Resurrected from the dead – The importance of CCA7, Caribbean Contemporary Arts

cca7.jpg

This is the launch card for Caribbean Contemporary Arts, CCA7 in 2000. The card incorporated an insert that gave a blue print of the space. A larger map display was used by the Arts organization courtesy of RaBt

The following is a transcript of a paper given by Luis Camnitzer at CCA7, April, 2005

THE RECONSTRUCTION OF SALAMI
Luis Camnitzer

The twentieth century has made sure that when we discuss the history of art we think in terms of “isms.” Art is about impressionism, surrealism, or whatever. It is a process I like to call “sub-divisionism.” An enormous amount of information about art has been organized into easily accessible slices of history. The most precise analogy I can think of for this effort is that of a salami. In its slices one can see flat configurations of white spots caused by the distribution of clumps of fat. The consistent, overall, pattern in the slice is so convincing that one forgets it is caused by a chaotic distribution of granules that occurred in a different whole. They define a totally different entity, and that entity is a three-dimensional sausage. In our case, the entity is actually a fairly amorphous flow of creativity.

What is interesting here is that the slice format effectively hides the ideology of commerce that generated, not only them, but also the corresponding invention of the cold cut deli-slicer. Radically tampered with, the reality of the sausage disappears, the slices in their reality seem to be objective, and the ideology becomes invisible.

In art, when we refer to impressionism, cubism, minimalism, conceptualism, or any other art style, we are also confining ourselves to slices. There is a degree of objectivity involved–certain configurations are identifiable–but the ideology behind this slicing is hidden. True, the situation is a little more complex than that of cold cuts. There are more conflicting dynamics at play here. Also, lately, the narrow slicing of art history has somewhat subsided. Today slices seem cut more broadly into modernism and post-modernism and art, on the surface, seems to get formally more unified. Which in certain ways may be my main topic here.

Many issues mess up this discussion. When we talk of art in terms of culture, it appears as if there is no concern about the possibility of commercial success. In this interpretation, we artists appear all to be idealistic philanthropists. Yet, the business part in art today is as or more important than the shaping of culture. Then there is the thing of how an “ism” comes into being. “Isms” usually start in a small local context. Only if it becomes accessible to a larger audience and is embraced by a broader market may it qualify as an “ism.” Only then may it be anointed and recognized as part of the cultural patrimony of all of humanity.

However, the processes of this acceptance are anthropological and political rather than artistic and therefore tend to be ignored in art discussions. “Sub-divisionism” not only hides these processes, but also blocks the chance of questioning them. Thus, one of the important shifts, the one that happens between being regional and vernacular to be canonic and international, is ignored. We also don’t focus on the fact that hegemonic manifestations are also vernacular and regional. The difference is that there is enough power backing them to force the rest of the world to ignore their provincialism.

Therefore, if the regional and vernacular belongs to an hegemonic center, the shift is easy. In fact, it is canonic by definition. If it belongs to the periphery, a real shift is impossible. It is obvious that the factors governing all this are extra-artistic. “The Story of Art” is really the story of international power relations. Thus, much of what happens within art is untouched by these relations, but how it is classified is not. For example, in the early 1980s, German artists Anselm Kiefer and U.S. artist Julian Schnabel (among others) were happily hailed as “neo-expressionist” artists in the international context. With it, they created a new “ism.” But twenty years earlier, the same label had already been accurately applied in Latin America to artists like Luis Felipe Noe in Argentina, Antonia Eiriz in Cuba and Jose Luis Cuevas in Mexico, also along with many others. That label applied to them and still used regionally today, never made it into the mainstream. The mainstream still sees all that group of artists as “local” producers and not as players on the big scene. During the nineteen fifties in Japan and France (followed by Latin America a decade later), artists started to produce conceptualist works. For the chronology of art history, however, it was decided that conceptual art happened between 1965 and 1975, which is the period when this form of art appeared and peaked in the U.S. Anything created before that was classed as proto-conceptual, so as not to disturb that imposed order. Thus, regionalist expressions of the hegemonic centers are, by right of birth, considered “above region” and “international.”

Meanwhile, on the periphery, regional expression must de-regionalize itself to gain access to the international arena. Even then, such art only participates in internationalization under the closed and controlled conditions imposed by hegemonic filters. With generous sounding labels like “multiculturalism,” integration is never complete or a-critical. Only those formal elements considered useful for the revitalization of hegemonic art are accepted. Inevitably, the original connections are then blanked out. One could see this process as the hegemonic version of syncretism. Here, instead of adding new meanings to images imposed, meanings are removed from images that have been expropriated.

