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Wonder Bread and Spanglish Art

Umělec 2007/2

01.02.2007

Luis Camnitzer | food for thought | en cs de es

In its short life, the U.S. has both adopted and developed a great variety of cultural paradigms and myths that give cohesion to its national identity. These constructs, not always products of a conscious strategy, overshadow and help reduce the diversities in the population identity; a diversity which normally would tend to undermine a sense of unity. Some of the ideas are notorious and past their prime, like the "American dream" and the "melting pot." Some take their place in economics, like the "trickle down" theory. Sometimes a little military action furthers the cause of these constructs, like the invasion of Grenada, which was approved by 63% of the polled population.
"Wonder Bread" is one of these paradigms which operates on a cultural level. It is a product sold and consumed as bread. Additives and advertising provide its nutritional value without affecting any of the product's inherent qualities. Over the years, the confluence of economic dynamics and culturally conditioned taste buds has led to the establishment of "Wonder Bread" as a benchmark for other products. Any effort by these other products to resemble real bread is not so much seen as closing a gap but as an act of refinement and sophistication. The products become variations of what can be called "gourmet" Wonder Bread. Given the fact that even cultures which have perfected real bread over millennia are slowly adopting the same range of products, what normally would be no more than an example of anthropological curiosity becomes also a paradigm for intercultural relations. As an example of how values are shifted, the use of "Wonder Bread" as a reference illustrates the flow of pressure between the hegemonic center and the periphery.
The increasing pervasiveness of "Wonder Bread" outside the U.S. is directly explained by it satisfying expediency and economy and, less directly, by the inherent aura and status of things imported from the hegemonic culture. While direct pressure allows for a conscious decision about why one should sacrifice one's taste buds, it is the indirect pressure which subverts and eventually substitutes taste, creating a new canon. "Wonder Bread" has become a symbol of modernity. Modernity has traditionally been associated with progress and, therefore, seen as a necessary tool for decolonization and independence. It is ironic that in this process values are subverted to a point that, in fact, a new colonization takes place. The reason to expand on this here is because, even if fraught with more complex issues, the same process applies to art.
The pressure to shift values in art is buttressed by the still underlying commonplace assumption that historical art processes are linear and develop progressively in the search for quality. It follows that art which fills the media with the latest news and achieves pervasiveness, becomes ipso facto the canon. The desirability of the canon is internalized, and following it comes to appear as a spontaneous, instinctive, indigenous and authentic activity, when, in fact, it is the product of an artificially created need. Taste acts as an acquired instinct. As an instinct, it bypasses rational thought. As an acquisition it is controlled like any other merchandise by, among others, values related to class status and property desires. In a colonially dependent situation the controls operate from the cultural and economic centers and shape these artificially created needs.
As with any colonizing process, the cultural pressure from the hegemonic center creates problems for those living and working on the periphery. A process of slow and organic development of cultural identities has been interrupted by the adoption of imports well beyond what would be a normal product of international contact and exchange. It is estimated that in Brazil, U.S. companies and their affiliates spend on advertising the equivalent of one third of the government’s education budget. UNESCO estimates that between 50% and 70% of what is considered basic culture in the West comes from radio, television and film. In Latin America, the U.S. controls 75% of the TV programs, 65% of advertising, 55% of movie houses, 60% of records and cassettes, 65% of the news and 35% of the publishing. One of the consequences is that a focus on art- making for one’s community has given way to the notion of art-making for the international market, and in this process a new and alien concept of quality has had to be adopted. Quality is not defined anymore by the degrees of revelation and mastery of communication for and with one’s people, but by how much leverage the products achieve in the context of an external, often unknown, public. Thus, the heroic scale and the aesthetic of spectacular superproduction developed in societies of wealth become the standard against which the artist of poverty is measured. Handicrafts connected with non-industrial or obsolete industrial traditions become a tool to stereotype this artist in his or her separation from the mainstream.
Western art since the Renaissance has developed an increasingly accelerated dynamic of establishing “colonial techniques” or “minor art forms” within the media covered by art history. Printmaking, for example, has become a colony of painting. Instead of contributing original imagery, printmaking primarily serves to translate and rehash imagery developed in painting. The division between “super-spectacle” art and “modestly handcrafted” art seems to be a political refinement of this dynamic since it helps to secure the place of the rich hegemonic centers by slowly restricting the definition of art to those products generated by them. This restricted definition eliminates any possibility of qualitative comparison between art from the center and art from the periphery. Whatever doesn’t reflect a minimum investment of money won’t qualify as serious art. It also ignores ethical and political substrata often informing art on the periphery as consequence of the struggle for decolonization. From a hegemonic and formalist point of view, much of “periphery art” will be perceived as a form of a low-budget craft.

