apexart :: Conference Program :: Sergio Mah

Cultural (In) Difference: The Portuguese Contemporary Art Scene
Sergio Mah

Globalization is today one of the most crucial issues influencing the ongoing dynamics of the contemporary world. Among its multiple effects is the perception that we are now entering an unprecedented period marked by a cultural transformation in which the contemporary art scene is rapidly assuming a borderless nature. Within this context, the field of art is taking on a de-localized framework as a result of the growing tendency for interaction and interdependence between different formal and conceptual imaginaries. This seems a particularly relevant reflection, derived from the belief that the phenomenon of art cannot be understood exclusively from the observation and analysis of artworks themselves. It also requires taking into consideration a series of non-artistic conditions and motivations.

With Portugal's most recent history as background — in particular the democratic revolution of April 1974 and the country’s entry into the European Economic Community in 1986 — I intend, in this paper, to reflect on the dialectics of homogenization and differentiation by looking at the Portuguese case and its simultaneously peripheral and central place in the European context.

Geographically, Portugal is located in south-western Europe, and this location reflects quite well the country’s current political, economic, social and cultural position. The concept of semi-periphery is particularly appropriate to illustrate the intermediate level of development of the Portuguese society: a country of deep contrasts that simultaneously displays characteristics of a successful advanced development and distressing symptoms of underdevelopment. In other words, a ‘late center’ unevenly modernized and with strong signs of dependent development. Portugal is a clear example of a complex combination of paradoxical social characteristics, a configuration made and re-made in the last 30 years, in which distinct historical temporalities converged and confronted each other. For this reason, despite the analytic complexity of its cultural and artistic realities, Portugal is certainly a fascinating laboratory.

At the beginning of 1974, Portugal was one of the less-developed countries in Europe and the oldest European colonial empire. A military coup headed by a group of young, democratic and anti-fascist officers seized power on April 25, 1974 from Western Europe's longest dictatorial regime. In a bloodless revolution, this group of officers quickly sought to put an end to the ongoing colonial war in Africa and to materialize a set of political transformations long desired by the Portuguese population. In the national imaginary, 'April 25' represents the end of a dark period in Portuguese history, and the turning point at which society turned into the main actor and reclaimed its role in the transformation of the country. These were times of great social convulsion that unsurprisingly had an important impact in the dynamics of the cultural arena.

For the artistic community in Portugal, the new context opened up an opportunity to make up for lost time, and to overcome the parochial isolation that for more than 50 years created an ideological, conceptual and formal gap with European avant-garde movements. The democratic revolution in 1974 represented the threshold of a whole new range of intentions and expectations, as new trends of thinking, expression and production emerged in the country's art landscape. The political transition allowed a new generation of artists to purge themselves of a set of academic and conservative paradigms that had to a great extent dominated the Portuguese artistic scene up until the 1970s. This cleansing process was aided by the return to Portugal, right after the 1974 revolution, of a group of young artists who had emigrated (mostly for educational reasons but some because of the political situation) during the 1960s, especially to the United Kingdom, France and Germany. These young artists, who were in contact with the most recent European art movements, were particularly important in fostering a new dynamic within the Portuguese artistic reality, to the point that, probably, for the first time in the 2oth century, there was a broad sense of synchronization between Portuguese artists and debates within the international avant-garde movement.

The exhibition Alternativa Zero (1977) can be considered the most significant moment reflective of this new scenario for the Portuguese art arena. It grouped artistic proposals based essentially in conceptualist discourse and set the terms of the debate around fundamental topics: questioning the role and status of the artist; the conception of art, in particular the concept of open work; the need for a stronger interaction with the public, which is now desired to be more active; the de-materialization of the artwork; the search for new relations between art and social or daily life; multi-disciplinarity and the subversion of boundaries between different artistic languages.

In sum, the April Revolution created the political, social and symbolic conditions for an effectively qualitative change in the Portuguese art world. Among signs of a growing openness and permeability to external influence, the Portuguese art circuit developed and constructed new and important institutional supports like the first modern art museum in Portugal, the Modern Art Centre of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, opened in 1983. The decision to open such a museum in Portugal came from a foreign millionaire based here, and was a symptom of the evolution of Portuguese cultural structures.

In 1986, Portugal joined the European Economic Community (after 1993 known as the European Union), which until then had brought together only the most developed European countries. Political and economic convergence with Europe was a popular expectation that began to rapidly grow right after the democratic revolution of 1974. By the end of the '70s, the Socialist Party (PS), which over the past 30 years has interchangeably governed the country with the Social Democratic Party (PSD), adopted the slogan 'Europe with Us.' Behind this slogan was the hope that with entry into the EEC, Portugal would build and consolidate a democratic society and develop economically to the level of the most developed countries of Western Europe. In this conjuncture, spirits were high, and it was expected that the country would rapidly mutate, changing itself to become like the other members of the EEC. Such imagination was supported by the fact that right after its entry, Portugal began receiving vast amounts of so-called European Structural Funds (ESF), aimed at helping with the transformation not only of the economy but also of institutional structures, in order to bring them in line with the highest European standards.
In a sense, Portugal’s entry into the EEC, above and beyond its political and economic dimensions, also reveals an important symbolic dimension, i.e., the ambition for a model of society based on parameters from the center, a model that reflected and effective in other areas, in particular the artistic and cultural milieu.

