The Wars of Contemplation (2002)

Published in Columna de Arena, Colombia, 2002
Pablo Helguera:

The Wars of Contemplation
The Roads of Poetic Criticism in the Visual Arts of Latin America
My only encounter with Octavio Paz took place during a week in April of 1995 – three years before his death – when I organized a homage to the poet in Chicago, and shared repeated conversations with him. Everyone who met Paz knows that he was an indefatigable and inquisitive speaker, making all sorts of earnest questions no matter who he spoke to. When Paz learned that I did performance art, he said; ‘you know, I have never fully understood what performance art is. What is it?” Paz, who had been friends with Cage and had been a staunch defender of his compositional experiments, took me by surprise with this question. In my subsequent conversations with him on this subject – and trying to forget my inept and immature attempts to define performance art to the poet – I later on reflected that what I wanted to understand myself was why the enthusiasm of Paz toward the visual arts waned considerably when we were not discussing abstraction or Surrealism, or when a certain kind of art seemed to proclaim ideas that would go beyond the subconscious fabrication of a visual enigma. The answer to this question, I believe is intimately linked to the history of an intellectual attitude that had great repercussion in the interpretation of visual arts in Latin America.

Art criticism in Latin America has experienced a very peculiar development, and I would venture to say, almost unique in comparison with the rest of the world. In general its growth has been uneven, many times prolific, but others incipient, and this perhaps in its most crucial moments. This lack of continuity can be relatively explained if we analyze the complex role that the literary milieu in relationship to the one of the visual arts, in that it interpreted it, supported it, used it as an inspiration, and eventually, marked a distance that today is clearer than ever. The exercise of studying the relationship between the literary and the visual arts groups in other countries would perhaps make not too much sense. However, such study is vital in Latin America, given that its writers constituted the main shaping force in the construction of the models of support of culture and cultural policy throughout the continent. The need of tracing and understanding this history has become an urgent task because the new art coming from Latin America has recently started to receive a considerable attention internationally. This interest in turn has generated a need for methodically connecting its historical antecedents, starting with modernism and the events of the post-war.

Concerning the case of Mexico, Paz wrote once: “the critique of the poets is part of the history of the modern Mexican art. This will be stated by the study that one day shall be written on the subject by an American or a Japanese scholar (Mexicans have shown a congenital disinterest for such tasks) [1]”. Without trying to do here the study predicted by Paz – and without attempting to contradict my supposed congenital abilities – as a Mexican artist who had a literary formation sui generis I have tried to trace a few notes on the way in which the criticism on the visual arts has been practiced in literary forums. Particularly, these notes focus on the position of the writers in relationship with the changes that took effect from the decade of the sixties on. In other words, I am interested in answering the question: why Latin American writers have rarely written on the art of conceptual origins, while they have dedicated long texts to artists who work in a tradition (whether figurative or abstract) that belongs to the middle of the Twentieth Century?


With the gradual advent of conceptual art in Latin America, a breakup with the literary world started to come into effect. With this breakup, we started to loose the historiography and the commentary for the visual arts from the part of the writers, creating a vacuum that only today starts to be corrected by the emergence of full-career art critics and art historians. However, the vestiges of this division has caused – and continues to cause -many of the most important visual artists to be left on the sidelines of the cultural debates of this region.

The reasons for the tensions that existed alongside these developments are critical to understand the root of an aesthetic debate that has been percolating in the cultural media in the form of small or great controversies. These debates have had (and continue to have) significant influence on the way in which we interpret and promote the visual arts in Latin America today, and thus the importance to trace their history. My following thoughts, which do not intend to cover all the details of a long development and which in their majority are based on the specific examples of the circumstances in Mexico, I think are generally shared by the cultural milieus of other Latin American countries. [2]

During the first half of the Twentieth Century, in the dawn of Latin American modernism and the blooming of its artistic movements, art criticism and its companion, art history, were practiced shyly and with little emphasis on the art of the time. This was understandable given the semi-recent apparition of the modern discipline in the critical vein of Baudelaire. In this virgin field it corresponded then to the writers to take on the role of art critics. In Mexico, writers like José Juan Tablada, José Vasconcelos and Alfonso Reyes, who also served as the diplomats, the entrepreneurs and in general those who embarked into the tasks of transforming the cultural agenda of their country, adopted these roles very naturally and decisively. This was also to be expected because it was the writers who, in their great majority, wrote the manifestos that shaped the statement of purpose for the Latin American modernity during the XXth Century (Vicente Huidobro in Chile, Oswald de Andrade in Brazil, etc) [3]. They also were the ones who defended and supported visual artists and their works, and the first ones who wrote preliminary art history texts (Tablada, who in his memoirs described his original ambition to be a painter, was the first writer to produce a study on Mexican art in the Twentieth Century.)