The process of internationalization is full of double standards, inconsistencies and contradictions. For example, the expansion of hegemonic regionalism is defined as a cultural act and has a feeling of collectivity. The expansion of regionalism from the periphery, however, is seen as the commercial success of individualized artists. Further, the first is part of the history of art, the second is usually a sign of cultural assimilation or compromise. These issues are not superficial. I am an artist from the periphery who has lived in the center for several decades and have thought about all this obsessively. And yet, I have these issues so internalized that any modest recognition of my own work makes me seriously wonder. Am I still the regional artist I want to be, or have I been absorbed into that same art history I so much distrust?

Both dynamics have deep and not fully discussed political implications. In the first case there is a taste of old colonialist policies designed to cement hegemony. In the second the international market simply supersedes the local one. The rhetoric around hegemonic globalization, an effort to create a single market, tries to dismiss these speculations as anachronistic. It is assumed that there is an economy that is in a process of global expansion and unification. Presumably, there also is an information system that is unifying human experiences. And then there is a meta-policy for humanity homogenizing values and beliefs that is based on free enterprise and a U.S. modeled democracy. Given such assumptions, clearly any defense of the vernacular is at best quixotic and at worst retrogressive.

But what if the assumptions are wrong or are changed? What if we assume that the economy of the planet is in a long-term of collapse? What if the system of information is vulnerable to counter-information, and that a uniform global society is neither possible nor desirable? What if we take up these other assumptions and we conceive of the globe as a poly-cultural system where all cultures have equal voice? Well, then a defense of the vernacular stops being naïve or regressive. Then it becomes an act of resistance.

In many aspects the vitality of regionalist expression is palpable and its presence cannot be denied or ignored, even by those inclined to embrace “globalism” and “globalization.” Sheer practicality requires that it be acknowledged. Not too long ago, in the midst of the coalition’s ferocious bombing, the U.S. Viceroy in Iraq referred to attacks and acts of sabotage against the troops of occupation. With an unexpected lucidity he observed: “These are people who don’t want the coalition to succeed.”

I am a defender of regionalism and against a market driven globalization, which I see as imperialism with a different collar. So far I haven’t had the need to differentiate between “nation” and “region.” They have in common, along with the idea of “community,” that traditionally they have geographic references. The term “nation,” though emphasizing social identity, always implied geographical borderlines. “Region,” more clearly emphasizes a geographical area, but always connoted to some extent a common social patrimony. Of the two terms, it is “region” that is the most promising for discussions in art. “Nation” carries too much ideological baggage to be useful. It promotes and mystifies binary opposites such as inside/outside, citizen/foreigner, and patriot/traitor. “Region” on the other hand , since it bypasses political boundaries, is a porous and expandable concept that gives context primacy over law, and empirical values over normative ones. Through the lens of “region” the background of cultural processes becomes much clearer. One can appreciate relevant factors such as disparities in wealth and power, and the flow of information, capital and labor. Although it originates in topographical reference, “region” takes on social meaning. It provides a way of organizing information about the human experience that transcends political jurisdiction. But at the same time it also calls attention to the organic and particular. Furthermore, both the migration of populations and the development of the Internet have contributed to an expanded and enriched redefinition of “region” and “regionalism.” They have been increasingly transformed into cultural entities. Geography‘s importance seems to lose some importance and it is the commonality of interests that is taking over.

As my wife once very intelligently quipped: “Globalization is really an ideology, not a description.” The term makes elective processes sound inevitable and historically progressive. However, homogeneity, the core value of globalization, can only be implemented through imperialism. In the old days imperialism referred mainly to geographic expansion. Thus, resistance to imperial expansion was geographically concrete and specific. Anti-colonial nationalism in the twentieth century was codified as a demand for territorial independence. Today, resistance to imperialism is no longer limited to geographically situated actions. Instead, cultural regionalism conducts its acts of resistance by using information circuits. And, unhampered by geographic constraints, they are open to a broader ideological range that includes both national sovereignty and a democratic and non-imperialist globalization. This form of globalization, rather than eradicating regions, respects them and gives them equal footing.

