The relation between art and politics during the 1960s and '70s in Latin America is a highly contested subject. Critics and academic writers today reflect the myriad positions that artists themselves once adopted in the heat of the moment.1 The debate is further complicated by an urgent need to reassess practices that have long been ignored in mainstream art narratives. The question is not simply how these artistic procedures incorporated politics but also how Latin American art referred to movements in the northern hemisphere.
In both cases, the problem of generalizing terminology becomes immediately apparent. Commentators have critiqued both the term "Latin American art" and the attempt to identify its distinctive characteristics vis-à-vis European and North American work-such as the use of "political" or "ideological" when discussing Conceptualism in the region. Can artists from widely diverse cultural, social and political contexts be legitimately grouped under a geographic label? Can standard art-historical terminology be applied in Latin America without implying that the work is derivative?
In Brazilian Art under Dictatorship, Claudia Calirman avoids the pitfall of geographic homogenization by profiling three quite distinctive artists who emerged in Rio de Janeiro toward the end of the 1960s: Antonio Manuel, Artur Barrio and Cildo Meireles. Their stories are framed from the outset by two events: the repressive Institutional Act #5 (or AI-5 as it is more commonly known), decreed in 1968, and the international boycott of the 10th São Paulo Biennial in 1969.
The 1950s had been a period of unprecedented optimism in Brazil, culminating in the inauguration of the new capital, Brasília, in 1960. That headiness dissipated during the 1960s, which, as elsewhere in the world, was an era marked by political, cultural and economic upheavals. Intellectuals and artists began the decade with ambitious, albeit often romantic, projects of popular engagement. These were cut short by a military coup in 1964. Yet the radical new agenda for cultural production could not be entirely contained by the military regime's policy of censure and persecution, despite increasingly hard-line measures.
Announced on Dec. 13, 1968, AI-5 amended the constitution for the next 10 years, allowing the president to recess congress and other assemblies without declaring a state of emergency and to intervene in state and municipal affairs beyond previous legal limits. It permitted the suppression of the political rights of any citizen and the quashing of political mandates at all levels. Due to these dictates, professors were expelled from universities; actors, musicians and artists were imprisoned and often exiled; and television programs, radio stations and newspapers fell under the control of censors.
The international call to boycott the São Paulo Biennial in 1969 was a direct reaction to these measures, and Calirman, who teaches art history at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, stresses the global expression of solidarity with Brazilians living under this harsh military regime, which did not end until 1985. Her opening chapter, however, adopts a rather mournful tone toward the advent of the boycott itself. Rather than investigate the radical shift in the conditions of cultural production from the 1950s to the '60s, Calirman focuses instead on the impact that the city's biennials had on the local art scene.2
Asserting that "the emergence of new visual languages in Brazil is inextricably intertwined with the history of the various important São Paulo biennials," the author implies that local practice derived largely from North American and European art. She holds, for example, that the presence of the Bauhaus-trained Swiss artist Max Bill, who won the international sculpture prize in the first edition of the biennial in 1951, "was a springboard for major developments in Brazilian art." The denial in 1969 of the "lifeblood of new developments in the visual arts" is presented as a cause for regret. "In the absence of enthusiastic participation from abroad," Calirman writes, "the artistic community would remain isolated from the most current international trends and ideas."
This hypothesis underlies the claim that the book's three featured artists "successfully managed to develop their own modified versions of international trends, such as body art, media-based art, and conceptual practices." A tension between derivation and self-strengthening isolation pervades the book, which forcibly, and sometimes clumsily, associates the selected artists' work with international movements and events.
Calirman's analysis of the dictatorship's effect on artistic production oscillates in a similar fashion. On the one hand, she praises artists for generating "newly anarchic practices, at times aggressive and at other times disguised in subtler modes of artistic intervention." On the other hand, she describes them as living in "a state of self-imposed censorship," often deliberately avoiding "traces of authorship in their works." The fake headlines of Antonio Manuel's "Clandestines" series of 1973, surreptitiously inserted into pages of Rio's sensationalistic tabloid O Dia, are judged to have "used the newspaper not only as a tool of communication but also as a political weapon of sorts," even though their primary subject is art. Artur Barrio's signature bundles of decaying matter deposited anonymously in public places are introduced with a paragraph on the concealment of authorship. In the chapter on Cildo Meireles, subtitled "Clandestine Art," undertakings such as the series "Insertions into Ideological Circuits: Coca-Cola Project" (1970), which involved over 1,000 commercially circulating Coke bottles inscribed with anti-government messages, are viewed as interventions in which "authorship and therefore the danger of persecution were no longer attached to the work."
Calirman seems to judge the artworks by their efficiency as "weapons" for undermining the regime rather than their experimental character within the field of art. She relies, to a considerable extent, on a system of quantification: Manuel's "Clandestines" successfully manipulated Brazil's news system "to introduce his media art to a mass audience"; Barrio's bloody bundles were seen by an estimated 5,000 people; Meireles's "Insertions into Ideological Circuits" had only a limited scope of dissemination. Using such numeric criteria, Calirman concludes that "as the historical moment passed, the three artists . . . abandoned their politically oriented art." One could argue, however, that their current work maintains a political consciousness even in its most poetic manifestations, remaining consistent with their production of the late 1960s and '70s. In other words, the intentions of the artists have not necessarily shifted away from politics; rather, with the dictatorship no longer in place, the poetic character of the art becomes more evident than its political nature.
Calirman's book is extremely well researched, but it would have benefited from a different editorial approach. The debate about the "political art" label is applied predominantly to Meireles, while Manuel and Barrio are tied to the issue of institutional critique. Moreover, the association Calirman makes with the legacy of Hélio Oiticica's participatory, antiestablishment art seems, in the case of Barrio and Meireles, forced at best and historically incorrect at worst. The decision to treat each artist in a separate chapter clouds the fact that, early in their careers, they often showed in the same historically significant yet modest exhibitions.
Hidden in Calirman's book, therefore, is an interesting account of this little-known history, one that remains obscure even within Brazil. The author is clearly aware of this. She highlights, for example, the vital role played by art critics like Frederico Morais, who both espoused and organized exhibitions of what he called "guerrilla art," despite the prevailing repressive conditions. A useful chronology of exhibitions is provided as an appendix. Had Calirman organized her book around the increasing radicalization of exhibition practices during the period, several contradictions and repetitions would have become evident. So, too, would the role of women artists such as Anna Bella Geiger, Anna Maria Maiolino and Lygia Pape, all of whom adopted radical postures toward the regime. Finally, Calirman might have recognized the ambivalent part played by artists such as Raymundo Colares, who inflected the Neoconcrete idiom with the international language of Pop art, eschewing the overtly political while still collaborating with artists such as Manuel.
1 For an overview of some of the key issues, see Robin Adèle Greely, "Art and Politics in Contemporary Latin America," Oxford Art Journal, 32, 1, 2009, pp. 162-67.
2 For another perspective, see Isobel Whitelegg, "The Bienal de São Paulo: Unseen, Undone (1969-1981)," Afterall, 22, Autumn-Winter 2009, pp. 106-13.
Michael Asbury is an art historian and curator based in London.