apexart :: Conference Program :: Felipe Chaimovich


Conference 1, Wroclaw, Poland (June 1999)

Objects or Reflection: Brazilian cultural situation
by Felipe Chaimovich

Acknowledgments: I would like to thank Apex Art (NY), Galeria BWA Awangarda (Wroclaw) and FAPESP (São Paulo) for the opportunity of producing this text.

Understanding the contemporary situation of Brazilian art involves accepting a fundamental opposition. On the one hand, the participation of Brazilian production in the international circuit legitimates a national claim of universality of artistic themes, coexisting with national perspectives and conditions of art. This claim is historically Europocentric, and it led to the foundation of a national cultural net that has provided reflective education of Brazilian artists concerning universal themes and Brazilian peripheral situation. The efficiency of this source of reflection lasted until the early seventies, ending under military dictatorship. On the other hand, artists educated since dictatorship have a very low reflective training – and, as a professor of a College with tradition of forming contemporary Brazilian artists, I can say it is a training in accelerated decadence. The relevant issue is to determine up to what point one aspect conflicts with the other concerning contemporary art as part of national culture.

I will consider cultural production in Brazil as a means of transmission of values reflecting political projects of nationality. In this way, it is possible to refer art to its public use, and not to its visual form. I shall investigate the historical conditions of art as a case of national representation, and how this can clarify relations with the world. But what are the historical conditions of Brazilian art as a phenomenon of national culture?

The independence of Brazil, in 1822, created a tropical copy of an European court. The houses of Portuguese Orleans e Bragança, of Spanish, Sicilian and Neapolitan Bourbons and of Austrian Habsburg united in Pedro II of Brazil. It is during the Pedros era that official academicism is implanted, such as it had been created as an organ of state bureaucracy under the reign of Louis XIV. Brazilian empire demanded a local art production adjusted with the European use of art as representation of the state and its official religion. So, Brazil adopts the Europocentric model of art practice and the fine arts are implanted as part of a strategy to produce the image of the nation from the StateÕs point of view(1).

After the fall of monarchy, a project of Europocentric nation was again the public aspiration of the First Republic (1899-1930). According to the State ideology, cultural production ruled by European patterns remained the practice officially accepted, described and transmitted as art, including all its technical procedures. The peripheral condition in a global condition stabilized by European and North-American imperialism granted Brazilian art an undisturbed place in the turn of the century.

In the same Europocentric path, French and German modern art were reflected under the form of Brazilian modernism. As in other peripheral countries, alien to the local sense of the European phenomenon, Brazilian modernism implied an acceptance of modern formal values in order to elaborate the aesthetic values of local civilization2. It meant taking avant-garde dogmata to recreate Brazilian culture, supposedly covered by academicis. So an European battle was simulated in the American continent – even if academic European art had a totally different historical nature. In Brazil, national modernists fought Professors of the Beaux–Arts Academy, who never had a real part in forming national values, independently from the desires of self-representation of the elite. So local modernists confronted the Europocentric Brazilian academy, thus lining up European modernists in order to rescue national culture.

When politics had to repeat the same nationalist movement, modernism gained institutional interest. The 1930 Revolution and the fascist New State needed to adopt a nationality pact different from the Empires era, for the First World War and the 1929 clash had ended international stability3. The nationality pact implied a nation independent in its productive base.

Official art should reflect Brazil as a modern nation, that is, one that progresses and moves in on universal future, but has independent solutions. A pact with the future with a Brazilian image. Modern art was then adopted by the State.

The minister of dictator Getúlio Vargas in charge of articulating the modern art project was Gustavo Capanema. His part consisted in creating cultural conditions for a pact of the elite that would support new Brazil. Capanema's position was Minister of Health and Education, and his choice was naming a man simultaneously part of the historical and political elite, and a leftist intellectual circulating with modernists and journalists.

Rodrigo Mello Franco de Andrade thus created the Service of National Historic and Artistic Patrimony in 1937. This institution was a school whose members believed in a national pact made by means of culture. Its composition included members of the elite that acted or supported the work and fundamental members of modernism (writers, architects, sculptors, painters, historians, and sociologists), most of whom were leftists that would continue to collaborate with populists and/or fascists governments. Such group established an official policy and a nationalist cultural era orchestrated by economic, intellectual, and artistic elites.

