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No Me Token; or, How to Make Sure We Never Lose the * Completely

No Me Token: o, cómo asegurarnos de nunca perder el * por completo

English | Spanish

Autor Dario Escobar, Escultura Transparente 3 (Transparent Sculpture 3), 2012

Autor Dario Escobar, Escultura Transparente 3 (Transparent Sculpture 3), 2012. Wood, steel, plastic, and rubber, dimensions variable. Installation view: California-Pacific Triennial 2013, Orange County Museum of Art, 2013. Photo: Chris Bliss

Santiago Montoya, Horizon (I), Horizon (II), Horizon (III), 2012

Left to right: Santiago Montoya, Horizon (I), 2012, 159.5 x 161.5 x 10 cm; Horizon (II), 2012, 160.5 x 165.5 x 10 cm; Horizon (III), 2012, 160 x 163.5 x 10 cm. All works paper money on stainless steel. Installation view: The Great Swindle, Halcyon Gallery, London, 2012. Photo: Alfie Hunter Images

Elena Damiani, Palimpsests II series, 2010

Elena Damiani, Palimpsests II series, 2010. Photocollages, each 52 x 35 cm, framed. Installation view: Vanishing Point / Vantage Point, Dohyang Lee Galerie, Paris, 2011. Photo: Aurélien Mole

Editor’s Introduction

“What exactly is ‘Latin America,’ after all?” In a detailed analysis of the ways in which Latin American culture has developed and been received in relation to its international counterparts, José Luis Falconi shows that the answer to this ostensibly simple question is anything but. Tracing the routes by which Latin American art has made critical and commercial “progress” since the birth of modernism, No Me Token; or How to Make Sure We Never Lose the * Completely1 proposes an alternative to the “monolithic” Western art-historical narrative, revealing how the transformation of Latin America’s economy has bonded its constituent nations to Western markets and institutions while also remaining distinct from them. Central to this characterization is the region’s internal diversity; the question of regional identity might, the writer argues, become more prescient before fading away only as the world “flattens” entirely. He points out too that the original conception of Latin Americanism was in part a product of European intellectual idealization in the mid-19th century, and was never absorbed into the popular culture of those places it purported to describe. Relating the history of Latin America’s creative flowering to broader sociopolitical shifts, Falconi portrays a region in which simplistic notions of linear influence and local authenticity are problematized by a multilayered global context.

Call me a dork, but not long ago I found myself spending Valentine’s Day at a venerable New York City museum all by myself. With no date in sight, and unable to resist the allure of the art inside, I decided to trade my social shortcomings for a stroll past some of my favorite objects. I expected something tame, but I was in for a big surprise. In fact, if there is nothing better for disguising romantic failure than an immersion in highbrow culture (holding as it does the potential for self-discovery through repressed identification—an especially endearing prospect for peripheral subjects like me), this one set the bar high.

I was not disappointed. Immediately after I entered the museum’s hallowed galleries, I was struck by the significant prevalence of works produced by Latin American artists. Besides the objects displayed in the permanent collection galleries, MoMA was, that particular day, filled with Latin American art: Mexican Gabriel Orozco’s mid-career retrospective (December 2009–March 2010) was on the fifth floor, Brazilian Ernesto Neto’s installation Navegenda (January–April 2010) held a prominent place on the third floor, and a ubiquitous site-specific project by Argentine artist Nicolás Guagnini and collaborators titled 9 Screens (February–August 2010) started at the ticket counters before spreading through the whole museum. The five floors of the museum were taken over by artists from around Latin America.

As someone from a region that has always felt left out of or underrepresented in the Western canonical historical account (not only in art but in cultural life in general), to see so many works by Latin Americans so prominently featured felt like poetic justice, a dream come true. Growing up studying the Western canon from the margins—it had very little to do with us, Latin Americans being mentioned only tangentially—to find one’s cultural production placed suddenly center stage was pleasingly disconcerting.

Nonetheless, for all its fanfare, my newly gained pride soon dissolved into doubt. The truth is that I wasn’t sure exactly what I was witnessing. Was this a culmination of the “historical progress” of Latin American art, or merely evidence of a curatorial fad? If the former, why did it fail to knock the chip off my shoulder? More importantly, why did the inclusion of these artists amount to an historical step forward for our “tradition”? What was riding on such “inclusion,” and why should we Latin Americans be happy with it?

What follows is largely an effort to tease out the possible reasons why such inclusion might feel, to some of us, over-determined and vacuous—a pyrrhic victory (it felt, though this might seem paradoxical, at once justified and misguided). The reasons for this paradox are of two different orders: the first set has to do with the very terms of the alleged inclusion—what has the price of inclusion been? The second concerns the question of what exactly is being “included”—what exactly is “Latin America,” after all?

This first order of uneasiness raises questions about the reasons behind efforts to include Latin American art in the narrative of Western modernism, and the consequences of doing so; the second prompts doubts about the pertinence of such terms as Latin American art or even Latin America in general. If there is such a thing as Latin America, and if it is pertinent to use such a concept (even methodologically), then why does it seem that hardly anyone feels represented by it? To put it bluntly, why should a Peruvian like me feel included in the Western artistic narrative by the representation of Argentineans, a Mexican, and a Brazilian at this museum? If they are not my compatriots, and Latin America as a concept is inadequate and unreliable, how could I be represented by their works?

Before trying to unpack such questions, it might be useful to consider four important factors that have historically formed part of the process of trying to locate the “place” of Latin America on the world stage as seen from the United States. The first of these is the stark and sudden awareness that the world has become an interconnected and interdependent place (globalization). The second is the apparent rise of a temporal regime for cultural production that has promised inclusion beyond traditional modernist confines (contemporaneity). Third and forth are the crystallizations of two different historical processes that appear (often confusingly) conflated in the U.S., but which should be understood separately: the rise of certain countries in Latin America (Brazil and Mexico, primarily, which have become the seventh and the fourteenth largest economies in the world) as important players on the world stage, and the rise of the Latino population within the U.S. as the country’s largest minority (first displacing African Americans from the top position in 2001).2

To a great degree, we cannot understand the radical transformation implied by the way in which Latin American art has seen both its self-image and its international position shift without also considering the way in which the aforementioned factors have assumed central significance. Consider, for example, the way in which the rise of contemporaneity—the new temporal paradigm of this era and one of the most salient by-products of the so-called globalized world—alleged an opportunity to overcome the perennial belatedness of our modernity, and to march culturally in step with the great metropolitan centers.3 Though it is difficult to pinpoint what it means to be “contemporary” (Is it a style? A karmic stage? A tone? A set of dates?), the important thing is to comprehend its implied negation of the previous milieu (the modern).

For Latin Americans, who have for decades been trying to finally become “modern,” the emergence of a new temporal paradigm was particularly liberating. Indeed, contemporaneity was the instantiation of what, just a few decades previously, had been promised by the advent and rise of postmodernism.4 The erasure of boundaries between peripheral areas and metropolitan centers established the potential for the region’s cultural production to equal that of traditional centers of discourse in Europe and the U.S. In fact, precisely because it implied leaving behind a modernist paradigm for which Latin Americans always felt unfit, inadequate, and late, they have been eager to embrace it as legitimizing “proof” of their global cultural status.

Of course, this shift in the cultural milieu correlates directly with global economic changes over the last thirty years. Certainly, one might argue that contemporaneity is, to a large degree, a product of the way in which the very notion of the present has been stretched geographically to include almost the whole globe and temporally by late capitalism. (We will return to this discussion.)

While it is difficult for anyone from the developing world, and especially from Latin America, to accept that our economic system has became suddenly global (the fact that this is now noticeable does not mean that an economic world-system has not been in place since shortly after Europeans set foot in the Americas), the transformation of societies whose economies were formerly based on the production of raw materials into important consumer markets (China, India, Brazil, and Mexico, for example) has transformed the economic and geopolitical map.5 What were thirty years ago seen as merely extractive enclaves of capitalism charged with supplying resources scarce in North Atlantic economies are now also regarded as deep, thriving markets filled with eager and increasingly wealthy consumers. By changing their place in the system from a link in the supply chain to a major consumer, they are now among the world’s leading economies, and challenge the unidirectionality of the north-to-south exchange.6

The eruption onto the world stage of new economic superpowers has not only made more evident the capitalist system’s need to continually identify and exploit new markets, but has also clarified the way in which the transformation of once-forgotten places has caused the “cartography of contemporaneity” to expand exponentially.7 Insofar as these Latin American nations become part of the economic system as consumer sites, they stop being seen as merely “places” (which stresses nature over culture, and space over time) and start to be identified in temporal terms as part of the “contemporary world.”8 Perhaps the clearest sign of such decentering from the world’s northern poles is the international proliferation of biennials. The fact that any medium-sized city now feels entitled to engage in contemporary art dialogue by producing a large-scale exhibition indicates the existence of a shared lingua franca and a common belief in the nascent existence of an at least fairly level playing field.

