In the early 1990s, a major exhibition Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation, 1965-1985 toured major museums around the United States. As a first attempt to define and represent Chicano/a art for a national audience, the exhibit attracted both praise and controversy, while raising fundamental questions about the nature of multiculturalism in the U.S.
This book presents the first interdisciplinary cultural study of the CARA exhibit. Alicia Gaspar de Alba looks at the exhibit as a cultural text in which the Chicano/a community affirmed itself not as a "subculture" within the U.S. but as an "alter-Native" culture in opposition to the exclusionary and homogenizing practices of mainstream institutions. She also shows how the exhibit reflected the cultural and sexual politics of the Chicano Movement and how it serves as a model of Chicano/a popular culture more generally.
Drawing insights from cultural studies, feminist theory, anthropology, and semiotics, this book constitutes a wide-ranging analysis of Chicano/a art, popular culture, and mainstream cultural politics. It will appeal to a diverse audience in all of these fields.
List of Figures
List of Tables
A Theoretical Introduction: Alter-Native Ethnography, a lo rasquache
Part One. Open House
The Solar of Chicano/a Popular Culture: Mi casa [no] es su casa
Part Two. Cara's Politics of Representation
Through Serpent and Eagle Eyes: Intercultural Collaboration
Out of the House, the Halo, and the Whore's Mask: The Mirror of Malinchismo
Part Three. Public Reception
"Between the Ghetto and the Melting Pot": Popular Hegemony
Conclusion: The Mutation of Multiculturalism
Appendix A: Selected Viewer Comments
Appendix B: The Organizational Structure of the CARA Exhibition
I belong to that generation of Chicano/a scholars who grew up during the Chicano Civil Rights Movement, too young to physically participate in the marches, strikes, boycotts, sit-ins, and blow-outs that characterized el Movimiento during the quaking sixties, but old enough to reap the benefits of affirmative action, bilingual education, and "minority" fellowships. I am also entering the academy at a time when the survival of Chicana/Chicano Studies is threatened as much by the external bureaucratic backlash against anything "multicultural" as by the internecine hostilities of a discipline unwilling to change its ideological and methodological guard. But, as I explain in my personal essay "Literary Wetback," I am used to negotiating borders and contradictions. I was brought up in a Mexican immigrant, Spanish-Only, Catholic, middle-class, light-skinned family who deeply resisted assimilation and yet at the same time believed that
Mexican-Americans, or Pochos, as my family preferred to call them, were stupid. Not only could they not even speak their own language correctly (meaning Spanish), but their dark coloring denounced them as ignorant. Apart from being strict, Mexican, and Catholic, my family was also under the delusion that, since our ancestors were made in Madrid, our fair coloring made us better than common Mexicans. If we maintained the purity of la lengua Castellana, and didn't associate with Prietos or Pochos, our superiority over that low breed of people would always be clear.
I did not arrive at my own concientización as a Chicana until my third year in college when I took one of the only Chicano Studies courses offered at the University of Texas at El Paso, taught by one of a handful of Chicana professors on the faculty. At the same time that I was decolonizing my mind through poetry and fiction, I was coming out as a lesbian. Eleven years later, as a doctoral student and teaching assistant in American Studies making waves about the ethnocentrism of the discipline, I walked into the Albuquerque Museum of Art and encountered the Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation, 1965-1985 exhibition, better known by its acronym, CARA.
Upon completing my three-hour tour of the show, I realized that, my doctoral education notwithstanding, I was embarrassingly ignorant about the historical and political context, the breadth and scope of Chicano/a visual art. Despite Art Appreciation, American History, and Political Science classes in college (all of which should have accommodated at least one pertinent section on the artistic, historical, or political developments of the Chicano Movement); despite growing up in El Paso, home of the original Pachucos and turf of La Raza Unida party; despite a five-year course of study on "American life and thought" (which treated matters of race and ethnicity, if at all, as tangents or supplements to the reading list)—despite all the knowledge I had gained on the road to becoming "Doctor" Gaspar de Alba, I knew relatively little of the political history and cultural production of Chicanos/as. Standing in the CARA exhibit, surrounded by this history and this material culture, I understood that in order to really "see" Chicano and Chicana art, I would have to make the exhibition the focus of an extended study.
In seeking to fill this "blank spot" in my education, which, as Alice Walker says, "needed desperately to be cleared if I expected to be a whole woman, a full human being, a [Chicana] full of self-awareness and pride," I saw CARA more times than I care to admit in Albuquerque, then traveled to see it in its last four venues: Washington, D.C., El Paso, New York, and San Antonio. I spoke with curators, museum staff and arts administrators, artists, art historians, academics, gallery owners, members of the exhibit's different organizing committees, viewers. I collected viewer comments and three inches of press clippings on the show. I badgered the Wight Art Gallery to let me use the CARA archives for my research before they were even completed and traveled to Stanford University to pore through the personal papers of the two key organizers of the exhibition. I waited impatiently for the catalog, which was not released until a year after CARA opened at UCLA
All of this exploration and immersion led me back to Chicano/a history and culture, back home to myself. In fact, I saw CARA so much that it became a home to me, a physical space, recreated in different venues, where I could see and hear the story of la Raza again. Names that didn't mean anything to me when I first saw the exhibition in Albuquerque became dear and familiar: Malaquías, Carmen, Yolanda, Rupert, José, Ester, Delilah, Harry, Juana Alicia, Carlos, César, Barbara. I disagreed with some, admired others, argued with a few, and slowly realized that this dialogue was part of CARAs intention: to open the doors to the master's house—the hitherto exclusionary space of the mainstream museum—to remodel the interior al estilo Chicano and create an environment where Chicano/a art could be the vehicle for dialogue and reflection. For the thousands of Raza across the country who had never felt addressed or represented in an art museum until CARA, the exhibition signified a personal and collective victory. They, too, were home for the first time in a public place. The old Mexican adage Mi casa es su casa was on the other foot, for once. The "white" house of the museum was now also a Raza house: bienvenidos/as.
This idea of home kept resonating for me with an image of a house from my studies in popular culture. Although I discuss this at length in Chapter 1, it is important to note here that the connection I made between the idea of being "home" in a historically inhospitable place for Chicanos/as and the idea of using a house to conceptualize the study of popular culture helped me to see that, in fact, Chicanos/as were not at home in the academy just as they were not at home in the art world. "Home, say Becky Thompson and Sangeeta Tyagi, "is where people have gone to feel comfortable, to be with people like themselves, to be rejuvenated, to see a reflection of themselves in those around them."
The connection underscored my own invisibility as a Chicana. Not only was I seeing Chicano/a art for the first time in the master's house, I was seeing myself reflected in that art as well. Conversely, in my Popular Culture Studies, I was not being seen at all. Chicano/a popular culture did not exist as an academic category of analysis. We read about lowriders, to be sure, and about La Bamba and Los Lobos, but this was all interesting "ethnic" stuff, introduced in the curriculum for the sake of diversifying the syllabus, lumped together with Alice Walker, Paula Gunn Allen, and Ronald Takaki under the classification of "subculture."