It could be argued that successful penetration by the hegemonic concepts of quality could only occur if the values displaced were weak or obsolete. While many traditional values might indeed be obsolete (in Latin America they tend to have originated under previous colonizations and have often outlived their usefulness), the argument neglects a simple fact. New York values, or international art market values, are derived from an infrastructure that can afford them. Or, when they are derived, it is assumed that this infrastructure can afford them. The assumption is a paradigm more often used in the attempt to achieve cultural unity. As a consequence of the mythical reality of this paradigm there is also a “periphery” within the “center,” sometimes referred to as the Third World within the First World. It encompasses internal colonies and dependent cultures and, important for this paper, émigrés from the geographical periphery. The adoption of these values by a region where this infrastructure is absent (that is, absence of a market coordinated by the local needs of a market, by the acquisition of the produced work, by the possibility of survival through art-related jobs, or by jobs in general for survival), creates problems and absurdities which cannot be easily ignored. Professionalism in art, increasingly measured by expenditures, relegates artists on the periphery to the category of “Sunday painters.” Participation in international events becomes impossible because of lack of money, not only for shipping work, but often for even preparing slides and mailing documentation. In the absence of an infrastructure, art schools are primarily created because of reasons such as international status - a country is not considered “cultured” without them - and the students are educated to become foreign grant recipients. If successful, they emigrate and work in the hegemonic centers. The periphery invests in education and the hegemonic center receives the benefits.

Those artists who do not emigrate are subject to the influx of secondary information which, often, inhibits or masks the creation of local primary information and thus postpones culture instead of generating it. Art on the periphery stemming from these dynamics is more a post-cultural phenomenon. It is primarily the product of an adopted or an imposed culture, rather than a contributor to a culture in action. As a consequence, the periphery develops what could be called an eclecticism of despair in which elements are merged through appropriation. Subservient and fragmentary mimesis blends with a defensive syncretical use of resources and with re-contextualization. The result is an aesthetic which long predates postmodernism, but which often matches it in visual terms. Postmodernism, however, is considered to be a post-industrial aesthetic, an aesthetic which responds to the instantly available and omnipresent information distributed by super technology, able to cancel out the possibility of distinct styles. The use of eclecticism on the periphery is, at least partially, a way of attempting to define an identity. Hegemonic post-modernism, on the other hand, absorbs all identities into an amorphous conglomerate. The mainstream misperception of the post-cultural eclecticism of the periphery as a rehashed product of post-modernism is a poor and self-serving simplification of a much more dramatic process. A struggle for cultural survival is dismissed by means of a dishonest construction of history.
The periphery, when not resorting to isolationist use of tradition, produces hybrid art; the product of which is located in one place and but looks toward another. Manfred Schneckenburger, organizer of the latest Documenta exhibit, summed up the consequences of this state of affairs in an unfriendly but cogent way. In an effort to justify the fact that only one Latin American artist (Alfredo Jaar, from Chile) was included in what purported to be an overview of the best art in the market of the last five years, he declared that “it is not possible to show the situation of countries where art is always trapped between a great tradition lost and a wish for contact with the modern world.”
Given the different pressures, the artist on the periphery is faced with several choices. The artist can: actively disregard the colonizing values and focus on the local audience; produce for the international market in spite of the handicap, or; immigrate to the cultural center.
In the first case, even when focusing on the local audience, the artist will tend to produce in reaction to colonization. A direct link to the past is broken, interrupted or deflected by the presence of a filter that factors in the values promoted by imperial culture. As Albert Memmi observes in his “Portrait of the Colonized,” a loss of history takes place with the effect that “the colonized are kept out of the objective conditions of contemporary nationality.” Gramsci was reflecting on the same condition when he noted that “remembering takes the place of thinking” in the production of culture. Identity, under these conditions, easily becomes confused with an artificial folklore. Fossil memories, bleached and dry, usurp reality. Much of indigenist art, from Sabogal in Peru to Rivera in Mexico, had this problem imbedded in the content of the work. A present generation of artists is contributing a more formal and sophisticated approach; Cesar Paternosto and Alejandro Puente, both from Argentina, and Esther Vainstein (Peru) connect pre-Columbian traditions with modern constructivism and minimalism.
In the second case, in which the local artist focuses on the international market, the tendency is to produce makeshift works, intended to achieve the look of the international standard but affected by the material constraints that prevail locally. Equipped with craftsmanship, but confronted with scarcity of materials and resources, artists will try to compete with the “heroic” scale and the industrial finish of art produced in the cultural centers and will seek to disguise material shortfalls with affectation. Work under these conditions runs the risk of halflheartedness.
It is in the third case, in which the artist migrates to the cultural center, that there is, in theory, the greatest chance for success in the mainstream. Until the mid-fifties, that cultural center was provided by Europe, but then slowly shifted to the U.S.A. It is estimated that from 1945 to 1965 alone, at least 17,000 researchers and high level technicians emigrated from Latin America to the U.S.A. During 1986, 25% of Ph.D.s awarded in the sciences went to non-U.S.. citizens, and according to a report published by the National Research Council in January 1988, in engineering Ph.D.s the figure reached 60%. In turn, 60% of this figure do not return to their countries of origin. Out of the 500,000 people who left Puerto Rico during 1980-85, 14% were professionals. Unfortunately there are no figures specific to this brain drain in art. Enormous amounts of money invested in the education of highly qualified personnel in Latin America have thus ended up, in effect, donated to the U.S.A., where migration on those levels was motivated primarily by economic considerations. Political exile was the other major reason for resettlement during recent decades. A high percentage of these exiles, intellectuals fleeing dictatorships from the right, went to Europe and Australia, which provided a friendlier atmosphere for their dissenting ideologies than the U.S.A.