In, or perhaps for Latin America, this decentering of hegemonic cultural discourse was led by Mexico and Brazil. These two major economies have become not only legitimate players on the international scene, but also centers for the production and consumption of contemporary art. Indeed, it could be argued that, based on the number of museums and world-class galleries it contains, Mexico City represents the second or third hub for contemporary art in the Americas (trailing only New York and Los Angeles). Additionally, not only have Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo combined become the most important locus for contemporary art in South America, but their region is now considered one of the most important in the world.

Nonetheless, over the past decade, as a significant number of smaller countries have also gained economic stature, their elites have also rushed to link their local scenes to the larger contemporary art scene.9 Thus we have seen not only an unprecedented proliferation of new contemporary art museum construction (and rededication of extant institutions), but also the appearance of new art fairs in every capital in the region. A number of smaller regional biennials have also sprouted, to the point that there is now a fairly robust regional circuit.10

In addition to this global-scale decentering, which has paved the way for Latin America’s rise (especially from the perspective of the U.S.), we also need to consider the rise to national prominence of the Latino community. It is well documented that Latinos have since July 2001 been the U.S.’s largest minority demographic; one in six Americans is Latino. This emergent center-stage position has not only made “Latinos” (their extremely heterogeneous economic, ethnic, racial, and national origins notwithstanding) a favorite target for politicians, but has also raised the visibility of Latino artistic and cultural heritages. For that reason, over the past few years, there has been an exponential increase in the number of exhibitions and publications that focus on Latinos, revealing their important contribution to the larger American culture while also emphasizing their ties to Latin American traditions and culture.11 In that way, Latin American culture has started—albeit indirectly, and sometimes focused on a too-narrow identitarian political agenda—to become recognized within the average American household.

But if all these factors have enhanced the standing of Latin American cultural production across the globe—and in the U.S especially—they have also complicated, to the point of muddling our definition of Latin American art. The problem is that insofar as the forces of globalization promote only one lingua franca (that of Post-Minimalist, Post-Conceptual art), all essentialist traits become surplus to international requirements. As critic Gerardo Mosquera puts it in the title of one his essays, the art of the region needed, at a certain point, to transform itself from arte Latinoamericano (Latin American art) to arte desde América Latina (art from Latin America).12 This is, unfortunately, a no-win situation. If Latin America has transitioned more-or-less seamlessly into a “contemporary” mode devoid of essentialism, why keep insisting on a category such as Latin American art at all? How could such a thing be differentiated, and why would it matter?

Luckily for me, this question seems entirely premature, for two main reasons that also concern the region’s very constitution. First, while Latin America is one of the most homogenous regions of the world, there are serious differences between not only its countries and subregions, but also within some of its single national traditions.13 Secondly, despite the speed with which the world is becoming “flattened,” it seems that, while national stances often dissolve into thin air, regional stances (pan-European, pan-Asian) have strengthened—a context in which Latin America as an articulating concept and identity acquires an enhanced status.14 In that sense, before it becomes irrelevant, the question of regional identity might become more prescient and present.

It is important to remember the way in which the concept of Latin America was created and originally circulated through intellectual circuits in Europe or, more precisely, in Paris. In other words, it emerged, as most nationalist concepts have, out of homsesickness, but it was also a product of idealization on the part of elite individuals. If even today the concept has not mobilized the masses, and has failed to constitute a binding sentiment, it is because it has not trickled down to wider audiences and is, in some cases, still seen as a purely mental construct. Indeed, as Uruguayan philosopher Arturo Ardao points out in a seminal essay on Latin American identity, the concept was inexorably linked to the world-dominating aspirations of the French Empire of the 19th century. It was in fact first articulated by Michel Chevalier, a Frenchmen who, alarmed by the exponential growth of the U.S. in the American continent (its having purchased Louisiana from the French in 1803), tried to designate the space of influence legitimate to France (in opposition to its Anglo counterpart) by highlighting the cultural affinity between non-Anglo America and the French in their “Latin-ness.” This led, of course, to France’s invasion of Mexico in the early 1860s.15 Historian Thomas Holloway reminds us:

Historically, the first use of the term Latin America has been traced only as far back as the 1850s. It did not originate within the region, but again from outside, as part of a movement called “pan-Latinism” that emerged in French intellectual circles, and more particularly in the writings of Michel Chevalier (1806–79). A contemporary of Alexis de Tocqueville who traveled in Mexico and the United States during the late 1830s, Chevalier contrasted the “Latin” peoples of the Americas with the “Anglo-Saxon” peoples (Phelan 1968; Ardao 1980, 1993).  From those beginnings, by the time of Napoleon III’s rise to power in 1852, pan-Latinism had developed as a cultural project extending to those nations whose culture supposedly derived from neo-Latin language communities (commonly called Romance languages in English). Starting as a term for historically derived “Latin” culture groups, L’Amerique Latine then became a place on the map.  Napoleon III was particularly interested in using the concept to help justify his intrusion into Mexican politics that led to the imposition of Archduke Maximilian as Emperor of Mexico, 1864–67.16

In other words, the reason why Latin America or Latin Americanism might not yet function as binding categories is probably due to the fact that they still operate more as methodological categories than as popular sentiments. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the concept of Latin America is completely empty. In fact, it does describe a feeling of belonging—albeit a weak one—because it has been defined mostly in negative terms: Latin Americans are not first world people, they have a love-hate relationship with the U.S. and Europe, and, most importantly, they have fallen prey to foreign imperialism.

It is therefore not surprising that Latin American sentiment has been most robust during moments when anti-imperialist sentiment has also been strongest, as was the case between 1959 (starting with the victory of the Cuban Revolution) and the late 1980s. Thus, a large component of being Latin American is being anti-imperialist (or, to be precise, anti-American). Even now, due to the infelicitous history of invasions by the U.S. (more than forty, from military invasions in the 19th century to the direct support of right-wing coups during the Cold War), the call to Latin American unity is usually assembled against perceived American intrusions in domestic policy.17

But is it only anti-Americanism that binds us together as Latin Americans? Certainly not, although little else has been widely accepted as explanation for the region’s homogeneity. The first definition proposed by the aforementioned Parisian intellectual has proven to be only nominally true: many Latin Americans did regard that city as the capital of culture until the late 1960s, but the oblique relationship between the core group of nations with the former French colonies in the continent (Quebec Province in Canada, and Haiti) showed that no matter how strong the ties with France, the dominant cultural architecture of the regional bloc would remain Iberian.18 If there is anything definitive about the region’s perceived homogeneity, it is the fact that all countries in Latin America have exhibited three basic similarities for almost two centuries: a single religion (Catholicism, although this might be changing rapidly in the last decades), the same type of legal system (derived from the Napoleonic Code), and the same type of political system (with slight differences, they are all democratic republics).

Whether or not these similarities, together with a history of aggression by and dependency on Europe and the U.S., constitute sufficient explanation remains an open question. But while these factors are practically undisputed, the addition of others has proven impossible, as the region exhibits diverse patterns of economics, race, linguistics, and immigration. Even in cultural terms, the pertinence of the Baroque foundational ethos—the most central of the cultural blueprints that spread across the continent with the Portuguese and Spanish conquest, and one which has, arguably, shaped Latin American sensitivities including the sentimental education of its citizenry for generations—is contested as a true unifying factor.19 Perhaps the only new factor that could be considered a strong unifying force in the near future is the transformation of Miami, which has developed a very distinctive type of pan-Latino culture over the last thirty years, into the unofficial capital of Latin America.20

Along with the term’s genesis as a justification for French imperialist designs on the region, this inability to assemble a convincing case for the area’s homogeneity should deter us from conceiving of it too readily as a whole; Latin America should be understood, first and foremost, as a methodological category that helps us to organize information but which should not be taken at face value. A closer examination of the region’s disparities may be useful in understanding how and why globalization is favorable for certain of its countries or localities and detrimental for others.