The connection, finally, between the master's house where Chicano/a art was currently installed and the house of popular culture where things "ethnic" were barely visible helped me to build an argument against the hegemonic and hegemonizing view of Popular Culture Studies, which subjugates the popular texts, traditions, customs, values, beliefs, and political identities of Other American cultures to subcultural status. Through this work, I arrived at the hypothesis that Chicano/a culture is an alter-Native culture within the United States, both alien and indigenous to the landbase known as the "West." My conclusion, then, that mi casa [no] es su casa signifies that while Chicanos/as are cultural citizens of the United States, neither the mainstream art world nor the dominant popular culture is a hospitable place for Chicano/a cultural production. Twisting the adage around even more appropriately, I conclude that mi CARA [no] es su CARA, for the face of Chicano/a art constructed by the exhibition, the face of Chicano/a identity, is both an insider's and an outsider's face, both present and absent in the discourse of American art, life, and culture. This book, then, is the story of how an alter-Native culture came to represent itself, to create its own face, within the master's house. Gloria Anzaldua calls this haciendo caras, which, more than making or creating face, "has the added connotation of making gestos subversivos, political subversive gestures, the piercing look that questions or challenges, the look that says 'Don't walk all over me,' the one that says, 'Get out of my face.'"
The Introduction examines the theoretical framework of the study, a three-pronged approach that analyzes the aesthetics, politics, and methodologies used in my cultural critique of CARA and explores the contours of my social and cultural description of both the mainstream art world and the historical moment in which the CARA exhibition made its debut. In my analysis of the artworks and ideologies contained in the CARA exhibit, I situate the representation of this alter-Native culture within the cultural narrative of multiculturalism, which for a few golden years reigned supreme as the predominant cultural discourse of the academy in general and of American Studies in particular.
In Chapter 1, I deconstruct the ethnocentric paradigm of Popular Culture Studies by constructing a separate paradigm for studying Chicano/a popular culture. This chapter also takes the reader on an "open house" tour of Chicano/a art, history, and popular culture, briefly visiting the ten rooms of the exhibition and reconstructing the architectural model by which to study Chicano/a popular culture.
The chapters in the second section explore CARA's organizational structure and politics of representation. Chapter 2 analyzes the making of the exhibition, the ideological visions underlying the show, the conflicts and contradictions between them, and the untraditional (some call it democratic) process of the exhibit's development. Chapter 3 carries the critique of the show's politics of representation into the gender arena. By juxtaposing the three separate grupo installations with the "Feminist Visions" gallery, I deconstruct the image of "la Chicana," as it was visualized and manipulated by the patriarchal tenets of the Chicano Art Movement, and its antithesis, "la Malinche," as it has been appropriated, subverted, and transformed by Chicana artists and Chicana feminists to construct a new theory of resistance. The chapter is an overt critique of the selection process of the exhibit which privileged those male interpretations of la Chicana, while at the same time using the work of Chicana artists to reproduce the sexist messages of el Movimiento.
Chapter 4 examines public reception to CARA through the analytical lens of Stuart Hall's reception theory, tracing the dominant, negotiated, and oppositional responses that the exhibit received in two domains of discourse: published reviews and viewer comments. Contextualized within three separate frameworks, the reviews and comments illuminate the Quality/Diversity debate that destabilized the mainstream art world in the late eighties; the "discovery" narrative of the Quincentennial that set the stage for a national exploration of Chicano/a art and culture; and the grateful, gratified, and resilient voices of la Raza, who for the first time felt not only represented in the public art museum, but also respected.
The Conclusion explores the multiple meanings and uses of multiculturalism in different registers of the culture industry and shows how CARA was, in fact, paradigmatic of the rise and fall of the "Diversity moment. The study ends with an Appendix of selected viewer responses to the exhibition. Taken from three of the comment books generated by CARA, the responses tell a story about what it meant to those Chicanos and Chicanas' who saw the show in different parts of the country to have found la Raza filling the rooms and halls of the master's house.
Thanks to this most powerful, most stimulating, most prideful exhibit, I have gotten motivated to research more deeply into Chicano art, which, as a Chicana trained in Anglo schools, brought up by parents who denied any connections to Chicanos/Chicanas, I was unaware of. Ahora me estoy saliendo de la ignorancia. Gracias. This show has moved my own resistance and affirmation. 4/27/91
Indeed, the CARA exhibition has been a vehicle of concientizución in my training as a Chicana cultural critic, permitting me to arrange pieces of three separate puzzles—Chicanismo, feminist theory, and Popular Culture Studies—into a hybrid, alter-Native methodology in the study of a face that is not your face, a house that is not your house.
Overview of the Show
CARA opened at its host institution, UCLA's Wight Art Gallery, on September 9, 1990, and closed at the San Antonio Museum of Art on August 1, 1993, after a national tour of ten U.S. cities, including Denver, Albuquerque, San Francisco, Fresno, Tucson, Washington, D.C., El Paso, and the Bronx. The exhibition featured 128 pieces of art and 54 mural images by some 140 Chicano and about 40 Chicana artists (including the muralists named in the catalog). There were ten sections in the exhibit, beginning with a historical timeline and proceeding thematically through nine different visual interpretations of the goals and struggles of la Causa. Through a rear-projected slide display viewers were introduced to the murals of the Chicano Art Movement in California, the Southwest, and the Midwest. The show also included three metainstallations in the form of casitas that featured three of the more influential collectives of Chicano artists.
According to the generic floorplan of the exhibition, the very first section of the exhibit provided an abridged history of Chicanos/as and their ancestors. Called a "Selected Timeline," this history began with "Pre-Columbian America and Aztlán, 1345-1699" and ended with "The Chicano Movement Is Born, 1951-1964."
As context or countertext to this synopsis of Chicano/a history, the text panels also outlined U.S. and international events. The last items in this first room were two Masonite boards embossed with text—one defining in Spanish and English the main signifier of the exhibition, the word "Chicano," and the other displaying quotations from some of the featured artists and activists about what it means to call oneself Chicano.
Whatever the derivation of the word "Chicano"... to apply it to oneself is a political act. It is an act of cultural identification with one's Mexican-Spanish-Indio heritage. One who seeks to become assimilated in the Anglo-American society would not use "Chicano."—Carlota Cárdenas, 1977
We artists and activists created an artistic visual identity of who we were, American with Mexican heritage, "Chicano" was our new name.—Chaz Bojórquez, 1990
After this selective introduction to Chicano/a history and identity (and, again, according to the original installation of the show at UCLA), the viewer passed under a photo-mural shaped like a triumphal arch, an image documenting the farm workers historic 250-mile march from Delano to Sacramento in 1966. Led by César Chávez, the march was a protest against the human and civil rights violations against Mexicans, Chicanos/as, and Filipinos in the pesticide-poisoned grape fields of California. Thousands of sympathizers and supporters from the factories, the schools, and the barrios attended the demonstration. Considered to be the genesis of el Movimiento, this march was chosen to signal the beginning of the exhibition, itself a protest.
