safeguards. By the time that Camnitzer wrote "Contemporary Colonial Art," then, the stakes for a radical idea of art or politics in Uruguay were already very high.

Camnitzer has continued to work with the model that the Tupamaros presented of an aesthetics with a surplus of politics, or a politics with a surplus of aesthetics, in the decades since. This has been closely tied to his developing ideas about why and how Conceptualism has developed in Latin America: as art shifts emphasis "from the object to the situation," it is able to generate a sense of political potential, "on the way toward creating a new culture instead of simply providing old perceptions with a new political form."

"The Sixties" is a much more recent piece, dating from 2003. Between this essay and "Contemporary Colonial Art" we get a book-end reading of Camnitzer's principal themes, and of how he himself is situated within those questions and histories. While much of the early writing has an almost manifesto-like tone, this text is much more personal, reminiscing about the South American Left of the 1950s. This return is occasioned by the more literal return to Montevideo to present this paper at a conference at the Museo Blanes, so that here Camnitzer is bringing a piece of Uruguayan history back to its home site.

The 1977 essay "Exile" is an important articulation of Camnitzer's autobiographical way of narrating history. Focusing on his own training as an artist, and then on his displacement to New York, he problematizes bilingualism—the constant process of not only translating but also of performing dual identities—and his continuous sense of displacement. First as a German-born Latin American intellectual studying in Germany and feeling more Latin American than ever before, and then forging an identity as Uruguayan that depended, to a large extent, on the experience of being Uruguayan in New York, Camnitzer's sense of apartness has been formative to his ideas about art, even to the point that he has speculated that perhaps even the decision to study art was "another form of exile," keeping him separate. The remove from Uruguay, he realizes, is in part the effect of his training, which formed him all along to leave Uruguay and be an artist in the Empire. Meanwhile, his thirteen years in New York are the same years during which the vast majority of intellectuals in Uruguay were sent to prison or exiled. It is this particular displacement that moves Camnitzer in the next few years to make the "Uruguayan Torture" series of works as a kind of mea culpa for his absence from and irrelevance to Uruguay's catastrophe and trauma.

Being in New York meant proximity to the artistic currents that had been read, from Montevideo, as somewhat mysterious or bizarre. Probably foremost in this category was Pop Art, and the 1998 essay "Political Pop" is Camnitzer's attempt to synthesize his thoughts on Pop's paradoxically alien and kindred ideas. Noting that Pop was a case of "the imperialism of the consumer object being attacked by the society that produced it rather than by its ultimate victims," Camnitzer has a complex identification with its project while also keeping himself apart from it.

As an imported style, Pop on the periphery opened a Pandora's box of questions about "fetishism, the status of the 'imported,' the class implications of the different levels of consumption, and thus the multiplicity of real and possible interactions between consumer and commodity." To deal with the conundrum of Pop's status, then, Camnitzer begins to rewrite art history, testing versions able to accommodate figures such as Cildo Meireles, Antonio Caro, and Hélio Oiticica alongside Warhol and Oldenburg; this is a strategy that he expands on in many subsequent texts. Pop, for him, becomes a "broader movement that also addresses the web of relations between consumer and object and consequently operates in a political context," and so becomes the occasion for a meditation on the varying situations in North and South, and the implications for art of that difference.

Pop Art was a useful lens for looking at the strange entity of a thriving art market. Understanding that market, and the implications it might have for a more idealistic approach to artistic production, has been an ongoing project for Camnitzer. "Access to the Mainstream," from 1987, is his most sustained inquiry into how that access—the primary dream of every artist—raises questions about development, ethnicity, internationalism, commodity status, and democracy, along with the outsider's inevitable ambivalence about the desire to both gain acceptance by, and stand independent of, such mechanisms and systems. Camnitzer identifies a postmodernism of the Right and of the Left, with the former corresponding to the introduction of stylistic innovations that refreshed the marketplace, and the latter representing the introduction of previously disallowed voices and subjectivities. The failure of this reformist project leads Camnitzer to propose, instead, a process that might expose the structural problems of the market to a more meaningful opening and democratization.

Far from a utopian platform, however, the essay dwells at length on the complicated situation of artists from the periphery. Here again is the sense of estrangement, of identities that are mutually conflicting, of the double and triple bind of the artist under the benevolent gaze of multiculturalism. The essay is a classic formulation of Camnitzer's position about art, ethics, and politics: "We live the alienation myth of primarily being artists. We are not. We are primarily ethical beings sifting right from wrong and just from unjust, not only in the realm of the individual but in communal and regional contexts. In order to survive ethically, we need a political awareness that helps us to understand our environment and develop strategies for our actions. Art becomes the instrument of our choice to implement these strategies. Our choice to become artists is a political decision, independent of the content of our work."

"Wonder Bread and Spanglish Art" (1989) comes from the same period and shares many concerns, extending Camnitzer's critique of commoditized subalterity and superficial multiculturalism. A third essay, "Cultural Identities Before and After the Exit of Bureau-Communism" (1991), fills out this set of debates characteristic of the 1980s concerning multiculturalism, postmodernism, and, at the very end of the decade, postcommunism. Again, translation figures importantly, in this case, looking at the demise of state socialism to see what its implications might be for traditional Latin American utopianism and, along the way, finding an exacerbated class conflict in the social and cultural problems of the continent. As Camnitzer suggests, with the collapse of the capitalist-communist binary, many of the certainties that had stabilized arguments about identity and purpose in Latin America were also lost. Identity became increasingly slippery, and the reassuring architecture of translation—namely, that it is always based on there being two distinct languages, which do not merge—is perhaps no longer very useful as a model.

