Conceptual Art

This entry examines conceptual art and representational art in Latin American context. Through the works of artists and scholars, I will define and convey the meanings of conceptualism and representation in art. ArtLex, an online dictionary, defines conceptual art as, “art that is intended to convey an idea or a concept to the perceiver.” Conceptual art is a rejection of the traditional idea of the art object as a precious commodity and is focused on the meaning an art object can convey. The Oxford English Dictionary defines representation as, “an image, likeness, or reproduction in some manner of a thing”. Conceptual art in Latin America conveys meaning through representations. These meanings are often related to social or political issues and are meant to affect the way the audience views these issues. Conceptual art aims to deliver direct and concise messages whereas representations can have ambiguous and diverse interpretations.

Conceptual art emerged as an art movement in the 1960s (Wood 7). The expression “conceptual art” has taken on different meanings when interpreted by different individuals.[i] Due to Latin America’s diverse social, political, economic, and radical structure, classifying a uniform regional or national artistic development is difficult.[ii] Maria Carmen Ramirez expands on many aspects of conceptual art in Latin America, stating that conceptualism is considered a major shift in the understanding and production of art. She does not classify conceptualism as a style or a movement, but rather, a strategy of rethinking, which calls into question both the fetishization of art and its systems of production and distribution in late capitalist society (Ramirez 53). The rethinking of traditional art allows conceptualism to appear in a variety of forms, materials and even as manifestations. Moreover, the emphasis of conceptual art is not on the artistic, but on specific structural or idea-based processes that extend beyond perceptual and formal considerations (Ramirez 53). Roberto Jacoby, an Argentine artist, highlights this argument by his definition of art, “What is art, then, if only a way of thinking. Social phenomena are also works of art and they concern everyone.”[iii]Cildo Meireles, a Brazilian conceptual artist, created a series entitled Insertions into Ideological Circuits between 1970 to 1976. Meireles was able to print political messages onto a number of Coca Cola bottles and put them back into circulation.[iv] The audience of this work was free to acknowledge or ignore its message, though the message was stated very clearly. Meireles used Coca Cola bottles, which he believed to be icons of American culture, to address the issue of America’s presence and influence on Latin American society. The inscription on one of the bottles reads, “Yankees go home”, which directly conveys Meireles’ distaste of Americans. The main focus is not on the coke bottles themselves, but rather on the message they convey.

Ramirez argues that the emergence of conceptualism in Latin America, “not only closely paralleled, but in many key instances, even anticipated important developments of center-based[i] conceptual art” (Ramirez 53). She suggests that this is due to colonial legacy, which is prevalent in Latin America’s history. Authoritarian regimes abolished rights and privileges of middle class democracy, which stimulated Latin America’s self-conscious status as radical, political, and artistic avant-garde. Ramirez’s notes another distinguishing feature of Latin American conceptual art with regards to the role of audiences as integral.  Two models, “pathos” (contamination) and “pathia” (participation) allow for the conscious effort to counter-circulate messages or communicate new values to audiences. The Insertions into Ideological Circuits series by Meirele’s would fit under the “pathos” category since he ‘contaminated’ the Coca Cola distribution system.

Representations are used to create meaning for the world around us. Representations are not reality though they can be misread as reality. French theorist Roland Barthes suggests two levels of meaning provided by representations: connotative and denotative. Connotative meanings rely on cultural or historical background in order to be conveyed whereas denotative meanings refer to the literal and descriptive meaning of an artwork. An example of this can be seen in an image of Pancho Villa’s assassination.[ii] The denotative meaning of the image can be described as a deceased man in a vehicle on a crowded street. The connotative meaning is much deeper. Pancho Villa was a prominent figure in the Mexican Revolution, “for having led the most important military campaigns of the constitutionalist revolution” (Cummings 2009).[iii] He actively fought against Mexico’s dictatorship and can be considered an inspirational figure in Mexican history. This image can be interpreted as a representation of Mexico’s struggle for independence as well as a representation of Mexico’s history.

As demonstrated above, representations can be used to describe history but they can also be used to describe the present. Art author Kate Linker states that, “reality can be known only through the forms that articulate it, [therefore] there can be no reality outside of representation” (Linker 392). The idea that there can be no reality outside of representation means that we cannot escape the systems of representation from which we view and construct the world around us. Ideology is an example of a system of representation. The Encarta World English Dictionary defines ideology as a set of beliefs, values, and opinions that shape the way an individual or a group thinks, acts, and understands the world. Cildo Meireles’, Insertions into Ideological Circuits disrupts the system of ideology by shifting the beliefs and values and opinions of his audience. Meireles demonstrates how conceptual art interacts with representations. As mentioned before, the diversities within each country of Latin America have contributed to its great variety in art. “Each ethnic group possesses a unique historic and artistic perspective…[and]…influence comes from geographic surrounding [as well as] social or political [surrounding]” (Chaplik 19). Therefore representations differ greatly throughout Latin America due widely to different cultures and their respective systems of representations.

Representations can be seen to create the different cultures of Latin America. Conceptual art in Latin America works through these representations and aims to create political and social awareness. Though it is impossible to create a concrete homogeneous definition of conceptual art and representational art in Latin America, there is a prominent focus on addressing social and political issues and stimulating awareness.

Sophia Augustynek

Spring 2010


[i] Center-based refers to Europe and North America

[iii] Cummings, Joe. “Francisco “Pancho” Villa.” Mexconnect. 21 Nov. 2009. <http://www.mexconnect.com/articles/1305-francisco-pancho-villa>.

Works Cited

ArtLex. 4 Nov. 2009. <http://www.artlex.com/>. Online.

 Camnitzer, L. Conceptualism in Latin American Art. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2007.  Print.

 Chaplik, D. Defining Latin American Art. North Carolina: McFarland and Company, 2005. Print.

Encarta World English Dictionary. 23 Nov. 2009. <http://www.languagecourse.net/online-           dictionary/out.php3?site=1062254417>. Online.

 Linker, K. Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation. Eds. M. Tucker, C. Phillips, B. Wallis &   T. Yohn. New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984. Print.

Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright.  Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2001. Print.

Oxford English Dictionary. 16 Oct. 2009. <http://dictionary.oed.com/>. Online.

Ramirez, M. Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin 1950-1980. Eds. Mariani, P. New York: The Queens Museum of Art, 1999. Print.

Sullivan, E.J. Latin American Art in the Twentieth Century. Phaidon Press Limited, 2000. Print.

Useful resources

Fadis. 20 Nov. 2009.
<http://fadis.library.utoronto.ca/cgi-   bin/WebObjects/FADIS.woa/1/wo/e5mtDj4rOX
xFFi1NkujmCM/7.9.0.17?13,13>. Online.

Latin American Studies. 23 Nov. 2009. <http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/mexican-     revolution/villa47.gif>. Online.

Notes

[i] For more information on the creation of the term ‘conceptual art’ see: Wood, Paul. Conceptual Art. New York: Delano Greenidge Editions, 2002. Pp.6-9.

[ii] For detailed information on art in Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia and Brazil see: Sullivan.

[iii] The Tucumán Arde is a group of artists who worked on creating awareness of the injustices that were taking place in the province of Tucumán in Argentina. Their goal was to solve the issue through education, by bringing awareness to the audience (Wood 60-61). For further information on the Tucumán Arde see: “Tucuman Arde.” The Graduate Center. 23 Nov. 2009. <http://web.gc.cuny.edu/dept/ArtHi/part/part5/arde.html>.

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