It is undeniable that, given the speed and intensity of today’s flux of information, art tends to look the same everywhere. Formal symptoms travel quickly and we are led to believe that we are reaching one predominant art form. Stylistically speaking this perception may be correct and one may start believing that homogenization is successful. There are many reasons on many levels that lead to this impression. One is that over the years information has become the main international commodity. Ideas and copyrights became merchandise and as a consequence the physical presence of art lost some of its function. There is a pressure to start trading the point and purpose of a work of art over its looks. Bill Gates amassed the biggest collection of photographs of the world, but he is not really interested in owning the photographs. He wants to own the copyrights to the photographs. Thus the center of gravity of the work of art has shifted. Another reason, more positive, is that art has increasingly been adopted as a tool to solve problems. Emotionalist and hedonistic premises have lost their importance. They have become a form of frosting for something more important, and if the work limits itself to what now is a more superficial quality, it is downgraded to decoration or to therapy.

More symptomatic, the “installation” format today has become pervasive in most of the international biennials, from Havana to Venice. Installation art uses the gallery space as a theatre-like stage-set instead of using it to display a collection of single paintings or sculptures. The viewer actually enters the work of art instead of viewing it from outside. It is used as much by artists of the mainstream as it is by artists coming from the periphery. Installations are often so-called “site-specific works and they added further weight to the appearance of homogeneity. It is not anymore the art object that is exported, it is the whole factory that produces the object that now travels, making geography even more irrelevant.

These are, however, momentous developments in art, but it would be a mistake to view them as marking the disappearance of regionalism or as the demise of vernacular. Before continuing I want to say that I don’t think that painting folkloric local pictures is an appropriate act of resistance to this process. Regionalism does not mean that one should ignore what is happening in the rest of the world, on the contrary. It only means that one should discriminate between useful contributions and spurious ones. Otherwise we would become fundamentalist chauvinists who reject an effective medicine rather than be cured, for the sole reason that it has been imported. Looking inward, many so called autochthonous works may be a manifestation of oppression rather than an assertion of tradition. The main question to be answered is really for whose community are we working. Is it our own, or is it one far away, and then, do we really know that community? Whichever community we choose, we have to know it and decide what we want to contribute to it–how we can improve it. We have just ended a century marked by formalist attitudes. We were taught to read art from the surface inward, from package design to content, from facial make-up to soul. There has been a formalist family tree based on artistic reduction. The linear sequence of this slice-organized art history makes it read like “realism-abstraction-minimalism-conceptual art.” It is an evolutionary model created in the hegemonic centers that puts the accent on a culmination within the U.S. The successful export of this schematic model obscures another model that is much more fitting for the periphery, particularly for Latin America, which is the region of my interest.

The model in Latin America can be synthesized–awkwardly, I concede–as “politics-poetry-economics-pedagogy-conceptualism.” While the hegemonic genealogy tended toward artistic self-reference, the periphery was already laying down the coordinates for resistance rooted in cultural regionalism. Both developments end up in an art that uses ideas over crafts, where a plain statement may take the place formerly occupied by a painting. But I purposely use different terms in each case. In the mainstream I refer to Conceptual Art, a formalist style that tried, by deduction, to get rid of a maximum of material support to communicate an idea. On the periphery I refer to Conceptual Strategies, because that is what they are. They also somewhat give up materials, but respond to other needs than philosophical reductions: the need to cut down expenses in material production; the need to circumvent political censorship and to raise consciousness; the wish to use poetry not as a reference to immateriality but to substantiate artistic quality. Within this setting the artist was both able and encouraged to think things that are unthinkable through non-artistic means. Here, poetic certitude and resonance seemed more appropriate than a stroke of the brush.

The breakdown of techniques and opening to ideas led to have the installation format usually classified as fitting “post-minimalism” or “neo-conceptualism.” It is a heir then to two hegemonic “isms.” Not only does this perception risk promoting a hegemonic story of art, but it also blinds us to more accurate and deeper readings of art from the non-hegemonic regions. To make an excessively schematic differentiation, for the mainstream artists the installation satisfies the increasing demand for a spectacularity. For the periphery artist instead, it opens the room for the use of non-artistic cheap media and for a more direct and less mediated communication. Art in its traditional presentation as a more or less sacred thing can be intimidating and alienating. While these differences are not as radically aligned as I am presenting them here, a blanket acceptance of the mainstream interpretation has another danger. It casts the story of art as one of de-regionalization wherein the hegemonic discourse expands and takes over moving from the outside in. The powerful formalist critique of the last century, the continual push for an art-for-art’s-sake, made didactics, poetry and political messages an anathema in the art world. Communist socialist realism was the only deviation despised by name because it was associated with politics that were unpleasant to the mainstream. Otherwise, the listed anathemas were so internalized that they didn’t require concretization. Blacklisting, so to speak, was triggered spontaneously and thoroughly whenever and wherever art deviated from a mystical search for an absolute essence.