For the migrants themselves, however, the common unifying experience is that of uprootedness, an experience also familiar to second generation artists who underwent a non-assimilationist education. While uprootedness may have little direct effect on the professional output of intellectuals in the sciences, it becomes a major factor in the work of intellectuals engaged in the communicative arts. The artist is faced, consciously or unconsciously, with questions and choices: how much of the original background should be sacrificed for the sake of assimilation into the new context and acceptance into the hegemonic culture? How much change will be produced by osmosis and, therefore, how much of the original background should be consciously protected?
Some artists will attempt to erase the roots entirely, with the objective of blending completely into the new environment. This is an enterprise comparable to that of trying to speak a new language like a native. While not an impossible goal, it is clearly more difficult than for the aborigines with whom one is trying to merge.
Other artists, shocked by the new environment, will retreat toward their original culture with redoubled efforts, seeking protection. They will share the plight of those who remained at home addressing the local audience. But their problems will be even more severe; in their case, the audience addressed is absent and feedback from them is non-existent or, at best, sporadic. The audience becomes an abstraction, frozen in a past that is fogged by nostalgia and wishful mystification. The artist becomes doubly alienated, trapped in a fiction that looks real.

Both attitudes thus produce a semblance of reality which hides the conflictual situation in which they are immersed. While generating aesthetically viable products, they are haunted by a core of inauthenticity.
But some artists may try to strike a balance between the cultures of the center and the periphery and confront their reality without the recourse of escape. Avoiding denial of either the present or the past, they will attempt to produce a synthesis of experiences. They will produce what might be called “Spanglish” art. Used in relation to speech, the term has negative connotations, implying the absence of a functional tool, and its substitution by a non-working hybrid of two languages. It is the confluence of a language incompletely remembered with a language incompletely acquired, forced to make do in their new integration. The negative interpretation obscures the origin and the need that it fulfills. Used in relation to art, “Spanglish” represents the merging of a deteriorating memory with the acquisition of a new reality distanced by foreignness.
“Spanglish” art is probably the most authentic alternative for the uprooted Latin artist. It is a natural and unaffected expression representing with fairness the fact that one came from one place and went to another and it functionally bridges the abyss left by that travel. It is an individualistic solution which allows for release of the tension caused by the clash of two cultures, and it permits the integration of both experiences into one iconography. Inspired by the immediacy of individual experience, this art will tend to distinguish itself from art that either reflects a programmatic attitude or evinces political awareness. The cultural significance inheres in the witnessing to a shared destiny, rather than in the activity of a shared aesthetic search, and quality is dependent on individual effort, rather than on group support or a community of interests.
It is difficult to find paradigmatic examples of “Spanglish” art. Since “Spanglish” does not constitute a consciously adopted platform seeded by programs, in most cases it remains as a component mixed with other art-making elements. When I first used the word in relation to art, I had the work of Ana Mendieta in mind. Artistically educated in the U.S.A. and interested in breaking into the mainstream, her memories and nostalgia prevented her successful assimilation. It was a fact which she first resented and, towards the end of her life, assumed. Pressed for examples, I would further use the work of Juan Sanchez and of Alfredo Jaar. Sanchez is probably the clearest example of sophisticated New York/Puerto Rican expression. He tries to get to his roots, but finds them layered under neighbourhood experiences and interpretations. The independence of Puerto Rico becomes a solution to all the levels of discrimination and humiliation, a way of leaving rather than staying. Jaar is, among these artists, the one who visually fits best into the mainstream. He shares the impeccability and the immaculateness of hegemonic presentations. In part this is the product of his own education and taste, but for him it also becomes a manipulatory device to get his points across and understood within the mainstream.
So, the notion of “Spanglish” art becomes more of a tool for understanding than a neat form of classifying. It provides a helpful vantage point to re-consider art that has simplistically been lumped together under the ethnic label of “Hispanic.” The label puts the so classified people in a dilemma, even when they are unrelated to art. In my own college I am faced with the choice of being undeservedly classed as part of a “protected segment of the population” (the college’s language) and therefore used to pad some quota, or with reneging on my own culture and background in order to free a slot for other people in need of protection.
Lately, the designation “Hispanic artists” has been used to classify and neatly group together artists who have some connection with Latin America. It is a classification spun Off by the mainstream culture which, in effect, posits a distance between these artists and the mainstream. At best, this ascribed distance reflects their poor fit within the parameters of the mainstream, their deviation from the hegemonic norm. At best because, while distance may mean economic disaster for the artist, it can also mean that at least some room is reserved for the development of an authentic and powerful identity. At worst, the ascribed distance serves to promote the devastating condescension of “Look, they too can make good art.” In economic terms this may create an opportunity for survival, but it can also lead to a precipitous assimilation into the mainstream in which a freedom not yet fully achieved, is lost. In both cases the label provides no unifying idea beyond that of vague ethnicity or vague geography; the artist remains separate, on his or her own, distracted from fully exploring the construction of a larger cultural community.
Meanwhile, the viewer, influenced by mainstream values, will observe this art with interest. To the degree that viewers’ values are shared by the artist, the presentation will be understood as belonging to some form of art, but at the same time, the distance ascribed to the artist will suggest the possibility of finding something “exotic,” something belonging to the unshared culture that will explain and justify the ascription of distance. If, by mainstream standards, there is anything intriguingly exotic it will be applauded as a contribution to the mainstream audience and coopted. If, on the other hand, the artist has found something interesting in mainstream art and has adopted it for use in personal art, the results will run the risk of being condemned as derivative. It is interesting to see how the work of Wifredo Lam suffered from both pressures at the same time. He is accepted as both bringing mysterious rituals into Western art and as a derivative product of Picasso. As Cuban critic Gerardo Mosquera points out, the result of this ambiguity is that his “Jungle” decorates the coat room in the Museum of Modern Art.

