Luis Camnitzer:
Retrospective Exhibition
1966-1990

Introduction by Jane Farver
Essay—Politics and Ethnicity in the Work of Luis Camnitzer by Gerardo Mosquera
Statement—Manifesto, 1982 by Luis Camnitzer

Essay—Wonderbread and Spanglish Art by Luis Camnitzer
Essay—The Idea of the Moral Imperative in Contemporary Art by Luis Camnitzer
Chronology by Luis Camnitzer
Notes and Bibilography

 

Access to the Mainstream
by Luis Camnitzer

 

To address "access to the mainstream" in the arts is to address the topic of success in the market. For this reason, the subject has always elicited contradictory emotions—primarily desire and resentment—and these emotions have been particularly strong among those artists who do not belong to the social group that produces and supports what is considered "mainstream" art. Although the term "mainstream" carries democratic reverberations, suggesting an open and majority-supported institution, it is in fact a rather elitist arrangement reflecting a specific social and economic class. In reality, "mainstream" presumes a reduced group of cultural gatekeepers and represents a select nucleus of nations. It is a name for a power structure that promotes a self-appointed hegemonic culture. For this reason, the wish to belong to the "mainstream" and the wish to destroy it often arise simultaneously in the individuals who are or feel marginal to it. Depending on origin and background, individual access is more difficult for some than for others.

Discussion of the plights of different ethnic or national groups, anecdotes about their failures and successes in their attempts to gain access, does not illuminate the topic; it distracts from it. What does deserve attention are the elements common to the experience of all: for example, colonialism as a force affecting both internal and external colonies; values instilled by educational institutions that separate peoples from their identities; the market's fetishization of the success of the individual over the building of culture. These are the substantive issues. It is through these elements that the market becomes a tool for homogeneity, and "mainstream" turns out to be a euphemism for its actions.
This century has seen the introduction of some productive new methods for analyzing art processes and art problems. Some of the previous irrationality and obscurantism have been moved aside, and we now can see art more as a mode of cognition and a way of formulating and solving problems within that mode. This has brought some welcome clarity to the art field. It also has had less positive consequences when these analytical premises were taken to their extreme, the conclusion was drawn that art should be perceived in formalistic terms, and that these terms not unlike those of mathematics— should be homogenized into an "international style." In fact, the concept of an "international style" is one which can be seen as useful for political hegemony and cultural expansionism.

The Modernist movements developed in western cultural centers during this century—particularly the myth of abstractionism—were always associated with the promotion of an international style, and this style was eventually used as a cultural answer to "totalitarianism," itself a Cold War term created to put down Soviet autocracy by classifying it with the Nazi regime. Concurrent with these developments, nationalism became a word symbolizing cultural regression, thus minimizing the concept's use as an anti-colonial instrument. Since this cultural expansionism included a growth of the market, it was easy for these conditions to be accepted as guidelines by the market. As a consequence, ethnic and national artists belonging to subordinate cultures could only be successful in this market if they worked within an acceptable formal repertoire, while the expression of ethnicity and/or nationality had to remain confined to content. This residual ethnicity allowed their products to be perceived as slightly exotic, enough so as to maintain a satisfying self-image of openness and pluralism on the part of the market. The same residual ethnicity would signal the "roots" of the author in the artist's community of origin. Yet, the community's pride would turn on the fact that their artist "made it in the art world" rather than on the artist's cultural contribution to his or her community. Artists like Romare Bearden or Fernando Botero, for example, are more respected in their communities for the prices they command in the market than for any possible changes in vision they may have introduced to their national or ethnic constituents. A clear symptom of colonization is the tendency to see the shift from subordinate to hegemonic culture as a sign of progress and success.

In the recent years the eclecticism in vogue in the market—the Postmodernist "pastiche"—has allowed for the introduction of some short-lived cracks into this picture. German and Italian national identities, as projected by the Neoexpressionists and the Trans-avant-gardists, have been allowed a place, in spite of the fact that they do not totally conform to the notion of international homogeneity. Through feminist and graffiti art, the affirmation of distinctive group identity has achieved exhibition status, and kitsch has been allowed to challenge formalist purism. While the parties involved in this diversification of the mainstream have not fully assumed responsibility for the implied political ideologies of their work, clearly their contributions have tended to fit into two categories of Postmodernism, right-wing and left-wing. In right- wing Postmodernism—David Salle could be an example—we find past market products reintroduced, even regurgitated, with revitalized selling power. In left-wing Postmodernism—Kenny Scharf as an example for expression of identity. Hans Haacke for politics—some hitherto unacceptable elements have been introduced to the market and, as a result of their success, encourage the hope that the very definition of "mainstream" might be changed.1

The hope has been followed by disappointment. A multinational gallery structure has re-internationalized these offerings. Until multinational galleries and prices caught up, Germany and Italy were the artistic counterparts of what Taiwan and Korea are for industry. The edge of left-wing Postmodernism was dulled by chicness, to better fit the galleries. Diversity was fused into a market's expanded repertoire, and what could have been a cultural breakthrough was blunted into no more than an increase of merchandise supply. There is a store in Massachusetts which offers "authentic fast food." What possibly was intended as a satirical stab ended up providing an authenticating genealogy for an ersatz, being co-opted by the same institution it started attacking. The danger quickly disappeared and the balance was re-established.