Only after it had been contextualized within a historical and political framework could the art show begin. The epigraphal "La Causa" section, focusing on the farm worker struggles that ignited the march on Sacramento, blended seamlessly into Cultural Icons," a display of heroic portraits meant to signify the beliefs and struggles of the Chicano Art Movement. From here, viewers moved into the central "Civil Liberties" and "Urban Images" rooms, both filled with images and objects that highlighted civil rights issues such as police brutality, deportation, and racism, as well as the urban survival strategies adopted by Chicanos. Then came the "Murals" display, accompanied by a closed-circuit documentary video entitled Through Walls, which presented brief interviews with some of the muralists whose work was being displayed in the slide show. The video replayed every ten minutes, providing viewers throughout the exhibit with Chicano and Chicana voices, Raza music, and the recurring theme of el grito Chicano: "Chicano! Power!" Another video in the exhibition showed an artists' round table: eight artists involved in the selection process of the exhibition discussing Chicano/a art and the politics of representation in the mainstream art world.
"Regional Expressions," the largest section in CARA, attempted to document the presence of Chicano/a artists across the country and contained a wide diversity of media, whereas "Reclaiming the Past," the section devoted to family and religious traditions that featured Amalia Mesa-Bains's fragrant altar to Mexican movie star Dolores del Rio, was composed almost exclusively of mixed-media installations.
In the rooms between "Civil Liberties" and "Reclaiming the Past" visitors to the exhibition encountered the grupos installations. Each of the grupos, also known as Chicano art collectives, like the Rebel Chicano Art Front or Royal Chicano Air Force (RCAF for short), ASCO (which means Nausea), and Los Four, merited its own casita, complete with three walls, columned doorways, zinc roofs, and chain-link windows. Within these metaspaces, the grupos set up assemblages representing their collective ethos during the Chicano Art Movement (see Chapter 4).
"Feminist Visions," the penultimate room, displayed Chicana feminist re-visions of female iconography. Used as a transitional device between the religious/family past (iconographed in el Movimiento as the domain of the feminine) and the more individualized future of Chicano/a art (less informed by community values, more representative of a personal voicc or vision), the section communicated the Chicano ideals of mother and familia. The exhibit closed with "Redefining American Art," mealt to demonstrate not only that individual Chicano/a artists such as Rupert García, Carmen Lomas Garza, Carlos Almaraz, Frank Romero, and Groll have had an impact on the mainstream art world, but also that Chicano/a art is an indigenous art from the margins of U.S. culture and as such must be contextualized within both national and international mainstreams in the history of Western art. Another way in which to contextualize CARA is as a text about the life-practices of an "Other" American culture, and so it falls within the purview of Cultural Studies.
Chicanos/as in the Master's House
CARA was more than an art exhibition. As the first major national art show organized and represented by Chicanos and Chicanas in collaboration with a mainstream art institution, it constituted a historic, cultural, and political event. Historically, CARA marked the large-scale intervention of a marginalized art and culture in the master's house, the elite space of the "public art museum. Culturally, CARA engaged in the critical debates and struggles of a postmodern society, particularly those focusing on the tensions between identity/difference, margin/center, subjectivity/representation, high/low culture, insider/outsider. Politically, CARA countered the aesthetic traditions of the mainstream art world, challenging institutional structures of exclusion, ethnocentrism, and homogenization.
In his survey of Chicano art exhibitions since 1965, Jacinto Quirarte says that "Chicano public and nonpublic art has been included in exhibitions in the barrios, in college and university libraries... and in public museums and galleries since the late 1960s." Indeed, other national art shows that included the work of artists of Mexican descent had already toured the country: in 1987, Hispanic Art in the United States, curated by John Beardsley and Jane Livingston, opened at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; in 1988, The Latin American Spirit, organized by Luis Cancel, opened at the Bronx Museum. In 1990, one month after CARA opened at UCLA, the mammoth Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries, organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, opened in New York.
Aside from these larger national mainstream shows, other exhibitions of Chicano and Chicana art had sprung up in California and the Southwest as early as 1965. Regional or local in scope, these early shows, which were held for the most part in community centers and on local campuses, Quirarte tells us, "received virtually no attention from the press"; they also had no funds for catalogs or other forms of institutional support. Later shows included the Arte del Barrio exhibitions sponsored by Galeria de la Raza in San Francisco (1968 and 1970), exhibitions in San Antonio, Taos, and Albuquerque (1973) that followed the publication of Quirarte's Mexican American Artists, Los Four's exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (1974), said to be the first time Chicano art was exhibited in a mainstream museum, Chicanarte (1975) in Los Angeles, Dále Gas (1977) in Houston, and Homage to Frida Kahlo (1978) in San Francisco.
Of these, perhaps the most significant in terms of laying out an exhibition structure and programming agenda that can be called a precursor to CARA was Chicanarte, which Quirarte deems "the most important exhibition of this early phase [of Chicano art]." Organized by several Chicano artists and Chicano cultural centers from across California and sponsored in part by the Fine Arts Department and the Chicano Studies Research Center at UCLA, this exhibition provided an early model of curation by committee and collaboration between members of the Chicano art world, UCLA, and the larger art community of Los Angeles. Moreover, Chicanarte also included public outreach activities such as dance and teatro performances, film screenings, concerts, and poetry readings as part of the exhibition's educational programming, yet another feature that was adopted by the organizers of the CARA exhibition.
CARA's unique significance and contribution to the history of Chicano/a art exhibitions, then, is not just its presence in public museums across the country, but rather, as we shall see in this study, its resistance to traditional museum and market practices, its complex organizational structure, its politics of self-representation, and its reception by the different communities that it addressed and/or confronted.
In its twenty-year retrospective of the Chicano Art Movement, CARA rendered an interpretive visual history of the goals and struggles of el Movimiento, the Chicano Civil Rights Movement that began in the mid-1960s. The artists who affiliated with the Chicano Art Movement did not identify themselves as Mexican Americans, Latinos, or Hispanics, but as Chicanos whose work expressed resistance to the hegemonic structures of mainstream America—particularly "melting pot" ideologies—and affirmation of their multilingual, multicultural heritage as expressed in the concepts of mestizaje and la Raza. In rejecting outwardly imposed labels such as Mexican American and Hispanic, and naming themselves Chicano, these artists and activists were making a political statement about their lives, a proclamation of emancipation from the homogenizing labels and manifest destiny of oppression inscribed by Anglo America through its discriminatory political structure and other ethnocentric cultural institutions, including its educational system, its mass media, and its arts industry.
Chicano artists were not the first to question and challenge hegemonic codes within the mainstream art world. In Mutiny and the Mainstream, a collection of over 200 talks, reports, and panel presentations that "changed art" between 1975 and 1990, editor Judy Seigel says that "artists across the land launched a mutiny, defied modernist rules, jettisoned mainstream purity, and set out for the uncharted seas of pluralism." Pluralism was the name given to the several movements within the art world that rejected purely formalist standards and reinserted elements such as "narrative, decoration, figuration, and allegory" back into art. Among them were the Women's Movement, the Native American Fine Art Movement, and the Chicano Art Movement. Like other marginalized members of the mainstream art world, Chicanos had a specific agenda, which, says Seigel:
really did set about to change the philosophy and structure of the art world... to proselytize for the acceptance, maybe the ascendance, of women's art and ideas, as well as art by African-American and "Third World" artists; to celebrate formerly forbidden styles; and, perhaps most thumb-in-the-eye to art's conventional wisdom, to incorporate overtly political themes into art....