Despite these initial interests in Latin America, in order to practice art criticism it was necessary to find a theoretical base that would help to describe the modern art of the continent. In this regard there weren’t many options: at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, Iberoamerica had few intellectuals whose aesthetic interests would have significantly included visual arts theory in a critical fashion. The first Hispano-American philosopher whose work marked the tenor of the aesthetic debates in Latin America – and to my mind, the one whose vision remained practically unchallenged up to the decade of the sixties – was José Ortega y Gasset. He did so particularly through the publication of his landmark work “The Dehumanization of Art” in 1925.

The influence of Ortega in Latin American aesthetics is, at a first glance, arguable, specifically in that he rejected an art for the masses (a thought that was already established in his previous work “The Rebellion of the Masses”). His influence could also be seen as doubtful due to the Euro-centric nature of his thesis (Ortega did not mention Latin America even once in “The Dehumanization of Art”, nor the Mexican muralist movement which already was famous in 1925 – a very convenient omission given that such movement was in direct contradiction with his ideas). A theory of this kind was not compatible with the tone of nationalist identity that characterized a great part of the modernism and avant-garde of Latin America.

Nevertheless, the basic ideas of Ortega inspired Vasconcelos, Samuel Ramos, Leopoldo Zea, and other major intellectuals in their efforts to articulate a national cultural identity. His famous phrase “I am my circumstance, and if I do not save it, I do not save myself” marks the central introspective premise of the gestation of the artistic nationalism in Latin America. [4]

Furthermore, Ortega’s ideas offered a basic scheme of art appreciation that would be fully adopted shortly afterward, directly or indirectly. It is really during the 1930s and the young generations – particularly the Contemporáneos in Mexico which included writers such as Salvador Novo, Xavier Villaurrutia, and Gilberto Owen – where there is a very close relationship between visual artists and writers, and where the affinity with the orteguian aesthetics is visible. The group of Contemporáneos, who did not share a socially-compromised aesthetic such as the one put forth by the muralists – and whose view would be shared by the surrealists and later on by Octavio Paz – admired abstraction, automatism, expressionism, and published the works of artists like Picasso and De Chirico in their magazines. Poems like Xavier Villaurrutia’s “The Nocturn of the Statue” clearly marked connections with metaphysical painting.

The relationship between Surrealist writers with the visual arts was also consistent with the orteguian premises around modernism. Ortega wrote: “the Expresionism, Cubism, etc. have been in great measure, attempts to verify the resolution in the radical direction of art. From painting things they have gone to painting ideas: the artist has become blind toward the external world and has turned his pupil toward the internal and subjective landscapes” [5]. Ortegas’s assessment of modernism as expressed in “The Dehumanization of Art”, (which sanctioned the value of abstract art and that coming from the subconscious), as well as the implicit relationship that he established between the thinker and the visual artist, were the two underlying ideas used in Latin American art criticism for the subsequent generations.

Ortega, who was a philosopher and not a poet, presented a modern version of the aesthetic ideas of Kant’s “Critique of Judgement”, where one finds the famous notion that the appreciation of an artwork’s beauty lied in an unselfish aesthetic contemplation. Taking this into account, Ortega tells us that art cannot be other than a “de-realization” of the vital experience, and the process of artistic creation nothing less than the result of a contemplative (internal) attitude, while the role of the philosopher is defined as “conceptually re-edifying the cosmos, departing from a series of events that are considered more firm and secure”. The kind of aesthetic interpretation that follows such definition demands a kind of visual creative process that would invent enigmas but that would refrain from deciphering them, as this was the task of the philosopher or the aestheticist.

In regards to the epistemology of the creative act, consistent with the line of kantian thought (and in turn with the main constructors of the modernist aesthetics), Ortega saw it as essentially a contemplative activity, which would reflect on its own reality through the act of the presentation of its circumstance, and this reality was available for “imagining hypothesis that would explain it, that would interpret it” [6].

In practical terms in Latin America, the aesthetic discourse would then be applied in a way in which the literary mind – which would come to assist the philosophical one – would present itself as the tacit “decoder” of the visual meditation. Such perception gives ample room, of course, to the great interpretative liberty that writers would use to take on the interpretation of artworks, creating at the same time a hybrid genre in between art criticism and the poetic meditation.