Obviously, uneven economic development has been responsible for the most significant disparities within the region. Therefore, it is important to understand that with the exception of the countries of the River Plate basin, Uruguay and Argentina—which experienced impressive economic development at the turn of the 20th century—most of Latin America has not been able to catch up economically to other Western countries since their independence from Spain in the early 19th century. The archaic economic and social institutions inherited from colonial times—quasi-feudal systems based on simple agriculture and the extraction of natural resources, which were imposed for centuries by the Spanish—could not compete with the productivity of the already industrialized North Atlantic. Furthermore, the political tumult—coups and civil wars between different military caudillos—experienced by most Latin American countries throughout the 19th century separated them from the centers of the Western world still further. If by around 1820 some Latin American countries had comparable living standards to those in some parts of North America, by the time of the centenary of their independence, the U.S. had pulled ahead significantly while the Latin American countries were still largely chaotic.21 Even now, after an unprecedented two decades of growth, and with democracy across the region, the only country close to entering the exclusive club of the developed world is Chile.22

Nevertheless, the fact that no Latin American country has yet achieved this economic parity does not mean they are otherwise equivalent to one another, and the differences between them are useful indicators of a given country’s status in international terms. In fact, it is possible to identify a primary group of countries that, owing to their proximity and importance to North Atlantic markets, became the economic leaders in the region and started to get recognition in the international arena. In South America, Argentina and Uruguay, due to their historical association with the British Empire at the onset of their independence and the terms of their early immigration policies, became linked to what might be considered “an extended Mediterranean.” Mexico, because it borders the U.S. and suffered the invasion of the French Second Empire, became a foundational part of the mythology of America’s westward expansion. Similarly, Cuba’s late independence from the Spanish Empire in 1898, and its proximity to American soil, has made it a key player in the narrative of American prominence in the region. From its war of independence to its 1959 revolution, the failed invasion of the Bay of Pigs in 1961, and subsequent economic embargo, the history of Cuba is inextricably linked to that of the U.S.

Thus, whether by a robust connection with Europe, or by proximity and historical significance to the U.S., these countries established an international profile that the rest of the continent lacked. They were recognized as players in an international scene and, obviously, this exposure corresponded to their economic position. Until its independence, Cuba was the financial crown jewel of the ailing Spanish Empire. Mexico profited enormously from the closing of the ports in the American south and experienced exponential growth as a result of modernization under the Porfirio Díaz regime (or “Porfiriato”) of 1876–1911. And by the turn of the century, Argentina had become one of the richest countries in the world.23

Indeed, it was this select group of countries that initially gave form to Latin America as a distinct cultural category. The fact that the essentialist paradigm that had been in place for so long was actually a blend of the River Plate’s “Arielismo” doctrine proposed by José Enrique Rodó in the 1900s and the Cuban Magical Realist take on cultural interpretation proposed by Alejandro Carpentier in the 1940s and given pictorial presence by the Mexican Muralism originally promoted by the state in the post-revolutionary 1920s and ’30s, is far from coincidental.24 These countries played such prominent roles in shaping the notion of Latin America in cultural terms because their economic influence translated into symbolic strength: The first “idea” or “cultural image” of Latin America was based on the features of these few economically prominent nations.

Certainly, the combination of Arielismo—which proposed defining Latin American culture in opposition to the materialistic North American variety, thus ensuring that the region would remain “pure,” “mystic,” and anchored in the traditions proper to its Ancient Latin and Greek legacies—and Carpentier’s formula for finding Latin Americans a legitimate place in the larger Western matrix—positioning them as being “naturally” what Europeans could only dream of—was powerful indeed. When Carpentier inverted the perceived relation between the civilized European and the barbarian Latin American, transforming the subaltern position of the Latin American subject into one of comparative advantage, he effectively situated Latin Americans not only on a different plane from Europeans, but a step ahead. This made them inherently “better.” That is, if it took centuries for Europeans to dream up Surrealism, Latin Americans (specifically Latin American artists) were naturally avant-garde because they were ontologically surrealists.25

These theories were largely successful in shoring up a regional identity that, until this time, had been almost non-existent. Little by little, the cultural producers of the subcontinent began to accept that the best way to claim cultural independence from Europe was to emphasize their immersion in a Magical Realist realm. Add to this the explicitly anti-imperialist air embodied in the Muralists’ visual rhetoric, and one arrives at an appealing theoretical combination that was both internally consistent and internationally distinct.

Yet while this discourse was consistent, it was also irritatingly limiting and predictable, painting Latin America as situated at the limits of the West, and as having willfully submitted to playing the role of its distorting mirror. If the West was rational, Latin America was naturally irrational; if the West was industrialized and materialistic, Latin America was naturally earthy and mystical. Thus, in the binary reduction between the modern West and its uncivilized outskirts, Latin America served (proudly) as the ultimate frontier space, as the locus of the West’s dreams (both grandiose and disastrous), the place where the most farfetched illusions were naturalized and the craziest metaphors were made concrete.

This is not the place for a detailed reconstruction of how this self-fashioning came to be the hegemonic version of “Latin America,” that is, the way in which the continent understood itself culturally for more than fifty years. What is important to understand is that, at its core, Magical Realism, which by the late 1990s felt restrictive in its modernist militancy and unfair in its provincialism, was at some point the most effective way of linking Latin America with the Western canon without reducing it to a mere offshoot of the culturally, politically, and economically dominant Anglo-American and European nations. Rodó’s and Carpentier’s formulas were powerful because they managed to transform the backwardness and belatedness of the region into an asset, offering the first effective declaration of independence from the European mold and proposing a particular positioning for the region. Because Latin Americans could not prove that they were part of the foundation of such a tradition, they were inserted at the point of Westerners’ dreams and desires. Thus, culturally speaking, Latin America was situated on the outskirts of civilization. It was a shantytown, a place to go wild and embrace the irrational.

So, if by the mid-1990s the Magical Realist formula felt too modernist, and thus outdated, it was because this was, alas, the case. If it only privileged one type of art over another, it was because it only highlighted one particular feature of Latin American reality—namely, its fundamental difference from Europe and the U.S. As a consequence, any Latin American cultural manifestation that attempted to view itself as a continuation of the European tradition instead of wearing its difference on its sleeve was sidelined. This was especially hard for a number of groups, movements, and artists who, in the big urban enclaves of the south Atlantic (São Paulo, Buenos Aires, and Caracas) were developing avant-gardes from the 1950s onward. Latin American Conceptualists, Minimalists, Kineticists, op artists, and even Constructivists and abstractionists, most of whom were developing a unique brand of each of these traditions (and therefore redefining the legacy of late modernism) were only marginally accepted, and always viewed with the suspicion of not being (or doing) real Latin American art—of mortgaging their souls in exchange for a dubious non-local “cosmopolitanism.”26

It is difficult to characterize in detail the way in which the “paradigm of difference” was inscribed in the visual realm; Mexican critic Cuauhtémoc Medina, for example, uses the apt anaphoric formula “surrealist-fantastic-muralist-revolutionary genealogy.” But the matrix in which Latin American art got stuck was one that accentuated its non-modern, non-Western qualities as essential identifying traits.27 Certain art was championed precisely because it was (allegedly) the true expression of our (allegedly) unique, fantastic identity.

Needless to say, with the arrival of the cool winds of contemporaneity in the mid-1990s, the paradigm of soft pastel tones and earthy, telluric connotations was finally exhausted and replaced by its exact opposite. Since the latter part of that decade, the new hegemonic self-fashioning of Latin American art has been—in alignment with the global agenda—driven by the post-Minimalist, neo-Conceptual matrix, which is rooted in two traditions. First and foremost, it springs from the narrative of geometric abstraction that has flourished in South America since the early 1940s, a tradition that is now recognized as a legitimate contribution to the modernist movement. Second, it is rooted in the tradition of politically engaged art that, due to its design, execution, or materially ephemeral nature (itself often a result of the difficult physical conditions in which many such works were made), has now been repackaged as Conceptual art.28 With one foot securely placed in the history of Western modernism through geometric abstraction, and the other foot placed in the neo avant-gardes of the late sixties through so-called Conceptual art, the new paradigm has, little by little, acquired historical legitimacy, and has served as the calling-card and historical anchor for our own claim to contemporaneity.29

What is interesting is that this new paradigm has been led by a second group of countries that developed strong national projects starting in the 1920s. Chief among these are Brazil and Venezuela, which by the 1950s had both not only developed powerful centralized states, but had also greatly increased their economic standing. Propelled by the discovery of massive oil deposits in Lake Maracaibo in the 1910s, Venezuela developed, by the early ’70s, into one of the most prosperous societies in the region.30 The same could be said about Brazil, beginning with the rise to power of Getulio Vargas in 1930 and the establishment of the “Estado Novo,” which was aimed at dismantling the Old Republic and its stale elites. This process helped trigger strong economic development that, by the late 1950s (when Brasília was conceived and planned), fuelled a number of radical national sociocultural transformations that inexorably condemned the country to “modernity” (to use Mario Pedrosa’s provocative formulation).31

What is particularly relevant about the cases of Brazil and Venezuela is that both modernization projects—probably the most successful ones in Latin America during the mid-20th century—were accompanied by very strong winds of cultural change that shaped a distinctive way of being “modern.” Due to their relatively weak relations with their own indigenous cultures (in comparison with, say, Guatemala, Peru, or Mexico), and their robust connections with Europe (from their markets to the particular historical evolution of their immigration policies since the late 19th century), Brazil’s and Venezuela’s cultural modernization projects did not need to be anchored in local myth but could engage directly with the lineages of the most radical of Europe’s avant-gardes.