El Movimiento's opposition to class oppression, for example, was manifested in the Chicano Art Movement as resistance to the dichotomy in mainstream aesthetics between "high" culture and popular culture, and its affirmation of the vernacular, the rasquache, and the communal in its artistic production, including form as well as content. By subverting the dichotomies between high culture and popular culture, then, and drawing from local customs, folk traditions, vernacular forms, and everyday life, by opposing the ideology of individualism at the core of "art for art's sake," and expressing, instead, the symbiotic relationship between art and its social context, and by affirming a syncretic identity that manifested itself in the fusion of national/international, experimental/oppositional, personal/political artistic discourses, the Chicano Art Movement, as represented in CARA, created a unique aesthetics and social practice.
Because of its inherently counterhegemonic ethos, CARA deserves to be theorized within discourses of what Chela Sandoval calls "oppositional consciousness." Although the framework of Sandoval's argument situates hegemony and marginalization in terms of feminist theory, which posits gender-based Euro-American feminisms as the norm and the race and class consciousness of feminists of color as the "Other," her idea that all of these constitute a generic oppositional ideology that resists domination and exploitation by the different means encoded within their particular subjugations, as well as an oppositional consciousness that produces its own alternative canon of texts, identities, and strategies distinguished by differing political agendas, applies, I think, to all counterhegemonic efforts. What follows, then, is a brief discussion of three such oppositional discourses within the framework of Chicano/a Cultural Studies that inform my analysis of the CARA exhibition: (1) rasquachismo, a theory and praxis of popular pleasure as a uniquely working-class strategy of resistance to dominant aesthetic codes in the art world, otherwise known as the "Quality" issue; (2) alter-Nativity, an antinativist approach that contests the ethnocentric academic practice of categorizing marginalized indigenous cultures as "subcultures" or objects of discovery (e.g., the Quincentenary); alter-Nativity underscores the relationship between "Other" and "native," particularly in the neighborhood of Popular Culture Studies as well as in the exhibition agendas of mainstream museums; (3) the politics of native ethnography, an approach that problematizes the insider/outsider dynamics of ethnographic methodology and ethnographic criticism, both of which serve to ground analytical practices in Cultural Studies.
Rasquachismo: The Subversive Power of Popular Pleasure
"Pleasure," says Tania Modleski, "(or comfort or 'solace') remains the enemy for the postmodernist thinker because it is judged to be the means by which the consumer is reconciled to the prevailing cultural policy, or the'dominant ideology.'" Like the Frankfurt School and the postmodernists, even critics of postmodernism such as Roland Barthes and Fredric Jameson see popular culture as a weapon of hegemony that manipulates the audience through pleasure. The masses, the argument seems to run, are controlled by the hegemonic messages couched in the pleasure of the text. Reading the horror film as oppositional cinema, however, Modleski shows how the perverse pleasure of horror films can be subversive to the status quo. "Many of these films, she argues, " [such as The Brood and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre] are engaged in an unprecedented assault on all that bourgeois culture is supposed to cherish—like the ideological apparatuses of the family and the school." Thus, we have two views of pleasure: as resistance, as complacency—but we also have, according to John Fiske, two kinds of pleasure.
In Understanding Popular Culture Fiske explains the difference between hegemonic pleasures which exert social control by producing meanings and practices in the interest of power and popular pleasures which subvert the meanings and values of hegemony and thereby evade being controlled. "High" culture, for example, is said to uplift, edify, and inspire, while "low" culture merely entertains, amuses, or distracts. The former occupies the spiritual, mental domain and is considered "good for the soul"; the latter focuses on the excesses of the body—eating, drinking, vocalizing, being physically stimulated rather than mentally challenged or spiritually renewed. Fiske finds popular pleasures inherently subversive because they "arise from the social allegiances formed by subordinated people[;] they are bottom-up and thus must exist in some relationship of opposition to power (social, moral, textual, aesthetic, and so on) that attempts to discipline and control them." The relationship between popular pleasures and aesthetic values is one of resistance from both ends; the popular resists the imposition of elitist interests and discourses; the aesthetic resists the infiltration of public tastes and standards into its sacred domain.
Perhaps the best example of a popular pleasure in Chicano/a culture is what Tomas Ybarra-Frausto calls rasquachismo, a uniquely working-class aesthetic of Mexican origin—resourceful, excessive, ironic, and, in its transformation of utilitarian articles into sacred or aesthetic objects, highly metaphoric.
Bright colors (chillontes) are preferred to somber, high intensity to low, the shimmering and sparkling over the muted and subdued. The rosquoche inclination piles pattern on pattern, filling all available space with bold display. Ornamentation and elaboration prevail and are joined with a delight in texture and sensuous surfaces.
In the context of Minimalism and Modern art, rasquachismo is more than an oppositional form; it is a militant praxis of resistance to hegemonic standards in the art world. Therein resides its popular pleasure, for in subverting dominant ideologies, in "[turning] ruling paradigms upside down... [this] witty, irreverent and impertinent posture that recodes and moves outside established boundaries" both evades power and empowers itself.
"Kitsch" is not an accurate translation or example of rasquchismo, but, in terms of the dominant culture, it signifies a kind of cultural production that also originates in and represents the popular, the vernacular, the working class. In her study on religious paraphernalia, Celeste Olalquiaga describes three kinds of kitsch: "first-degree kitsch" is the real thing, so to speak, a tradition that goes back at least a hundred years. As she explains, "statuettes, images, and scapularies embody the spirits they represent, making them palpable. Consequently, this imagery belongs in sacred places, such as home altars, and must be treated with utmost respect." Next, Olalquiaga names "second-degree kitsch" or "neo-kitsch," which is bereft of history and devotional qualities and "leaves us with an empty icon, or rather an icon whose value lies precisely in its iconicity, its quality as a sign rather than as an object." Whereas first-degree kitsch is bought by devotees, neo-kitsch is mass-marketed and sold as souvenirs and collector's items. Finally, "third-degree kitsch" includes icons and paraphernalia that have been recycled by the art world in the making of "happenings," assemblages, and mixed-media installations. In Chicano/a and Latino/a art, this takes the form of altares, such as Amalia Mesa-Bains's altar in the CARA exhibit, constructed as an homage to Mexican movie star Dolores del Río. This artistic installation differs from home altars of the first-degree kind, says Olalquiaga. "As a recent exhibition title suggests, the recasting of altares is often meant as a 'ceremony of memory' that invests them with a new political signification and awareness. This artistic legitimization implies formalizing home altars to fit into a system of meaning where they represent the culture that once was."