In Latin America, the nationalist avant-garde art criticism started to be practiced simultaneously as a political justification as well as a formal evaluation. As it will be seen, this second modality would end up predominating.

In Latin America, the intellectual elite has always seen artists with political agendas with distrust. This maybe is due to the political baggage that came with the nationalist movement of the 1920s (it would also be useful to analyze the influence implemented by the North American art market throughout the Cold War with its anti-Communist spirit, and its pressure to support an art that would evade any overt political or social content.)

At any rate, we need to remember that gradually, and after the emergence of the new generations of writers – as we have mentioned, the Surrealists, the Contemporáneos etc – the ideology of the muralists would eventually be under attack. Eventually, their work would be appreciated more in formal or historical terms, but loosing the emphasis of its original political and social content – a tendency that became part of the process of the Mexican revolutionary party of domesticating, officializing, and institutionalizing the visual language of muralism.

In Mexico, the influence of Surrealism marked the next historical phase of art criticism. The visit of André Breton to Mexico, which had a profound impact, as well as the presence of Spanish artists like Remedios Varo and Luis Buñuel, helped to establish the territory of the subconscious as a field where the literature and the visual arts could dialogue with each other, and where the visual metaphor would become the currency of their exchanges.

The writings about visual arts around the time after the war, and for a couple decades to come, can be characterized in three modalities: the historic-biographical essay, sometimes of a critical and semi-literary nature, but in general focused on a nationalist agenda (examples are Luis Cardoza y Aragón, José Moreno Villa, and later on, Paul Westheim); the poetic interpretation (still practiced by many writers); and the monumental narrative, or the essay of great breadth. In Mexico, the monumental narrative was grounded on the format of “La Raza Cósmica” (“The Cosmic Race”) by José Vasconcelos, which appeared on 1925, and a good example is the work “Prometeo” (Prometheus) by Justino Fernández of 1945. Octavio Paz’s “Labyrinth of Solitude” of 1950, was another work of this kind that had a great influence in the way in which art – or better said, culture – would be interpreted inside and outside of Mexico. Nevertheless, the works that came closer to articulate a post-war theoretical vision of Latin American visual arts (and connecting it to the universal currents) were the works of Fernández and Cardoza y Aragón.

Fernández, who was one of the first full-career art historians in Latin America, tried with “Prometeo” to articulate a vision on the Twentieth Century which, starting with Cézanne’s Post-Impressionism and going through Breton’s Surrealism, would culminate by inserting Mexican muralism – particularly Orozco – at the height of the modernist narrative, as the maximum expression of the cultural aspirations of the century. Cardoza maintained similar positions, and being the one who was closest in friendship with the muralists, was also the greatest defender of their ideological positions.

Nevertheless, in strict terms of aesthetic positions around interpretations, the character of the debates and reflections that were taking place in the midst of the Twentieth Century in Latin America were not really doing introspective or contextual analyses of the work. Rather, they were centered in general kantian problems of beauty, as exemplified in Samuel Ramos’ work Filosofía de la vida artística. (“Philosophy of Artistic Life”).[7]

The “poetic art criticism” vein, for lack of a better term, acquires its best field of play with Surrealism and its greatest representative with Octavio Paz.

In contrast with our other writers of prominence in Latin America – starting with Neruda, Borges, Cortázar, Carpentier, Lezama Lima, and ending with Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes, and García Márquez – Paz was the only writer who wrote about visual arts in a constant and systematic way. He did so both as a poetic inspiration and as an analysis or reflection through essays on aesthetics or art history (it shall suffice to see the extension of his anthology of texts on visual arts, “Los privilegios de la vista”). In contrast to Justino Fernández, and trying to improve on his first attempts, Paz also inserted the Latin American art on the Twentieth Century, but this time positioning Surrealism in its foreground, and emphasizing his critical view toward the ideological dimension of muralism.

The importance of Paz in the construction of a critical code in the visual arts in Latin America is culminating and key, as well as the weight of his judgement – and I would add, of his prejudices. While he rarely commented on music, his ideas about art were passionate in contrast, and have been enormously influential in the formation of a whole intellectual attitude around this discipline. His youth friendship with Breton, who considerably influenced his way of understanding the visual arts, as well as his proximity with Duchamp and Cage, turned him perhaps into the most authorized writer to understand, describe, and interpret the visual arts in Latin America. Although he himself wrote once that he never attempted to write “a theory, nor to trace a history”[8] of the visual arts, on the other hand he enthusiastically embraced the role that poets such as Apollinaire and Breton played as defenders of Cubism and Surrealism, respectively. Paz himself wrote: “these poets were not only the voice, but the conscience, of these artists”.[9]