If, after 1974, it became evident the effort of a great number of Portuguese artists went to exulting in the new conditions of thought, expression, and production, which brought them more in line with an international art scenario, entry into the EEC marked another significant symbolic moment: the intent of a Portuguese individual qua artist to realize a long-sought proximity to European artistic communities, as a European individual qua artist. In other words, what was previously seen as a fascination with or attraction to Western artistic modernity now found a whole new set of conditions for integration with that reality, the result of which will be decisive for the future.

It is also from this point in time, in the political and institutional panorama, that conditions essential for the development of an art circuit similar in its diversity and typologies to the countries of the center began to consolidate and play a role in fostering a lively contemporary-art scene. Among these was the consolidation of a network of museum infrastructures prepared to host modern and contemporary art (currently, Portugal has six major contemporary museums, five of them opened between 1992 and 1999); the expansion of a gallery-based market, particularly in Lisbon and Porto, paralleling the creation of public and private art collections; and a growth in art courses, owing to the emergence of several regional schools, at both the university and polytechnic levels. Other such conditions included a rising interest on the part of the media in the art scene, as seen in the launching of art pages in both magazines and newspapers; an increase in the number of scholarships, particularly to institutions in the United States and Western Europe; support for programs to help artists develop specific projects; an escalating theoretical production among art-history academics; and finally, the emergence of a small group of independent curators.

Simultaneously, Portuguese art began to increase their visibility abroad, benefiting from the country's presence in the Venice and São Paulo Biennale (in both cases, there was regular representation beginning in the mid-'90s), as well from other international events dedicated to Portuguese art like Europália (Brussels, 1991) and ARCO, the international art fair in 1998. The latter event was particularly significant because it marked the beginning of the growing presence of Portuguese art on the Spanish art circuit. Meanwhile, important foreign artists have had exhibitions in Portugal, while several Portuguese artists and curators have been invited to organize many international exhibitions and events. Indeed, what had previously been seen as an exceptional case — the interpenetration of Portuguese art with the international scene — configuring a dichotomy of 'inside/outside,' began to profoundly change in the ’90s, and this allowed a significant expansion of the imaginary of both artists and public in Portugal.

I have tried above to highlight, even if very brieflly, some of the transformations in the Portuguese art world over the past 30 years against the background of political, economic and symbolic conditions. Given the new democratic framework and growing political and economic investment in the cultural and artistic arena, I would argue that the most clear image of the Portuguese art scene is one of a strongly pursued centrality, which implies joining that center and submitting to an idea I would describe as 'modernity or contemporaneity as an imagination of the center.'

Yet, the period we are currently living in also requires critical reflection focusing on the identity of Portuguese art, as well as on the dialectics of cultural and artistic differentiation and homogenization. Ultimately, this approach aims at rethinking the peculiar nature of artistic production by reconsidering one of its main principles for modernity: that art should express an understanding of the life and times of the reality from which it emerges. This issue is all the more important when today one must almost inevitably examine the phenomenon of art within a context of globalization. Regarded as a new stage marked by the emergence of a new order based in growing political and economic interdependence, de-territorialized networks of capital flows, technologies, services, information and people in a world without center, globalization has repercussions in the cultural arena, which now appears more trans-localized, surmounting borders previously structured around customs, nationalism, language, ideology, and, frequently, all of this.

The principal readings of globalization tend to regard the cultural arena as a complex order reproducing a myriad of vertical and horizontal relations, unstable and non-deterministic. It thus makes no sense to resort to traditional models of differentiation between centers and peripheries. One can agree in part with this new scenario. For example, globalization has allowed the integration of semi-peripheral and peripheral cultures into the center, while at the same time we can observe the modernization of semi-peripheral and peripheral contexts (which in some cases have succeeded in building their own 'central poles').

However, if we look at the Portuguese case, I think that this process of cultural proximity and connection is far from being an outcome of globalization per se. In first place, it is important to note that the globalization of culture is intrinsically linked to factors of a political and economic character, namely the expansion of the dominant national economies through the expansion of capital, the structures of production and the market on a multi-national level. In second place, there has been increased dissemination and domination by cultural modernity on the part of the center (especially the Anglo-American one) over the global art system. It is symptomatic that the international art panorama continues to be mainly "dominated" by institutions, artists, art reviewers, curators and collectors (private or institutional) born or based in the center. Finally, the tendency to be porous and imitate Western cultures is as widespread as ßever.