Like kitsch, rasquachismo comes in at least the three flavors noted by Olalquiaga: first-degree rasquachismo, or icons, objects, and practices that are rooted in the oral and popular traditions of Chicano/a culture; second-degree rasquachismo, which is appropriated from its original context by mainstream commercial enterprises such as stores that sell "ethnic" paraphernalia by taking, for example, iconography from Mexican and Chicano culture (such as the Popocatépetl/Ixtaccihuatl imagery taken from calendarios, the José Guadalupe Posada calaveras, and reproductions of Frida Kahlo's work) and appliqueing these images to clothing, mouse pads, coffee mugs, throw rugs, etc., all bearing the business's own label; and third-degree rasquachismo that informs the work of Chicano and Chicana artists— writers, musicians, filmmakers, and other producers of culture—and that is recast in several of the pieces in CARA.
One recurring icon in Chicano/a art is the calavera or skeleton that is used in Chicano/a art both in Day of the Dead observances for November 2 and in ironic resistance to cultural annihilation. The tradition of using humor and irony for political commentary goes back as far as colonial Mexico, but it became an especially popular pleasure in the nineteenth century with the calavera caricatures of José Guadalupe Posada, from whom Chicano/a artists like Peter Rodríguez and Ester Hernández adapted the tradition. "Posada's calaveras and broadside illustrations depicted crimes of passion, political and social events, religious imagery, natural disasters, and scenes from Mexican daily life." Because they represented the common denominator between the rich and the poor, the skeletons spoke to all, judged all, respected nobody, and impersonated Everyman and Everywoman.
Commenting on the subversive power of caricature art, José Zuno, author of Historia de las artes plásticas en la revolución mexicana, describes the caricaturist as a revolutionary and a social critic:
Como juzgador, el caricaturista usa de la ironía. De todo se burla, a todo se sobrepone. Hace notar los contrastes entre la belleza y la fealdad, entre la verdad y la mentira.... Llega, cuando es necesario hasta la crueldad, hasta la tragedia. Pero la ironía sólo es destructora y negativa en apariencia, pues lo que destruye es lo falso, lo ridículo. Ella representa el esfuerzo que hacemos para triunfar de todo aquello que se opone a la ascensiín del espíritu hacia el infinito.
That "esfuerzo...para triunfar," or effort to triumph over adversity and oppression, is the pleasure of survival, the most resistant act of all. Indeed, it is through resistance to cultural domination, psychological abuse, and physical hardship that people of color have survived and evolved after 500 years of colonialism.
Alter-Nativity and the "Subculture" Model
The CARA exhibit represents the cultural politics and aesthetics of a colonized people within the United States; it also offers us a three-dimensional model by which to organize and conduct a study of Chicano/a popular culture. Michael Schudson says that popular culture can be understood broadly as beliefs and practices, and the objects through which they are organized, that are widely shared among a population." Because the CARA exhibition displays artistic representations of many of those objects, images, beliefs, values, and costumbres that are widely shared among the population of Mexican descent in the United States, I argue that CARA can be deconstructed as a text about the life-practices of an "Other" American culture which is both indigenous and alien to the United States, an alter-Native culture, whose identity has been carved out of a history of colonization and struggle. Rudy Acuna clarifies the distinction between historical nativism, which is fundamentally a racist, white-supremacist attitude of the kind we see enacted by Proposition 187 and the so-called California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI), and anthropolopical nativism, which is a way of describing indigenous cultures that resist acculturation. My construction of alter-Nativity is based on the latter interpretation of nativism.
Aside from resisting acculturation, alter-Nativity also disputes the "subculture" model imposed by ethnographic methodology, which presupposes the monolithic influence of the dominant culture, and uses the "subculture" as a filter by which to analyze that influence. This model is also used in all levels of scholarship in the field of Cultural Studies, from introductory course readers in popular culture to feminist scholarship. In Feminism without Women: Culture and Criticism in a "Postfeminist" Age, for example, Tania Modleski writes: "By focusing on subcultures and studying the values and beliefs associated with them, the analyst is able to make sense of the ways in which 'messages' are 'decoded' according to the shared cultural orientation of particular groups. " Though it is true that Modleski is invoking an ethnographic criticism that can monitor revolutionary responses to dominant ideologies, she fails to question the hierarchical assumptions that organize cultures into "sub" categories.
Similarly, Dick Hebdige, a cultural critic of the Birmingham School and author of Subculture: The Meaning of Style, finds that the cultures of subordinate classes and groups represent challenges to hegemony, primarily through a recoding of dominant styles. Again we have a critic who, although he can lucidly explain the power dynamics of hegemony and the insidious ways in which the "rhetoric of common sense" penetrates our everyday lives, himself normalizes the vertical stratification of cultures, thus reifying the ideology that creates those categories in the first place and that the field of cultural studies is supposed to question. When "minority" or "Other" groups are relegated to the status of "subcultures," they are subsumed by and subjected to an ethnocentric methodology of cultural studies. This, in effect, produces academic segregation, which in turn reproduces the hegemonic view of popular culture.
This is not to say that subcultures do not exist in the genealogy of the dominant culture; but, rather, that the term "subculture" is applicable only to those cultures which derive from the dominant one, as in white youth cultures like Hippies, punks, and fraternities or in the separatist communities of senior citizens. These are subcultures, though not necessarily subordinate ones, because they are enclaves of difference within the same ethnicity as well as by-products of the dominant culture's values. Although subcultures appear to resist the dominant value system, they are not, in fact, resisting the dominant culture as much as dominance itself. A subordinate culture, on the other hand, lives in a direct power relation with the dominant culture; it is not a recalcitrant offspring, but a disenfranchised colony of the dominant ethnicity. Although I agree with Hebdige that "subcultures... express, in the last instance, a fundamental tension between those in power and those condemned to subordinate positions and second-class lives," I disagree with his premise that white youth cultures are sentenced to second-class lives and that "minority" groups who have a history of colonization can be compared to groups who, though they may be at the bottom of the capitalist structure, racially and historically represent the colonizer.
Rather than using the restrictive and reductive prefix "sub," I propose that we rethink cultures that are racially and ethnically different from the dominant one as "alter-cultures." Issuing from the Latin word for "other," "alter" means to change, to make or become different, as in the altering of consciousness or the alteration of an outfit, as we see in Yolanda M. López's alteration of the Guadalupana icon.
Moreover, the concept of "alter ego" represents another self, another identity. In postmodern, poststructuralist discourses, the word "alterity" is used to connote the condition of Otherness; a "subaltern," therefore, as in the British colonial notion of a "subaltern continent," is the underground, the Fourth World, the lowest rung of Otherness. But the term "subaltern" is a colonialist construct, reinforcing the connection between inferiority and people of color. I suggest that Chicano/a culture is not only an "alter-culture" that simultaneously differs from, is changed by, arld changes the dominant culture, but is also an alter-Native culture—an Other culture native to this specific geography, once called an outpost of New Spain, then the Mexican North, then the American Southwest, and most contemporarily the Chicano/a homeland of Aztlán.