In Brazil, amidst the rapid transformation of São Paulo from a small provincial town into a world-class metropolis, the Concretist poets (known since 1952 as Noigandres, and headed by Haroldo de Campos) led an effort to “modernize” Brazilian poetry by translating key works of the Western canon. This was tantamount to reinventing the national tradition, reconstituting cultural forms apparently from scratch and making them appear to have originated from an alternate past that constituted a more logical precursor to the modern world.32 In their tabula rasa reconstruction, the Concretists focused on two foundational moments, the introduction of the baroque during the colonial period and Oswald de Andrade’s Manifesto Antropófago (Cannibal Manifesto) of 1928.33

The strategic realignment of the Brazilian tradition proposed by the Concretists was guided by a need to show how subaltern subjectivity was better suited to continuing a project forged by the historical avant-gardes—that is, bridging the gap between art and life. If those efforts had been interrupted in Europe by World War II, they found fertile ground in the Americas. There was no longer an interest in breaking from “Western tradition,” but instead a desire to actually convince Westerners that due to the their irreducible and multifaceted outsider’s view, Latin Americans were naturally the most capable of continuing the modernist project. This, in turn, made them true to their own baroque ethos. As de Campos puts it, “the logocentric writers, who imagined themselves privileged users of a proud koine in a single script, prepare themselves for the increasingly urgent task of recognizing and re-devouring the differential marrow of the new barbarians of polytypic and polyphonic planetary civilization.”34 In this way, the inversion of the hegemonic and the subaltern was not only complete but also secured. Nonetheless, in contrast to Carpentier’s formulation, de Campos’s is organized according to the core terms of Western modernism: Insofar as we were already operating as a “planetary civilization,” the Latin American “barbarian” subject (half-in, half-out, capable of bringing together different positions and traditions) has a unique vantage point, and becomes essential to the continuation of avant-garde projects. Only the cannibals will inherit the (new) world.35

If one examines the formulations articulated by several other Brazilian theorists and artists in terms of the resonance of Brazilian art and culture in the Western world, they are structurally all very similar to the one articulated by de Campos and the Concretists. That is, they all postulate that their “inclusion” in the larger discourse of Western culture is based on the fact that they were better equipped to continue the project established by the historical avant-garde. Different authors and artists might differ in identifying specific precursors and ultimate motivations, but the strategy for inclusion (i.e. the belief that justifies it) remains the same. For example, if one evaluates the way in which Lygia Clark, one of the most notable exponents of the Rio de Janeiro Neo-Concretist school, situates her artistic project (and that of the neo-Concretistas in general), we find a way of positioning artistic practice that is consistent with the mission of the historical avant-gardes. While their motivations and goals may differ, their method of insertion into the larger schema of art history is very similar to de Campos’s. Clark sets up Mondrian as her historical precursor: “The great importance of Mondrian, to me, was that he ‘cleaned’ the canvas of ‘representative space,’ and from this came the contemporary questioning of this space. It is left for us to seek living forms which get away completely from representative space, which can only be used to the extent that it expressed by the time-experience of the work.”36 Thus, she sees her work as continuation of Mondrian’s path. As critic Guy Brett has pointed out:

Clark herself had a clear idea of the context in which her work evolved. Hers was not a local “Brazilian” expression, she felt, but a contribution toward “the universal development of art.” At the same time, she maintained that her work, after the geometric sculptures of 1960, at least, “could only have been done by someone with the roots I have.” It was not intended for the art milieu of galleries and museums but was aimed, ideally, at “the person in the street.” How did these elements of context, which might appear to be mutually contradictory, come to be intertwined? The question already gives a clue to Clark’s significance.37

Brett’s commentary shows the two sides of the delicate equation needed for the type of inclusion that Clark, just as de Campos before her, was attempting. Both figures saw their work as a contribution to the development of Western art, and quite separate from any particular local color and style, but also realized that such a contribution would have not been possible without their specific roots. A contribution to “universal” (that is, global) art is thus possible only due to their particularity of location (just outside the center of discourse). This insider/outsider position, unique to the peripheral subject, was crucial. Mondrian’s clean sweep could only be deciphered via a sensitivity developed on the outskirts of modernity.

Interestingly enough, Mondrian also serves as a historical anchor for the writings of the great architect and ideologue of the modernization of Venezuela’s national repertoire, Alejandro Otero. If Otero is already a towering figure simply based on his own artistic legacy, his stature reaches epic proportions when one takes into account his writings and activities as a public intellectual. He is one of a handful of artists in the region who truly reshaped national tradition by altering decisively its cultural institutions, including museums, schools, and publications.

Although it was home to the great “Libertador,” Simón Bolivar (1783–1830), by the time the 20th century rolled in, Venezuela did not enjoy a prominent cultural standing among the new South American nations. Caracas boasted neither the bustling effervesce of Buenos Aires, Montevideo, and São Paulo, nor the colonial grandeur of Lima and Bogotá. All that changed with the discovery of the Lake Maracaibo oil reserves, which provided an opportunity for the nation to propel itself into the forefront of the region. In order to make full use of this potential boon, Venezuela needed comprehensive modernization, and Otero, on his return from Paris in the mid-1950s, sought to contribute decisively to this end. While living in Paris, Otero was a member of the now mythic Los Disidentes group, which, as its name suggests, countered the retrograde figurative art fostered by traditional cultural institutions in Caracas. In its place, they proposed a shift towards geometric abstraction.

It is at this juncture that the influence of Mondrian reappears. Through the painter’s art and writing, Otero was able to claim that while abstract art rejected “all imitative contact with reality,” this did not mean that it broke with the social realm or its improvement.38 As critic Kaira M. Cabañas has recently pointed out: “Crucial in this context is that Otero’s turn to Mondrian’s work allowed him to claim abstract art’s relation to social reality (after all, Mondrian considered his work realist and his paintings as models for a harmonious society), rather than tether artistic production exclusively to the painter’s individual subjectivity, as in the work of Art Informel painters then on the rise in Paris.”39

In fact, as was clear in their writings—and in their crucial collaboration with architect Carlos Villanueva on the emblematic Ciudad Universitaria in Caracas—Los Disidentes (Otero in particular) believed firmly that abstract art was in itself a revolutionary phenomenon capable of directing the masses towards progress, especially if tied to modernist architecture. As Marguerite Mayhall points out:

For Otero and others, abstraction was synonymous with a Synthesis of the Arts in which artists worked collectively to create works of art that functioned as agents of social change. It is not surprising, then, that when the architect Villanueva went to Paris in search of artists to help him achieve his own version of this synthesis—the University City—artists such as Otero and Manaure would be asked to collaborate. The confluence of the Dissidents, Villanueva, and the renovating impulses of Pérez Jiménez’s regime produced what is considered the most important architectural site of twentieth-century Venezuela.40

What is interesting here is not so much the way in which abstract art became the national art of Venezuela, but the belief on which this shift was based. This reveals, as with de Campos and Clark, a conscious self-fashioning on the part of Otero, as a heir to the promise of the historical avant-garde, a belief that the task of bridging art and life could best be accomplished in the Americas, and a confidence that Latin American art and artists could be both “universal” and rooted in a very particular marginal position, only afforded by Latin Americans.41

Anyone who has been involved with Latin American Art over the past decade will not only recognize Otero, Clark, and de Campos, but also Hélio Oiticica and the Venezuelan sculptor Gego as members of a cast that is now presented as crucial to the development of Latin American art. If the old list of artists that defined the region’s aesthetic was mostly Cuban and Mexican, the new one is mostly Venezuelan and Brazilian. Nonetheless, just as the prior model was anchored in the River Plate countries through José E. Rodó’s teachings and Pedro Figari’s paintings of the late 1800s, this new model is also rooted in the work of a seminal figure from the Southern Cone: Joaquín Torres-García. As the founder of the seminal Escuela del Sur (School of the South) circa 1934, Torres-García developed a unique version of Constructivism based on developing a “universal art” via the production of a distinctive American language (in his case based on pre-Colombian motifs), which emanated not from the North but from the South.42 Insofar as it sought to develop a unique version of a modernist current (Constructivism) under local tenants, Torres-García’s “southern doctrine” became the perfect keystone, the dreamed precursor, for the paradigm of “similitude” to acquire serious historical depth.

