Latinamerican Art

Interview with Ticio Escobar

Asunción, November 9, 2018

Ticio, from your perspective, how have art and culture in this continent changed over the last twenty years?

I think that certain processes that were already announced at the end of the last century have deepened. In general, the emerging phenomenon since the last decades of the 20th century has been the shrinkage of art’s power. This corresponds more or less to art’s loss of aura announced by Benjamin; not its death, but rather the end of the “great work” and the decline of the formal and expressive vigor of art. Consequently, art has lost much of its glamour; it has faded, it has become less pretentious; today it is more concerned with bonding with small causes, immediate situations, and with the micropolitical dimensions of creation: desire, the unconscious, knowledge of the body, intuition… Art has lost its capital letters and its most dazzling names, but the global market manages to keep promoting or inventing spectacular artists. It can be said that art has lost its charm (“the sex appeal of the inorganic,” in Benjamin’s words), but gained new experiences that are located at the limits or beyond traditional art.

Without a doubt, the borders between what is art and what it’s not have been blurred. On the one hand, greater attention is paid to experiences related to popular, suburban, and indigenous cultures and, in general, to alternative subjectivities. In addition, manifestations arising outside of mainstream institutional art are highlighted. Such is the case of urban, suburban, popular, or graphic expressions that are not strictly linked to an artistic intention, but do resort to aesthetic and poetic elements that are of interest to contemporary art. Many of these manifestations have entered the hegemonic art system, which is eager to incorporate alternative forms that satisfy the thirst for exoticism, as well as for images and concepts that enrich the decaying Western inventory.

Art’s institutionality has grown with its proliferation of museums, galleries, fairs, publications, and major exhibitions. But it has been forced to take on the challenge of how to belong to a world that escapes its grasp and rejects the formats of modern and contemporary art of the end of the last century and the beginning of this one.

Is it fair to say that the classical object’s momentum is gone? We are immersed in a turbocapitalist market and cut-throat competition, where only the largest and fiercest survive in a society that thrives on effects, on “shiny shit.” This has little to do with art. It’s just the market. Its production has no intellectual roots. It’s like the last gasp of a system that belongs to the past.

Important works are produced outside of art’s institutions. There is an aesthetic and creative dissemination that goes beyond these structures. Naturally, the need to negotiate with the market is always present because the artist has to sell in order to survive. A few years ago, I attended a discussion held in the course of Madrid’s Arco Fair. On that occasion, in the very midst of the fairgrounds, they kept insisting that artists should resist, or at least reach a middle ground, but never capitulate; in other words, not to bend over backwards to the demands of the market or make excessive concessions.

Faced with the growing massification of audiences, the great stellar curatorships tend to perform with an eye on what the host institutions want: to attract the largest possible number of visitors. But great exhibitions cannot descend below a certain level of rigor; they must be based on serious research, powerful imagery, and consistent concepts. Everything oscillates between that demand and the need for show business; that is, to leave behind the idealistic aesthetics of the muses without strictly bowing to the demand of the masses.

Biennials also often resort to a double game: they offer experimental, dense, and political works, which are distanced from the society of the spectacle, along with other works that constitute “bread and circuses” for large audiences. It’s a permanent negotiation. As I said, the mainstream also tries to incorporate a reasonable dose of extra-institutional production. For this reason, macro and micropolitical expressions constantly feed the hegemonic repertoires: demands of the outraged, protests for better environmental conditions, actions by sexually dissident minorities, etc.

All this is closely linked to content, to ideas. Form or pure beauty no longer holds. A concept is always required, an extra-artistic narrative that informs the work with principles from aesthetic theory and even anthropology, philosophy, psychoanalysis, and history. Although the art world, explicitly or not, remains largely attached to the model of the genius and the requirement of the unique art object, it cannot ignore the growing presence of relational art, public interventions, quicksilver installations, and the audiovisual and popular arts system. There is also the case of established artists who intervene in communities and public spaces in pursuit of direct political messages, such as Doris Salcedo, for example.

These phenomena emerge from decolonial and progressive forces that advance against the hegemonic background of a confused opposition between a neoliberalism in retreat and the rapid entry of a right-wing neoconservatism—heteropatriarchal, intolerant, and racist‒—opposed to a multiplicity of manifestations, identities, and beliefs. This complex situation has moved pieces and reconfigured new counter-hegemonic scenarios that will not easily be absorbed by the official system. Finally, it is worth stressing the significant decline in public and private sponsorships, a factor that hinders the economic support of cultural practices, and so pushes them towards the risky zone of the “orange economy,” governed by productivity in business terms. The so-called “creative industries” don’t even talk about culture and art. They conceive creation as an inventiveness effectively applicable to the advertising and communication aesthetics of corporations.

From Georges Didi-Huberman’s book Survival of Fireflies I have taken and adapted the idea of ​​scattered glimmers by minor cultures, which are capable of briefly and faintly illuminating moments and intersections ignored by the mainstream. The light of the fireflies acts in opposition to the great reflectors of the global culture of entertainment and the powerful beams of consecrated art. The low and intermittent light allows us to see virtually hidden parallel zones that the art system is beginning to take into account, due to ambiguous interests that both act as extractivist appropriations of different forms and favor their course by widening their space of production and circulation.