To effect my analysis of Chicano/a alter-Nativity through the CARA exhibition, I appropriate a methodology popular in the first thirty years of American Studies scholarship, the now controversial myth-symbol-image approach which purported to define a collective American identity through the study of symbols and images. Although I agree fundamentally with critics of the myth-symbol-image school who argue against the method's totalizing definitions of "the" American mind, I do find this method useful for constructing a model by which to analyze the CARA exhibition and also for deconstructing the implicit assumptions of the discipline of American Studies and its several branches. The image I use in my construction/deconstruction of an analytical paradigm is that of the house (see Chapter 2). If symbols and myths, as Henry Nash Smith believed, are synonymous, a collective rather than an individual "intellectual construction that [fuses] concept and emotion into an image," how does the image of the house reveal the concepts and emotions inherent in the mind that calls itself Chicano/Chicana, that is both "native" and "Other" to the "American" neighborhood?
Before moving on to our "open house" tour of the exhibit, it is necessary to emphasize that this is not an art history analysis whose focus is the artwork and its forms, styles, and historical trajectory, but rather an analysis of how the artwork manifests the politics, ideologies, and historical specificities of Chicano/a culture. It is also a case study of an alter-Native culture which is represented ethnographically in the mainstream art world by the "Diversity/Discovery" paradigm, otherwise known as multiculturalism.
Ever since Gene Wise's 1979 retrospective essay on the history of American Studies, the term "paradigm drama" has become engraved in the vocabulary of the discipline. Wise explains his use of "paradigm" as both a consistent pattern of thought and an " actual instance of that pattern of thinking in action"; 33 he divides the history of American Studies, from its inception in the late twenties to the late seventies when the essay was written, into four "paradigm dramas" (also called "representative acts"). According to Wise, these dramas—encapsulated in two books, a methodology, and two college seminars—represent distinct phases in the evolution of the study of "American" life and culture. For those of us engaged in that study, we find ourselves now in the fifth phase, what I call the quinto sol of multiculturalism, which experienced its zenith on the cultural horizon in the 1980s and its nadir in the 1990s and which, like a comet, left a lingering tail that illuminates more than American Studies.
Indeed, multiculturalism has itself become a discipline, a methodology, a curriculum, a culture industry, and now a governmental scapegoat; thus, it has its own representative acts. The CARA exhibition was one of those acts that epitomized the theory and practice of multiculturalism within the mainstream art world. Thus, this book is also a story about the paradigm drama of multiculturalism in mainstream museums.
I define multiculturalism broadly as close encounters of the Third World kind between the dominant culture and "aliens"—a category which includes immigrants of both the documented and undocumented varieties as well as citizens and residents who for generations have grappled with racial, ethnic, and cultural bigotry. The CARA exhibit was an enactment of one of those close encounters, produced on the stage of the mainstream art world, sponsored by mainstream capital, and peddled to mainstream museum audiences across the country. The group of "aliens" who call themselves Chicanos and Chicanas had already invaded the national consciousness in the sixties, but this had occurred in the paradigm drama of the Civil Rights Movement. That particular encounter had an ugly denouement in the Chicano Moratorium of August 29, 1970, when 20,000 protesters from the several separate movements—including Chicanos/as, Asian Americans, blacks, feminists, Native Americans, and counterculture youth (a.k.a. Hippies)—convened in Los Angeles to oppose the Vietnam War. Chicanos/as were also protesting the disproportionate number of Mexican-American fatalities in Vietnam. It was a peaceful demonstration; nevertheless, police had their gas masks and other riot gear at hand. The police brutality that ensued resulted in the death of three Chicanos, among them Los Angeles Times reporter Rubén Salazar, who was killed by a tear-gas projectile inside the Silver Dollar Café where he had taken refuge from the violence. In the general protocol of the period, no indictments were made for the crimes, and Salazar became one of the earliest martyrs of the Chicano Movement. Twenty years later, on August 25, 1990, a memorial march in honor of the moratorium took place on Whittier Bouevard just two weeks before the CARA show opened at UCLA.
The close encounter offered by the CARA exhibition was different, more civilized, more on the symbolic terms of the dominant culture, and it could not have happened before the culture industry and the educational system assumed control of multiculturalism. Liberals would argue that it was, in fact, the other way around, that multiculturalism assumed control not only of the culture industry and the educational system but of the nation itself—wishful thinking, to be sure. The bottom line of multiculturalism is difference, and difference has never had power in this country. Difference gets melted down, exoticized, stereotyped, invisibilized. On the one hand, difference becomes "Santa-Fe style," or a Benetton label, or a funding category. On the other hand, difference gets denied a public education, health services, and a decent place to live. Difference forgets its history, its name, itself. It was precisely in resistance to that trajectory of erasure and historical amnesia that CARA was organized.
CARA was primarily a historical exhibition that documented the relationship between the social circumstances of Chicanos/as and Mexicans in the United States and the work of Chicano/a artists. To assess that relationship, the CARA exhibition explored the ways in which the social issues affecting the community of Mexican descent impacted the art of the Chicano Art Movement and, conversely, how the Chicano Art Movement, as a cultural extension of el Movimiento, helped to represent, educate, and empower its own community. The show was also a direct affront to the elitist standards of the mainstream art world. Thus, it was a historical exhibition with a political intent, and its politics functioned on two levels: the local level of the Chicano/a community and the national level of the mainstream art world.
In Shows of Force: Power, Politics, and Ideology in Art Exhibitions, Timothy Luke's central premise is that, regardless of their intent, "museum exhibitions [are] political texts" that perpetuate and represent the power dynamics of contemporary culture. In other words, Luke argues, art is not distinct from politics; it is politics. Janet Wolff would disagree with this assessment, seeing as she does a particular "nature" to the aesthetic that exists beyond politics; however, her own "sociology of the aesthetic" argues for seeing art within its social and ideological context. Indeed, Wolff argues that all art, all aesthetic measure, is "class-based, gender-linked and in general ideologically produced." Nevertheless, modernist standards continue to dictate in the art world. As a show with an overtly political focus, CARA's presence in mainstream art venues was questioned by art critics and museum audiences alike. Is CARA art or politics? The question implies that the categories are mutually exclusive, which, as any cultural analyst knows, is simply not the case. In fact, through a reading of the signs that compose CARA's interpretation of the Chicano Art Movement, it is possible to glean the cultural politics of both the exhibition and the mainstream art world that was its context. Reading CARA as a cultural text also makes it possible to assess the process and implications of multiculturalism in both mainstream museums and the dominant culture at large.
Let me clarify here what I mean by the term "mainstream," using the definition of Uruguayan artist and professor Luis Camnitzer:
Although the term "mainstream" carries democratic reverberations, suggesting an open and majority-supported institution, it is in fact a rather elitist arrangement reflecting a specific social and economic class. In reality, "mainstream" presumes a reduced group of cultural gatekeepers and represents a select nucleus of nations. It is a name for a power structure that promotes a self-appointed hegemonic culture.
