Aporias in the political construction of the work of art in Venezuela

May 4, 2015

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Florencia Alvarado, Grieta (2014)

Works of art are not political or critical in and of themselves. Both political efficacy and critical force arise in response to a given situation, according to a particular method of action: they are operations that require localization, that depend on their methods of contextual inscription. In this sense, the political-critical is a matter of placements, of framings and frontiers, of limits and confluences, and the result of a narrative that is always contingent upon connections. For this reason, the problem of distinguishing between "art" and "politics" has long been an issue in the history of art, and for modern art was a recurring theme in terms of both artistic output and the theoretical and critical thinking that engaged with it. However, it is in the contemporary art scene where the attempt to concretize these connections, these links, has become a requirement, one that would seem to summarize creative research and strategies today. If we examine that requirement, it reveals two particularities of the art of our time. On the one hand, it signals the pressure––the necessity––for artworks to establish clear and direct contact with "reality" and its modes of operation; on the other, it explains their urgency to somehow intervene in the reality that surrounds them, and in which they take part.

In effect, whether they explore a range mechanisms for throwing representation "into crisis," negotiate memory and the past, or endeavor to rupture conventions of spectacle and consumption, contemporary artworks exercise their political authority. Nonetheless, this explicit political vocation, while taking shape in an atmosphere in which communication and aesthetic experiences have been economically colonized, far from giving rise to cracks in the established orders of interrelation, has consolidated a sort of dis-imagination of the image: an image without irony that, by its own hand, makes itself ineffectual by reproducing the plain fact of what is already given. This would thereby imply that the development of the link between art and politics is a response to art's inability, within the framework of an overabundance of images, to promote authentic reflection on the political, to give rise to the appearance of spaces for "community" and, in particular, to deliberate about itself and its immediate circumstances in a political way. 

In Latin America, the historical configuration of connections between art and politics has had two exemplary models: committed art and the art of the avant-garde. Committed art, born of the ideological climate of the 1960s, called for artworks that were in the service of "revolution," that would penetrate critically into the social body, and that would function as elements of struggle. It assumed, in this sense, that artworks would speak for and in place of the people who were the privileged subject of the revolution. It was an operative art, openly referential and pedagogically effective, that aspired to shock society into awareness by driving it toward a form of social change that was prefigured from a political point of view. The art of the avant-garde, meanwhile, sought to anticipate and advance changes and transformations by adopting diverse modes of transgression, both formal and conceptual, that it believed functioned as political triggers in and of themselves. These transgressions brought about––or traced––a variety of ways in which the desired fusion of art and life could be effected, with the understanding that the emancipatory vigor of art rested in their connection. 

In the contemporary Latin American art scene, both models have entered into a state of crisis; however, within this context, the case of Venezuela is unique due to renewed interest in problems already dealt with (or abandoned) elsewhere on the continent, such as an anachronistic taking up of essentialist questions surrounding identity and memory, the reconstruction of the country's iconographic and symbolic patrimony, and reflections on the emblems of power and violence that are inherent to them. Their particularity is such that, paradoxically, these formulas, and so-called committed art above all, have not only diluted their "emancipatory" condition, but would seem to be serving aims contrary to those that fueled their origins. 

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Florencia Alvarado, Demolición (2012)

Indeed, there exists in Venezuela today an extensive apparatus for artistic production, promoted and financed by the government, in which art is conceived as a functional tool for the construction of an identitary and authoritarian subjugation, given that in these cases the ideological discourses of power are looming facts that, in terms of both content and means of representation, precede the work of art and bring it into being. Grouped together in "collectives," the official "cultural workers" hope to create an "art for the people" or an "art of the people:" an art that "fundamentally expresses a new historical and national being."  To that end, and making use of the same media––murals, graphic art––and figurative tendencies employed in the committed art of the 1960s, they have standardized a visual grammar that translates and illustrates governmental discourses, and that treats the "people" and "revolution" as transcendental signifiers.  It follows that, because they have been co-opted by official rhetoric, these compromised artistic expressions do nothing more than duplicate the dominant system, becoming one with its mechanisms and effects of signification, and promoting the unlimited circulation and ideological overexposure of power by means of representation. As a result, the emancipatory force––and function––that previously defined these expressions has become blurred, as artworks are converted into the kinds of "epic compositions" that reaffirm an ideological landscape by closing themselves down. 

In "revolutionary" Venezuela, the requirement that all activities have a "political dimension" ends up being unavoidable, so that Venezuelan art finds itself forced to realize its aims by articulating, and advocating for, reflection on the most common everyday issues. Accordingly, in independent circuits artworks also possess an explicit political disposition, given that they attempt to break down––or throw into crisis––established forms of control. They occur, then, as a kind of register of violence, one that takes shape primarily according to two distinct and opposing strategies. One strategy operates by means of a sustained and ongoing re-interpretation of the abstract-geometric tradition that has prevailed since the middle of the last century, and that identifies itself historically with the nation's emergence into modernity, with its project of "civility" and the transformation of the ordinary. The other functions by constructing a fragmentary archive that bears witness to the means by which violence is committed in our socio-political environment, as well as the effects that it has in ordinary facets of life. In the first case, they are concerned with a "critical reclamation" of the modernist project within a socio-political environment that has a pre-modern and "ruralizing" tendency. In the second case, in the fragmented archive that registers the becomings of a violent daily existence, artworks function as witnesses and testimonies to a reality that shows itself to be excessive, redundant, and external. In both cases, however, the relationships between "art" and "politics," obscured by inadequate explication, multiply the fractures and discrepancies between the artwork and its historical-social circumstance, condemning themselves to a hyper-conceptualization of their languages and an extreme hygiene in terms of media and bases of support. 

In a politically hypertrophied context, artworks are found to be incapable of opening fissures in the repressive syntax of their own landscape. Perhaps this is because what is required is an art that, from the force of its own imaginary and ironic content, can be its yet-to-come. More than "iconographically" challenging the machinations of power and its forms of domination and ideological representation, it would insist on generating other kinds of meaning, openings and gaps, and intensive zones of signification.