Over time a healthy reaction was developed against this dogma and today we can affirm that we have overcome it, that the rules were abolished. So, one can say that today “anything goes” in art. Art is what the artist declares it to be and the job now is to convince the audience. The “anything goes” has several consequences that should be discussed here. The first one, probably the most important and positive one, is that the artist is free to create with whatever he or she deems necessary to explore any topic of choice. Thus art has become, more than ever, a tool to explore knowledge on a grand level. It is not a discipline like astronomy, sociology or chemistry, but a meta-discipline, more on the level of cosmology or metaphysics, one that deals with everything. This “everything” comprises a general exploration of where the known meets the unknown. It also includes the narrower web of relations that knit a community together. So the artist may be expanding the work of Einstein or that of a good community leader. What is surprising about this view of art is not so much the enormous range I am describing, but that we can touch both ends at the same time.

The second, the more detrimental, is that in our present societies, the responsibility to convince the audience of the validity of the work forces us to become merchandising experts, shifting our efforts from speculation and activism into mercenary promotion. The more removed we are from stunning displays of skills, the more efforts of persuasion will be needed. This exacerbates the distortion art making and further mixes confuses the dilemma of art: are we to shape culture or to sell commodities.

The third consequence is one we have barely started to confront. It could be said the “anything goes” look, something that seems to lead to chaos, slowly settles into a formal equilibrium. There is no shock value in ugliness anymore because ugliness stopped being attainable. There is no jolt provided by scandal anymore because the notion of scandal stopped to exist. With no rules there is no deviation, no heresy, no blasphemy, no counterpoint to qualify an accent. With “anything goes,” are we then again facing a form of homogenization?

For once my response here is optimistic. It may be that things are tending to look alike, but I believe that this only indicates that a marked shift on how we read art has started to take place. The work of art used to be a finishing point for consideration and consumption by the viewer. It now has become the beginning of an inquiry. We are not anymore trying to see the object, but through the object. We want to find the conditions that generated what we are looking at. The quality control is not determined by how good the art looks, but by how well it complies with those conditions. A blacklist thus becomes moot, for the very features formerly banished are now the ones that make a sophisticated appreciation of art possible. It signifies that the traditional reading of a work of art is not viable anymore. We may be facing that we cannot understand the core just by analyzing the shell; that a formalist viewing of art is no longer fitting for decoding art; that a text without context produces a message that is at the very least deceptive and at worst unintelligible.

But further, depending on the region where the work was generated and the local needs, the same work can be monumental or delirious, derivative or recycled, explicit or mysterious. Therefore it matters to know what questions are being asked and answered, who posed them and what the motives were. These questions may belong to the public of the region of origin, or to the public of a different region where the art is exhibited. When we are showing within our region or community, that communication is relatively straight forward, when we go to another region, it becomes more complicated. From this perspective, what is seen as de-regionalization may be the consequence of either an effort to communicate, or of an intent to achieve commercial success. In either case, the public, some public, remains part of the piece–part of the context that needs to be read. A global presence for art thus requires, more than ever, not a global style, but that the viewer deal as much with the conditions of creation as with the product. A purely formalist reading obscures this connection. It restricts both access and understanding. It reduces art works to incompletely understood archeological artifacts.

Art in the hegemonic centers has always found and borrowed powerful images from regional cultures, the French symbolists did with Japanese art and as Picasso famously did with African art. Yet their import was denatured. The complexities of the cultures of origin were removed, leaving only the rictus of the ceremonial mask imprisoned in a sign. Wonderful hegemonic art was generated, but its borrowed images were enjoyable only as shapes or as projections of wishful thoughts. No matter how unified stylistically art may become, that will continue. Even if a utopian unified language like Esperanto would have taken over, local dialects will evolve. No matter how much English I study, I’ll have trouble understanding Trini cadences. Which means I should study them, not English. I am afraid that the periphery will always remain on the periphery. But we might at least free ourselves from the slicing of the salami and face reality.

Addendum: The posting of this paper does not imply that the findings which Mr. Luis Camnitzer has reached is agreed upon. It is to show the clarity to which an Art paper can be written, for an audience who may not as diverse .

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