Such cultural policy generated the institutional structure of official Brazilian culture. The Patrimony Service, guided by the local orientation of modernism, produced a coherent Brazilian art history. The European patterns of XIX century and academic productions were refused as lacking national singularities. On the other hand, a production prior to academicism (therefore, before Brazil as an independent nation) was revisited, with all its historical indifference between art as ornamental practice and popular native, African or European techniques. The national politics of preservation of historic sites prepared whole cities to be recognized by UNESCO as patrimonies of humankind after the 1980's. The formation of a national museum system demanded the acquisition of every sort of material culture of Brazilian history: from furniture, saints statues and paintings, to pieces of stone plumbing and slavery torture. All was gathered in historic buildings, whether palaces or rustic houses.

At the same time, exhibitions of modern Brazilian art were promoted. Neither abstract nor surrealist: it was typically Brazilian. The term "Brazilian contemporary art" thus gets a precise meaning: it is about a production based on a cultural pact for a modern Brazilian nation.

Assuming that national identity depended on freedom through education, the elite also created a system of private institutions. Magazines, editing companies and museums were founded, such as Museums of São Paulo (1947), Museum of Modern Art of São Paulo (1949) and the São Paulo Biennial (1951).

Art gets associated with the cultural pact, whether in museums or in the production of a whole city, such as Brasília (1960).

The cultural movement of economic and intellectual elite comes as a sign of the reality of the pact. The modern groups and the so called "good families" redirected their personal acquisitions: the eclectic houses of the early decades were remodeled with colonial and modern art. The marriage of modernity and local values took place in design and architecture. The reality of the pact did not implied intellectual knowledge, being a presence in the most private regions of private life: Brazilian antiques and slave jewelry, up to then disregarded, started to be searched by consultants and acquired by ridiculous sums. In the popular consuming market, a whole industry of "colonilalistish" style appeared. A market for works of modern art celebrating historical sites and local population also dates from that period, giving professional independence to artists.

Brazilian art after 1945 develops as part of a nationality pact founded on a cultural pact. As a result, a whole generation of artists trained for intellectual reflection and educated in a net of cultural institutions makes its way. Names such as Antônio Dias, Cildo Meireles, Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark are products of this historical situation.

With a national tradition of reflection, the 60's generation proposes a production with the specificity of Brazilian experience of the art object, guided by the cultural conditions of Brazilian public4. They also made the critic of modernist patterns of the art object during the dematerialization years. Brazilian artists established a theoretical, practical and personal dialogue with French Nouveau RŽalisme, North–American Neo–Dada and conceptual art. But the local production was elaborated from the specific perspective of countries with Ã’low income per capitaÓ5, with which Brazilians historically aligned itself. Two chains of consequences derive from this situation that constitutes the source of contemporary Brazilian artists.

The first one, a school that perpetuates through institutions, since several artists of the 60's become teachers. Regular and alternative schools allowed the transmission of reflection on Brazilian specificities through the years of military dictatorship (1964-85). So if we look at Brazilian representation at the Venice Biennial 99, we can see a representative of the 60's generation, Nelson Leirner, former Professor of an artist in his thirties, Iran do Espírito Santo, both chosen by a curator educated in one of the alternative schools of the dictatorship era, Ivo Mesquita – who will also be the curator of XXVth São Paulo Biennial (2001).

The second consequence was the insertion of Brazilian art production in the international contemporary art world. The 60's generation and its pupils participated in an universalistic dialogue, following local tradition. But their specific contribution comes from the political commitment to reflect the conditions of art experience as a real occasion for a national pact anchored in culture.

Without the coordination of both aspects, Brazilian art wouldn̥t have appeared with similar recognition in an international circuit that intellectualizes itself at expanding levels after World War II6.The art world, editing companies, and curators demand a discursive practice coming with works. Therefore, the use of contemporary art is defined in terms of the reflection generated by an art object Рand it is a reflection generated at a global scale of circulation.