It is very helpful, if not necessary, to understand Paz’s ideas around the visual arts in order to get a sense of the conflictive relationship between artists and writers in Latin America: after Paz, almost not a single writer or poet in Latin America has been able to fully escape from his way of implementing art criticism. Not surprisingly, Paz’s reading of Mexican culture has generally been accepted by the international mainstream as the most accurate, given the power of his historical and cultural analysis. One of its best examples in regards to art is his preface to the monumental exhibition “Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It is interesting to note that this essay, as well as the exhibition (which covered 30 centuries indeed, but was strangely truncated toward mid-century with the work of Frida) reflected the tacit consensus (already in 1990) that the analysis of the art produced in Mexico in recent decades was, if not terra incognita, at least too tricky to try to incorporate into a curatorial narrative that essentially argued for a “Mexican sensibility”.

In a similar way to Ortega, Paz makes his own adaptation of the premises of aesthetic beauty of Kant, but, always the poet, he does it via Baudelaire. According to Paz, starting from Baudelaire “the relationship [between painting and formal analysis] breaks up: colors and lines cease to serve representation and aspire to mean on their own” [10]. In a similar mode to the orteguian line, the way in which Paz regards visual arts is essentially as a process where a contemplative mind interprets or dialogues with another contemplative mind (which recalls his verses: ““soy una historia: / hablo siempre contigo hablas siempre conmigo/ a solas voy y planto signos”, [“I am a history: /I speak always with you, you speak always with me/ alone I go and plant symbols]). Paz supports thus the notion of the artist as a creator of enigmas – in the surrealist tradition of Cornell, Ernst, Carrington, and, at the forefront, Duchamp.

It may be useful to compare the aesthetic position of Paz with someone who was likely the most important art critic of his generation, and who practically and single-handedly built the theoretical base of abstract expressionism: Clement Greenberg. Such comparison may appear forced given the great difference of their professions and their intellectual environments; Paz never generated a visual arts theory, and Greenberg on the other hand never favored Surrealism and even less Duchamp – which also marks another great difference with Paz. It would be also doubtful to affirm that either would have been aware of their respective writings during the decades of the sixties and seventies. And nevertheless, they share parallel positions in philosophical-aesthetic terms, their influence toward the construction of art criticism in their respective surroundings was radical, and in both cases this influence was caused by very similar political and aesthetic beliefs.

Both Greenberg and Paz share similar points of view in their kantian way of understanding the work of art, the importance they place on subjective reading, and the way in which they reacted to what we could call the crisis of the traditional aesthetics toward the apparition of conceptual art (precisely initiated by Duchamp), which in Latin America gathered full force in the seventies. By showing his first “readymade” in 1917, Duchamp put into question the need that the notion beauty would be at all related to the artwork, traced a dividing line that from then on would differentiate traditional aesthetics from a new way of making art, or as it was best described by Arthur Danto, the beginning of “the art after the end of art.” Both Greenberg and Paz had to articulate their position in relationship to this attitude, which, if one was to concede on its value, required accepting the existence of a kind of anti-aesthetic art. Furthermore, things during the sixties got more complicated with the emergence of the two most important artists of that time – Andy Warhol and Joseph Beuys – with their radical premise that everything could be art and everyone an artist.

Greenberg stopped making criticism after the sixties, while Paz continued writing about art until the end of his life. At any rate both left clear statements about what they thought about the tendencies of those times. The analysis of Greenberg’s position toward the art of the sixties has been discussed many times and in a very clear manner by Danto himself in “Art after the End of Art” [11]. Danto understands Greenberg’s reluctance for accepting conceptual art as part of his loyalty toward two kantian tenets: one, that art was dissociated from any kind of utility (and for that reason our attraction towards it is “unselfish”), and secondly, that the “quality” of a work of art could not be determined by any kind of logic or pre-established discourse. From here that any kind of compromised work (socially, politically, etc.) would be disqualified.

If we were to analyze Paz as an art critic (knowing that he didn’t consider himself one, although in Latin America his influence was the same in the field regardless) we would perhaps find that his points of view were much less rigid than Greenberg’s. Along with Greenberg, Paz celebrated American abstract expressionism, and in contrast to him, the Surrealists. As Paz came from the rebellion of the official nationalism in art and the compromised, sartrian-style literature of his time, he was naturally opposed to any aesthetic ideology. On the other hand he always considered art as a revolutionary vehicle in its own way, and he defended Surrealism as a movement that did not claim “the art for the sake of art” but that proposed a human renovation that would bring with itself a new sensibility.

