Art ache

Radicalism has been fuelling Argentine art since the 1960s, writes Andrea Giunta in Avant-Garde, Internationalism, and Politics


Avant-Garde, Internationalism, and Politics: Argentine Art in the Sixties
Andrea Giunta, Translated by Peter Kahn, 2007, Duke University Press
406 pages

Reviewed by Georgina Jiménez

IN JULY 2007 the Buenos Aires press reported that three students had been prosecuted in Argentina for aggravated damage (daño calificado) after they had graffitied the words “peace” and “love” on a tank that stood as a monument to the country’s army.

The youths – 20 year-old art student Juan Manuel Marengo, 21 year-old bio-engineering student Jairo Fiorotto, and 20 year-old history student Santiago Fiorotto – were all members of an art group, Winds of Liberty (Vientos de Libertad) in the small village of Oro Verde, province of Entre Rios.

Among other things they had also scribbled on the tank were “No to war”, “Argentina”, hearts, flowers and peace symbols. After being shot at six times, they were arrested by police and subsequently prosecuted for aggravated damage, which carries a sentence of up to a year in prison. Among those who pointed the finger at the youths was Carlos Schmidt, the mayor of Oro Verde of the social-democratic Radical Civic Union.

The three students had previously requested that the tank be removed, arguing that “wars are stains in the heart of humanity”.

Such radicalism has been nourishing Argentinean art since the 1960s, from amidst the tensions bequeathed by the Perón administration, which then liberals considered a total loss. This feeling of lost opportunity is captured in Luis Felipe Noé’s “Introduction to Hope” (“Introducción a la Esperanza”) which illustrates the cover of Avant-Garde, Internationalism, and Politics: Argentine Art in the Sixties by Andrea Giunta.

New Art of Argentina

In 1964 the Buenos Aires art world appeared close to completing an ambitious project in which artists, gallery directors, critics and institutions had invested much energy. The city was to be transformed into an international artistic centre, as well as a showcase for an internationally recognisable “new” Argentine art, completely detached from Latin America.

Clement Greenberg, a critic who championed post-war North American art, had landed in the Argentine capital to participate as a juror in the Torcuato Di Tella international competition. An exhibition of Argentine New Art of Argentina toured several museums in the United States bringing together a selection of paintings and sculptures revealing intense and unprecedented signs of renovation.

In Avant-Garde, Internationalism, and Politics: Argentine Art in the Sixties, Andrea Giunta analyses the forms taken by these project to internationalise the visual arts of Argentina and their avant-garde during the 1960s; the conditions that made it possible to conceive of these projects; strategies to promote the new Argentine art; the images that best represented this; and the antagonistic discourses that shaped the continuing debates characterising artistic development during that era.

In this atmosphere there was incredible tension between art and politics, inscribed in terms that would fuel cultural debate across Latin America – of which radicalism was the main feature over the course of the decade. Key themes included the effort to eliminate barriers between art and life, fusing art and politics, anti-institutionalism, anti-intellectualism, and the search for new means of expression and even for a new type of public.

The culmination of existentialism, the development of structuralism, the Cuban revolution, Fanon’s representation of colonialism, and American influences upon abstraction in Latin American art and its liberation movements were all frames of reference shaping the general configuration of artistic pursuit in this period.

Giunta’s intention is to put aside the old art book formula that sets out a catalogue of individual biographies and artistic schools as if they were mere factors of a natural order. Her view is that such a cumulative version of processes, viewed in relation to the idea of progress, tends to ignore other significant features that may help us to understand the degree to which artists changed their work in order to confront what they saw as the intransigence and purity established by the very projects – such as that aiming to transform Buenos Aires into a centre for world art – that had nurtured them.

The author guides the reader through the significance of various pacts and disagreement of the 1960s, at a time in which artists, institutions and critics came together in a single organised front to promote an identity for Argentine art in order to secure its recognition around the world, but she also reviews the circumstances in which all these commitments came to be broken.

Well written and thoroughly documented, this book is an invaluable tool for those interested in the evolution of contemporary art in Latin America (engulfed as it was in the love triangle Buenos Aires-Paris-New York). The choice of artists and images is superb, although perhaps the book could have merited a greater size to match that of Giunta’s research. But Avant-Garde, Internationalism, and Politics is not just a book about history, it offers a fascinating explanation of the current state of Argentine and Latin American art in the era of globalization.

Andrea Giunta is professor of Latin American Art at the General University of San Martín and visiting professor at Duke and Princeton Universities. She has been awarded Rockefeller, J. Paul Getty and John Simon Guggenheim Foundation fellowships and a Diploma of Merit by the Konex foundation. She is also the author of Candido Portinari y el Sentido Social del Arte (Arte y Pensamiento) and Arte de Posguerra: Jorge Romero Brest y la Revista Ver y Estimar.

Avant-Garde, Internationalism, and Politics: Argentine Art in the Sixties is also available in its original Spanish version, Vanguardia, Internacionalismo y Política: Arte Argentino en los años sesenta (Paidós, 2001).

Georgina Jiménez is a Mexican freelance writer