T O T A L A R T W O R K
The Way It Comes out as It Happens
Not Visible at First Glance (*)
Notes on The Political Dimensions of Art
When conversations or conferences related to art and politics are proposed, when referring to art and social transformation, art and social movements or other topics linked to the social sphere within artistic manifestations, the interventions of the participants generally start out with diverse starting points or relate to specific themes, since all of them are open, diverse and complex, most of the time it is not clear whether they are talking about the same issue. With this text I want to try an arrangement of the different ideas and experiences that are referred to, when approaching the social and political dimensions of artistic products and its potentialities of social transformation.
To start out I invite to recognize that among the political and social actors there is a lack of spreaded critical theories regarding to cultural products, their distribution and consumption. This limits and minimizes the approach of militants and activists to the artistic manifestations, assuming the notion of art as a pamphlet: the notion of “art as a weapon of struggle” is a good example of the reductionist gaze reproduced in most supposedly progressist spaces that do not take into account the multiple human dimensions that the artistic artifact can take, nor its incidence in the subjectivity of people.
Besides, there is the danger of getting trapped in the bipolar and manichaean gaze of the censor who decides what is politically correct or what is not, by centering in a conservative way the analysis in the product and its “message”, regardless of the possibilities and dinamics that open up during distribution and consumption of that product, in other words, in the socio-economical processes of the artistic system. The songs do not reach us through the windows but through the music industry, the media, piracy, etc. In so doing, visual artworks do not appear to our eyes as if by magic but through an artistic institutionality: museums, art galleries, cultural centers, specialized media, etc. Art as a system not only consists of products, but also of circuits of distribution and consumption.
The Critic Art Agenda: Cultural Diversity and New Institutionality
Hence, art is not only an instrument of struggle, nor just fun, aesthetic pleasure, merchandise or sign of social distinction. Do not let us subordinate it to a political agenda or to the market speculation. Art as a system of cultural production has its own specificity and from an emancipatory project assumes its own demands that fundamentally stand for creating a new artistic institutionality.
In our country we have exclusionary artistic institutions that reproduce the racist discourse of the dominant sectors by not legitimizing in equal conditions the productions of academic art, popular art and the urban countercultures of a multilingual and pluricultural country. Colonialism, neoliberal economic system and its incidence in common senses of people generate dynamics and mechanisms of cultural domination such as the exportation of a notion of European or Anglo-Saxon contemporary art and its implantation in our reality regardless of any critical reflection, just simply as a formal or stylistic exploration. Besides, the paradigm of success is regulated by the power structures: legitimacy and success depends on the insertion in the market, the press, the media or the international scenario of the centers, recognizing ourselves in this order as periphery.
However there is a double standard of morality when the socio-economical processes of the artistic system aimed to preserve the notion of elevation or spirituality are made invisible (not referred to psychological nor social needs of human beings but to metaphysical immanence of objects). Then, when centralizing the analysis on the products and not on the mechanisms through which these products reach a certain public, discourses and artistic analysis just will explore stylistic and formal aspects overlooking the positioning of the subjects or the social processes that are generated upon what is being analyzed.
Among the spaces of artistic reflection as well as within the cultural press, there are many examples that show how the socio.economical processes related to art get invisibilized. I would furthermore like to mention two of them: the first one is the answer given by Fernando de Szyszlo (important peruvian painter) to an uncomfortable question about the prices of his artwork during a conference held in 1995 at the Arts Faculty of PUCP: “An artist talks about art, not about money (…) I would rather join my banker friends because they always talk about art, on the contrary when I meet with artists they always talk about money”. The second one is about a declaration of Lucia de la Puente, the most successful gallerist of the capital city, in an interview published by “Somos” magazine No 968 (2005), which starts out this way: “If I told you that I have ten thousand dollars in my pocket, which painting would you recommend that I buy?” And to the question “What is the most expensive painting that you ever sold?” she answers: “Oh, I never mention that. To talk about numbers is not what I am about”
It is precisely within the distribution and consumption circles where the artistic artifacts play a social distinction or class privilege role, regarding the capacity of consuming art as a natural capacity and not as a culturally acquired capacity. No one is born with the knowledge that makes it possible to consume art (understood as a cultural and historical activity). It is necessary to make a difference between aesthetic consumption (universal and obligatory) and artistic consumption (need for education and access to a determined knowledge). Juan Acha said when referring to this: “If consuming art is a natural activity of significant importance for ennoblement and purification of the spirit, there are good and bad sensibilities, suitable and incapable ones”
The system of cultural domination when introducing the capability of appreciation and decoding of artworks as a natural capability and not as a result of specific education, conveniently deduces that, who can discuss, value, appreciate and consume certain pieces of artwork, has a superior capability than the rest of the people. To point out that it is not about a natural capability but a matter of access to a certain knowledge (contemporary occidental history of art), in other words, a matter of power, would make evident the lack of equality and the existing social conflict, since education, as Garcia Canclini points out, is not something that one “is”, but something that one “has”.