Nonetheless, this new paradigm would not have become what it is now without a concerted effort from a number of important players on the international scene. It would be unfair not to acknowledge the enormous amount of work that numerous individuals–curators, critics, art historians, donors—have contributed to the establishment of this new model for understanding the cultural production of Latin America. Several important exhibitions tracing this history have been staged over the past decade, beginning with Inverted Utopias, organized by Mari Cármen Ramírez in 2004, which could be considered its foundational U.S. example.43 The Geometry of Hope, organized by Gabriel Pérez Barreiro in 2007, was vital in establishing that the “geometrical impulse” had a vast reach in the continent, and helped strengthen the link between Torres-García’s Constructivist school, the Escuela del Sur, and the geometrical impetus of the 1950s onwards in Brazil and Venezuela.44 Similarly, Juan Ledezma’s The Sites of Latin American Abstraction in 2009 helped to identify abstraction as an important preoccupation for photographers across the region.45 In exhibitions such as 2009’s Tangled Alphabets at MoMA, Luis Enrique Pérez-Oramas showed how the exploration of language was a central preoccupation of two major artists, Brazilian Mira Schendel and Argentinean León Ferrari. In doing so, he established a dialogue between two Latin American artists without reference to a legitimizing European or American figure.46

At the same time, Luis Camnitzer and the members of the Red de Conceptualismos del Sur have helped identify the way in which a number of different actions across the continent could be recast as Conceptual art, and young scholars such as Daniel Quiles have demonstrated the way in which artists in Argentina were pioneers in the production of “mass media” art, as well as in the dematerialization of the art object during the 1960s and ’70s.47 It is clear that a decade since its first forceful declaration (Ramírez’s exhibition), this new model is still operating in the present, having become the hegemonic discourse for understanding the region’s visual production. Most importantly, it has made more robust and refined the case that from the early 20th century to the late 1970s, while the region’s artists were being presented as Magical Realists to the exterior, a unique and serious version of modernism appeared and developed strongly across Latin America.

But just as the “paradigm of difference” overrepresented certain countries and trends in the region, the same is happening now with the “paradigm of similitude.” Despite efforts to the contrary, this model continues to represent certain countries disproportionately. Insofar as it stresses the region’s continuities with Europe, it is also evident that this model is based largely on countries whose populations are tied closely to Europe; its narrative is based in the countries of the Atlantic basin, barely representing the rest. More crucially, neither geometrism nor abstraction nor a number of the avant-garde movements added to this grand narrative had a direct connection with popular arts or national vernaculars. Thus, the already perceived disconnection between low and high art in the region (a common issue in postcolonial societies) is exacerbated.

There are, of course, some notable exceptions to this problematic relation, including certain aspects of Oiticica’s work. Nonetheless, in order to remember how hard it has been for the type of art championed by this paradigm to be accepted as anything other than elitist in the region, one need only revisit the epic late-1950s battles between Alejandro Otero and Miguel Otero Silva over the capacity of geometric abstraction to express common feeling, or watch the last scenes of Argentine filmmaker Pino Solanas’s politically engaged La hora de los hornos (The Hour of the Furnaces) (1968), which show a party at the Instituto di Tella (then the epicenter of Argentine avant-garde art).48

It could be argued that this model of similarity and continuity with Europe might be better preparation for the sweeping homogenization that is intrinsic to present-day globalization. But it could also be that the current regional hegemony of this model might be a consequence thereof. Either way, it is unclear how the discourse might help us to analyze the achievements and influence that artists such as Gabriel Orozco and Cildo Meireles command on the world stage, or to assist us in positioning the recent work of Mexican Abraham Cruzvillegas or Venezuelan Javier Tellez. As does any historical model, this one has its limitations, including its inability to deal with certain artistic production that, in spite of its undeniably contemporary syntax, is not entirely anchored in the schools, currents, and trends it specifies (Conceptual art, abstract geometrism, and others).

The model also has trouble incorporating the cultural production of individuals who may have several concurrent regional and national identities, a fairly common phenomenon for those born after 1990. Despite its “cosmopolitan” outlook, which rests on fixed or semi-fixed national or regional identities (Torres-García left Europe and established himself in Uruguay, Otero left Paris and returned to Venezuela, Gego left Europe and developed her work in Venezuela, Oiticia and Clark left Brazil and established themselves in Europe), it has no way to address, say, those who live in several different places at the same time.

In fact, it is likely due to the prevalence of this hegemonic model in the interpretation of Latin American art that we still have trouble assessing the place of central figures such as Juan Downey or Arturo Herrera, whose slippery national identities make them difficult to pin down. The same type of problem can be detected underneath the complications of trying to bridge Latin American art and U.S. Latino art (the most important constituency created by the globalization process in the region over the past few decades). If one continues to insist on a paradigm that stresses the qualities of the region in terms of either uniqueness or similarity, it will remain difficult to account for its influence on other places. Theparadigm of similitude” shows how the region has internalized and reworked foreign trends but cannot account for influence flowing in the opposite direction. Thus, for example—and despite enormous efforts by Olga Viso and Elvis Fuentes—the ways in which Latin Americans may have influenced the practice of artists such as Félix González-Torres and Ana Mendieta remain largely obscure.49 It is becoming evident, however, that the globalization process requires categories that can account for multidirectional movement.

For all these reasons, a critical look at the way the pendulum of history has recently swung is due. Otherwise, universalism will remain confused with cosmopolitanism and end up making yet another great contribution to the illustrious history of missing the point that has shaped Latin Americans’ quest for identification. The danger lies in the homogenization and reduction of a whole set of issues in favor of an agenda that has nothing to do with Latin America per se, because there is effectively no such thing. Attempting to produce Latin American historiography in this context is pernicious because it mires the region in belatedness. Just as it was misguided to put all Latin America’s marbles in the camp of the “intractable other,” so it is misguided and naïve to construct a story about ourselves which simply stresses similarities and continuities with Western civilization.

A dozen or so years ago, regional artists and critics had good reason to be exasperated by the lack of space for any Latin American art that was not Magical Realist on the international scene. Nonetheless, the swing to the opposite end of the spectrum that is evident today feels just as unfair. Both ends ultimately prove inadequate at making sense of the various trajectories of modernity that coexist within a vast and heterogeneous region; there are still a good dozen countries that neither paradigm has ever considered. However, the true irony lies not in the fact that they both end up producing a distorted image, but that they represent two sides of the same coin—a coin that we have been willing to give away in order to be included in the Western canon. In the end, they both result from thinking, analyzing, and historicizing the production of the region in European terms. The problem is, as stated earlier, when one sets out with Europe as a final destination, one actually ends up setting out from Europe as well. And one always ends up in second place!

The funny thing about these two versions of history is that embedded in it are residues of some of the most arcane views of Latin America as “naturally wild,” which are inadvertently reified. From the belief that the American continent was the natural place for Eden (i.e. the right place for the avant-garde utopias), to the depiction of the people of these shores as natural bon savants, the only “natural” thing about this view is that it is as much a projection from the metropolis as all those that we have learned to reject on the basis of the exoticization they foster. The whole thing feels foreign because, alas, it is so. After all, it was created first in Europe and then recreated in the U.S. and retains the indelible imprint of American identitarian politics.

What would happen if we left the anxiety around this type of inclusion behind? What would it mean to cease understanding Latin American cultural history as a sequence of European-style periods (defined by either their closeness or their utter alterity)? Would that imply discarding the artists who we now revere as masters simply because they were also great contributors to the Western narrative? Of course not—all these artists should retain their prominent positions. However, their importance should not stem from the notion that they represent the region’s most accomplished “modern specimens.” If their place were to derive from their status as interesting “tropical” variations on a European paradigm, this would always mean assuming a secondary position. This spineless version of history will amount to no more than an uneven collection of epiphenomena and an astonishing unspoken condemnation of the continent’s achievements as inherently belated.

Moving away from this type of history entails finding a way in which artists are relevant to the region, in some cases first making the case for their importance within their own national traditions. In some countries, even the most basic historical analysis remains incomplete, to the extent that it is difficult to even know what to take into consideration. There is an urgent need to find ways of making the intraregional discussion more robust, while maintaining interregional criteria. This implies, for example, the need to critically examine the “south-to-south” dialogues that have been a staple in conferences and forums for almost a decade. If addressed correctly, the challenges presented by globalization might offer the best opportunity for us to realize our inescapable contingency and the specificity of our knowledge base.50 Globalization, might be the best excuse to complete regional integration and identify a distinct emancipated narrative, completing the efforts of Andrés Bello, who, while honoring the region’s unquestionable European heritage, sought to establish a set of criteria for his gramática (grammar) proper to the region only.51

What might then be at stake here is not a new epistemology, as some cultural commentators proposed in the heat of the 1990s postcolonial fever. What I am advocating does not change the rules of the game, but instead suggests new reasons for playing it. We should stop believing that the only way of ascribing value to cultural phenomena is by measuring them against a monolithic Western account. Seen that way, the Grand Canon becomes a musical one, in which one aria of human “progress,” such as “utopia,” is first sung in Europe or the U.S., then repeated three bars/decades later in Latin America. I want to think that Latin Americans are a bit more than an echo to the West’s narcissism—that history does not take the form of a cacophony of Hegelian spirits moving noisily its direction.

