Friday, April 29, 2011

History and Identity: Art Appreciation as Reflecting a Region's Standing

Latin America's history with colonial oppression, now centuries old, and the subsequent dispossession of the indigenous by a new set of oppressors, may contribute to the problems artists there face in framing their works. But I believe the socio-economic and political standing of a region influences majorly how its art is viewed locally and abroad. As long as Latin America remains poor, as long as it stays mired in admiration for Trujillos, Castros, Duvaliers, Pinochets, and now Chavezs and Ortegas, until it clears the poppy fields instead of the Amazon, until its people stop flocking to the Virgin of Guadalupe for curing chronic conditions, one suspects its art will be seen a tad condescendingly by the rest of the world.

One can claim this is unfair, that art should not be tied to politics and economics, that multiculturalism means accepting the warts of those with other ways. Unfortunately, artists will have little following in their own places as long as the people there are poor. Art is our highest form of mental expression, and it cannot flower where basic human wants are unmet for large hordes of the populace. For Latin American art to achieve international recognition, those countries will have to progress economically, lifting their masses out of poverty.

The Spanish rule is now almost two hundred years old, only slightly younger than British rule in the US. Blaming colonialism for Latin America's art problems is a flight from the reality of its poverty, despots, demagogues, the pelo malo/pelo bueno (good hair/bad-curly-hair) local racism, and superstitious religion. Art cannot don the mantle of myths and mirages to distract from reality. The pre-Columbian Aztlan reeked of famines, human sacrifices, conquest, tribute, slavery, and environmental destruction. The Aztecs were as bad as the later Spaniards. If artists there are still railing against Colonialism almost 200 years after Spain left Mexico then their ways and works are unlikely to be the salvation of the land.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Frida Kahlo (Blog #7; Assignment H)

Julie Taymor’s Frida is the biography, changed in places, of the famous Mexican painter, whose life was as large as her husband’s art. Salma Hayek does little justice to the real Kahlo, but the film is worth watching as an introduction to a serious study of both Kahlo and Rivera.

Kahlo’s story is well-known, oft told, and as surreal as some of her art. She was a Marxist, actually a Stalinist; a feminist bi-sexual; a sexual libertine; a many-race mix, part Jewish, part Spanish, part Amerindian; married to a man equally complex, talented, rebellious and anarchic; and a lover of the Mexican indigene. She loved Mexico, and as Patrick Marnhan confirms (258), pulled Rivera back to the country after the aborted commission at Rockefeller center. 
To the end, Kahlo stayed Marxist, even after an affair with the doomed Trotsky (310). While she fought for causes well ahead of her time--civil rights for the native Indians and feminist expressions of the female body--she did not limit her appeal to specific segments. Her final solo exhibition showcased her work as an artist, not as an activist wedded to identity-based causes. She used her mixed identity to root herself in and preach a common humanity beyond divides, and a common responsibility to work for equal rights across the board. In this she was influenced heavily by her husband, Diego Rivera. Rivera’s circle of mural painters, Orozco and Siqueiros among them, were strong believers in the original tenets of the Mexican Revolution of 1910, and their debates were on details. This cultural air of stressing human solidarity as opposed to group identity and fragmentation seeped into Kahlo’s portraits and behavior too. She was racially not of Mexico’s majority, being half Jewish, nor was she part of its powerful elite, the Criollos. But she avoided the mantle of representing her specific ethnicity or cultural setting, preferring to stand for ideals more basic and hence more universal. This was largely because the cultural backdrop of the revolution, and the mural art springing from it, encouraged a universal outlook.

Works Cited
Frida. Dir. Julie Taymor. Miramax, 2002. Film.
Marnham, Patrick. Dreaming with His Eyes Open: A Life of Diego Rivera. New York: Knopf, 1998. Print.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Museum Visit: Olmec Exhibition at DeYoung

The Olmecs are widely thought the first major civilization of the Americas, first rising sometime in the second millennium BC. They ruled over what is now southeastern Mexico, along the Gulf coast. Their three main cities were Tres Zapotes, La Venta and San Lorenzo (near the latter-day Tenochtitlan, today's Mexico City), all abandoned by 400 BC. They are known mostly for their huge rock monuments, and the controversy over their origins.

The DeYoung exhibition featured several major Olmec works. Most were figures of people and animals, or narratives of historical scenes and traditional ceremonies, with some rare female images. The most imposing were the Olmec Heads, meters high, weighing many tons, carved in volcanic basalt stone. There were also axes, mirrors in magnetite, clean shell pendants of Jadeite and a pair of twinned figures in Andesite rock. The figures were of a man and beast combination. Many of the figures showed the cranial deformation (shaping) practiced by the Olmecs; the maize cob thought the right shape for the human head. Some stone carvings related to the ballgames they played, and were deeded to the later civilizations such as the Mayas, Toltecs and Aztecs. The art also included ceramic slip-painted with pigment.