To malign the market as an evil is very easy. Its distorting incentives, its self-congratulatory righteousness, its bulldozing cultural flattening and its deep-seated racism make it a vulnerable target. But most of this maligning assumes that under certain conditions the market can be corrected. If only there were minority curators or critics. If only there was easier access for minority artists. If only there were more galleries for minorities, or more room for minority artists in the mainstream galleries.

When criticism of the market follows this tack we lose sight of the fact that the market primarily serves itself and a specific socio-economic systems and will continue to do so regardless of any change in the race, gender, or nationality of those who play roles in it. Broadening the grip of active players will certainly help individuals to survive while they work. But this achievement should not be confused with a revolution against the market. Subordinate and peripheral cultures will continue to maintain their underprivileged status as long as the own and specific markets remain underprivileged. They will continue to suffer erosion as long as obsequious internationalization is perceived as a status symbol.

Access to the mainstream really means a mainstreaming of the artist. In the late '60s there was a push for something called "Black Capitalism." It was clearly more a promotion of capitalism than of blackness. The unexamined assumption was that capitalism is the best—if not the only— way of life, and that by granting an invitation and some aid to participate in it, critical problems would disappear. It was not, as was claimed, a matter of "integration," with the problems of two parties to be analyzed toward the creation of a third alternative. It was a matter of tolerating the access of one of the parties to a mainstream controlled by the other party. Capitalism wasn't supposed to change, it was to be expanded.
The time may now have arrived to focus our critical efforts on the colonial artist rather than on the market. Colonial artists are a schizoid and insecure group. On the one hand, we are dying to exhibit in a museum or in the best gallery. If we don't make it, we see ourselves as failures. On the other hand, if somebody else makes it we smell co-optation. If a white-Anglo commentator makes comments about a "minority issues," we perceive those comments as ignorant or patronizing, no matter how well-informed or well-intended. If the comments are made by a minority member within the context of the market, we discount it as the calculated latitude permitted someone who is fulfilling a quota; we don't completely accept the statement as evidence that the mainstream has been truly redefined.

The cause for this ambivalent reaction is not based on the content of the remarks but on the context in which they are made, signaling a distrust which could be healthy if used well. It is our obsessive focusing on the market, colored by the frustration of accessibility in theory and factual inaccessibility in practice, which hinders us in the correct use of our instinct. Only when resigned to failure do we look away and criticize. While there is a chance for success we may criticize some, but our actions will contradict our words. While criticism gives us a feeling of connectedness with our original community, our goal remains the access to the mainstream in any way possible.


Art is whatever fits into the market, and what does not is treated as foreign to the field. This simplistic division overlooks the processes we have to undergo in our attempt to enter the market and the powerful distortions to which we are subjected. Coming from subordinate or peripheral cultures, the minority artist's drive to become a participant in the marketplace, to find a place in the center of the hegemonic culture is the product of colonization. In order to successfully acquire membership, we have to undergo a thorough process of assimilation. When we don't fully succeed in our mimesis, we are left in a very visible and pathetic state of affectation.

In all the cases of the mainstreamed minority —the foreign artist, the black capitalist who applies to the mainstream—the colonizing process leads to the internalization of the wish to assimilate. When colonization is successful assimilation becomes something "natural" and unavoidable. We are then allowed to enter the field of competition and free enterprise so that everyone becomes the happy and credulous owner of an equal opportunity. But on the way to this plateau, certain changes occur in the expression of the individual. Some of these changes become believable, others less so. If believable, assimilation has been completed successfully. If not, the only thing achieved is affectation. What is expressed is perceived as a sign of kitsch, nouveau-richeness or "arrivism." A culture to be forgotten is partially covered up with a culture incompletely acquired, or a culture badly remembered is falsely reinterpreted for the eyes of a culture badly understood.

A recent review of a concert by the Peruvian singer Yma Sumac stated "Her stage show was a campy, sexy 'south of the border' stylization of grand opera, in which she portrayed a primitive diva mystically in tune with the forces of nature." And further on: "Positioned on either side of the stage were Styrofoam replicas of Incan deities, and the singer, costumed in a filmy purple gown, comported herself with theatrical hauteur." While it is unlikely that the reviewer expected Ms. Sumac to borrow original Incan statues from the Metropolitan Museum, nevertheless the account is a good inventory of the many ways she transgressed the good manners of hegemonic high culture. Even the possible originality of her transgressions is second-rated by a later comparison with "the showmanship of Liberace." Totally absent from the review is an account of Ms. Sumac's transgressions against her own culture, the violations performed to fit Liberace's market and the feedback of this market into Peru.

