Art Criticism in Latin America: The Crisis That Wasn’t

October 9, 2014

The International Association of Art Critics (AICA) came into being in 1948, only three years after the founding of its parent body UNESCO. Just eleven years later, at an extraordinary congress of the association in Brasilia—celebrated at the personal behest of President Kubitschek—the idea momentarily took hold that art criticism might be a discrete profession. The notion seemed fantastical even then. In the words of one observer, the meeting heralded the “beginning of the end of the Golden Age of art criticism and its gradual replacement by market values.”

Fast-forward 56 years to our current time and we encounter not merely the kind of crisis described in books like Raphael Rubenstein’s Critical Mess: Art Critics on the State of their Practice (ed., 2006) and J. Khonsary and M. O’Brian’s Judgment and Contemporary Art Criticism (eds., 2010), but a much larger and properly global problem. What increasingly specialized art critics, writers and intellectuals face today is a crisis in critical values across the board. That crisis is partly caused by the relative underdevelopment of art systems in Latin America; it is also due to the collapse of postmodern theory.

Despite AICA’s presence in Brazil in 1959, independent criticism in Latin America—as a discipline distinct from the writings of curators, academics or museum professionals—has remained underdeveloped, underexposed, underfunded and misunderstood. Nonetheless, from the 1960s to the 1990s, a certain kind of Latin American art criticism experienced a definitive boom. Largely a reaction to the metaphorical writing of poet-critics publishing in magazines like Octavio Paz’s Vuelta, writers like Juan Acha, Aracy Amaral, Néstor Garcia Canclini, Mario Pedrosa, and Marta Traba responded to what Gerardo Mosquera has called “the production of theories.” Later, in his own collection of criticism, Beyond the Fantastic: Contemporary Art Criticism from Latin America (ed. 1996), Mosquera sought out a newer group of anti-utopian academic intellectuals that included Luis Camnitzer, George Yudice, Nelly Richard and Mari Carmen Ramírez. All of these writers, without exception, engaged criticism via a curatorial model. They’ve also become central figures in the present-day success of contemporary Latin American art—a phenomenon charted rarely by national or regional developments, but instead mostly by access to first tier biennials and global institutions in the U.S. or Europe.

One of the circumstances I find most disturbing about art criticism In Latin America currently is how little seems to be produced for a local or regional non-specialized public. It’s almost as though the general public didn’t exist. Additionally, though most intellectuals today readily agree to the limits of globalization, few writers in Spanish appear willing to commit to what Hélio Oiticica called a zone of complete accessibility—that “area where no one is constrained by being in the presence of art.” Witness, for instance, the current paucity of contemporary Latin American art histories or—for that matter, the lack of book or magazine publishing on the subject at hand.