Olmec works remained static through the centuries, with little change in style or substance. Their strong belief in the supernatural is likely one reason. Many of their inventions, such as the long-count calendrical system and hieroglyphs, would be adopted by other Mexican cultures. Ethnically, they are considered the same stock that came in via the Siberian bridge and spread south.

While the art impresses with its sophistication relative to what has been excavated elsewhere in the Americas for the same period, it is, in technique, variety and dynamism, not there with the art of the civilizations close to the Mediterranean shores, such as Mesopotamia and Egypt. Lack of metal tools, a smaller population, and no form of writing seem to have held back the Olmecs.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Pre revolutionary Mexico against today's Mexico (Blog #5)

Anita Brenner, in "Idols Behind Altars" sums up the state of pre-revolutionary Mexico, at the turn of the 20th century and later. She mentions the feudal system, and the preference for Europe and its exports, that the nationalist fervor of the 1820s independence movement had sunk to.

Revolution, unfortunately, replaced one military ruler with another, the weak and corrupt with the brutal and corrupt, leading to the political Mexico of today. The Borderlands, the Aztlan of Anzaldua, is a land where mayors are dumped, dead, on their own doorsteps; where twenty-year-old police chiefs flee from fear; where the next one will be given the choice of silver--money--or lead, "Plata o Plomo" on its way to becoming the best-known Spanish phrase, with those choosing Plata getting pumped with Plomo by the other gang. Where a quarter of the population has fled south, a quarter crossed north, a quarter dead in unmarked graves, and the rest desperate. Where the country's President actually asks America to take in its refugees. The spiritual Mexico of the Chicana literature seems as elitist and unreal as art could get.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Assignment C (blog #3)

Latin American Colonial art poses several interesting questions.

The art seems to have ignored the local culture, scenery, dress codes, and ways of life. It is indeed Europe-lite. It is unlikely people would be clothed the way they are in the paintings, in hot, near-tropical Mexico. Granted, the Christian themes do relate to a third land neither Latin American nor European: the Middle East of Bethlehem, Palestine, and Egypt. But the Italian Renaissance painters had no problems reinventing the Biblical characters essentially as Romans, in looks, dress, and even in the landscapes shown. But when the imagery was imported into Latin America, the painters did not alter it again to fit their own locality.

It is interesting artists were thought lower-class artisans. The general history of art seems to have been of attaching itself to the centers of power and social status. But the subject matter of the paintings do not seem to reflect any poorer-human's themes. They seemingly reflect no themes other than those of the European Renaissance and the later neo-classicism. What of the many wars and the colorful warriors? The adobes? The rainforests? Nothing of the pioneer's ways shows in the paintings. Religion seems to dominate, and all the varied issues of building in the new land ignored, in what the artist chooses to capture on canvas.

One possible conclusion is that patrons drive where art heads, more than the artists themselves. They decide what gets painted, what gets displayed, and, most important, what gets rewarded. And the nobility of new Spain saw themselves as Spaniards, from the beginning all the way to the bitter end of the later revolutions.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Blog #3: Planimetricism

The two dimensional rendering of copies of renaissance art taking out the three dimensional perspective provided by modeling - planimetricism - on the face of it sounds technically inferior. It occurs in places like the Spanish colonies and the Slavic world, where artists were unfamiliar with conventions of 3-d rendering, such as overlapping, linear perspective (distant objects as narrower), and atmospheric perspective (showing farther objects as hazier). But psychology research has shown only people familiar with the convention see these monocular cues (visible with just one eye) as indicating depth (Myers 249). The renaissance way of rendering 3-d objects, particularly people, on a 2-d canvas, is not intrinsically building on how the brain constructs 3-d reality from 2-d images on the retina, but is just a convention which, like language, when taught early enough and often enough acquires the trappings of a self-evident truth.
Works Cited
Myers, David G. Psychology. 8th ed. New York: Worth, 2009. Print.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Hybrid cultures ot the south

It is odd that in much of Latin America, the settlers and the natives mixed creating a mestizo race. But coupled with it was horrifying excesses of violence and a degrading class system which persists to this day. In North America, settlers and natives did not mix, and the violence was less obvious. The decimation of the indigenous population came through a mix of wars, imported diseases, and forced relocations. Planned slaughters were rare. The difference has often been attributed to the difference in the South and North European cultures of the colonizers but that just seems an after-the-fact explanation.

The difference on the cultural front seems starker. North American culture is essentially European culture continued, with classical Greece and Rome the starting point of way too many lecture courses in both humanities and sciences. Mexican culture is language-wise European, but tradition- and ethnicity-wise a true blend, and hence a novel form. My exposure is limited to Latina/Chicana literature and second-hand readings of the Latin American writers, but they seem to draw little on the classical tradition of Europe. Part of this may be because the political air of that land is different, with socialism and conservatism meaning something starkly different from the Western world's ideas of the terms. But a large part of the divergence seems to be from rooting the works in the old soil of the new land as opposed to the old ways of the new settlers.