Only a few years ago, on the occasion of a lecture event at the auditorium of the MALBA (Museo de Arte Latinoamericano – sic! – de Buenos Aires) and coram publico , the renowned Argentine artist Marta Minujín explained to me that she herself, and indeed all of Argentina, had nothing whatsoever to do with Latin America. She asked me pointedly where on earth we at the Daros Latinamerica had the idea from to collect “Latin American” art; there was no such entity in Argentina…
Back to the roots, somewhere in Europe
The “Argentines” are not all at ease in the organism of Latin America–they don’t make it easy for their Latin American colleagues, either. The other “Latinos” have difficulties to accept, let alone appreciate or even like, the notorious arrogance and boundless hubris common to Argentines.
So who are the Argentines, and where did they come from? They are immigrants, like the others, for the most part from Europe. When they arrived, they did not find much they wanted to identify with. Over the centuries, they successively and successfully wiped out the indigenous population, whose plumes they might otherwise adorn themselves with today. All they could turn to were their own roots. Already in the early 19th century, in the pursuit of higher goals and in the hope for a self-fulfilling prophecy, was Paris, the alleged origin of those fancy babies imported with the aid of storks, illustriously evoked. And those who regarded Paris as too French turned to British values. The distinct survival strategies, the resistance and deeply relaxed casualness toward anything state-decreed, on the other hand, seems rather Italian by nature („menefreghismo“).
Heyday of the avant-garde
Argentina’s economic boom of the Perón era was owed to the high demand for food (meat and grain) in Europe during and after World War II. It was Perón who claimed that five European families could survive on what one family in Argentina threw away. Argentina was one of the wealthiest countries of the world at that time, which was also reflected in the elegant lifestyle common in Buenos Aires in the 1960s. (Incidentally, Caracas and Rio de Janeiro were equally thriving, super cool, and hypermodern cities in those years.)
Jewish refugees contributed considerably to the prosperity of (not only) the Argentine post-war culture (nevertheless, unpleasant encounters between Jewish and Nazis emigrants from Germany were regularly witnessed at events in German embassy circles …), not unlike the boom created by European Jewish emigrants in New York after the Second World War. The international post-war culture in Buenos Aires is superbly documented in the works of the German-Jewish photographer Grete Stern. The Instituto di Tella (1958-1970), which became famous as the “temple of the avant-garde”, was the cultural and artistic manifestation of this heyday of Argentine culture. It was frequented by and informative for basically all soon-to-be important artists.
The desire for debate will not subside
The Argentine military dictatorship (1976-1983) brought about a merciless breach with any avant-garde ambitions and had a catastrophic effect on all previous cultural achievements in the country. Nevertheless, the high intellectual standard has been kept up, reflected until today in Argentina’s wonderful culture of constructive debate. Arguments and disputes are carried out with a verve and an enthusiasm that could conceivably take place elsewhere, if at all, only under high doses of cocaine. Criticism stops at nothing; everything is scrutinized in detail until even the slightest of blemishes is revealed and triumphantly brought to light. It is considered de rigueur to keep informed on all cultural events in the world in order to thoroughly and in person discuss everything in the appropriate intellectual circles–comparable, perhaps, to the (almost bygone) Viennese coffee house culture. As it is, Buenos Aires is the only place on the continent where relics of the former European culture can be found in vivo–be it at “La Biela”, in restaurants such as the “Munich”, or at the exclusive Wagner Society of the Opera House.
Things are looking up again
Theater, dance, cinema, design, visual arts: Despite the great depression around the turn of the millennium (1998-2002), things are not just looking ahead but definitely looking up. Without all too bold avant-gardist excesses, however surely and steadily, culture is gradually moving on, supported by a deep interest in the matter, an affirmative pleasure in the substance–against all risks and odds, with a healthy spark of defiance in the fiery, passionate eyes, which are directed to the future.