In the exhibition catalog, CARA is called by its organizing committee an "atypical mainstream exhibit," because most of the artists represented in the show had ties to the Chicano Movement and, in the case of some of the Chicana artists, to the Women's Movement as well. In other words, the art of the exhibition was informed by an oppositional perspective and was also an expression and celebration of Chicano/a life and history. Yet CARA was packaged as a mainstream show, funded in the early part of its planning phase by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and later by the Rockefeller Foundation and Anheuser-Busch Companies.
How did CARA bridge its own contradictions? The organizational process, based on the experimental idea of intercultural collaboration rather than on traditional museum curation, was intended to provide a new model for installing museum exhibitions of living cultures. What were the inner workings of that experiment, in relation both to the outcome of the exhibit and to the "diversity" agenda knocking at the canonical doors of mainstream museums? How did the ideological discourses of the CARA organizers—Movimiento politics, multicultural rhetoric, gender/sexuality dialectics—manifest themselves in the process of developing and designing the exhibit? To what extent did CARA practice the politics of self-representation that it preached? The four general factors that influence the politics of representation in mainstream museums are the cultural assumptions of the exhibitors, insider/outsider dynamics, the interplay of artists/exhibitors/audiences, and funding issues. What was CARA's experience with each of these factors?
An art exhibit is usually classified as high culture; yet, because of its "ethnic" orientation and its merging of "art," "folk," and "street" forms, the CARA exhibit stands on the faultlines of the controversial "Quality" debate presently destabilizing the notion of high culture. CARA was, in other words, part of a national "class" conflict between a mass public and a cultural elite. Given the popular nature of much of the artwork in CARA, was the exhibit more oriented toward la gente (the Chicano/Latino community) or el arte (the "art world")? And finally, to what extent did the exhibit, "housed" in mainstream art venues, both promote and subvert the popular Chicano/Mexicano belief that mi casa es su casa? These are the critical questions that guide the present cultural study of Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation.
For many who saw the show, mainstream reviewer and Raza viewer alike, CARA signified the first time they had ever seen Chicano/Chicana art in a mainstream museum. Some interpreted it as trespassing, others as breaking through the walls of the master's house. Under Camnitzer's definition above, a mainstream museum is one that represents the interests, tastes, desires, and values of the dominant race, class, and gender: white, upper-class men. How the CARA exhibition worked its way into the agendas of these white, upper-class, male-dominated institutions, which collectively signify the master's house in the art world, is a narrative waiting to be constructed and deconstructed.
The Native Eye/I
One of the great benefits of multiculturalism in academia is that it has spurred interest and investments in interdisciplinary work such as that practiced in Cultural Studies, American Studies, and Ethnic Studies. What characterizes these fields, aside from their tendency toward social analysis and openness to interdisciplinarity, is an inherent problem of methodology. How do you cross disciplines to study culture, especially "different" cultures within a hegemonic, homogenizing culture? Again, ethnographic methods save the day. But, like the paradox of presence and representation engendered by the dominant culture's rhetorical appropriation of multiculturalism, the basic problem with appropriating ethnographic methods for cultural studies is that traditional ethnography is both a colonialist and a narcissistic practice. Renato Rosaldo's idea of an ethnographer revolves on the axis of positionality: "The ethnographer, as a positioned subject, grasps certain human phenomena better than others. He or she occupies a position or structural location and observes with a particular angle of vision.... The notion of position also refers to how life experiences both enable and inhibit particular kinds of insight." Positionality is a relatively new practice in anthropology and accounts for "how age, gender, being an outsider, and association with a neocolonial regime influence what the ethnographer learns." The kind of ethnographic practice adopted by American Studies, however, is more along the lines of what Rosaldo, in an earlier work, depicted as "from the door of his tent," in which the ethnographer sets him/herself apart and above his/her subjects and passes judgment, as it were, on the data. At a safe distance from the natives, this form of participant-observation lacks the introspective quality of positionality.
Moreover, classic ethnography is a form of domination, a way of condescending to the natives under study. Because both native and alter-Native cultures are "othered" and exoticized in order to be quantified and studied, they get categorized as "subcultures." Such categorization poses several problems: by definition, "subculture" implies the presence of a superior culture; and, rather than being analyzed in their own right, "subcultures" are used as filters for analyzing the effects of the messages that the ethnographer's own culture, the dominating culture, projects onto the so-called subculture. When approached from the outside, these Other cultures become grist for the appropriator's mill. As Coco Fusco says, "the mainstream appropriation of subaltern cultures in this country has historically served as a substitute for ceding those peoples any real political or economic power." The implicit problem here, of course, can be succinctly described as an insider/outsider dilemma, another side effect of multiculturalism.
In what Gene Wise calls the "Golden Years" of American Studies, for example, there was no insider/outsider dilemma; indeed, there was no methodological dilemma, either, once all the white men in the discipline agreed to do the same thing: myth-symbol-image studies. Stripped of rhetoric, the assumptions underpinning the scholarship and methodology of the Golden Years can be summarized like this: (1) there is one American Mind and it is homogeneous; (2) because it is rooted in the European idea of the New World, this American Mind operates on the notion of "boundless opportunity," an idea which finds metaphoric expression in the myth of the frontier and the symbol of the garden; (3) this mentality can be discerned in all (white) Americans; (4) the American Mind is a cultural and historical legacy; and, finally, (5) although the American Mind is homogeneous and occurs in anyone "American," it is best expressed in "high culture," rather than in mass or popular culture.
When the first wave of civil rights tsunamis hit U.S. colleges in the late sixties and early seventies, American Studies was among the first Eurocentric, male-dominated disciplines to experience fragmentation and radicalization. The tsunami is my metaphor for the cataclysmic changes that surged through American Studies at the decline of the Golden Years, instigated by a radical new breed of scholars, feminists among them, who viewed the entrenched assumptions of the discipline as a product of "an overly timid and elitist white Protestant male enterprise which tended to reinforce the dominant culture rather than critically analyzing it." Thus, congruent with what Gene Wise called the "earthquake-like jolts of the sixties," and what Linda Kerber in her keynote address to the American Studies Association in 1989 termed a "cultural explosion," American Studies experienced its first postmodern rite of passage: the seismic movement from consensus to diversity. While early Americanist scholars had asked, "How do you do American Studies?" for twenty years, once the myth-symbol-image approach was declared racist, sexist, classist, and obsolete, the quest for a new methodology began. As more women and people of color joined the discipline, as race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation created more sites of study, as postmodernism became the prevailing academic philosophy, this quest for a method was further compounded by issues of subjectivity, identity, difference, appropriation, positionality, insider/outsider.
I situate myself within this history of American Studies because I am an outsider to the discipline (as of 1994, there were less than five Chicanas with Ph.D.s in American Studies, for example) who nonetheless draws on the discipline's questions and methods to perform both insider and what Deena González, Chicana historian and theoretician, calls "outside-insider studies on Chicano/a culture. Says González:
Outside-insiders have... special relationships with their topics— we know we cannot know many things, but we also know that much of what we do know we can explain primarily as feelings or as images; evidence serves as verification of these expressions.... Outside-insiders such as myself... have elided scientific methodologies (insofar as that is possible in a First World society) and rely heavily on participant-observation from critical vantage points.