But in the same way to Greenberg, Paz had a similar reaction with the artistic movements that came after the war. Both saw Pop Art with distrust. Paz saw it as a mannerism or as a “Dadaist restoration”, and the conceptual art that came after Duchamp as weak imitations of his friend. When he found himself before the neo-expressionist paintings of Anselm Kiefer, he wrote about “the failure of the expressive will” [12] and, in general, he saw the crisis of art as the result of the manipulation of the markets and the mannerist exhaustion of forms. These points of view, which basically adopt a position of the “decadence” of art and not about the beginning of something new, at the same time included a confusing double-standard in the appreciation of the works of the artists of his generation. While Paz never wrote a single line for or against the most important artists of the last four decades -Beuys, Warhol, Kosuth, Paik, Fluxus – instead he wrote flattering essays on painters that have not had much relevance on our way of seeing art today, and many who are completely unknown in international contemporary art circles: Juan Soriano, José Luis Cuevas, Fernando De Szyszlo, Felguérez. It obviously wasn’t the case that there had been any lack of conceptual artists in Latin America, which on the contrary were proliferating in the sixties and seventies (Leon Ferrari, Luis Camnitzer, Cildo Meireles, Lygia Clark and Helio Oiticica, amongst many others). So, independently from the fact that the artists that Paz wrote about where close friends to him, why only celebrate the continuation of a derivative pictorial modernism and not the experimentation of something new? This question may again appear unfair given that as far as art was concerned Paz didn’t feel the duty to write but only to what he was passionate about, for subjective reasons and as a good dilettante. However, it was this attitude that contributed to generate the vacuum around the new tendencies in art, and thus it cannot be ignored.

Although here I can’t make a full analysis of the complex – and I would say, contradictory – visual aesthetics of Paz, I think that the key to it lies in what may be his most important visual arts text: “La Apariencia Desnuda”, (The Naked Appearance) on the work of Marcel Duchamp. This text is generally considered as one of the most brilliant readings of this artist, particularly the description of “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even….’ of 1915-23 (although, it is important to note, it is a rather Surrealist reading of the work). However, the most revealing part of his book lies in Paz’s interpretation of Duchamp’s “readymades”.

Paz regarded Duchamp as a unique artist who combined the potential of poetry with images, and many times proclaimed him as the greatest artist of the century alongside with Picasso – not an uncommon view. But the greater problem with Paz’s perspective -and perhaps the main paradox in all this – was that Duchamp, by creating his “readymades” and thus becoming the father of Conceptualism in one stroke, had also provided the definitive denial of the kantian (and in Latin America, orteguian) rules of contemplation and meditation of form, as well as the belief of the inextricable link between beauty and the artistic object. And even more: by inventing the “readymade” (and as this didn’t become clear until much later) Duchamp had shifted the classic debate of “this is beautiful” to “this is art”, thus appropriating the modernist logic as his medium and marking for the first time since Romanticism a radical revision of Kant’s Critique of Judgement (as Thierry de Duve has analyzed in “Kant after Duchamp”). The situation was such that if one admitted that Duchamp had carried out with his “readymades” the problem of the artistic object – and alongside, its art critique – to such extremes, how was art supposed to be interpreted from now on?

For Paz, it was clear that the “readymade” was a transgression of the “retinal” profession, but regardless from his admiration for the artist, he did not want to take on the Duchampian challenge as something that changed the way of interpreting art forever. Instead, Paz explained it as a closed visual paradox, a circular act that carried within itself the impossibility of its repetition – or, in other words, the possibility of becoming a new way of making art. Paz writes; “the ‘readymade’ is not an artwork, but a gesture that only can be realized by an artist, and not by any artist, but, only and precisely, Marcel Duchamp”[13]. (a vintage Paz phrase with great poetic style, but not much art historical usefulness). Paz further added that the “readymades” are not “an artistic act, but rather, the invention of an art of artistic freedom”[14]. Paz continues: “the ‘readymade’ is a double-edged sword: if it becomes art, the gesture of its profanation fails; if it is preserved in its neutrality, it transforms the gesture in itself in the artwork. This is the trap where the majority of Duchamp’s followers have fallen: it is not easy to play with blades”. [15]

Thus the critical break between Paz’s opinion and today’s criticism lied on the validity of the notion of the migration of the artistic attributes from the object. If Paz did accept the “readymades” as a gesture made by an artist – even if it was only and exclusively by the artist named Marcel Duchamp – he did not make the decisive step to accept that the very gesture could be considered art at all, and even less, that such a gesture open the door to any other artist to exert the same kind of liberty. In the same way of Greenberg, Paz always had his sight fixed on the artistic object – a fundamental decision that ensured the survival of the kantian critical scheme. Paz always looked for the almost alchemical act of transforming into poetry the art that he saw, and, for that reason, his passion never ceased to be “retinal” (if we were to use cynical duchampian terms). When the traditional aesthetic attributes disappeared from the painting, when art became the necessary integration of image, action, gesture, and/or idea, the magic vanished for him, and in turn, for the great majority of Latin American writers.