An anecdote that makes it possible to understand this process is the one that a friend -a visual artist- tells me, he asked for help to a taxi driver that helped him pick up his paintings from an art gallery located in a residential neighborhood in Lima. When approaching an abstract painting located in the gallery (in which he did not find any artistic value) estimated in 14 000 dollars, he makes a comment to my friend: “Have you seen it buddy? That painting for 140 soles”. My friend explains to him that the price is neither 140 soles, nor 14 000 soles, but 14 000 dollars. After making a reflection the taxi driver exclaims: “Wow, It must have something, right buddy? It must have something…”)
In this respect, Acha mentioned that: “the person that did not have access to knowledge of occidental art history throughout time, by failing to understand pieces of artwork that the official system presents as representative, will over-estimate the capability of the high class that supposedly knows how to consume art”.
The taxi driver of the former example assumed that the painting must have “something that he is not capable to understand, why it costs that much. Hence he interiorized the notion that people who are able to appreciate works of art that the system presents as worthy or is either able to pay 14 000 dollars for a painting -as the one he was supposedly not able to understand, has a natural capability he does not have. This is the way how the discourse of domination is reproduced, reducing art as a sign of social distinction.
Another questioning to the official Artistic Institutionality has to do with how popular culture as well as urban countercultures are located within its territory. Our museums, galleries, cultural centers, for instance, do not legitimize at the same level, productions of popular art and the urban countercultures than the ones of academic urban art. Starting out with the case of altarpiece artist Joaquin Lopez Antay from Ayacucho (who in 1975 was awarded the National Art Prize, generating protests from a group of artists representing the Professional Association of Plastic Artists, scandalized because the artwork of an analphabet had more significance for the State than the traditional fine arts of bourgeois -occidental tradition.)
To change this reality is not only a responsibility of people linked to the cultural sector, since the access to the artistic and cultural life is a human right recognized by the Declaration of 1948 and by UNESCO as a fundamental part of human and social development. To recognize and value our cultural diversity throughout an ample citizenship-building perspective, requires inclusive public policies, and build a new artistic institutionality: new spaces, new ways of legitimacy, new ways of dissemination, new theories, new markets, etc. that gather the initiatives of the civil society, recognizing the different cultural manifestations growing in all parts of Peruvian territory, driving their development, promoting them and building bridges for an enriching dialogue.
Articulating Agendas: The Art of Weaving
In the view of the need for creating a new artistic institutionality and generate new public and markets, during the last years, various urban actors have emerged: collectives, forums, festivals, cultural centers, etc. who, in processes of continuity and rupture with a broader history of local cultural resistance and from the specificities of their concrete work, have been able to create and mantain an alternative and self-organized scene, where it is possible to produce, distribute and consume art with a different logic from the one that turns cultural consumption into distinctive priviledge. Although there is a minimal level of articulation that allows transit and circulation of different publics along the different alternative spaces, there are no lines of action linked, nor mechanisms for achieving its own legitimacy (consolidated alternative cultural press and spaces of theorical reflection or systematization upon experiences that are generated).