Colonization, assimilation, and affectation are all steps belonging to the same staircase, only at different distances from what is considered the top. Most of us who have come from different cultures have walked on all three steps, partly because of personal decisions, but mostly because of unperceived social and cultural pressures. All three steps signify a substitution of cultural values, a loss of what we had. More important, we impair our ability to sift through our own reality and find the building blocks for our independence. We who are artists who have come from other countries were subject to art schools belatedly and incompletely patterned after those in the cultural centers. We who lived in the cultural centers were directly processed toward melting into the pot. In both cases a set of artificial needs was created in us, leading us to the belief that the cultural centers and their values do indeed define the top of the staircase and that our original cultures, the subaltern cultures, are invalid. Yet, somewhere, a link remains alive, pulling us back to those cultures and defining an anti-mainstream seed.

In our quest to the top we end up classified somewhere between two interesting examples, the one of Lang Shih-ning and the one of the upper-class Uruguayan ladies. Lang Shih-ning was the Chinese name of Giuseppe Castiglione, an Italian painter who lived between 1688 and 1766. He went to China, worked for the emperor Ch'ien Lung, and tried hard and unsuccessfully to erase his western art training for the sake of becoming a Chinese court painter. During the late '50s in Uruguay, it had become fashionable for ladies in idleness to take up Chinese watercolors as a creative activity. There were several exhibits per season, and the more "authentic" the work looked, the better it was rated. The first example is one of a mercenary assimilating to better perform his job. The second example is one of indulging in affectation. In their activities, neither Lang Shi-ning nor the Uruguayan ladies were directly led to their activities by colonization in the same way that we are. But all of us are led to a debatable cultural substitution, one which should not be allowed to happen casually and thoughtlessly through an unconscious mimetic drive.

We have been taught to view art as an apolitical act, devoid of political consequences, operating in a nonpolitical space. When politics do seep into our work, it is confined to a level of residual content, placating somewhat our conscience, but not forcing us to review our strategies. We fail to see that politics are not just reduced to content, in a simplistic fashion. We live the alienating myth of primarily being artists. We are not. We are primarily ethical beings sifting right from wrong and just from unjust, not only in the realm of the individual, but no communal and regional contexts. In order to survive ethically we need a political awareness that helps us to understand our environment and develop strategies for our actions.


Art becomes the instrument of our choice to implement these strategies. Our choice to become artists is a political decision, independent of the content of our work. Our definition of art, of what culture we are serving, of what audience we are addressing, of what our work is to achieve, are all political decisions.

Thus the issue is not our access to the mainstream, but the mainstream's access to us. Only put this way can the mainstream act as a resonance box for our activities without eviscerating us. Whether the mainstream comes to us or bypasses us is of secondary importance. Of primary concern is that we remain in the trade of building a culture and know as precisely as possible what and whose culture we are building. Equally important is that we reduce our ego. The idea of us building a culture may leave the impression that we may do so singlehandedly. In fact, our role is equivalent to that of one more brick during the construction of a building. Under certain circumstances this attitude may sound like a separatist stance, but it is not. It does not imply a reversion to provincial nationalism or to parochialism. It is a position which stresses that what has selling power is not necessarily in our best merest, while stopping colonialism is. There is an important difference between cultural autonomy and chauvinism. Cultural autonomy is conducive to generating independent individuals. Chauvinism is only conducive to racism and, given the power, to imperialism. Imperialism is no more than provincialism with bullying power. What the stated position implies is in fact no more than a reordering of priorities in a moment in which a much-needed radical change of society still seems out of reach.


"Access to the Mainstream" was originally published in the June, 1987 edition of The New Art Examiner; The Lehman College Art Gallery is grateful to The New Art Examiner for permission to reprint this essay.


1. It is difficult to categorize ideologies in art because of the many possible levels of reading in its content, references, and uses of formal elements. There are examples outside of the realms of art which seem to offer clearer illustrations. Transformers, the polymorphous robot-toys, seem to provide a much more pristine example for right-wing pastiche aesthetics. Their aesthetic power relies not on the particular look of each stage of their transformation, but on the seamless transition from one appropriated image to another, always within a lethal militaristic context. Lip-synch singing, a new rage, is another example. The "artist" in this case is released from his or her responsibility to create, through blending into somebody else's voice. On the other hand, Markowitz, a character in the television series LA Law, becomes a symbol of left-wing Postmodernism. Challenging formalist beauty and canonic sex appeal, a short and pudgy personage to be overlooked in the street is elevated to a sex symbol because of sympathy, tenderness, and intelligence. The screen gods who effectively had been oppressing us have been dethroned for a short while.

 

They found Reality had intruded upon the Image, 1986
(from installation at 1988 Venice Biennale)