A great shining is followed by a great blinding. The brilliant criticism of Paz inspired a kind of sub-genre of creative writing (rarely with equal level of brilliance), and at the same time, it generated an interpretative problem to contemporary criticism, at least in Mexico. In the best of circumstances, a kind of literary-visual style of essay was born, such as the one practiced by writers like Juan García Ponce. His work, if it could result attractive as a literary divertimento, in strict terms of visual art theory it contains little theoretical rigor, and thus ends up belonging more to the literary field than to art criticism or art history. In the worst case scenario, this kind of poetic criticism inspired by Paz (although to be fair, it wasn’t entirely by him but also by other writers with similar points of view) degenerated into a kind of rhetoric that we still suffer today in an excessive percentage of art publications produced throughout Latin America. Such writings abound in commonplaces, over-interpretation, empty verbal games, and grandiose phrases that seek to rather praise the culture (or the person) of the author of the text than the artist or the work. Given our inclination (this one definitely congenital) for baroque rhetoric, the field of art criticism in Latin America has since been prey to some of the wildest – and most unfortunate – flights of fancy. In other words, art criticism became a suburb of literature, a roaming field for a B-level kind of literary expression, without any arbiter that could set the standard for an objective rigor, or for a more careful language.

In the meantime, the contemporary artists who continued to practice in their work what we essentially would consider as work within the realms of modernist-formalist innovation (Matta, Toledo, De Szyzslo, Felguérez, Cuevas, Gironella, Soriano) continued (or continue) receiving the homage and the literary comment, and as a result, the general coverage of the mass media of Latin America (even if with little or no interest from the exterior). On the other hand, and paradoxically, few Latin American writers have occupied themselves at any given point to write about the artists whose works have had a profound impact in art at an international level: Lygia Clark, Helio Oiticica, Ana Mendieta, Cildo Meireles, Felix González-Torres, Doris Salcedo, Alfredo Jaar, and Gabriel Orozco among many other examples. In the best cases, the reviews of their works have been literal replicas of the press releases of their exhibitions, or they have passed from figuring in the society pages of the newspapers to the sociological studies in universities. This critical or art historical absent-mindedness at some times has also adopted a nationalist character. The field of criticism has too often dismissed the value of very important projects by foreign artists in places like Mexico, marking important chapters of art history (Mendieta’s silhouette series in Oaxaca, and Robert Smithson’s installation and photography projects in Yucatán during the seventies, just to put a few examples).

It was thus inevitable to arrive to the point in which the ties would be severed between the intellectual literary elite in Latin America and the visual artists who favored conceptualism. As they started to search, question, redefine and deconstruct artistic practice, the artists started to desert their role of “contemplative’ creators, and their work started to require a new kind of reading that those who were close to traditional aesthetics were not ready to accept. So the main reason why artists of a conceptual background may not have been adopted by the writers could not have been, either, due to their lack of interpretative possibilities: artists like Gabriel Orozco, for example, whose work is highly poetic, has never been the object of Mexican poets. This is, rather, because the frames of reference in contemporary art have changed and are simply not familiar to those who have an essentially literary training. The magazine “Artes de Mexico”, for instance, is a highly designed and luxurious publication (directed by a poet) that practices what we defined here as “poetic criticism” or more conventional art historical essays on modern and traditional arts. Yet it has never treated conceptual art as an aspect of Mexican art (it is also revealing that this magazine has never done art criticism, despite the great need for such practice).

Interestingly, it was the artists, and not writers or philosophers, who this time proposed a new kind of aesthetics, in a new kind of artistic exploration that sometimes even preceded in their experiments to what was being made in Europe or North America – if we consider, for example, Helio Oiticica’s neoconcretist experiments or Cildo Meireles early conceptual projects. This breakup also brought a reassessment of avant-garde movements that were not taken too seriously by the writers, such as the case of Estridentism in Mexico – so it was a breakup that also implied a revision of art history.

