Modernization and Culture in Latin American Art History

Modernization is a process of producing culture, as is art. Culture plays a role in the production of knowledge systems, of which visual art is one aspect. Art is a product of the contemporary culture that surrounds the artist, and art is essential to creating and defining what is meant by culture. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “modern” as “being in existence at this time; current, present” and “modernization” as “the state of being modernized” . Interestingly, the term modernismo is defined only in reference to the Spanish (of Spain) tradition. In the context of Latin American art, however, modernization is a many-layered process, a specific movement and a way of defining the hybrid nature of life and art. Those who write about modernization spend some ink on describing it as indescribable; they state what modernization is not. For our purposes of definition, nebulous concepts like “modernization”, “culture” and “art” will be combined under the contextual heading “Latin America”, (itself a rather nebulous concept) and will be made sense of as a whole, each in relation to the others. Inherent in any discussion of Latin America in the modern era are pervasive notions of power, gender, nationality and diversity.

In Latin America, political, economic and social modernization is typically associated with rapid urban growth, privatisation, globalization and widespread neoliberalism. Since the military regimes of the 1970s in Latin America, some argue that culture, along with many services and natural resources, has been privatized – artists must look toward corporations for funding as the state has little to offer them in terms of support. Due to the intertwined nature of art and culture, each producing and reproducing the other in an infinite spiral, the co-opting of culture by corporations has had and will continue to have a great impact on the forms of modernization manifested in Latin American art. Dissatisfied elements have sprung up and are criticizing the direction modernization is taking, and its (negative) impact on their experiences of life. It is these counter-culture movements, say Yudice, Franco and Flores, which form the locus of a new aesthetic culture which is implicitly modern – it is informed by the traditions of the past but tempered with criticisms of these levelled by artists and intellectuals of the avant-garde. Representation is a powerful tool artists use to process, interpret and eventually recreate modern culture as something new. Masiello refers to representation as a political and artistic device, demarcating the tension between dichotomous principles like high and low, art and culture, traditional, modern and postmodern. On the line between truth and lies, experience and language and between intellectuals and their subjects, representation of culture helps to define it – and culture undoubtedly influences representation.

Yudice, Franco and Flores discuss hybridity in relation to cultural production in modern Latin America thus, “identity and subjectivity are no longer articulated on a national or continental basis by discourses of civilization, Hispanicity, indigenismo, mestizaje, anti-imperialism, working or campesino classes… ” In this age we call post-modern, the meanings of dichotomous notions like past and present, traditional and modern, canonical and subversive and even concrete and abstract, are collapsed in upon themselves and combined to create a hybrid offspring, like neither of its parents but separate and novel. The process of hybridization can produce nonviable, unnatural monsters, but as a site for communication it is productive and constructive. Communication in Latin America among and between art, culture and modernization often takes the form of resistance against an institutional upbringing.

The impetus for modernization in Latin America was a break with the Academy of art and a move by artists towards expressing themselves using elements of styles they saw around them and in their travels. Modernism is discussed in Barnitz as encapsulating a type of art that blends symbolist and post-impressionist tendencies, with a stylistic tendency to employ light and loose brushwork. The Mexican Muralist Movement of Diego Rivera and his contemporaries serves as an example of how the power of art to create knowledge can be harnessed by the Modernismo project. The prolific artist Rivera exemplified the nationalist philosophy when he essentially defined art as political propaganda  . The significance of this statement is in its emphasis on the power of representations of cultural tropes to actually produce culture, and to change it in a direction that can only be towards the modern. Rivera intended, through his production-representation of culture, to further the modernist agenda. Another example of intentional modernization of culture through art is the failed city of Brasilia. Brazil’s leaders wished to move their country forward through the modernization process and chose to do so by building a city where none existed before. The architecture and design of this city, Brasilia, spoke to the dream of unified, progressive, productive and dynamic modern-day Latin America .

In Latin America’s unique and diverse milieu, art can be the vehicle for nationalistic modernization as well as the tool used to push back against the dehumanizing, privatizing aspects of neoliberal modernization. Art and culture are indissolubly intertwined and they each embody a symbiotic relationship with modernization as it is enacted in Latin America.

Erika Falk
Fall 2011

See the related image from: University of San Francisco website, http://www.usfca.edu/Library/handouts/Diego_Rivera_and_the_WPA/. Image courtesy of the Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City. Retrieved November 20, 2011.

Works Cited
Barnitz, Jacqueline, Twentieth-Century Art of Latin America. U of Texas Press, 2001

Canclini, Nestor Garcia and Christopher L. Chiappari. Hybrid cultures: strategies for entering  and leaving modernity. U of Minnesota Press, 2005

Masiello, Francine. The Art of Transition: Latin American Culture and Neoliberal Crisis. Duke  University Press, 2001

Oscar Niemeyer. Answers.com. Britannica Concise Encyclopedia, Encyclopædia Britannica,  Inc., 1994-2010. http://www.answers.com/topic/oscar-niemeyer, accessed November 20,  2011. Oxford English Dictionary – online 2001

Sullivan, Edward J, ed. Latin American Art in the Twentieth Century. Phaidon Press Limited,  2000

Yudice, George, Jean Franco and Juan Flores. “On edge: the crisis of contemporary Latin  American culture”. Studies in Classical Philology. U of Minnesota Press.  Vol. 4, 1992

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This entry was posted in anti-imperialism, Brasilia, diversity, gender, hybridity, indigenismo, mestizaje, modernismo, nationality, postmodern, power, representation, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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