IN HIS CLASSIC television and literary examination of the way we look at art, John Berger raised important questions about hidden ideologies in visual images.
Ways of Seeing, a seminal text in the study of art history, and highly influential for the sociological position it occupies within the history of cultural studies, represented at the time a Marxist riposte to the dominant traditional view of Western artistic culture based on narratives about male genius.
Berger stated: “Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak. But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but word can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it.”
This sentiment emanates in abundance from Edward McCaughan’s Art and Social Movements, which analyses the role visual arts played in three social movements from the late 1960s to the early 1990s: the 1968 student movement and associated art collectives in Mexico City, a Zapotec inidgenous political and cultural movement in Oaxaca, and the Chicano civil rights movement in California.
McCaughan explores the ways artists helped shape the views and identities of Mexican and Chicano activists by creating new visual discourses in a work which is that rare thing in scholarship – a labour of love that also reflects the writer’s own, highly personal relationship with some of the main protagonists as activist and organiser.
He notes from the outset an important feature of almost all Latin American cultural production that he first became aware of in 1969: politics kept on encroaching on art – whether it be the poetry of Darío, Neruda or Vallejo or the paintings of Rivera – and the politics of representation could be as dangerous as the politics of the street.
This work is thoroughly contemporary: applying this understanding to the context of social movements and, in particular, advances in our theoretical understanding of these that places an emphasis on the centrality of collective identity formation and the construction of meaning.
What makes this study original and valuable is the author’s explicit attempt to integrate perspectives in the cultural politics of representation and signifying processses with an historically grounded understanding of social movements. What emerges is a theoretically informed endeavour with a radical edge.
McCaughan argues after Alain Lipietz that every distinctive regime of accumulation (such as modern capitalism) must be accompanied by a “mode of regulation” – norms, habits, laws and regulation networks that guarantee its agents conform – in order to reproduce itself. However, McCaughan incorporates within this mode of regulation the symbolic “regimes of representation” and “systems of signification” that are repositories of cultural meaning and hence values. He writes:
“A ruling class, or historic bloc as Gramsci (1989) preferred, exercises its economic, political, and cultural hegemony when subaltern segments of society come to accept as common sense the meanings attributed by the dominant bloc to fundamental concepts such as citizenship, nationhood, patriotism, well-being, security, freedom, equality, race, family, gender, and sexuality. To the extent that the majority of people inhabit and perform such concepts in a manner that mirrors the dominant system of linguistic and visual representation, we ‘conform more or less’ in our ‘day-to-day behaviour and structure’ to hegemonic schema for reproducing the political economy. Counterhegemonic social movements attempt to unfix those meanings and create new systems of signification, a task in which artists can play a critical role.” [p 12]
McCaughan sets out to identify and analyse the commonalities and differences in the portrayal of key themes such as citizenship and exclusion in the three case studies, all of which form part of a broader whole that emerged from the 1968 global movement for democratisation and political change, and also examines questions of style and form and, in particular, the challenge mounted by postmodern forms of expression.
The result is a tour de force, and this volume is a worthy homage to Berger’s legacy and that of other influential cultural theorists and social thinkers, from Gramsci to Hall. The only slight disappointment is the reproduction of the plates, which would have made a more forceful illustration of the argument had they been larger or, even better, in colour.