Therefore, when coming from the periphery, success has a frontier. The artist can only be moderately successful by the standards of mainstream art. Moderate acceptance means that the artist is seen as competent, as one who developed some individuality in the work without seriously revolutionizing or shaking the parameters within which international art operates. This perception allows the peaceful use of the work whenever the “Hispanic” quota has to be satisfied. If there is some ethnicity present, even better. In a twisted way, the “Hispanic” artist is then perceived as producing a form of artistic “gourmet Wonder Bread”, a bland category which here exempts the viewer from having to deal with the artist’s individual drama of surviving the pressure of two clashing benchmarks by trying to create a third one. From the point of view of the artist, “Spanglish art” as a category preserves and expresses this drama.

The uprooted artist lacks the possibility of a powerful dialogue with a correspondingly uprooted public. When it exists, that public is too small or too distant to provide an effective feedback. Therefore it is the “gourmet Wonder Bread” way of reading works of art which generates most of the pressure. The artist classified as “other” is, because of this pressure, led to abandon any effort to find an authentic integrative iconography for the sake of opportunistic blandness or, instead, one of two opposite modes. The artist tries to produce totally exotic work, that is, conforming to the stereotype prevailing in the mainstream about what the original culture of the artist is supposed to be. Or the artist tries to eradicate totally any evocation of difference with an effort to camouflage the work as an act of homage to the current canon of the hegemonic culture. The feedback from the mainstream audience thus serves, unintentionally, to complicate and retard the task of cultural synthesis and to exacerbate the tensions that vex, and sometimes torment, the uprooted artist.
The “gourmet Wonder Bread” appreciation of art therefore serves as a long range tool to achieve assimilation into the hegemonic culture. Not only is the artist sidetracked from the pursuit of a new integrative authenticity, but it is the creation of an audience fitting this work which is also hindered. The artist is led to address the wrong audience, while the intended audience can not develop to become a proper interlocutor. It is clearly a natural dynamic of any hegemonic culture to attempt to reduce phenomena such as “Spanglish” art to an expression of one first and passing generation. However, it is less clear if, given the conditions generating emigration towards the center, this reduction serves the interests of “Spanglish” artists and their real and potential audiences.

“Wonderbread and Spanglish Art” is an expanded version of “Latin American Art in the U.S.: Latin or American?,” an essay written originally by Luis Camnitzer for the exhibition Convergences/Convergencias, organized by Jane Farver for The Lehman College Art Gallery, February 11- March 31, 1988.






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