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Groove is in the Heart
December 19, 2006


del Corazon Web site

SAAM's ¡del Corazón! Web Site

The Smithsonian American Art Museum recently launched ¡del Corazón!, an online catalogue of Latino art from the United States. The variety of artists highlighted just goes to show that there is no monolithic "Latino" visual art mode, any more than there is a single "Latino" culture. The artists are immigrants and hyphenated Americans with backgrounds in many different countries, and the artworks are every bit as varied.

But you wouldn't be wrong to say that there are broad trends that govern these artists' work: the political, social, and economic challenges that immigrants to the United States may face, or the shared historical legacy of Spanish settlement across Central and South America. A single work may crystallize the traditions of the old country with the realities of the adopted one. In Sun Mad, Ester Hernández marries a familiar muertitos image with a corporate brand, creating a disturbing commentary on pollution and migrant labor.

Ana Mendieta references Santería in Anima (Alma/Soul), and Jesús Moroles's sculpture Granite Weaving employs elements of Aztec and Mayan pyramids, to gloss some other examples from the gallery.

I think, though, that too often artworks by minorities are pegged as being about that culture first and foremost, and are secondarily recognized as part of the broader conversation in art. I appreciate that the Washington Post's Blake Gopnik focused on the art historical aspects of Ana Mendieta's work, putting her art in the context of postminimalism and performance art, instead of just narrowing in on the cultural references. Some lines from Gopnik's review:

Throughout her work, Mendieta sets her body down in nature and then records its simple presence on the planet. There are photographs that document her lying naked on the ground, almost hidden by the wildflowers stuck between her legs and clutched between her arms and body.

A three-minute color film, shot on the modest Super 8 stock Mendieta always favored—and now preserved on digital video—shows the naked artist floating in a burbling creek.

Other pieces leave the artist herself out of the picture, but record a trace she's left behind.

In one series, begun in the early 1970s when she was still a student in the experimental "intermedia" program at the University of Iowa, she dipped her hands in red paint mixed with blood, then dragged them down the wall or along a piece of paper stuck to it. This is art's fundamental proclamation, "I was here," captured using everyone's most basic tool, the hand, in our most immediately available and instantly impressive pigment, blood.

No one questions when someone says that an artist draws on Latino references, even if those references are not made explicit; there's a vague and agreed-upon understanding of what that pool of references includes. That context should be a tag that incorporates an artist within a tradition, and not a means of prejudging the work or of excluding it from broader art trends or conventions.


Posted by Kriston on December 19, 2006 in American Art Here


Comments

I think, though, that too often artworks by minorities are pegged as being about that culture first and foremost, and are secondarily recognized as part of the broader conversation in art.

I could not agree more. I think the real challenge, though, is to identify who exactly is doing the pegging and to hold their prejudiced critical opinions to account - sorry, but I honestly believe that the root of this pegging system within some parts of the art world stems from a popular, and apparently acceptable, form of cultural racism. This cultural racism suggests that certain types of art are "superior" forms of "high art" (art created by whites who hold an MFA whose works are designed and intended to be retailed through Chelsea galleries for world-wide distribution to private collectors and museums, for example). While other types of art (works created by unschooled blacks from the South, for example) are habitually pegged as "Folk Art" or, my personal favorite, "Outsider Art", and are, although quaint and pretty, not deemed worthy by the art power structure of being sufficiently intellectual to be regarded as "high art."

And it's not just minorities that suffer from this pegging system. Being from the South, I have many artist friends who are white (both male and female) who have been pegged from day one of their careers by the art world as being a "Southern" artist (whatever that means), and who have had to struggle to have their art appreciated beyond its stereotyped regional-only confined significance. The implication for many Southern artists is that a select number of more famous white Southern artists have already been admitted into the hall of fame based upon their regional significance, so there's no need for you to waste your time applying.

Being a photographer from Mississippi, I immediately think of all the many Southern photographers I know that struggle for acceptance by the art world against the looming presence of William Eggleston, for example. This struggle is made all the more ridiculous when a Southern photographer has to explain that maybe, just maybe, his photography isn't focused on dead-pan ghostly images of a romanticized imagined lost rural/small town identity. The art world seems to love this stereotypical theme about the South --as if every person in Mississippi (black or white) is yearning to go back to the good old days of living on a farm. The panoramic view of the Southern contemporary reality is diverse beyond description. It is indeed infuriating that many Southern artists are pegged by the art world with an old and outdated stereotype of who they are, where they come from and how they should be responding with their art to their identity, history and place of birth.

Cultural racism may not be the sole cause of the forced marginalization of many minority (and some majority) artists within the art world, but if cultural racism is not a major factor, then the distressing reality of an arrogant cultural elitism gone amuck certainly is.

Of course, the art world as a whole holds no opinions about race, class, and identity that aren’t held by society at large. The difference is that whereas the broader society is forced (often legally) to confront these issues, the art world wants to wrap itself in a smug blanket of supposed enlightenment about its beliefs and practices concerning the politics of race and how the race and cultural background of an artist (as well as the race and cultural background of a critic, curator, gallery owner, collector or other powerful and influential figure in the art world) affects the critical segregation of art between “low” and “high.”

Hopefully, this important initiative of SAAM will help to expand the horizons of those power brokers within the art world to compel them to look beyond their near canned reactions to the works of art that have historically been so easily marginalized by a prejudiced attitude that arrogantly suggests that one form of art is superior to another because of the education level, cultural background and/or place of birth of the artist at hand.

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