Here it is important to at least mention the affinities between many of these conceptualists and Marxist aesthetics – in Mexico promoted by philosophers like Adolfo Sánchez Vázquez – and how in this way the social dimension of the work was brought back as having a pivotal importance. It could be argued that the reevaluation of the social dimension of the work amongst conceptual visual artists served as a philosophical weapon against the overly detached literature that was favored by the reduced groups of literary intellectuals. However, this distinction would risk to reduce the aesthetic debate in Latin America to an ideological debate. In actuality, the experiences of these artists were both a response of their immediate surroundings and of the artistic activity that was taking place at an international level.

The most paradoxical aspect about the breakup between writers and the visual artists and curators who defend the (not so) new tendencies, is that while writers see this as an insoluble gap of philosophical views about art, actually both come from a very similar cultural background. Although this would remain to be discussed in another essay, I believe this is because the generations of visual artists who come from the conceptualist tradition in Latin America actually owe a great deal of the current richness of the visual arts to the Latin American “boom” of literature, and not necessarily to the immediate past of the exhausted modernist tradition of the visual arts. If there is something that distinguishes Latin American conceptualists from their Anglo-Saxon and European counterparts in general, is its inventive richness – often in baroque extremes that may relate more to Borges and Carpentier than Torres García o Rivera – and which may well be based in a wealth of ideas that is grounded in its literary tradition. Writers such as Salvador Elizondo, Alvaro Mutis, Gerardo Deniz, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Augusto Monterroso, Paz himself, Borges, Felisberto Hernández, Cortázar and so many others, are a convincing explanation of the inventive base of Latin American conceptualism, its narrative strategies, its root in fiction, and even sometimes its political stands).

Whether this may be true or not, what is for certain is that for all the great renovation that contemporary art experienced in Latin America in recent decades, the cross-fertilization did not hold true for its literature. The new generation of writers, with few exceptions, has had particular distrust or lack of interest for the new tendencies in the visual arts and intellectual suspicion of its bases – mainly due to ignorance about the intellectual origins of its discourse. The artists who were educated in Latin America in recent decades have lived a cultural discourse dominated by literature, which has been substantially rich but which at the same time have made us reluctantly accept the visual arts as something that exists only on the margins of the public forums, and see the routinely depiction of contemporary art as an adolescent, extravagant expression or even, as phony (and evidently, this may be true sometimes, although the percentage of phony production does not exceed that of other artistic disciplines). The one thing that visual arts is rarely seen as is as a vital marker of a time and a collective reality that, at the very least, should be debated.

But nevertheless this era had to end. The writers had fulfilled their mission as commentators of the visual arts, and while these have acquired their maturity, it was time for allowing the field to those who truly exert the role of criticism, curatorial work and art history. The late appearance of certain personalities that started to practice criticism and started to adopt the role of curators in Latin America – Jorge Romero Brest in Argentina, Marta Traba in Colombia, just to mention only two – started to provide the visual arts with a limited, but at least a bit more appropriate, field in which to grow.

In Mexico, the absence of a solid criticism has become more visible as its artists have started to receive international attention. For a while, cultural journalism helped as a quick fix to trace at least a basic storyline for an artistic production that is now in its fourth decade without substantial theorists or with significant debates about the international role of Latin American art. However, it is important to acknowledge that the emergence of critics such as the painter Yishai Jusidman, or Cuauhtémoc Medina have been essential to at least introduce a true critical spirit. Also one has to mention the pioneer efforts of pioneers like Olivier Debroise and the introducction of the curatorial magazine Curare.

But the growth of art theory and the emergence of authors that venture outside of strictly academic territories has remained limited, many times due to the lack of interest of the literary world, but also due to the control imposed by conservative critics. Personalities such as Raquel Tibol and Teresa del Conde, who made important contributions to establish the criticism and historiography of the artists of their generation and before, gradually have utilized their reputations to block the possibilities of reading of the new generations. They have imposed a conservative angle that rarely shows any awareness of an external dialogue with the world, thus blocking to the Latin American public the possibility of accessing to such debates. It also has not helped that, due to the lack of interest of the government, national museums such as the Museo Carrillo Gil in Mexico City have not been able to collect work since 1973, institutionally erasing the existence of artistic production in Mexico. Or that, due to a musical chair game enacted also by the government, those in the positions of museum directors rarely are allowed to stay long enough in their jobs, a formula that helps regulate the excess of autonomy or influence of the more liberal wings of contemporary art.