We must also start making the region as region more robust. If the history of the arts is one of ruptures and discontinuities, would it be too much to insist on the establishment of links between Frida Kahlo and Julio LeParc, Diego Rivera and Roberto Jacoby, Wilfredo Lam and Doris Salcedo, Fernando Botero and Mira Schendel, Lygia Clark and José Bedia, Jesús Soto and María Izquierdo, Cildo Mereiles and Martín Chambi, Gabriel Orozco and Luis González Palma? Why do we find these pairings so close to nonsensical? Can we at least not read their members as mutually exclusive? And would accepting them as not being so really amount to making Latin America something more than an empty category that only works in time of “imperial interventions”?

Perhaps, if we start to recognize that the case for the universality of a particular object is completely different from the case for it being canonical (in the Western canon), we might be able to finally decouple those terms, and lose the tiresome asterisk (*) that has accompanied us for over two centuries, implying a qualified inclusion in someone else’s history, once and for all. Nonetheless, there is plenty of work left to complete, because it seems that the only way to accomplish the desired emancipation is to develop a critical historical analysis that attends to the needs of the region in the face of the diluting forces of globalization. Only when that type of emancipated history has been forged will Latin Americans stop being just a type and fulfill the longstanding desire of becoming, in the words of Octavio Paz, “contemporaries of all men.”52