But Brazilian pact was torn down during the 80's and the 90's, during the reforms to bring the country to its position in contemporary global system. What has this fact produced in terms of national culture?

Art no longer counts on governmental cultural policy, and came to survive as everything else: finding strategies of alliance with capital. Laws of tax reduction became a way to survive. That is to say, the government states that art can do anything, as long as someone pays for it without requesting much time for judging merits.

Brazilian cultural pact is no more a concern of the State. It cracks everywhere: young artists no longer worry about elaborating works from singularities of local life, institutions no longer reflect about a national pact based on culture, and elites adopt an international Miami style. At the basis of this change, the divorce between cultural production and national education – the last being dismantled, even for those who can afford expensive schools.

As an immediate consequence for art, the educational chain that united teachers and pupils is broken. From basic education up to college, we behold a radical lack of reflective capacity. It shows in graduate artists and writers, both constituting the net of young contemporary art.

During the same 80's and 90's, international capitalism accelerates circulation in the art world. Initially, Brazil responds with a tradition of fifty years: an universalistic art proposing solutions aligned with a political project of critical formation of Brazilian public.

However, the younger generation is deeply deprived of reflective instruments, being simultaneously open to an international recognition whose historical meaning is ignored. To them, nationality is an external datum for artistic production. They believe themselves to be neutral representatives of an universal art, covering ignorance with an ideology of young spontaneity.

In order to maintain this situation, art has to become a pop product. Not popular, in opposition to erudite, but a phenomenon of consuming society – in other words, a media subject. Media attracts public, and thus art gets credit from marketing capital to substitute an absent State. Young Brazilian contemporary art gets pet as spontaneous generation, in a poor critical environment formed in the same national conditions. As a common measure, international style is the reference from which judgments are made.

The contemporary young Brazilian artists are less capable of reflection than their immediate teachers. Yet they can succeed in inserting their production in the contemporary circuit, whether in Brazil or abroad. That it has been part of major international exhibitions is a fact; but its specific contribution for contemporary debate cannot be confused with a formal appearance of stylistic contemporaneity.

We face the initial opposition once more. At one hand, the Europocentric project of freedom through an universalistic culture, that generated an artistic production linked to national critical reflection, and the insertion of Brazil in international debate; it is a project in institutional collapse. At the other hand, international globalized capitalism urges for news that can move international reflection, but at the same time seems blind to the low reflective response of the art it shows and sells, when considered from its national point of view.

Therefore, an art object can be considered as contemporary even if its discursive counterpart is not produced in the same conditions of the work itself Рeven if no critical debate is produced at all in Brazil. Such mechanism of legitimization of contemporary culture doesn̥t presuppose real intellectual impact: as long as any review or catalogue text is written, the art object can circulate internationally.

1. See 1) Naves, R; "Debret, o neoclassicismo e a escravidão", in A Forma Difícil, Ática, S. Paulo, 1996; 2) Pedrosa, M.; "Da Misão Francesa - seus Obstáculos Políticas", in Acadêmicos e Modernos, Edusp, 1998; 3) Schwarcz, L.; "Um Monarca nos Trópicos", in As barbas do Imperador, Cia. Das Letras, S.Paulo, 1998; 4)Taunay, A.; A Missão Artística de 1816, Revista do Patrimônio Histórico e Artístico Nacional, #18, 1956.
2. See Hobsbawn, E.; The Age of Extremes, Vintage, NY, 1994, p.203.
3. See Fausto, B.; A revolução de 1930, Brasiliense, S.Paulo, 1991, 13a ed.
4. See Oiticica, H.; "Esquema Geral da Nova Objetividade", in Peccinini, D.(ed.); Objeto na Arte - Brasil anos 60, Faap, S. Paulo, 1980.
5. Pedrosa, M.; "Crise ou Revolução do Objeto - Homenagem a André Breton", in Peccinini, op. cit., p. 94.
6. See Hobsbawn, "The Social Revolution", op.cit., pp. 295-301.

©1999, Felipe Chaimovich