One of those "critical vantage points" for me, when I understood that I indeed had a role to play as a cultural critic, occurred when I walked into the CARA exhibition for the first time and saw it with my outside-insider's vision.
Because I am, in effect, writing a social and cultural description of both Chicano/a art and multiculturalism in the mainstream art world, I am experiencing the same need to position myself as a subject vis-a-vis the CARA exhibition that Renato Rosaldo finds imperative in the work of an ethnographer committed to "remaking social analysis." If, as Rosaldo tells us, "[Victor] Turner connects the 'eye' of [classic] ethnography with the 'I' of imperialism," how can I connect the rasquache, counter-Colón(ialist), alter-Native "eye" of the CARA exhibition which literally looks back at me as I study it with the native "I" of a Chicana cultural critic?
An analysis of the CARA exhibition performed by a Chicano or Chicana can minimize the ethnographic filter and illuminate a discourse community based on shared cultural values, practices, and beliefs, albeit nuanced by the critic's own class, gender, and political and sexual orientations. My own reception of CARA, for example, and my analysis of different audience responses to the show are colored both by my identity as a first-generation Chicana lesbian feminist from the U.S.-Mexico border and by the fact that my knowledge of el Movimiento is not experiential. As a Chicana, I felt empowered by CARA; as a lesbian feminist, I felt excluded and manipulated; as a fronteriza, I felt underrepresented; as a latecomer to Chicanismo, I felt awed by the richness, the quality, the history of Chicano/a art; and as a cultural critic, I felt like an explorer in a section of my own neighborhood that I had never seen and was just "discovering," in Tomas Rivera's sense of the word. Thus, due to my own diverse subject positions as interpreter of the exhibit, I am predisposed to seeking out multiple audience responses and to working within the contradictions of being what Renato Rosaldo calls a "native ethnographer" of Chicano/a popular culture. My approach may not qualify as "ethnography," native or otherwise, because I do not employ "the ethnographer's elevated, distanced, normalizing discourse." Nonetheless, this critical endeavor draws on ethnographic methodologies (i.e., participant-observation and oral interview) without subscribing to or perpetuating its colonizing gaze. As another critical strategy, I use the ethnographic method to describe and interpret that colonizing gaze in both popular culture studies and the mainstream art world.
In an intriguing essay depicting Hollywood as "the ethnographer of American culture," Ana López argues that a power relationship exists between the ethnographer and the culture that he/she is interpreting. This power relationship is equivalent to a colonizer/colonized duality. Hence, because "Hollywood does not represent ethnics and minorities [but rather] creates them, and provides its audience with an experience of them," Hollywood, in effect, colonizes "Other" cultures. Hollywood directors interpret "Other" cultures, choosing specific images and narratives to create the ethnic experience on the screen, and thus act as agents/ representatives of the industry.
In this respect, the curator of a mainstream exhibition about ethnic "Others" can fill the role of the traditional ethnographer. Like the traditional ethnographer, the curator is in the position of interpretive authority without accounting for the sociopolitical differences that comprise the ethnographer's subjectivity—the very subjectivity that not only interprets the data, but chooses from it the images to be used for representation.
In the case of the Hispanic Art in the United States exhibition (1987), for example, curators Jane Livingston and John Beardsley decided to organize a survey of thirty artists (painters and sculptors only) in the United States who were "of Hispanic descent" and therefore shared some "stylistic affinit[ies]." The very premise of the show reflected the melting pot mentality of the curators: in the interest of "coherence and a strong underlying assertion of aesthetic will," racial and cultural differences were erased. Furthermore, only two forms of artistic expression were chosen to promote the curatorial interpretation of the Hispanic "subculture" in the art world. Writing in defense of the "Hispanic" label, Livingston and Beardsley outline the difficulties they had in selecting an accurate signifier for their exhibition:
No other term seemed any better. To use Latin American seemed to suggest that the artists were not North American; in fact, nearly two-thirds of them were born in the United States. Latino seemed to exclude the Spanish Americans of the Southwest. Chicano excluded those not of Mexican origin. Compelled by necessity to include some descriptive term in the title of the exhibition, we decided Hispanic was the least incorrect.... Moreover, we think it reflects fairly the fact that there are legitimate shared characteristics, both in terms of subject matter and style, among artists in the North American environment who share New World Spanish-Native American roots. That is, there are ways in which "Hispanic" culture, no matter how diverse internally, is distinct from mainstream European American or African American culture.
They were, of course, deeply criticized for their patent homogenization and for the vision they created of "Hispanic" art as primitive, folksy, and religious. The real issue, however, is not how accurately or realistically Livingston and Beardsley represented the cultures under scrutiny, but how the exhibition revealed the social and historical discourses about those "Others" which the curators themselves represented.
A native ethnographic analysis of the CARA exhibition, on the other hand, can deconstruct the "insider" and "outsider" polemics at the heart of both the show and the "Quality" debate in the mainstream art world. The native eye/I does not assume only one correct, authentic interpretation (if that even exists), but allows for an interpretive stance framed by the politics of self-representation. As Renato Rosaldo points out, "not unlike other ethnographers, so-called natives can be insightful, sociologically-correct, axe-grinding, self-interested, or mistaken... [but] they do know their own cultures." Besides, native ethnography of an alter-Native culture seems particularly fitting.
The final point I would like to make is that the exhibition itself can be seen as an exercise in ethnography. Although the CARA organizers intended to demonstrate that Chicano/a art was, in fact, an American art and not the cultural production of a foreign culture and that, therefore, it had to be shown in art rather than anthropological museums, the fact remains that the mainstream art world knew little about the Chicano Art Movement, much less about Chicano/a culture, identity, and history. Regardless of the kind of museum in which the art was displayed, then, the traditional museum audiences who saw the show across the country experienced Chicano/a art as an ethnographic display of an alien culture. Although Svetlana Alpers argues that in representations of culture "museums turn cultural materials into art objects," because the "museum effect" isolates something from its original world and situates it in a space created specifically for "attentive looking," in the case of an alter-Native culture that has been historically invisible to the mainstream museum's "way of seeing," art objects become cultural signifiers that represent "Other" lives. Thus the art of difference is transformed into ethnography. As Clifford tells us: "To see ethnography as a form of culture collecting... highlights the ways that diverse experiences and facts are selected, gathered, detached from their original temporal occasions, and given enduring value in a new arrangement."
In the following section, I arrange the CARA exhibition in a new way, selecting, gathering, and detaching individual pieces both from their "original temporal location" in the Chicano Art Movement and from their temporary installation in the exhibition and placing them within an ethnographic paradigm meant to conceptualize Chicano/a popular culture from the perspective of a native eye/I.
By Alicia Gaspar de Alba
Alicia Gaspar de Alba is an Assistant Professor at the César E. Chávez Center for Chicana and Chicano Studies at UCLA.
"Alicia Gaspar de Alba has written an incisive, provocative, thoughtful, and opinionated book.... I have no doubt that it will become a central text in the fields of Chicano/a studies, feminist studies, ethnic studies, and cultural theory." —Bryan J. Wolf, Professor of American Studies and English, Yale University