  1. A preliminary version of this text was presented at the conference “Between Theory and Practice: Rethinking Latin American Art in the 21st Century” at the Museum of Latin American Art, Long Beach, CA, in March 2011. Part of its argument is also explored in greater depth in “Conscientious Objector: Objects, Non-Objects and Indexes in Darío Escobar’s Sculpture” in José L. Falconi, ed. A Singular Plurality: The Works of Darío Escobar (Cambridge, MA: Department of The History of Art and Architecture/Harvard University, 2013), 12–29. This text would have not been completed without the help of my colleagues and friends Paola Ibarra, Martín Oyata, José Luis Blondet, Kaira Cabañas, Lisa Crossman, Santiago Montoya, Robin Greeley, Daniel Quiles, Gabriela Rangel, and Talia Shabtay. It is dedicated to Fernando Coronil (1944–2011), not only one of the best Latin Americanists I have known, but one of the best Latin Americans I have had the honor of befriending. No Me Token is a linguistic play on the Spanish no me toques (don’t touch me) and the English “don’t tokenize me.”
  2. Globalization, already established as a key criterion for analyzing and organizing contemporary cultural production, was first used prominently in the context of a large-scale contemporary visual arts project in Documenta 11 (2002). Directed by Okwui Enwezor, this exhibition featured a number of “platforms” organized by curators from different countries. The term in general has been ubiquitous since the mid-1990s, and its origins can be traced to the early 1980s. See Immanuel Wallerstein, The Capitalist World Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979) and Roland Robertson, Globalization: Social Theory and Global Culture (London: Sage Publications, 1992). The idea that “contemporary” and “contemporary art” are categories still in the process of definition has been subject of many recent studies, among them Julieta Aranda, Brian Kuan Wood, and Anton Vidokle, eds., What is Contemporary Art? (New York: Sternberg Press and e-flux journal, 2010). In 2012, the World Bank established Brazil as the world’s seventh largest economy and Mexico as the fourteenth, based on each nation’s GDP. See “Brazil,” last modified 2013, and “GDP (current US$),” last modified in 2013, For documentation on the rise of the Latino population in the United States see Lynette Clemetson, “Hispanics Now Largest Minority, Census Shows,” New York Times, January 22, 2003, and the United States Census Bureau’s “Most Children Younger Than Age 1 are Minorities, Census Bureau Reports,” last modified September 6, 2013,
  3. Mexican critic Cuauhtémoc Medina writes: “For above all, ‘contemporary’ is the term that stands to mark the death of the ‘modern.’ This vague descriptor of aesthetic currency became customary precisely when the critique of ‘the modern’ (its mapping, specification, historicizing, and dismantling) exiled it to the dustbin of history.” Cuauhtémoc Medina, “Comtemp(t)orary: Eleven Theses” in Julieta Aranda, Brian Kuan Wood, and Anton Vidokle, eds. What is Contemporary Art? (New York: Sternberg Press and e-flux journal, 2010), p. 11.
  4. For the most comprehensive take on postmodernism in the artistic and cultural realm, see Hal Foster, ed., The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, (New York: The New Press, 2002). Perhaps the most influential study on the promise of postmodernism for peripheral regions such as Latin America is Néstor García Canclini’s Hybrid Cultures: Strategies for Entering and Leaving Modernity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005).
  5. The idea of the world-system was developed by sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein, who in 1974 defined it as “a unit with a single division of labor and multiple cultural systems.” See Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011).
  6. According to the World Bank, Latin America in 2012 comprised a market of approximately 590 million people, making it one of the largest and most important economies in the Western world. Brazil was the world’s seventh-largest economy, Mexico the fourteenth, Argentina the twenty-fourth, Colombia the twenty-eighth, Chile the thirty-third, and Venezuela the twenty-seventh.
  7. A central tenet of capitalism is that it must grow in order to maintain its viability, flooding new markets with capital and goods. Per Marx: “The more production comes to rest on exchange value, hence on exchange, the more important do the physical conditions of exchange—the means of communication and transport—become for the costs of circulation. Capital by its nature drives beyond every spatial barrier. Thus the creation of the physical conditions of exchange—of the means of communication and transport—the annihilation of space by time—becomes an extraordinary necessity for it.” Karl Marx, “Notebook V – Circulation Costs” in Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, Martin Nicolaus, trans. (London: Penguin Books, 1993), p. 524.
  8. For more on the way capitalism “annihilates space by time” in otherwise untouched “natural spaces” in the third world, see the first chapter of Fernando Coronil, The Magical State: Nature, Money, and Modernity in Venezuela (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1997).
  9. Among the small countries in Latin America, Chile has made the greatest economic progress, to the point that it is projected to be a fully developed nation by the end of the decade. In fact, some of its indicators already surpass those of developed nations. See “Chile exceeds, for the first time, a developed country in the Human Development Index,” last modified March 14, 2013,
  10. Besides the two most established biennials in the region, the São Paulo Biennial (est. 1951) and the Havana Biennial (est. 1984), and not counting Art Basel Miami Beach, there are numerous smaller ones, amounting to a robust regional circuit that spans almost the entire year. These include SP Arte in São Paulo, Zona MACO in Mexico City, PARC and ART in Lima, Arte BA in Buenos Aires, FIA in Caracas, Art Rio ChACO in Santiago de Chile, and ArtBo in Bogotá.
  11. Latino art is showcased in such exhibitions as the Lowe Art Museum’s Pan American Modernism: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America and the United States (June 22–October 13, 2013) and the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art (October 25, 2013–March 2, 2014).
  12. Gerardo Mosquera, “Del arte latinoamericano al arte desde América Latina,” in Caminar con el Diablo: Textos sobre arte, internacionalismo y culturas (Madrid: EXIT Publications, 2010), pp. 123–33.
  13. Commenting on the common factors and internal differences that hold the countries in the region together, historian Victor Bulmer-Thomas concludes: “Thus, there is real meaning to the phrase ‘Latin America’ and the factors in common are stronger than those that bind the countries of Africa, Asia, or Europe. Furthermore, the membership of the Latin American club has been fairly stable since independence, with relatively few additions or subtractions as a result of border changes, secession, or annexation; indeed the boundaries of Latin American states, although often the source of interstate conflict and still not entirely settled, have changed much less in the past 150 years than have frontiers elsewhere.” Victor Bulmer-Thomas, The Economic History of Latin America since Independence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2nd ed., 2003), p. 1.
  14. For more on the way the world is “flattening” itself due to interconnection see Thomas Friedman, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century (New York: Picador, 2007).
  15. The second French intervention in Mexico (also known as the Maximilian Affair) was justified by the Second French Empire by the suspension of interest payments imposed by the government of Benito Juarez in 1861. Claiming a breach of free trade, the Second Empire, in coalition with Britain and Spain, invaded Veracruz and soon after imposed Maximilian as Emperor of the Second Mexican Empire, which lasted until 1867. See Paul Vanderwood, “Betterment for Whom? The Reform Period: 1855–1875” in Michael C. Meyer and William Beezley, eds., The Oxford History of Mexico (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 371–96.
  16. Thomas H. Holloway, “Latin America: What’s in a Name?” in A Companion to Latin American History (Waltham, MA: Wiley/Blackwell, 2008).
  17. Historian John Coatsworth asserts: “In the slightly less than a hundred years from 1898 to 1994, the U.S. government has intervened successfully to change governments in Latin America a total of at least 41 times. That amounts to once every 28 months for an entire century.” John H. Coatsworth, “United States Interventions: What For?” in Revista: Harvard Review of Latin America, Spring/Summer 2005, In fact, the history of Anti-American rhetoric in Latin America can be traced back to Rubén Darío and José Martí’s chronicles and poems from the late 19th century, which reacted against the perceived threat the U.S. posed for the sovereignty of the region. This rhetorical tradition has had major exponents in the 20st and 21st centuries in the form of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez.
  18. The infatuation with France and French culture shared by Latin American authors and artists can be traced back to the mid-19th century. This sentiment is most evident in Rubén Darío’s chronicles and poems, in which he traces the continuity between Spanish and French cultures. Darío’s poem “Palabras liminares,” in his Prosas profanas y otros poemas (1896–1901), clearly argues that Latin Americans are torn between their Spanish heritage and their obsession with France. The centrality of Paris as the cultural capital for Latin Americans lasted until the late 1960s. For more information on the cultural milieu of those years for Latin American artists see Estrellita Brodsky, Latin American Artists in Postwar Paris: Jesús Rafael Soto and Julio Le Parc, 1950–1970 (Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 2009).
  19. The notion of the “Baroque” as the cultural blueprint of Latin America has been discussed widely since the colonial period. Nonetheless, perhaps the most important effort in recent decades to show how the Baroque constituted a “type of modernity” is found in Bolivar Echeverría, La modernidad de lo barroco (Mexico D.F.: Era Ediciones, 1998).
  20. Miami has been referred to as the “Capital of Latin America” since the 1920s. In 1927, Charles W. Helser, executive vice president of the Miami Chamber of Commerce, stated that the city was the “unofficial capital of Latin America.” More recently, Ecuadorian President-elect Jaime Roldós Aguilera, in a visit to the city in 1979, restated the nickname. For more on this transformation, see Alejandro Portes and Alex Stepick, City on the Edge (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994).
  21. “The majority of Latin American countries won independence from their European rulers in the 1820s. Contemporary accounts by Latin Americans and foreigners were filled with glowing reports of the prospects that could be achieved once Spain and Portugal were deprived of their commercial and other monopolies in the region. Standards of living were low, but not much lower than those of North America, probably on a par with those of much of central Europe, and perhaps higher than those of the newly discovered countries in the antipodes. All that was needed, it was thought, were capital and skilled labor to unlock the natural resources in Latin America’s vast unexploited interior and unrestricted access to the wealthy markets of Western Europe. Nearly two centuries later, that dream has not been fulfilled.” Victor Bulmer-Thomas, The Economic History of Latin America since Independence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2nd ed., 2003), pp. 2–5.
  22. See note 8.
  23. Cuba experienced impressive economic growth after 1837, when the construction of the first railroad between Havana and Güines connected the sugar country with the port. By 1860, the island’s production of sugar accounted for a quarter of the entire world’s. See David Bushnell and Neill Macaulay, The Emergence of Latin America in the Nineteenth Century, 2 nd. ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 267. John Coatsworth writes: “All these losses ended with the Porfiriato. By the 1880s, Mexico’s per capita income was growing at a rate of perhaps 1 percent a year. Between 1893 and 1907, when more precise estimates of national income become available, the Mexican economy grew more rapidly than that of the United States. Total product advanced at a rate of 5.1 percent a year, or 3.7 percent in per capita terms. Had the economy of the United States stopped growing during the Porfiriato, Mexico would have recovered the major portion of the ground lost during the first fifty years after independence. In 1907, Mexican total product stood at 3 percent that of the United States, and had recovered to approximately 17 percent of U.S. per capita product.” John Coatsworth, Growth Against Development: The Economic Impact of Railroads in Porfirian Mexico (De Klab, Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press, 1981), p. 4. “By the outbreak of World War I,” writes David Rock, “Argentina had experienced almost twenty years of prodigal expansion. Per capita income equaled that in Germany and the Low Countries, and was higher than in Spain, Italy, Sweden and Switzerland. Having grown at an average annual rate of 6.5 percent since 1869, Buenos Aires had become the second city of the Atlantic seaboard, after New York, and by far the largest city in Latin America.” David Rock, Argentina 1516–1987, From Spanish Colonization to Alfonsín. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), p. 172.
  24. Author of the celebrated Ariel (1900), José Enrique Rodó (1871–1917) was perhaps the most influential proponent of defining the character of Latin American culture as the opposite of the “materialistic” culture of North America.