Art that tries to give us keys to understand the world through the exaltation of beauty and form is receding in the face of ingenious and interesting works or actions; works that are devoid of capital letters and the sublime halo of great art. This situation has caused the term “art” to encompass a very broad spectrum that, in its extremes, coincides with the meaning it had in the Middle Ages: art as a craft and not as the practice of geniuses. This imprecision in the artistic field calls for the presence of scholars, critics, and curators capable of reflecting on expressions that grow in between, on the frontiers, with or beyond what conventionally falls under the concept of art. A concept that is in question. The instrumental logos of the West, currently devoted to financial speculation, wants to understand, explain, and interpret everything. This proclivity flattens the forms of art, depriving them of opacities and folds. Faced with this drive, critically-inclined art seeks to preserve its enigmas and doubts, but the issue gets complicated because dissidence also sells. For this reason, the different forms of art are always exposed to the risk of capitulation and impoverishment of their contents and concepts.

Until the 1980s, the visual arts were safe in their ivory tower. They belonged to an elite. Art for the few. That was never the case with film or music. You know, in Germany we establish a difference between two levels of music: ‘E’, which stands for Ernst, the serious music, and ‘U’, which stands for Unterhaltung, simple entertainment. But this division never existed in art. And then, art opened up to entertainment in the 1980s. I guess it had to happen.

Returning to Latin America, a positive change in my opinion is the rapprochement that has taken place between the different countries. Before, they scarcely knew each other in terms of their artistic production.

I believe it’s due to the development of a more consistent system of networks. Take the regional biennials, for example. They have become gathering spaces that are open to flows and multidisciplinarities alongside the big art institutions. Biennials like São Paulo’s are trapped in a structure that is too rigid.

People still believe that biennials like the Venice Biennale or Kassel’s Documenta are essential to understand the development of the arts; but these great exhibitions have ceased to function as beacons that shed light on the world’s production, setting trends and guidelines. Biennials now look like art fairs and art fairs want to be biennials. Often, a fair’s public program is even better because it has a larger budget and can afford to organize parallel activities, critics’ encounters, symposiums, workshops, etc. But in the grand system of art, everything has its twists and turns, and criticism often ends up entangled in the instrumental logic of the fairs themselves.

As for criticism, Ticio, what has happened to it in recent decades? In my view, people no longer want to read the scholarly experts. No one pays them to exercise their judgment anymore. Before, critics traveled, read, studied, and had a sound knowledge of the art world. For better or worse, they were like institutions, cultural pillars with tons of experience.

Critics have lost a unique and defined place of enunciation: they have become curators, teachers, or scholars straddling a variety of disciplines. If you walk into a bookstore today looking specifically for critical art theory, you won’t find it in the “Art” section, where there are only artists’ books or exhibition catalogues. You must look in the bookshelves of philosophy, sociology, psychoanalysis, anthropology… On the other hand, not only has the normative figure of the critic as arbitrator or judge who determines the value and scope of the work been extinguished, but also as the leading promoter of artists and the mediator between them and the public. And there is room for yet another view of art criticism: aesthetics’ retreat as a Euro-Western philosophical discipline monopolizing all knowledge related to art is due to the emergence of a critical front that does not operate in the purely speculative way of aesthetics, but examines concrete works by using hermeneutics—interpretation—and is open to an epistemological space that is crossed by different disciplines and pluricultural approaches, such as decolonialism.

Do Latin Americans still feel that they are on the periphery?

I think it no longer makes much sense to maintain the center/periphery opposition in a dichotomous and fixed manner coinciding with North/South positions. Interrelationships between hegemonic and counter-hegemonic positions, or non-hegemonic ones, oscillate constantly and cross the entire world. All of these positions also act within each of the countries that, although traditionally considered peripheral, also have hegemonic centers surrounded by peripheral circles. Dominant, transnational, and corporate systems determined by the logic of the global market have agencies in nations that reproduce the global power scheme in their own way and in relation to the local dominant powers. Therefore, rather than central and peripheral countries, it is more fitting to speak of fluctuating, geographically transversal centers and peripheries located beyond national limits.

These constant displacements produce considerable inequalities in each Latin American country between the art of the elites, the art of indigenous peoples, and the manifestations of mesocratic and suburban cultures. For this reason, there is a greater difference between high art and indigenous or popular expressions within a Latin American country than between the high art of Latin American and European or North American cities. Personally, I believe that the art of the peripheries is much more powerful than the enlightened art of international affiliation, but oppositions are never definitive in the cultural field, especially in the arts. Overlaps and in-between zones are becoming more and more frequent. Possibly that is where the most interesting contemporary artistic manifestations are taking place.

Ticio Escobar (Asunción, 1947) is a curator, professor, art critic, and cultural manager. He was president of the International Association of Art Critics’ Paraguayan chapter, president of the Association for the Support of Indigenous Communities of Paraguay, director of Culture of Asunción and Paraguay’s minister of Culture. He is the author of Paraguay’s National Law of Culture and coauthor of its National Heritage Law. Escobar has curated numerous national and international exhibitions, and written more than a dozen books on the theory of art and culture. He has received awards from Argentina, Brazil, and France, and honorary doctorates in Argentina from the National University of Arts, the University of Misiones, and the National University of Rosario, and in Paraguay from the University of Asunción. He is currently the director of the Visual Arts Center Museo del Barro in Asunción.


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