"Art and Politics: The Aesthetics of Resistance" was written for the leftist journal Report on the Americas in 1994. The essay is Camnitzer's fullest attempt to relate artistic activity to the leftist tradition in Latin American politics. It offers an extended reading of "Tucumán Arde," the Tupamaros, the New Cuban Art, the Mexican activist/performer Superbarrio, and other examples from Camnitzer's history of art and activism.

It is worth noting that here he is translating what is, in the Latin American context, a much more integrated idea of the relationship between art and politics for a North American, leftist readership—a group probably more acclimated to agitprop than to Conceptualism in the context of "political art." Here, an "expanded idea of art" is developed, not in order to accommodate an indistinct vanguardism, but much more pointedly in the name of art making a meaningful contribution to the continent's political struggles.

"The Artist's Role and Image in Latin America" (2004), written for a panel convened at the ARCO art fair in Madrid, is a kind of counterpart to the "Art and Politics" paper, addressed as it is to the commercial sector and to making a case for the artist's agency that is primarily organized around a contestation of the market rather than being an argument against agitprop. The formulations in the text also seem very related to the post-9/11, rather than the more activist early 1990s, historical moment.

The question of how artists may be subject to, or active within, history is pursued further in "Out of Geography and Into the Moiré Pattern" (1996), written for the catalogue of the exhibition "Face a l'histoire" organized by the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. Camnitzer questions the assumptions that underlie the idea of artists "facing history," that is, separate from rather than rather than as a part of it. As he puts it: "In the case of Latin America, this polarity of 'art' and 'history' is risky, for it tends to obscure one of the most distinctive aspects of Latin American art: the intricate interweaving of art activity and social life, of art making and history making, of formalism and art-as-politics." Camnitzer admits that, in his usage, "Latin America" is mostly a utopian concept—a way of thinking that was shaped by the geographic specificity of the continent and the locatedness of its struggles against external enemies. With much of the world's population in diaspora, and with the shape of the world redefined after 1989, Camnitzer debunks underlying assumptions of identity politics and instead proposes the interference patterns of the moiré effect as a more useful descriptor for the situation of Latin America and Latin American identity in the contemporary world.

The construction of history, and the assignment of universality or consignment to local value, is again the topic in "The Reconstruction of Salami" (2003). Again, Camnitzer turns his attention to the complicated process by which ideas travel between center and periphery, how they are transformed in the process, where attribution is designated, and what historical, economic, and cultural currents facilitate and add force to these processes. He returns to the idea of "resistance" and does further work on it, sketching an alternate genealogy that opposes the formalist view of artistic progress and agency. Drawing connections between the dominance of a formalist mode of critique in art and the ways it has typically disallowed critical practices, Camnitzer searches for a model more suitable to the Latin American context. Making a careful argument about art's extreme sensitivity to local history and conditions, he notes, memorably, that "depending on the region and its needs, a work can be monumental or delirious, derivative or recycled, explicit or mysterious. Therefore, it matters to know what questions are being answered, who posed them, and what their motives were."

The first half of this volume ends with a suite of more intimately scaled pieces. These texts take the themes and positions I have already outlined and place them within small or personal narrative settings. "Printmaking: A Colony of the Arts" (1999) extends Camnitzer's thinking about the colonial mentality, removing the syndrome from its usual geographic and historical coordinates and approaching it as a psychological space characterized by a failure to struggle for independence. Using the traditional designation of printmaking as craft, as opposed to the artistic status of painting, he works through issues of craft, identity, and autonomy in an often-humorous argument.

"My Museums," from 1998, gives us, again with gentle sarcasm and ample irony, a microstaging of the larger issue of artistic agency in the face of the institutional, hegemonic nature of the international art system. "The Forgotten Individual," from 1996, strikes a much more melancholy note. Written for the catalogue of the Sixth Havana Biennial, the short essay attempts to, however gently, counter the defeatism of that project and insert a more active subjectivity into the biennial's postulation of the individual and memory that had been emptied of its agency. Against the "loss of we" suggested in the Biennial's theme of "The Individual and Memory," Camnitzer insists on the importance of memory in the fight against privatizing isolation, and especially on the vivid memory of the utopian impulse that was the Havana Biennial's point of origin.

Finally, in "Free Trade Diaspora" (2003), we encounter a more chastened view of these dilemmas: belonging, selfhood, agency, all are cast within a fundamental estrangement, which can never be fully translated. The intrinsic incompleteness of the diasporic citizen is Camnitzer's subject here, the one who records from a distance, who somehow holds an originary identity closer, and who, more tightly, and more fictively, fights the sensation of not being anywhere and of not quite touching anything. The multiple consciousnesses of exile, this state of constant yearning and incompletion, of being neither here nor there, is the ground on which so many people now live, and from which so much art now inevitably proceeds.

By Luis Camnitzer

After years of attacking from the margins, Luis Camnitzer is now, ironically, a bona fide "international artist," whose work has appeared in the Venice Biennial, Documenta 11, the Whitney Biennial, and several Havana Biennials. A professor emeritus at SUNY College at Old Westbury, Camnitzer presently is the pedagogical curator for the Iberé Camargo Foundation in Brazil. He is the author of several books, including Conceptualism in Latin American Art: Didactics of Liberation. He lives in Great Neck, New York.

Rachel Weiss is Professor of Arts Administration and Policy at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is the author of several books, including To Build the Sky: To and From Utopia in the New Cuban Art.

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