  25. For more on Alejo Carpentier and Magical Realism, see Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy Faris, eds., Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995). For more on García Canclini’s theories, see his Hybrid Cultures: Strategies for Entering and Leaving Modernity (Minneapolis, MN: Minneapolis University Press, 1995).
  26. It is telling, to not say paradoxical, that one of the first discussions involving the terms “contemporary” and “contemporaneous” in the context of Latin American culture took place during the attacks leveled against modernist group Los Contemporáneos in the post-revolutionary Mexico of the late 1920s and early ’30s. As it could be predicted, the tenor of the attacks to the group’s aesthetics–which gathered some of the best poets in the country such as José Gorostiza, Carlos Pellicer, Salvador Novo, and Jorge Cuesta—were aimed at their lack of “national” thematic and “manly” disposition. To be “contemporary” was, therefore, to be accused of being an airy, elitist “cosmopolitan” and of not being politically engaged enough—not sufficiently “revolutionary”. For more information on the disputes between Los Contemporáneos and the “Estridentistas” in post-revolutionary Mexico in relation to the “national” see Robin Greeley’s recent essay “Nietzche contra Marx in Mexico: The Contemporáneos, Muralism, and Debates over ‘Revolutionary’ Art in 1930s Mexico” in Alejandro Anreus, Leonard Folgarait and Robin Greeley, ed.s, Mexican Muralism: A Critical History (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2012), pp. 148–176.
  27. Cuauhtémoc Medina, “Venezquizoide,” in María Inés Rodriguez, ed., Alexander Apóstol: Modernidad Tropical. (León, Spain: MUSAC/ACTAR Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León, 2010), p. 109.
  28. Perhaps the most serious and interesting effort at recasting the longstanding tradition of political art made under the dictatorships of the 1960s and ’70s in the Southern Cone countries and Brazil under a Conceptual framework has been carried out by Luis Camnitzer in his Conceptualism in Latin American Art: Dialectics of Liberation (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2007).
  29. “After the critical debates and expounding constructions that negotiated the abandon of all essentialist identity-based Latin Americanism in the 1990s, at the same time as the criticism of the stereotypes of exoticization, and the assurance of the inclusion of some Southern processes in the historic weft of Western art, the great insistence of the rhetorical energies of ‘Latin American Art’ has since focused on the negotiation of two opposing genealogies. In the blue corner, we have the establishment of the South American ‘Constructivist tradition’ as an ever more detailed and convincing version of ‘alternative high Modernism.’ In the red, the notion of a re-activation of the political alignment of so-called ‘Latin conceptualisms’ as the horizon for comparing all contemporary political and aesthetic interventions.” Cuauhtémoc Medina, “Venezquizoide” in Maria Inés Rodríguez, ed., Alexander Apóstol: Modernidad Tropical (León, Spain: MUSAC/ACTAR Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León, 2010), p. 105.
  30. The economic and social progress that Venezuela experienced following the discovery of oil in the early 20th century and the reform of the oil industry by Romulo Betancourt in the 1940s reached a turning point in March, 1964, as democracy was institutionalized via the ascension of Raúl Leoni to the presidency, setting the stage for one of the longest uninterrupted democratic periods in the region. By 1974, when Carlos Andrés Pérez assumed the presidency, Venezuela’s stability and wealth had granted the country a leading position. See Julia C Frederick and Michael Tarver, The History of Venezuela (New York: Palgrave, 2006).
  31. For indicators of the way in which Brazil transformed itself after the 1920s, see Boris Fausto, Historia do Brasil (São Paulo: Editora da Universidade de São Paulo, 2000), pp. 389–94, and Thomas E. Skidmore, Brazil: Five Centuries of Change (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999). Mario Pedrosa’s famous expression was first uttered at the 1959 Congresso Internacional Extraordinário de Críticos de Arte. Discussing Brasilia he states that the construction of the city constituted a crucial step in the history of the country that is, which, according to him, “condemned to the modern” by “the fatality” of its own formation. Mário Pedrosa, “A Cidade Nova Obra de Arte. Introdução ao tema inaugural do Congresso Internacional Extraordinário de Críticos de Arte. A cidade nova—Síntese das artes,” in Revista Habitat, no. 57, November 1959, pp. 11–13.
  32. As Haroldo de Campos states in his “Da Tradução como criação e como crítica”: “Quando os poetas concretos de São Paulo se propuseram uma tarefa de reformulação da poética brasileira vigente, en cujo mérito não nos cabe entrar, mas que referimos aqui como algo que se postulou e que se procurou levar a prática, deram-se, ao longo de suas atividades de teorização e de criação, a uma continuada tarefa de tradução.” Haroldo de Campos, “Da Tradução como criação e como crítica” in Metalinguagem e Outras Metas (São Paulo: Editora Perspectiva, 1992), p. 42.
  33. The “Manifesto Antropófago” proposes that due to the Brazilians (or, by extension, the Latin Americans) lack of a proper tradition, they are like cannibals, capable of “eating” or “digesting” many different traditions, and are thereby a step ahead of the Westerner “stuck” in just one tradition. See Oswald de Andrade, A Utopia Antropofágica (São Paulo: Editora Globo, 1990).
  34. The original Portuguese reads: “Que os escritores logocêntricos, que se imaginavam usufrutuarios privilegiados de uma orgulhosa koiné de mão única, preparem-se para a tarefa cada vez mais urgente de reconhecer e redevorar o tutano diferencial dos novos bárbaros da politópica e polifônica civilização planetária” in Haroldo de Campos, “Da Razão Antropofagica: Diálogo e Diferença na Cultura Brasileira” Metalinguagem e Outras Metas (São Paulo: Editora Perspectiva, 1992), p. 255.
  35. Through a subtle reading of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Cuban poet and cultural critic Roberto Fernández Retamar proposes a vindication of the “cannibal” figure Calibán as a way of interpreting Latin American artistic production from a postcolonial position. See Roberto Fernández Retamar, Calibán (Mexico DF: Editorial Diógenes, 1974).
  36. Lygia Clark, “Mondrian” in Lygia Clark, Livro-Obra, limited-edition artist’s book, 1983. See
  37. Guy Brett, “Lygia Clark: In Search of the Body,” Art in America, July 1994, p. 58.
  38. Alejandro Otero, “Del arte abstracto,” Los Disidentes, No. 4, June 1950, p. 12.
  39. Kaira M. Cabañas, “Otero’s Doubt,” in Rina Carvajal, ed., Resonant Space: The Colorhythms of Alejandro Otero (Milan: Five Continents Editions, forthcoming 2014), p. 4 in manuscript.
  40. Marguerite Mayhall, Latin American Perspectives, vol. 32, no. 2, March 2005, pp. 124–46.
  41. The fact that both Otero and Clark chose Mondrian—not a particularly fashionable figure in the Paris of the mid-to-late 1950s—as their historical anchor has been the subject of two recent studies by art historians Kaira Cabañas and Megan Sullivan. They both point out that the slightly out-of-date choice reveals not only the strong interest of these artists (Otero and Clark) in anchoring their own practices, and their countries’ traditions, as inheritors of the avant-garde, but also the structural logic of “historical inclusion.” In order to propel their traditions “forward,” the artists needed to select a “retro” figure rather than aligning themselves with the latest trend (Art Informel). See Kaira M. Cabañas, “Otero’s Doubt,” in Rina Carvajal, ed., Resonant Space: The Colorhythms of Alejandro Otero (Milan: Five Continents Editions, forthcoming 2014) and Megan Sullivan, “Locating Abstraction: The South American Coordinates of the Avant-garde” (Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 2013).
  42. “I have said School of the South because in reality, our north is the South. There must not be north, for us, except in opposition to our South. Therefore we now turn the map upside down, and then we have a true idea of our position, and not as the rest of the world wishes. The point of America, from now on, forever, insistently points to the South, our north.” Joaquín Torres García, Constructive Universalism (Buenos Aires: Poseidón, 1941).
  43. Inverted Utopias was organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in 2004 by in Mari Cármen Ramírez and Héctor Olea. It has been argued that the exhibition derives from a previous one organized by the same curators at the Museo Naional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, in 2000, titled Heterotopias. See Mari Cármen Ramírez and Hector Olea, Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004).
  44. The Geometry of Hope was organized by the Blanton Museum of Art (Austin, TX) in 2007. See Gabriel Perez Barreiro, ed., The Geometry of Hope (Austin, TX: The Blanton Museum of Art, 2007).
  45. The Sites of American Abstraction was organized by the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation (CIFO) in 2007. See: Juan Ledezma, ed. The Sites of Latin American Abstraction (Miami: CIFO/Charta, 2007).
  46. León Ferrari and Mira Schendel: Tangled Alphabets was organized by Luis Enrique Pérez Oramas at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 2009. See Luis Enrique Pérez Oramas, ed., León Ferrari and Mira Schendel: Tangled Alphabets (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2009).
  47. See Luis Camnitzer, Conceptualism in Latin American Art: Didactics of Liberation (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2007). Over the past few years, Red de Conceptualismos del Sur, a network of scholars and curators of Latin American origin, has helped to research and showcase a number of hitherto obscure works from across the region that might be said to conform to a local Conceptual tradition. Group’s most recent major exhibition was 2012’s Losing the Human Form: A Seismic Image of the 1980s in Latin America at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid. For more on Daniel Quiles research into the Argentine scene of the 1960s and ’70s, see his Ghost Messages: Argentine Conceptualism, 1965–1972 (forthcoming 2014).
  48. The 1957 exchange between Alejandro Otero and Miguel Otero Silva in El Nacional, which in great measure shaped the visual culture of Venezuela, can be found in Miguel Otero Silva and Alejandro Otero, “Polemic” in Ariel Jiménez, ed., Alfredo Boulton and his Contemporaries (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2008), pp. 202–22.
  49. For more on Olga Viso’s work on Ana Mendieta, see her Ana Mendieta: Earth Body (Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2004) and Unseen Mendieta: The Unpublished Works of Ana Mendieta (New York: Prestel, 2008). Elvis Fuentes has devoted a number of exhibitions to the early, formative years of Cuban-American artist Felix González-Torres in Puerto Rico, including Felix González-Torres: Early Impressions, which he curated in 2006 at the Museo del Barrio, New York. See Elvis Fuentes and Deborah Cullen, eds. Felix González-Torres: Early Impressions (New York: El Museo del Barrio, 2006).
  50. Luis Enrique Pérez-Oramas, curator of the thirtieth Bienal de São Paulo, has offered one of the most eloquent statements about how globalization, far from diluting our interests across the globe, incites us to reevaluate our own historical particularities and become more aware of the contingency and limitations of our knowledge: “We are increasingly, and urgently, exhorted to be global. We are increasingly encouraged to work in response to slogans, to think according to marketing categories, in terms of brands and branding. In other words, we are pushed towards not thinking or thinking less, towards disguising this lack of thought with short phrases, as snappy as they are empty. I am going to risk stating what I believe: that it is impossible to be global, that a world which is ever less distant is a world that is ever more collapsed, that a world which is increasingly interconnected is a world that is increasingly more complex but also unthinkable, more difficult to understand, to reduce, to control in the damp silence of our enouncements. Tired of seeing agents of the ‘art world’ doggedly replicating the neo-colonial, unrepentant and post-ethnographic practice of making fleeting visits to far-flung corners of the world, which they have never known nor will ever really know, in order to supplement their plunder with a few exotic artists, generally recommended by local informants, so as to enhance their reputation as ‘international curators,’ our biennial is simply a product of our place, of our experience, and of our (necessarily) limited knowledge of art and the world.” Luis Enrique Pérez-Oramas, “The Imminence of Poetics (A Polyphonic Essay in Three or More Voices),” in Luis Pérez Oramas et. al., ed., Catalogue Thirtieth Bienal de São Paulo: The Imminence of Poetics (São Paulo: Fundação Bienal de São Paulo, 2012), p. 27.
  51. Considered one of the region’s founding fathers, Venezuelan Andrés Bello was a poet, humanist, philosopher, and grammarian. He not only contributed decisively to the spread of the enlightened ideas of his time across Latin America by editing, from London, the journal El Repertorio Americano (1826), but also wrote Gramática de la lengua castellana destinada al uso de los americanos (Castilian Grammar Intended for the Use by Americans). Published in 1847, this constituted the first and most important study of the use of the Spanish Language in the Americas. See Ivan Jaksic, ed., Selected Writings of Andrés Bello (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).
  52. Octavio Paz concludes the last section of his seminal essay on “Mexicanness” by stating how, in the course of a turbulent 20th century, the country exhausted all the historical forms that Europe proposed, leaving the Mexican subject finally alone. It is in this solitude, he argues, which is shared by the rest of humankind, that Mexicans can finally feel “contemporary.” See Octavio Paz, El laberinto de la soledad (Mexico DF: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1983), p. 210.