Latinamerican Art

Interview with Luis Camnitzer

Madrid, 25 October 2016

HMH: The period spanning the first two decades of this century has been crucial for Latin American art, don’t you think?

LC: A change occurred in 1992. During a long discussion with Alfredo Jaar, I told him: “Let’s enjoy these five minutes of fame, because they will pass.” He did not agree. And he was right. I think that several things happened. One was that the hegemonic market was running out. There was no major art happening in New York or Paris. Multiculturalism was fashionable and Latin American art was very cheap. I remember that in the 1960s a friend bought a Torres-Garcia for $40,000, while Jasper Jones was fetching $1 million at an auction. It was totally absurd in artistic terms and was only due to hegemonic chauvinism against the periphery.  All of this gradually became somewhat more balanced. Then came the idea of ​​the global market: a unified market all around the world, in lieu of regional markets. An attempt was made to assimilate Latin American art and art from other peripheries within a single market. This benefitted us artists in economic terms. But I think it damaged the regions culturally. In other words, we stopped talking to our neighbors and turned our attention to people we don’t know. There is this notion that art is international, that it transcends borders, so we end up with an average production in order to be accessible around the world. Local practices not readily accessible are curtailed and the message becomes somewhat trivialized so that everyone accepts it. A loss of local culture takes place.

But that goes for the whole world, right?

Yes, but German or Italian artists have always been much closer to the hegemonic center than Uruguayans.

How could the art of a region that you call peripheral be disseminated in the best way?

The function of art changes. This has always happened with tribal art in the hegemonic centers. People buy African tribal art because they like it, but not because they understand the culture expressed through these objects. Thus, the object itself changes its function, from a traditionalist role to a superficially Westernized one. It acquires another personality. Picasso was very superficial in his formalist approach to African art, eroding its soul.

From a New Yorker’s perspective, how do you see the city? Is New York still a center of power?

Of economic power, yes. I don’t know if it has much aesthetic power. New York no longer fulfills the guiding role it possessed in the days of Pop, Minimalism, and Abstract Expressionism.

Why would you say that New York lost that leadership?

For lack of creativity. Today you go to the galleries in Chelsea and it’s the most boring spectacle in the world. Long ago there was still electricity, there were interesting experiments.

Where in Latin America do you see that electricity?

I think there is a lot of it in Brazil. In Chile there are interesting groups.

In Argentina?

Less, I think.

And in Colombia?

Yes. In Colombia there has always been much more support for the arts than in other places.

And in Cuba? You know it very well.

In Cuba, for me, artistic production is very good, but a qualitative change took place in the nineties. Not at the level of quality, but in the purpose of the works. Until the mid-1990s, Cuban artists still worked within their community and not for the market. Now there are excellent individual artists trying to be financially successful. That to me is less interesting.

 That community spirit was somewhat lost, then.

In general, art became more and more a production of fashionable objects and the individual’s commercial trademark. One must leave a recognizable trace; the work is not seen as a contribution to a collective process where the individual gives something.

Luis Camnitzer and Katrin Steffen, ZŸürich, 2010, Photography: Thomas Lenden

When did this phenomenon start in the U.S., that curators, critics, artists, and collectors got all mixed up?  It has paved the way for patronage and corruption, don’t you think?

It was always latent. The curator expected some compensation from the artist’s side. Not everyone behaved ethically. Curators’ houses are full of artworks. I think that has always been the case. What is new is a certain dissolution of borders. Collectors think they have the right to be curators or to write about art, artists think they have the right to be curators, etc. In his day, Jorge Glusberg in Buenos Aires heralded the porosity of these boundaries.

You excluded yourself from your exhibition “Global Conceptualism.” This is no longer done today.

If I had included my work, the exhibition would have been discredited as well as myself.

How do you see MoMA’s cultural policy towards Latin America?

I think that no museum at that level has a clear idea about what it wants. They don’t know if they are trying to create a homogeneous international art or if they are documenting local cultures. There’s no bad faith; they just haven’t raised the question.

Several conditions hold museums back. One is that they don’t analyze why a work is good. They take it for granted that they know what a good work is, without taking a critical distance from the canon. Another is that they do not assume their pedagogical responsibility. They say: “the larger the number of people that come, the better we are” and not “the more people we transform, the better is the work that we do”. Education remains segregated from curatorship. The financing is private and therefore packed with vested interests. A censorship accompanies every act. There is always a struggle between what curators want to do and what the museum lets them do. It is a very dirty soup.

The museum has become synonymous with its board of directors and all their ignorance. This is very serious and I see no way out.

Changing the subject, how do you assess the role of the internet in art production?

Our relationship with infinity has changed. Infinity is now organizable, albeit indomitable. Before, we could access only part of infinity and we discarded the rest, which lead us to specialization. Today, infinity is much larger than it used to be and much more flexible with regard to its organization. This to me is fascinating, although it has not yet trickled into our daily knowledge. A kind of consumer rapport exists—one enters the web, searches, and extracts information—but there is still no awareness that Google is just an accumulation and organization of information. We must find out how we can actively and consciously participate in that organization. Wikipedia and crowdsourcing are doing it in a way. At least they are pointing in that direction.

What change have you perceived in the field of art criticism in the last twenty years, including your practice?

Descriptive reviews have always existed, which are the majority and which convey how the artwork looks like. Another type of review is the one that justifies the critic’s position, and still another tries to rearrange what is exhibited so that the reader understands it better. This is the most responsible type of criticism, although I am not its best practitioner. In my critiques I tend to project what interests me. That has not changed. It still irritates me to read art or film reviews because they usually describe the works and that seems lazy. For me there is no difference between making an art object and writing. Different problems need to be solved by different means, and I choose the best one for each particular purpose.

Once, being an artist was a vocation. Today it has become a profession like any other. A job.

I always speak of art education as fraud. People who take art courses because they want to be artists do not think they will investigate matters related to knowledge in a different way than in other disciplines, but that they are going to produce things to be sold. The percentage of those who achieve this is so small that it makes no sense to invest such an enormous amount of money to acquire an education for that purpose. To me, the solution lies in identifying how an artist thinks or feels. The quality of their work does not matter; what matters is the process and that it be integrated into the educational process, whether it is art or not. What matters is to be able to think without quantitative limitations, to imagine the impossible, and only afterwards say: “well, this is impossible and I will not use it”, instead of being pushed into a tunnel of what is possible, and the impossible only existing for some people.

Has the concept we developed at Daros Latinamerica made sense to you?

I see it as a huge betrayal. What Daros did was take on a task that was not a typically private enterprise, but rather a governmental or intergovernmental duty. Since governments do not deliver, Daros entered to fill that gap. It was no longer a private initiative limited to collecting works, but a continental documentation center that everyone could have access to. It was a project for the preservation of culture. And for that very reason the project should not have been dropped. By dropping it, they gave a typical example of the whim of the rich, showcasing an oligarchy at its worst.

Furthermore, there was no transparency and there is still none. We artists don’t know what will happen to our works. Since it’s a matter of material property, the owners can do what they want with those works. They can burn them, sell them, put them all on the market at the same time… In other words, the power that those who acquired the collection have over the works and the lives of those of us who were seduced into being part of the project is enormous. This is why an unforgivable betrayal has been committed.

During our first dinner in Switzerland, I asked you: “What if the owners of the collection get bored?” And you answered: «No, no, this cannot happen because of the way the collection is being built. They will never get bored.”

I was wrong.

Hans-Michael Herzog and Luis Camnitzer, ZŸürich, 2010, Photography: Thomas Lenden


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