This is also the origin of many recent polemics around supposed accusations toward “conceptualists” (for the lack of a better name) about giving “death to painting” – an accusation lacking of any sort of foundation from the outset, and which is not but the veiled version of the true aesthetic attacks that are taking place between conservative formalists and the younger generations of Latin American artists. It is unnecessary to say that associating any kind of genre like painting with any aesthetic approach is naïve, given that any kind of medium is subject to any kind of conservative and innovative approaches. In specific terms, the real battle around this debate is not on a hierarchy of mediums, but on whether the formalism that was inherited from the modernist tradition is to be considered in the same level than the kind of art that comes from the conceptual tradition. In the case of Mexico, we experience the repetition of a history in which the art which at a certain moment intended to bring down the nationalist agenda of muralism, (and which mostly consisted in abstraction and a personal expressionism) nowadays is the kind of art that is shown in all the official exhibition spaces, while the truly experimental art has moved around with great difficulty. The government has only been supportive of it due to the pressure made by the international interest around it (as an example, the recent exhibitions of contemporary Mexican art in P.S.1 in Queens and Kunst Werke in Berlin).

Maybe also due to its close relationship with the literary world, the publishing industry of Latin America has been very slow in recognizing the importance of the new generations of artists there. Publishers such as Phaidon and Taschen have produced publications and monographs of Latin American artists long before Latin American publishers. It is critical to be aware this literary/visual dilemma and analyze it in order to understand the now urgent and well-deserved place that art criticism and art history should have in our cultural supplements, publications, and media coverage in general. Secondly, it is necessary to start to support the development of writers that would really practice the profession of visual critics, without letting themselves be taken by poetic rapture, or by creating hermetic technical manifestos that would not be able to arrive to more general forums. This is the real dilemma that we face in the reinvention of the commentary and debate in the visual arts in Latin America: at a stage of the chicken and the egg, we find ourselves with a deficit of critics and art historians, or with the presence of writers whose prose could transcend the limits of the academic and reach the general readership.

Before moving ahead in building a more appropriate environment for the growth of art criticism and debate around the visual arts, it is first needed to recognize that the methods that have been adopted and generally recognized as the only ones to evaluate art, (in particular the formula contemplative artist/contemplative critic), today are simply not enough to transmit the complexity of what we see and experience nowadays in galleries, museums, and in any other kinds of spaces. As soon as we are able to collectively admit to these shortcomings, we will be able to complete this much-needed bridge of communication that will provide a better picture of our cultural landscape.



1) Octavio Paz, prologue to “Los Privilegios de la Vista”, p. 23. From Obras Completas, volume 6, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1991.

2) I owe my gratitude to the comments of the Uruguayan artist Luis Camnitzer, the Colombian curator José Ignacio Roca, and to Irmgard Emmelhainz. A long essay which substantially ellaborates on these reflections and which makes a substantial recount on the development of Latin American conceptualism and its relationship with literature is “Contextualization and Resistance: Conceptualism and Latin American Art” by Luis Camnitzer (still unpublished).

3) One of the most useful works for the study of the relationship between literature and visual arts at the onset of Latin American modernism is the anthology of Jorge Schwartz, Las vanguardias latinoamericanas, University of Sao Paulo, 1995

4) See the essay of Jose Luis Gomez-Martinez, “La presencia de Ortega y Gasset en el pensamiento mexicano” , Nueva Revista de Filología Hispánica 35.1 (1987) pp. 197-221

5) Ortega y Gasset, “La deshumanización del arte”, Obras Completas, VII

6) Ortega y Gasset, Obras Completas, VII, p. 514, quoted by Rafael García Alonso in “En torno a Ortega y la Estética”, Actas de las II Jornadas de Hispanismo Filosófico, 1995.

7) See Samuel Ramos, Filosofía de la vida artística, Col. Austral, Espasa-Calpe, Argentina, Buenos Aires, 1950. Pp. 98-108

8) Octavio Paz, “Los Privilegios de la Vista”, p. 13 Vol. 1, Obras Completas. Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1994.

9) Octavio Paz, Op. Cit. P.21

10) Octavio Paz, Presencia y Presente: Baudelaire Critico de Arte, en Op. Cit. P. 45

11) Arthur Danto, Art After the End of Art, Princeton University Press, 1997 Ch. 5

12) Octavio Paz, Alegoría y Expresion, in “Los Privilegios de la Vista”, Op. Cit. P. 291

13) Octavio Paz, Op. Cit. P. 143

14) Octavio Paz, Op. Cit. P. 148

15) Octavio Paz, Op. Cit. P. 147


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Text: Pablo Helguera. Columna de Arena: José Roca
Presentation in Internet: Universes in Universe – Worlds of Art, Gerhard Haupt & Pat Binder


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