All these issues are crucial in understanding the phenomenon of contemporary art on a world scale. But we should also recognize that this is not a totally new phenomenon. Modern art has always been, by its nature, trans-national, even if, in its most ‘significant’ moments, it was geographically established in artistic centers that were simultaneously extra-artistic power centers, in which economic and political power was intrinsically related to the vast array of institutions devoted to the formation, education and promotion of artists.

At present, Portugal has a circuit of contemporary and modern art museums and centers unique in its history. But interestingly, these institutions were progressively built and developed by deriving their own tendencies from the great contemporary and modern art museums and centers located in the countries of the center. I mean not only their internal organizational logic or the type of values they promote, but also and above all a curatorial program that mimics in a very clear way an understanding and evolution of the history of contemporary and modern art basically framed and legitimized in the center. These tendencies can easily be seen from a simple analysis of the sequence of retrospectives of great Western artists presented in these museums and art centers. This appeal to the centre raises the issue of the ‘dependency’ of the Portuguese institutional circuit. In terms of the unequal import and export of significant exhibitions, the gap between Portugal and countries like the U. K. or Germany remains significant, a further reflection of how cultural globalization is subjected to the logic of economic, political and symbolic expansion of the center over the non-center. As an example, despite the higher cost, it is easier to bring to Portugal a retrospective of a great English or German artist (not to mention a North American), than to circulate a retrospective of the 'best' Portuguese artist in the U. K. or Germany (which, I would argue, would be an extremely difficult job).

In the Portuguese case, this appeal to Western centers becomes even more contentious when we recognize that not much attention has been paid to the artistic production of peripheral countries and cultures. Despite the fact that Portugal is a semi-peripheral country, at the center of the fifth-largest linguistic community in the world, covering countries like Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, and Cape Verde, and undergoing a growing wave of new immigrants (from Africa, Latin America, and more recently from the former Eastern Europe), it is a profound paradox to acknowledge that multicultural confrontation has been widely ignored within the Portuguese art scene. It is not enough to from time to time promote exhibitions of the type 'African Art'; in their essence these are no more than mere exercises expressing a superficial fascination with something seen as exotic or ethnographic. At worst, behind these exhibitions is a certain nostalgic view of an 'innocent' or 'authentic' art that disappeared with modernity. In sum, among our pivotal figures, politicians, curators and artists, prevails a consciousness that contemporary art manifests and builds by 'looking up,' to the top of the pyramid.

This emphasis on centrality is heightened by the fact that in Portugal there is no intermediate level between commercial galleries and the biggest contemporary and modern art centers. Small and medium-sized institutions that could be platforms or venues for the development of alternative or less standardized artistic proposals are rare in Portugal.

At a different level, in the last decade the Portuguese state, along with other institutions relevant to the art world, have favored granting scholarships to artists as a way of allowing them to attend masters or other arts programmes in central countries like the U. S., U. K., and Germany. One of the central goals is the promotion of individual artistic paths that have more potential; equally important is the desire that emerging Portuguese art be better known in the most important sites on the international arts circuit. This situation also merits critical reflection, to the extent that at stake here is almost an entire generation of new Portuguese artists. It is hard to find promising artists between the ages of 25 and 35 years who have not benefited from significant financial and logistic support for one or more years in programs in institutions based in New York, London or Berlin. I do not question the clear benefits of this strategy, but it is important to reflect on its eventual consequences. I could mention as an example, even if anecdotal, the growing tendency by Portuguese artists to title their work in English. What I wish to emphasize here is the tendency towards a dilution of territorial consciousness, even with the limitations and perversions that implies, for the notorious purpose of configuring and imagining artistic discourse within a context of 'universal finality,' one inevitably framed by Anglo-American dominance. From interaction to formal imitation is only a small step.

Despite the paradoxes, contradictions and structural constraints of the past years, the Portuguese contemporary art scene is living through a unique period of dynamism, energy and great productive effort. Nevertheless, we need to reflect on the advantages and disadvantages of that vigorous appeal of the center, and on the fact that in the Portuguese case it derives not only from the nature of the international art system, or economic, political and cultural globalization, but also from the effects produced by important moments in its most recent history.

Nowadays it makes no sense to reject this relation with the center, but the challenge for a country like Portugal lies in the possibility of defining a unique autonomy, i.e., how a semi-peripheral reality can empower 'sites of convinced centrality.' I do not mean by this a mere rhetorical reformulation of the notions of center and periphery. It is above all about meeting the challenge of empowering artistic production, through alternative routes less subject to central models, as a meeting place for diverse cultural practice and thinking, in order to exchange alternative and 'original' experiences. Whatever the eventual distance to the center, it does not necessarily imply a pretense for disconnection, but rather an expectation of materializing a self-defined and singular existence, inevitably linked to a working territory close in its historical, cultural and social levels. This is a dimension perhaps in decline, but far from vanishing, and even further from being considered no longer central.