Art Matters Spring 2018
The questions of what is art and why it matters are central to the self-definition of modernity and what it means to make sense of the world through the manipulation of sensible matter. As a scholar of Latin American cultures and literatures, I have grappled with these questions for a long time. Is there a universal definition of art? If so, what human need does it satisfy? Why do Inka objects that were created for everyday use or photographs of war end up as visual objects to be contemplated and admired in silence in art museums? Does art placed inside the museum affect us in the same way as a public sculpture? Why does art from certain regions of the world such as Latin America seem to matter less?
Most art museums implicitly or explicitly provide answers to such questions through the historical and geopolitical narratives within which they locate the works in their galleries. Depending on the narrative, the meaning of a specific artwork may be based on universal definitions of beauty or on how it embodies a specific historical period, region, civilization, or style. In response to public debates over diversity, social justice, and political and environmental violence, many museums have been paying more attention to the ‘other’ histories of art, including works created by women and non-Western artists. As a result, the museum is seen less as a secular temple of timeless values and more as a laboratory for alternative narratives.
The Princeton University Art Museum is such a virtual experimental laboratory. It provides us—faculty, students, and the public—with a pedagogical setting within which we can explore different types of artistic archives and curatorial approaches. In my case in particular, the Museum has allowed me to delve into artistic works and photographic practices that have a complex, at times contentious, relationship with the art world and the museum as an institution. In 2013, I had the fortune to cocurate with Professor Eduardo Cadava The Itinerant Languages of Photography. The exhibition traced modes of exchange and itinerancy from the nineteenth century to the present, juxtaposing materials by Mexican, Spanish, Argentine, and Brazilian photographers. Among other things, it presented an alternative history of photography by focusing on the transnational dimension of technological development and image production, which is crucial for understanding photography’s role in representation, authorship, and reception in global contemporary art and culture. Because of their unstable status—intermittently document, found material, arbitrary image, and art object—many of the photographs in the exhibition had developed the capacity to signify in multiple ways. Photographic records of political violence, for example, had become the objects of conceptualist reflections on the photographic condition or the fragility of memory. Looking at some of the avant-garde works in the Museum’s collections, I also have reflected upon how contemporary art matters both conceptually and politically. I am thinking of the powerful photographic portraits of the Cuban American artist Ana Mendieta, in which she appears pushing her face repeatedly against a piece of translucent glass, thus underlining that all modern representations of women, including photographic ones, involve some kind of distortion. Land Mark (Foot Prints) by the artists Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, currently on view at the Museum, offers us another example of how some forms of art seek to affect the world in a tangible, tactical way, while partially remaining within the confines of art. The photographic series belongs to the long-term project Land Mark, which was concerned with the ecological condition of Vieques, an inhabited island off Puerto Rico used by the U.S. Navy as a bomb testing range from 1941 until 2003. The photographs are records of the traces left by activists when they trespassed a restricted military zone. The artists invited the local activists to design their own protest graphics, which were cast in rubber reliefs and attached to the soles of their shoes. By wearing the modified shoes, the protesters became walking printing machines that left temporary copies of drawings or texts on the sandy surface of the island.
Although the collaborative performance was ephemeral, it ultimately helped advance the activists’ political goals. The photographs in the Museum, on the other hand, participate in an ambivalent signifying logic. They are both indexical records of a past political event reduced to a set of prints, and a self-referential meditation on the trace as an artistic medium and a mnemonic tool. In both Mendieta’s and Allora and Calzadilla’s photographic series, art matters because it not only creates a dissensus or disagreement regarding the fairness of a particular symbolic and political arrangement but also points to the possibility of a different, better future that we need to imagine.
Director of the Latin American Studies Program
Emory L. Ford Professor of Spanish