The challenge to reach levels of organization among actors of these processes implies reinforcing a profile of an artist-citizen aware of his duties and rights, capable of interacting with the society he operates, of contributing to it and transforming it. The goal is hard to achieve, even harder nowadays when it is necessary to have a positioning and commitment of the art workers in a context where the social fabric and political representation make it almost inexistent the notion of an artist-militant. At best, we can give an account of the artist-activist as the one who generates dynamics and logics of social communication from the platform of his artistic production, however a militant-artist is more than that: he/she is the one capable of assuming a commitment for a broader wider political project than duties of activism and production of events, a collective horizon beyond the specificity of arts and its transforming capabilities, the will to power and resolved to dispute ideologically senses in society.
It is from a gaze of an ample project of emancipation that we can work with the political potentials of artistic artifacts without falling into the traps of reductionist logics previously mentioned. ¿How can we link the critic art agenda with de rest of the struggle agendas: feminism, sexual diversity, ecologist movements, indigenous movement, etc.? In so doing, it is necessary to think of art beyond its products, think it over upon processes it can generate collectively, since there are no formulas. In this respect we can mention interesting experiences in our surroundings, as interesting experiences upon we acquire knowledge: the Forum of Culture of Solidarity ( the Itinerant Museum of Art for Memory ( and the Muralist Brigade (
Within these spaces, from these platforms of artistic manifestations we look forward to generate dynamics of social transformation through dialogue, team-work, interaction with public, etc. Whenever we see for instance, during the Forum of Culture of Solidarity, a feminist collective performing in public spaces, whenever there is an exhibition of visual arts about memory and human rights, whenever a conversation about political action is taking place, interventions from the audience are alternated with live music or a cross-dressing performance. Whenever the Muralist Brigade paints the face of María Elena Moyano in the premises of the Popular Federation of Women of Villa El Salvador, whenever it paints murals about environmental protection with youngsters of the district some of whom enriched by the experience after some years decide to study visual arts or join artistic collectives or activist spaces. Whenever the Itinerant Museum of Art for Memory makes an exhibition in the streets of Huancavelica and receives approximately two thousand attendees during two days, among women that have lost their sons or husbands during the years of political violence, who approach us to have a conversation, express gratitude, to inquire….That is the way debates are generated from exhibited artworks, dialogs, reflections, symbolic reparation. We propose that we search for clues in order to have a wide and transforming dialogue starting from this unprecedented dynamics, which are the ones that call upon us generating difficult processes to evaluate, articulating different agendas of activism interlaced with innovative and creative actions.
The Art of Transforming What is not Visible
It is pertinent to ask ourselves from the perspective of a liberation project, taking into account the transforming capability from these experiences, most of the time underrated when we think about politics. Whenever and electoral campaign is carried out one is able to measure the failure or success according to the quantity of votes, when one announces an event, one is able to count the quantity of attendees and one is able to know whether the desired objectives were reached, however, How can one measure how much artistic artifacts and experiences that start from that platform are able to transform? How are we able to know what has managed to change someone consciousness after listening to a song about the hope of a certain community, after attending a theater play about the disappeared during the internal war or after participating collectively in a parade or a campaign of collective painting of murals?
Whenever we state that the political potential of arts and its processes places itself in the symbolic field as well and its strategy we make reference to the capability of boosting ideological aspects concerned to human beings, of questioning from concepts but also from emotions. Furthermore, if in our tradition, when confronted with the hegemony of written language to transmit knowledge, our people have utilized oral, musical, visual means of communication. For instance we can quote the altarpieces from Ayacucho, the tables de Sarhua, huaynos from Ayacucho, carnivals, dances, oral storytelling, etc. Testimonies of our recent history or years of political violence. Just some examples that show how these artifacts powerfully engage memory, multiple knowledge and subjectivities.
Hence, how much does it change politically, when touching hearts, transforming subjectivities, building education for daily life, intervening the public space, etc.? Is It not our internal level the first territory of resistance and dispute that challenges a pattern of power, a model of civilization that controls us from subjectivity? We believe that directing life to emancipation implies that something in that internal space has rebelled against daily indolence, and it is precisely there where politics starts: the moment when someone decides to direct one´s life and fate with one´s own hands. That is the reason why, when we make art and make reflections upon art, we are really referring to and making reflections on all other things.
July of 2010
(*) translated by javi Vargas
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